Are The Memphis Grizzlies A Legit Contender?

The Memphis Grizzlies are hanging with the big dogs in the NBA’s Western Conference. The Grizzlies 14-4 record has them right on the heels of Oklahoma City and San Antonio, who are each 17-4, and Memphis’ play has them at least on a par with the top two teams in the East, New York and Miami. We’ll take a look at the Grizzlies in comparison to last year to see how much of this pre-Christmas play is for real, and what’s likely to disappear as the season wears on.

Memphis’ basic formula has been simple. They’re a halfcourt-oriented team with a good frontline that wins by playing good defense, rebounding the ball and then being effective enough on offense to win games. They’ve just taken that formula and executed better at every level so far this year. The defense is more than just good—it’s tied with Chicago for the league’s best. The rebounding and offensive efficiency have seen similar improvements.

The biggest standout in this is power forward Zach Randolph. He’s averaging 17 points/13 rebounds a game, up from the 12/8 line he averaged a year ago. He’s 31-years-old, so you have to question whether this will sustain itself. The age tells you he’s an older player who will have to be paced to be at his best for the playoffs, and it’s also not an age where players suddenly take a jump to the next level. The most logical guess is that Randolph comes back to last year’s norms.

We can’t say the same for Marc Gasol though. The center’s improvement isn’t as dramatic as Randolph’s, but in all phases of his game—from scoring to rebounding to the passing that he does exceptionally well for a 7’1” center—Gasol is up in steady increments. That’s sustainable growth and the fact he’s 27-years-old suggests that he is ripe for a step up in his game. With his brother injured and taking Kobe’s tongue-lashings out in Los Angeles, it’s up to Pau to take control of the family business, so to speak, and he’s off to a good start.

Rudy Gay is the small forward and the team’s best scorer, with his 19 ppg basically in line with what he’d expect. He’s not shooting quite as well from the floor, but is making up with better accuracy from behind the arc. It’s fair to guess everything will even out as the season wears on.

The backcourt is where this team’s ultimate success is going to be defined, and it’s also the area the team is in transition. Memphis lost O.J. Mayo to free agency, and to date the tandem of Tony Allen and Quincy Pondexter hasn’t made up the production. This may not be a bad thing, in that it allows more scoring opportunities for the interior players, as well as for point guard Mike Conley, who’s shooting the ball better and still averaging six assists per game.

We know Memphis will rebound, play defense and that’s enough to make them a factor in the playoff conversation. They’re going to need high quality guard play to win the close games that ultimately doomed them in last year’s playoff loss to the Los Angeles Clippers. If they were in the Eastern Conference, I’d definitely like them as the #2 team and a legitimate challenger to Miami. In the more challenging West, I’m not so sure.

Memphis has three straight road games coming up, going through Phoenix, Denver and Utah, with the Nuggets game being the nightcap of the Friday night ESPN doubleheader. Then they return home to a date with Chicago. The Grizzlies earned the #4 position in the Western Conference playoffs a year ago and it’s going to take a lot of consistency for them to match that this year. I like their chances of continuing to be as good as they were a year ago, but better is going to be a tough leap to sustain.