NBA Commentary: Is Memphis Still A Contender In The West?

The Memphis Grizzlies continue to lurk in the Western Conference standings, sitting on the #4 seed with a 38-19 record as they enter Sunday night’s game in Orlando. They Grizzlies hold a game and a half lead on Denver for the right to hold homecourt advantage in the first round and they’re 3 ½ back of the Los Angeles Clippers for the three-spot. Memphis also made the signature trade move of the regular season when they shipped out leading scorer Rudy Gay to Toronto as a part of a three-way deal back on January 31.

So how good are the Grizzlies? Can they get out of the first round of the playoffs and maybe challenge for a top three seed position? Or are they a pretender that’s likely to slide in the standings and almost certainly headed for an early playoff exit? That’s the question TheSportsNotebook’s NBA commentary will seek to answer today.

Memphis is a pretty straightforward team—they win with defense, and they do it especially in the frontcourt. The Grizzlies are second in the NBA in defensive efficiency, meaning that their relatively slow pace is not the reason for the high defensive ranking. Efficiency adjusts for pace and the numbers show Memphis is a genuinely outstanding team on the defensive end. With power forward Zach Randolph and center Marc Gasol manning the low post, the Grizzlies effectively close out possessions by being the second-best rebounding team in the league. Randolph and Gasol combine to average twenty rebounds a game.

The two interior players are also the focal point of the offense, with Randolph’s 16 ppg and Gasol’s 14 ppg being the top two numbers on the team. There’s a lack of balance overall though, and the Grizzlies only rank 21st in offensive efficiency. Mike Conley averages 13 ppg and is a good playmaker, but the only other threat is veteran small forward Tayshaun Prince, the key acquisition in the Gay deal and averaging 11 ppg. There’s just not a lot of depth to this attack and three-point shooting is a problem.

While trading Gay hurt the offensive’s potential to explode, it did eliminate one rough edge—Gay only shot 31 percent from three-point range, yet chucked up an average of three per game. Prince is both a better shooter from behind the arc and also more discerning in his selection. The lack of consistent three-point shooting is still this offense’s Achilles heel, but at least they aren’t making it worse by having players try and pretend they can do something the numbers say they can’t.

The above paragraph is harsh and not an accurate measurement of how I feel about Gay’s overall game—I just think he shot too many threes for what his percentage justified. I was a skeptic of trading him and this was a topic that seemed to elicit mixed reviews from NBA observers.

If you’re a believer in the trade you can point to a 9-4 record since the deal, with two of the losses being at Oklahoma City (the night the deal went down) and at Miami this past Friday. I don’t think even Rudy Gay’s biggest supporter would argue that his presence means the Grizzlies start winning road games like these.

The other two losses came within a week of the trade. One was a bad 96-90 home loss to Phoenix on February 5, a game in which the Grizzlies were beaten on the boards and didn’t defend the interior against Marcin Gortat and backup Jermaine O’Neal. One night later in Atlanta, the Grizzlies fell to the Hawks because they played poor defense on the perimeter and allowed point guard Jeff Teague to have a big night. In both games Randolph was the only consistent offensive threat, as Gasol was a non-factor.

Memphis’ wins in this timeframe include take-care-of-business games at home against Washington, Minnesota, Sacramento and Orlando. They include road wins at trading partners Detroit and Toronto. None of these tell us much about the ability of post-Rudy Memphis to compete in the playoffs. The two wins that are noteworthy are a February 8 home win over Golden State and a February 24 road win at Brooklyn.

The win over Golden State followed the classic Memphis formula of letting Randolph and Gasol go to work, as they combined for 36 points/23 rebounds. In the victory at Brooklyn it was a refreshing dose of offensive balance, with all five starters scoring between 12-16 points, along with a superior defensive effort. Even so, Golden State and Brooklyn have both been struggling of late, so while the wins are noteworthy, I don’t know that they establish Memphis as a team capable of at least making the second round and then making any of the Spurs, Thunder or Clippers sweat.

Memphis’ coming schedule can be split into two sequences. The first one, starting tonight in Orlando and going through March 12 won’t tell us any more. It includes a couple games with Portland, along with Cleveland and New Orleans. It’s on March 13 that Memphis’ season gets serious again—they have consecutive road games with the LA Clippers, Denver and Utah, then a March 20 home date with Oklahoma City, and on March 23 it’s Boston that comes to town.

Three weeks from tonight we’ll have a read on whether Memphis can be a factor in this year’s playoffs without Rudy Gay. I know there were other longer-term considerations in the trade, but as far as the short-term prospects go, I’m still not a believer. I respect this team and they way they play defense and if they were in the Eastern Conference, I could see them in the conference finals. But in the rough world of the West, I see Memphis as an early casualty again.