On Jan. 5, the Memphis Grizzlies solidified their run toward the playoffs, and dismissed any notion that tanking was part of their agenda. It was a Sunday morning before the Grizzlies were to play the Detroit Pistons. Memphis was enduring through a bad run, going 7-13 in the 20 games that Marc Gasol missed after going down with an MCL sprain. On that morning, they agreed in principle to trade backup point guard Jerryd Bayless to the Boston Celtics for shooting guard Courtney Lee, and just like that, the playoff push was on for the Grizzlies.
When Memphis added Lee they added two more years of guaranteed money — because Bayless is on an expiring contract — and they also added $2.09 million to this season’s cap. You don’t make that move unless you want to win now. Memphis has contended that their goal this season has always been to strive for the playoffs, but there had been reason to doubt the front office. There was that strange report last week that Zach Randolph was no longer on the trade block, which is weird that he was even on the block if they were trying to make the playoffs.
Regardless, they say they have been gunning for wins all season long, and I tend to believe them. Why else would they trade Bayless’ expiring contract for the Lee’s contract that has two more seasons remaining? It doesn’t make sense to add money and longer contracts to the payroll if you aren’t trying to win. The Randolph rumors might contradict their motives, but the product that they have on the court with Lee proves they are shooting for a playoff run.
Since the acquisition of Lee in early January, the Grizzlies have the third-best record at 14-5, and have the second-best defensive rating in the league (97.2), and that includes seven games without Second-Team All-Defense point guard Mike Conley, four games without Defensive Player of the Year Gasol and all 19 games without First-Team All-Defense guard Tony Allen. Most teams would have gone into tank mode after dealing with that many injuries, but not Memphis. The Grizzlies have also gone from a -2.6 net rating to a +4.1 net rating with Lee.
All the team numbers are great, but what really sticks out when you look at stats from Jan. 5 until now is that Lee has the third-best defensive rating of any player who plays 25-plus minutes per game, and he also has the same net rating as Kevin Durant during that span at +8.9. There is no denying how great Lee is playing, and his play comes at a perfect time for the Grizzlies. Lee gives Memphis someone who can space the floor, and knock down threes — which is something they lost when Quincy Pondexter to a stress fracture in his foot — but it is his defensive effort that makes him a steal for the Grizzlies.
Memphis was swept in the Western Conference Finals last season because the San Antonio Spurs refused to guard Allen and Tayshaun Prince. Since neither one could knock down a jumper, the Spurs were able to double-team Randolph and Gasol, and clog the paint so Conley couldn’t get in the lane. Pondexter had a huge series off the bench, scoring 16.8 points per game, but his defense wasn’t up to par with Allen and Prince, so he only saw one game with more than 30 minutes against San Antonio. Lee is just as good of a shooter as Pondexter, but he also plays better defense. Lee’s arrival no longer allows teams to camp in the lane on defense without consequences.
Lee’s addition to the Grizzlies has taken them from a borderline playoff team to the team that no higher seed wants to see in the first round. They play great defense, and now they have one less flaw on offense. After the All-Star break, Memphis expects to have Conley and Allen back, to go with Gasol, which is a lineup they have only had for 12 games this season. That lineup led Memphis to the Western Conference Finals, and Courtney Lee gives them a legitimate shot at getting back there again this season.