Where we stand: After Tuesday’s game against the Sacramento Kings, the Grizzlies enter the All-Star break at 33-18 and sitting in 4th place in the Western Conference and second place in the Southwest Division.
How we got here: After jumping out to an incredible, unexpected and unsustainable 12-2 start, the Grizzlies have been slightly better than .500 basketball, going 21-15 since December 1.
Highlight of the first half: The ‘macro’ highlight is the incredible start the team had, opening the season 12-2 with losses at the Clippers and at home against Denver. The more ‘micro’ highlight, however, is a toss-up between (1) the 104-86 annihilation of the defending champion Miami Heat and (2) the Friday ESPN Showcase victory over the then-undefeated NY Knicks. The ‘super-micro’ highlight? Tony Wroten’s block of Kobe Bryant. Wow.
Lowlight of the first half: If this question were posed six weeks ago, the worst moment you could find was a perplexing loss on the road in Phoenix. Unfortunately, there have been a number of unimpressive moments as of late, including home losses to the lowly Hornets, Suns and Trail Blazers and back-to-back-to-back 20+ point losses to Dallas, LA Clippers and the Spurs.
New Faces: It is hardly news at this point, but the Grizzlies roster looks considerably different today than it did on Halloween. Gone are Josh Selby, Wayne Ellington, Mo Speights, Hamed Haddadi and Rudy Gay. Those roster spots have been filled by Tayshaun Prince, Ed Davis, Austin Daye, Jon Leuer and Chris Johnson. So much has been written on the subject of these trades – why they were made – whether they were the right trade or the right time – whether Rudy Gay is an asshole or a huge asshole – I don’t want to get into all that again here.
What we learned about the team: The 2012-2013 Memphis Grizzlies team continues a recent trend of embodying the very essence of the city from which it hails. While that comparison is generally made in reference to the team’s “blue collar” philosophy and background, the first half of the season brought out a new correlation – the team and its city are remarkably bi-polar. The amazing highs and lows of this first half were echoed by a fan base as quick to hit the panic button as it was to declare the team a title contender. Like this city, the team has also struggled to figure out how best to utilize its many assets and at times has underachieved as a result.
Grading their play:
- Mike Conley, Jr – In the first half, Mike put up 13.3 points on 42.6% shooting (36.5% from 3pt range) to go along with 5.9 assists and 2.2 steals per game. Unfortunately, none of these numbers are career highs. Mike has been a steady leader for this team and helped guide the remaining players through serious adversity and change on-and-off the court. Mike’s value has been most apparent, however, in his absence. In stretches Mike was out due to illness and injury, the offense struggled (more than usual) to find its grove. Some of our Grizzlies media have noted that “as Conley goes, so go the Grizzlies” and they’re correct. In 33 wins Mike is averaging almost 15ppg on 46% from the field with 6.5 assists. In 18 losses, his numbers drop to 10.4/35%/4.8. Mike has been good, but for this team to make a run in the second half he has to be better. Grade: B
- Tony Allen – What can you say about Tony Allen that hasn’t been said before? A look at traditional statistics will not show the importance of Allen to this team. On the season he is averaging 8.4 points on 44% shooting (13% from 3pt range) with 4.2 rebounds, 1.2 assists and 1.6 steals per game. These figures ignore the lock-down defense he has played throughout the first half of the season. This will sound crazy to die-hard fans, but Tony’s biggest asset this season has been his consistency! In a way, it is the consistency of his inconsistency, but still. Tony continues to be an enigma – wowing us with incredible defensive plays and following them up with soul-crushing offensive failures. Understanding Tony’s value requires a deeper look, however, and a willingness to accept the bad with the good. Tony continues to bring an energy to the floor that is undeniably contagious. When the Forum PA blares “Future” in the 4th quarter, you know Tony is about to take it up a notch and the team (and fans) are along for the ride. Tony is who he is, and in the first half he lived up to that trick-or-treat reputation. While it would be great to see Tony take his game to a higher level, if he plays the rest of the season the way he has thus far, he will be a vital cog in a deep playoff run. Interesting fact: Tony Allen leads all NBA guards in shooting percentage for February – a blistering (and unsustainable) 65%. Grade: A-
