The state of Tennessee is renowned for its college sports, particularly Volunteer football, with the occasional foray from Memphis basketball. But right now, it’s the pros who give hope to the good people of the state with the NHL’s Nashville Predators running near the top of the Western Conference and the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies being considered a young up-and-comer. Today, TheSportsNotebook evaluates both.
Nashville Predators (64 pts, 5th): Don’t be fooled by that fifth-place seeding in the West. By the end of the week the Predators could be at the top. They’re part of a stacked four-team race in the Central Division that includes current leader Detroit, along with Chicago and St. Louis. All four teams are tied with or ahead of the West’s two other division leaders, Vancouver and San Jose, even though first-place teams get preferential seeding position. Hence, the Predators are only three points back of Detroit and catching the Wings means taking the #1 slot.
Nashville is not a standout team. They play pretty good defense, ranking 9th in the league, and an offense that’s 12th. Goalie Pekka Rine is a little bit above the league median in save percentage. What makes this team standout is its work on the power play, where their second-best in the game at cashing in their 5-on-4 chances and they do a respectable job on the flip side of the equation when it’s time to kill a penalty of their own.
Where Nashville has serious problems is in the area of getting shots and preventing shots. They don’t have a reliable scorer on the front line, nor is anyone a particularly great distributor of the puck. Left-winger Martin Erat is the best of the group, but there are contending teams where he’d struggle to be on the first line. The defenseman, Shea Weber and Kevin Klein, simply must do a better job at stopping shots. When you rank 22nd in the league in this area it means you’re letting your goaltender be assaulted and playoff series aren’t going to be won that way.
Ultimately, I just have a hard time seeing the Predators either winning the Central Division down the stretch or making a serious playoff run. The inability to get anything done outside the power play is just too big a concern. If games are called loosely in the postseason, as they often are, it means fewer penalty chances. And the league’s better teams also tend to be more effective at killing penalties.
The presence of Rine gives me a little bit of pause before dismissing this team entirely. While he’s not in the league’s elite, he’s good enough to play that way for a couple months, and when that happens in the Stanley Cup playoffs, all bets are off. Last season, Nashville made the playoffs and won the first round before falling to Vancouver. Most of their previous playoff history has marked by first-round elimination and they’ve never made the Finals. I respect what this team has done so far, but it’s tough to see them breaking new ground come springtime.
Memphis Grizzlies (10-10, 10th): That record and placement in the NBA’s Western Conference isn’t the kind of Perfect 10, Grizzlies fans were hoping for. After making the postseason a year ago and then upsetting top seed San Antonio in the first round—and not just beating the Spurs, but basically manhandling them throughout the six-game series—hopes were high coming into this season. There’s still plenty of time to make that happen, and we also need to be fair on another count—put Memphis in the weaker East and we’re asking if they can get homecourt advantage for the first round, not whether they can get in. But that’s still not the reality of the situation and Memphis fans undoubtedly want playoff runs, not speculation about what would happen if the world were different.
The bad news comes first and it’s that power forward Zach Randolph is having an MRI done on his knee and no one knows just how long he’ll be out. Randolph averages 15 points/8 rebounds a night, and his loss won’t be easily replaced. Fortunately, the Grizzlies do have good frontline all the way across, with 6’8” Rudy Gay at the small forward spot and 7’1” Marc Gasol at center. Gasol puts up a 15/10 line each night. Gay is more of a scorer at 18 ppg, but perhaps in the absence of Randolph he can hit the boards a little more.
Mike Conley runs the offense at the point guard spot and does a credible job, while O.J. Mayo and Tony Allen are respectable scorers running alongside him. The individual talent isn’t the problem here, it’s the cohesion. There’s no one who’s a reliable three-point shooter. Mayo’s 41 percent from behind the arc is good enough, but only tries a couple treys a game. Allen has no range whatsoever. Conley is significantly better shooting from closer in off the drive, or if a defender backs in on him a little too much.
The schedule doesn’t get easier for the Grizzlies this coming week. They host Denver and then make consecutive road trips to Oklahoma City and Boston. They need to win their home game, and realistically need to find a way to win at the Garden on Super Bowl Sunday, given the Celtics’ struggles and the fact Memphis needs to make hay against the East when the opportunity presents itself. But players were going to have to step up their games a notch anyway, and if Randolph’s out an extended period, better make that 2-3 notches.