After a rocky offseason, things haven’t gotten much better for the Memphis Grizzlies as we get close to the halfway point of the NBA regular season.
A team that reached the Western Conference finals last spring and had shown continuous improvement decided to fire head coach Lionel Hollins in the summer. Injuries have followed, and the Grizzlies sit outside the playoff picture. Let’s take a closer look at why, and see if a solution might be in the works.
The injury excuse is valid. Pau Gasol returned to action this week from a knee injury and the center has played in only sixteen games. Tony Allen, the two-guard, is out with an injured wrist and no timetable for a return. Combine this with playing in the league’s stacked West, and it would be tough for anyone to succeed.
That said, there are problems that have to disturb Grizzlies fans regardless. Memphis was an elite defensive and rebounding team a year ago, ranking with the Indiana Pacers at the top of the league in both categories. The rebounding is still fine—Memphis is tied for 5th in the NBA and that’s mostly without Gasol. But the defense has taken a tumble.
You won’t pick this up by just looking at the points for/points against columns. Memphis gives up the fewest points per game in the Western Conference. But this is deceptive. The Grizzlies also play at the slowest pace of anyone in basketball. When you adjust defense for pace, Memphis’ ranking slips to 18th. This means they can’t get a stop when it really matters.
While some of this can also be attributed to Gasol, it’s not as though he’s the equivalent of Roy Hibbert down low, wiping out mistakes on the perimeter. Gasol isn’t even a brutally tough rebounder for a 7-footer, averaging only seven boards a game. There’s no reason to think his return is going to transform a below-average defense into an elite one. Marginal improvement is all you can expect, and that might not be enough to even make the playoffs.
Memphis is also having problems offensively, also ranking 18th in efficiency on this end of the floor. Mike Conley and Zach Randolph are each having good years, at least giving the Grizzlies’ a point guard/power forward combo that can work the inside and the perimeter. What they have not been able to do is adequately replace Rudy Gay, traded in the middle of last season. There’s no scoring from either the two-guard or small forward positions.
The Grizzlies traded the disappointing Jerryd Bayless to Boston in exchange for Courtney Lee, something that amounts to betting on which up-and-down player will get hot at the right time. The return of Gasol can at least be expected to substantially improve the offense.
I have to think Memphis at least sneaks into the playoffs now that Gasol is healthy, and they’re only two games out. But the experiment of firing your most successful head coach coming off his best season hasn’t worked. Shocking that an idea that looks so good on paper could backfire #sarcasm. But that’s what has happened in Memphis.