- Zach Randolph – It is hard to say that the team’s only All-Star has been a disappointment, but it is undeniable. In a way, it is a compliment to Zach’s game – he has established such high expectations that it is hard to look at these numbers and feel that you’ve gotten the best he has to offer. Zach is averaging 15.7 points on 47% shooting to go along with 11.6 rebounds per game. While Zach’s rebounding is where the team needs it to be, we desperately miss the five points per game ZBo has not produced since his January 2012 knee injury. Despite his drop in production, Zach has been a leader in the locker room and continued his great work in the community – two things that cannot be undervalued. Over the last 18 months, Zach has made some remarks that indicated a desire to take on greater responsibility for the team’s offense, particularly in late-game situations. With the departure of Rudy Gay, Zach has his chance. If the Grizzlies are going to make any noise in the playoffs, 2011 ZBo is going to have to make an appearance. Grade: C+
- Marc Gasol – The 28-year-old franchise cornerstone had a very good first half of the season, and in doing so reinforced that his skill-set does not fit the mold of the modern big. Gasol is a gifted passer, mid-range shooter and is top-10 in the NBA from the free throw line. Reading that sentence may lead the uninformed to think Marc is a point guard, not a center. Marc is averaging 13.8ppg on 48% shooting along with 7.8rpg, 3.6apg, 1.7blg and a remarkable 87.4% from the charity stripe. While Big Spain’s passing has been a beautiful thing to watch, his scoring and rebounding are down from last year and he is shooting a career worst field-goal percentage. What can be frustrating about Marc’s game is that dedicated Grizzlies fans know how dominant he can be and watching him defer to teammates can be exhausting. There was a stretch of games in December and early January when it seemed Marc would rather pass out of the high post than take the wide-open shot. Thankfully, he has gotten the message that we need him to be more assertive and in 6 February games he is averaging a double-double with 14.3ppg and 10.0apg. Gasol’s overall grade, much like ZBo’s, suffers not because of the numbers he has produced, but because of what more he is capable of providing. Grade: B
- Rudy Gay ** - you know what. Fuck that guy. Frankly, after everything he has said in the last two weeks, I don’t have any interest in providing any in-depth analysis of his play this season. I will pose a question for you – one that has almost led me to dive into way too much additional research: If Rudy Gay hits a game-winner that was only necessitated by his 40 minutes of bad shooting and/or late-game turnovers, should he really be considered a hero? I haven’t looked it up yet, but I’d be willing to bet that in at least 50% of the games he “won” with last second shots for the Grizzlies he had been killing the team all night with his shot selection and poor handle. Rudy’s shooting percentage here in Memphis was an abysmal 40.8% and frankly should be much worse if you considered that half of his turnovers were fumbles when he went into his shooting motion and didn’t count as missed shots (but should have). Toronto fans will soon understand the sentiment. If anything, his “strong” early play in Toronto will only make it that much more painful for them to endure. Better them than us. Grade: F
- The Bench v1.0 – I define Bench v1.0 as the time before the Cleveland Trade. This bench unit featured a healthy Quincy Pondexter, along with Jerryd Bayless, Mo Speights, Wayne Ellington and a dash of Josh Selby and/or Tony Wroten plus Darrell Arthur (eventually) and occasional sightings of Hamed Haddadi. What was most frustrating with this unit was the flashes of greatness followed by long stretches of pain and failure. For a long stretch, Quincy was the only player on the unit making meaningful contributions. At one point during the November blowout of the Heat, it looked like the Grizzlies had – for the first time in years – built a competent set of backups ready to ease the pressure on our starters. Unfortunately, that just wasn’t the case. The inability to rely upon the bench was as much a motivation to make the Cleveland trade as was getting under the salary cap. Particularly after Q went down in late December Bench v1.0 looked lost. At one point, Bayless’s inability to get a shot off at the end of quarters became so regular that a few memes floated through the twitter-sphere, landing in a Geoff Calkins column. This group was not going to get it done and had to be rebuilt. Grade: C-
