On Friday afternoon, Memphis Grizzlies CEO Jason Levien was on The Chris Vernon Show in Memphis, and spoke about the Grizzlies’ future. Most notably he talked about the return of Mike Conley and Tony Allen to the lineup after the All-Star break. Levien is like most CEO’s when being interviewed, and makes sure to never say anything that sounds too committal, so it was no surprise to hear him say things like, “I sure hope so” and “that’s the plan” when referring to when the two Grizzlies injured starters would return. But the big question is, what happens when the Grizzlies finally have their full complement of players?
Conley twisted his ankle at the end of a Game 2 weeks ago against the Minnesota Timberwolves. There were several reports that he would play last week against Washington or Orlando, but that didn’t happen. Allen’s injury isn’t quite as easy to understand as Conley’s. Allen “hurt” his hand during a loss on Jan. 3 to the Denver Nuggets and he hasn’t returned since. Allen has been spotted during pre-game warmups for the past three weeks, and he sits on the bench in his uniform, as opposed to street clothes most injured players wear. He is listed as day-to-day, but that has been the case for three weeks now. Whatever it is that is wrong with him, we will never know, but even with Levien’s noncommittal words it seems as if Allen is expected back soon.
When Allen does return to the lineup for Memphis it will be great news for the Grizzles, but it does bring up one question, will he start? After Allen got injured, the Grizzlies were down to only one true shooting guard on the roster, Jamaal Franklin, so Memphis had to make a move, so they traded for Courtney Lee. In Allen’s absence, the Grizzlies have played exceptional with Lee in the lineup and now there is concern over who should start.
In my opinion the question isn’t Allen or Lee, the question should be Allen or Tayshaun Prince? Memphis was killed in the playoffs by San Antonio because they refused to guard Allen or Prince — both of whom are not good shooters — and Memphis was contested on everything in the lane. Lee makes them better in this regard because he can shoot, and he is a very strong defender.
I tend to think Allen needs to start based solely on their personalities, but based on the rotation I would say Prince should start. The reason why is because the other two wings off the bench for Memphis, Mike Miller and James Johnson, can never play shooting guard. Allen could be on the floor with Miller or Johnson, and the Grizzlies’ offensive output would be better than with Allen and Prince, and the defense wouldn’t take a drastic step backwards. Miller is a below-average defender, and even though he isn’t a two-guard, no team in the West has a small forward and shooting guard that are both great offensively, so they could hide Miller on the lesser scorer.
We don’t know what a lineup of Allen and Lee would produce, but we do know what a lineup of Lee and Prince has done. Any lineup the Grizzlies use with Lee and Prince on the floor has a plus-9.6 net rating compared to a plus-2.4 for Allen and Prince. The Lee/Prince duo is the third-highest net rating wing combo the Grizzlies have used this season, behind Lee/Johnson (plus-11.5) and Conley/Johnson (plus-11.7). Even if the combo of Lee and Allen would be great, I don’t think it is worth throwing away something that Memphis already knows works well together.
Memphis has 30 games to figure out which lineup works best for them, but the sooner they get that resolved the higher they can go up the standing. The good news is that head coach Dave Joerger has no problem tinkering with the lineups. The only issue is what happens when Allen comes off the bench. Can he handle the demotion and still be effective? If Allen can be just as effective off the bench, then Memphis is even scarier this year than they were last season.