Memphis Grizzlies Back in Playoff Contention

The whirlwind of Kevin Durant’s superhuman stretch of 12 30-point games has swallowed one of the season’s biggest storylines that coincide with it: the resurgence of the Memphis Grizzlies, winners of 11 of 12 games as of February 2. Lest we forget, an extremely similar Memphis roster trounced Oklahoma City – albeit one without Russell Westbrook – in the second round of the playoffs last year before ultimately falling in the Western Conference Finals to a San Antonio squad that was a Ray Allen three-pointer away from the NBA title. 

No one paid much attention when Memphis started to slip, falling as low as 12th in the West after a 13-17 start. Lost in the mix was that Memphis had lost the NBA Defensive Player of the Year in Marc Gasol to an MCL sprain in November, a player through which Memphis runs nearly all of its offensive and defensive sets. Since Gasol’s surprise January 14 return, Memphis has been smothering opponents, holding them to a measly 86.7 points per game. That is 3.9 points better than Indiana’s league-leading season average of 90.6. Furthermore, Memphis has posted a league-best 94.4 Defensive Rating, points per 100 possessions all while forcing their opponents to shoot a league worst 40.9 percent during this stretch. Memphis sits at a 102.8 Defensive Rating on the season, good for 13th in the league, showing just what a dramatic turnaround this has been.

The credit should be given to first-year head coach Dave Joerger, whose defensive schemes have been giving opponents headaches for the past three years while he was an assistant tasked with orchestrating the defense under former coach Lionel Hollins. Joerger improved the defense every year, taking a Grizzlies defense that ranked 23rd in Defensive Rating to 10th in 2011, 7th in 2012 and 2nd in 2013, all while employing mostly the same core of players. Joerger also deserves praise for transforming Marc Gasol into the high-IQ, defensive quarterback of the Grizzlies system, for which he was awarded the aforementioned 2013 DPOY.

Pointing solely to the return of Gasol to explain the turnaround would be a drastic oversimplification. The story of the 2013-14 Grizzlies season is not the salvation of Gasol’s return, but the emergence of Mike Conley as a true star and legitimate first-option on offense. Conley easily rates amongst the biggest All-Star “snubs,” rating well above Western Conference All-Star PGs Damian Lillard and Tony Parker in PER, playing stingy defense and keeping the Grizzlies afloat amidst the Gasol injury and a slowly fading Zach Randolph. Conley has been far more sure-handed as a facilitator, jumping from 24th to 7th in the NBA in assist-to-turnover ratio. Even more remarkable, his PER has increased from 18.38 to 21.34. Though not a score-first point guard like Lillard, Conley has an improved jump shot, a killer floater and looks to capitalize on both more than in years past, stabilizing the offense in the droughts Memphis is prone to. Conley is going to miss a few games with a sprained wrist, but as long as he does not miss extended time, he figures to be the key offensive weapon for Memphis going forward.

The Grizz have also seen improved play from a long and athletic bench full of castoffs and unheralded prospects, namely James Johnson, Ed Davis, Jon Leuer and Kosta Koufos. All of them rate comfortably above league-average PER and are easily the most defensively stout bench in the league. Such bench rotations figure to pack an even greater punch once another defensive stalwart, Tony Allen, returns to the starting lineup from an injured wrist. Coming off of his second NBA All-Defensive First Team, Allen’s return projects to take the Grizzlies defense from scary to downright nightmarish.

The bench is an extreme microcosm of everything good and bad about the Grizzlies. They are long, versatile, big bodies that make offense miserable for opponents – except they can’t shoot, especially from the perimeter. Memphis takes and makes the fewest threes in the league and does not have a single volume outside shooter on the roster. The trade for shooting guard Courtney Lee was likely intended to address that weakness, but Lee is not and has never been a volume shooter, but rather a highly competent but occasional-spot up shooter.

The Grizzlies problem is that their need for an outside shooting SF is the worst kept secret in the entire league, which means they will likely need to overpay. They aren’t swimming in draft picks or enticing young assets, either. Arron Afflalo would be the dream player, but realistically the Grizzlies don’t have the assets to entice the Magic to part with him. Instead, look for the Grizzlies to move on a lesser piece, perhaps trying to pry away O.J. Mayo or Khris Middleton from the flailing, overcrowded Bucks. Failing to address this hole doesn’t remove them from contention, but will prevent the Grizzlies from employing anything resembling a dynamic offense.

As they currently stand, the Grizzlies are likely somewhere between a 50-55 win team, meaning they project somewhere around 49 wins. This should be enough to comfortably get them the 8th seed, give them a real shot at the 7th and an outside shot at the 6th. It’s worth noting that a salivating 17 of their final 36 games are against the Eastern Conference. A fluffy schedule paired with a healthy Grizzlies team, perhaps one that makes a move at the deadline, should be enough to win many of those last 36 games. Though avoiding an extremely talented and motivated Oklahoma City Thunder squad – who should finish first – is a priority, the Grizzlies can match up with anyone in the West, particularly jump-shot happy teams like Portland, Golden State and Houston. It’s fair and reasonable to attack the Grizzlies for their brick-laying, occasionally unwatchable offense, but we’ve heard all year about why Indiana’s defense makes them the favorite to win the Larry O’Brien trophy. While it may still be crazy to pick Memphis as a real title contender, they suddenly deserve at least a place in the conversation.