It all began in the summer of 2011.
I suppose we could take it back further and point to the hiring of Lionel Hollins or the trade for Zach Randolph or even the development of Marc Gasol, but the exact point when everyone really began to take notice of the Memphis Grizzlies was that summer when they made the playoffs for the first time in five years. The fact that Memphis had backed into the playoffs as an 8-seed, seemingly losing on purpose to drop below the New Orleans Hornets and avoid a match-up with the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers, seems a distant memory and an irrelevant detail.
What matters is what Memphis did in the playoffs. Without star small forward Rudy Gay (out due to surgery on his left shoulder), Memphis dispatched the first-seeded San Antonio Spurs in six games. Randolph and Gasol dominated the Spurs’ front-line and suddenly Memphis had jumped right into the title conversation.
It was not to be for the Grizz that year as they took the Oklahoma City Thunder to seven in the Western Conference semi-finals but ultimately went home early. Still, the promise was there and things were lining up beautifully for the 2011-12 NBA season.
Memphis had 2 All-Star caliber bigs, and Gay would be back as well. They still had solid play at the point with Mike Conley, a top-tier wing defender in Tony Allen and a good scorer off the bench in O.J. Mayo. Memphis looked the part of a serious contender for the 2012 title. But again it was not to be for them as they were again the victims of a game seven defeat, this time at the hands of Chris Paul and the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round.
Over the offseason, Memphis had a change of owner, lost Mayo to free agency and were still dealing with some front office changes going into this new season. However, the rest of Memphis’ core has remained the same and after Monday night’s 84-78 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers, they sit at 10-2, good for tops in the Western Conference.
In 2011-12, the Grizzlies flattered to deceive. They were the dark horse pick to come out of the West, they finished 4th, had home court for the round one series against L.A. and Zach Randolph was back on the court following two months out thanks to his MCL tear which had occurred in January. All of that culminated in a disappointing first round exit.
This season, with the noise of all the superstar additions made by the Lakers, the improved play of the Clippers and the continued excellence of the Spurs and Thunder, Memphis has quietly compiled the best record in the West early on with much the same roster as last year. On the surface, this hot start is at least a testament to the value of continuity among the better teams, but there is something deeper at work here:
Gay is scoring more in less minutes than last year. Randolph is back to being his double-double machine/low post beast self. Allen, Conley and Gasol are putting up solid numbers and the Grizz have gotten good production from bench guys like Jerryd Bayless, Marreese Speights and Quincy Pondexter which has eased the burden of Mayo’s departure.
All of this has combined to produce the same sort of “grit and grind” basketball that made the Grizzlies so popular with the Memphis locals, but with an added twist that hasn’t been there up until this point: Randolph and Gay are playing great basketball. On the same floor. At the same time.
The same can’t be said of any of the previous Memphis teams consisting of those two. Whether it was due to injuries, or a lack of playing time together as a result of said injuries, the Grizzlies’ two stars never looked comfortable sharing the floor.
That has most certainly changed.
Randolph appears to have taken on a reduced role in the offense to make room for Gay, and in exchange he is rebounding at a career-high rate with 13.1 per-game. Gay is averaging 19.7 points per-game but is also allowing Memphis to play their inside-out style, getting the ball to the bigs in the post, then exploiting the space created by Randolph and Gasol. Gay has picked his spots very well and is shooting his best clip from beyond the arc in nearly two years.
Meanwhile the time that Randolph has had to fully recover from the MCL injury over the offseason has lead to him playing much better in virtually every facet of the game when compared to last year.The adjustments that the two have made allow Memphis to play an efficient, unselfish, balanced attack (against the Lakers, Memphis had 23 assists on 38 made shots) which, in turn, allows for more energy at the defensive end.
All of this without even mentioning the play of Marc Gasol who is averaging a career-high 15.3 points per-game.
The Grizz are allowing just 91.8 points per-game, while averaging 99.3 on the offensive end. That average point differential of +7.5 points per-game is among the best in the league. They have forced 10 or more turnovers in 116 consecutive games, and while their shooting percentages from the floor are fairly average, they have been among the best free-throw shooting teams in the league this season at over 80%. They own one of the best percentage lines for offensive rebounds and total rebounds as well as a top-10 assist-to-turnover ratio.
What I am trying to illustrate with all of that is that Memphis is a very good side on both ends of the floor. They are athletic on the perimeter and physical inside. They force turnovers, rebound, move the ball, get to the line and make the foul shots when they get there. They are among the top-10 in the league in many of the statistics that matter and their record reflects that.
This is a very well constructed and coached team that has depth and stars willing to sacrifice individual numbers for the sake of the team winning. If that doesn’t sound like a contender, I don’t know what does.
Credit undoubtedly has to go to coach Hollins for figuring out how to make it happen. With Randolph and Gay finally playing so well together, along with the continued solid play of Gasol and everyone else on the roster, the Grizzlies certainly look to be in the best position they have ever been to make a run.
It remains to be seen how the rest of the season plays out, but Memphis is playing easily its best basketball of the last decade and if the Grizz can keep up their well-documented consistency and toughness, they will be right up there at the business end of the title chase come the summer of 2013.