- The Bench v2.0 – I suppose there could be a Bench v1.5 and I could give an A+ to the group that carried the team during the stretch between the Cleveland and Toronto trades. Wroten was electric. Bayless got his head out of his ass. Chris Johnson was useful. There isn’t much more to say than that. Bench v2.0 came after the trade with Toronto. Mo Speights ultimately became Ed Davis. Wayne Ellington became Austin Daye. Hamed Haddadi became Jon Leuer. Tony Wroten became Josh Selby – but better. Terrible Jerryd Bayless turned into Good Jerryd Bayless. On paper, if you were asked whether you’d trade those 4 for these 4 the answer should be a nearly unanimous “yes!” This ignores the addition of Tayshaun Prince, of course, who is a starter (except that one time he wasn’t). Daye has shot 51.9% from the field (50% from deep). Davis, in limited minutes, is shooting 50% but has the capacity for much more, if Coach will give him some leash. Maybe most importantly, since being moved off the ball, Bayless has seen his scoring jump from 7.4ppg in January to 13.7ppg in six February contests. Since the Toronto trade, Bench v2.0 has contributed 30.5ppg and given the starters some breathing room en route to a 4-2 record. It is early – lord knows how we would have graded Bench v1.0 after 6 games – but since this is the line in the sand for the purposes of this article, this crew grades out high. Grade: A
Coaching: There is no easy way to analyze Lionel Hollins. Part of you wants to say Hollins is the key to the whole thing – he gets these guys to play together, to play hard and to remain focused on their goals. On the flip-side, it is easy to look at this roster and think there are 15 current or former NBA head coaches around today that could get the same – or more – out of a roster with this much talent. It is particularly frustrating when you see the team go away from its strength in late-game situations. It is also fair to put the blame for that on Hollins, who is ultimately responsible for reminding the team to do what it does best. Hollins is a defense-first coach and his team takes on that attitude. Whether other coaches could have success with this roster ignores that the franchise is not in this position without his leadership over the last three seasons. He has helped Conley tremendously, even if it has been at the expense of our backup PG situation. What is fascinating about Hollins is his refusal to compromise an inch on the principles that dictate his management of this team. The writing is on the wall: adapt and incorporate some of the new Ownership’s analytical analysis or they will bring in someone who will. But Hollins hasn’t limited his resistance to quiet, behind-the-scenes discussions. He has been vocal about it every time someone gives him a forum. You have to respect the man for believing in his method as strongly as he does, even if you question his sanity. All told, Hollins leadership has been a strength this season, not a liability. It is hard to look at the schedule to-date and find more than a game or two that you would say we lost because of coaching. Grade: B+
Toughest Stretch: There were two. The first went well. The second a disaster. November 11-16 the Grizzlies went 3-0 with home wins over the defending NBA Champion Heat and then-undefeated Knicks as well as a win on the road at OKC – a rare feat for any team. January 11-16 the Grizzlies went 1-3 with a solid home-win over the Spurs followed by back-to-back-to-back 20+ point defeats at Dallas, at San Antonio and at home against the Clippers.
Missed Opportunities: December 8 v. Atlanta; December 12 @ Phoenix; December 26 v. Philadelphia; January 4 v. Portland; January 27 v. New Orleans; February 5 v. Phoenix. If you can only point to six out of 51 games that you feel you really let get away, I’d say you had a solid first half.
TL/DR: We have a very good basketball team in the Bluff City. A team that plays hard and represents us well. We got off to an unsustainable pace and the inevitable return to Earth has inappropriately left fans feeling a little flat – despite our current three-game win streak. The first half of the season should not be looked back on and judged by the 12-2 start or the Rudy Gay trade, but rather as the most remarkable first 51 games in franchise history. We enter the All-Star break with the 4th best record in the Western Conference and 5th best record in the NBA. Remember where we came from and be grateful for where we are. I still think our best basketball is ahead of us, but I’ll get into that in my preview of the second half of the season next week.
Grind on, Memphis.