Contender Profile: Memphis Grizzlies

As the season winds to a close I will be reviewing the teams that can legitimately challenge for the title. I will focus on nine teams, five from the West and four from the East, and will break down what makes them dangerous, what can be used against them, and how far they can be expected to go. The first installment focuses on the Memphis Grizzlies.

Consensus following the Rudy Gay trade was that the Memphis Grizzlies had traded away their present for cap relief, and that any shot at the 2012-13 title was gone. Prior to the deal, which brought Tayshaun Prince and Ed Davis to Memphis, the Grizzlies’ record was 29-15. Since then they have gone 18-8, even after a 1-3 stretch directly following the trade when they struggled to integrate Prince into the lineup.

Suffice it to say that losing Gay didn’t exactly send them into a tailspin. The first thing that tends to be picked apart when trying to explain why trading away a player has helped a team is the offense, but there isn’t much evidence to support that losing Gay has helped Memphis’ offense in some way.

Sure, there were some pretty bad spacing problems with Gay in the lineup, as evidenced by this play against Denver in December:

MemphisSpacingVsDenver 

And this one in a game with the Spurs in January, where all five San Antonio defenders are basically in the paint:

RudyGayPNR

Gay has an annoying habit of stopping the ball for a moment before making a move, and a lot of his touches end in him utilizing his size and athleticism to jump over defenders to release mid-range jumpers rather than attacking the rim. However, replacing him with Prince has not had a notable impact on the offense.

The two lineups with the most minutes played for Memphis this season both conveniently feature Mike Conley, Tony Allen, Zach Randolph, and Marc Gasol playing with either Gay or Prince. This makes it fairly easy to see that the offensive efficiency with Gay in the lineup (101.6 per NBA.com) and with Prince in the lineup (100.4) are too close to draw any real conclusions.

Defense is another matter. Memphis has made stout D their calling card, with Conley, Allen, and Gasol all rating as above average to elite defenders. The starting five featuring Rudy Gay flashed a defensive efficiency rating of 93.2, which is a full two points better than the league-leading Indiana Pacers have managed. What about the lineup with Prince in Gay’s place? That group has put together an efficiency rating of 87.0, which almost completely explains their uptick in success following the deal sending Gay out of town.

All of this can’t be attributed to swapping personnel – the Griz have played a pretty easy schedule of late, and small sample size warnings always apply to in-season trends like this. Watching the tape though, it’s easy to see how adding Prince has improved their already solid defense. He has lost a step or two, but can still use superior length and positioning to force opponents into tough shots 1-on-1 or clog passing and driving lanes when playing off the ball.

So what does all of this mean for Memphis the rest of the season and in the playoffs?

The short answer is that it doesn’t mean anything if Gasol can’t return in peak form from injury. Gasol anchors the defense and is important operating in the high post on offense, and the Grizzlies are going nowhere if he isn’t on the floor.

If Gasol does return though, Memphis could be something of a wrecking ball in the playoffs, where play slows down and can favor elite defensive squads. Given the current standings and Gasol’s injury, they will likely fall into the 4-5 matchup out West, which will also feature one of the other contenders I will be profiling a little later: the Denver Nuggets or the Los Angeles Clippers. Either opponent will be very tough, with both likely having home court advantage over the Grizzlies.

This is the real problem with Memphis as a threat in the West – they simply have too far to go in the playoffs. They will need to beat a tough opponent in the 1st round just to get a shot at the #1 seed, most likely the Spurs, and they will be doing all of this without home court advantage in any series.

Of course, Memphis has taken down a favored Spurs team before, and with their defense could beat either Denver or the Clippers with a couple of breaks across a seven game series. Ultimately though, beating three of Denver, the Clippers, San Antonio, and Oklahoma City is going to be pretty rough, and that’s before they even get to the Finals.

Moving up to the 3 seed is the only realistic way to get a decent chance of reaching the Finals, and with Gasol out they probably won’t be able to make up enough ground to overtake both the Clippers and the Nuggets.

The grit-and-grind mentality is going to make any series they’re in a must watch, but even making it out of the 1st round will be an uphill battle, and it will only get tougher from there. The deck is stacked against a big playoff run, and a 1st round exit is the most likely outcome barring a major injury to one of the other contenders.