1. After a relatively quiet off-season, with no significant subtractions (that I know of?), and the addition of Matt Barnes, Mario Chalmers and Branden Wright, the Grizzlies seemed poised to build on their excellent 2014-2015 season. So far though, despite a solid 12-9 record, advanced stats suggest the Grizzlies have not been playing up to their usual standards, especially defensively. From a puzzled outsiders perspective, have there been any specific issues that explain the fall-off?
First off, thanks for having me on your guys' site. I think that the first thing to acknowledge is the Memphis Grizzlies miss Kosta Koufos, and to a lesser extent Nick Calathes, defensively a lot more than they thought they would. Koufos was a very good rim protector for Memphis, which was extremely valuable considering Marc Gasol cannot play the entire game. Now, with Koufos in Sacramento and Brandan Wright banged up (more on him later) Memphis must rely on Zach Randolph and JaMychal Green in that role. Not ideal.
There are other factors to their slow start. Their early seasons schedule was BRUTAL; 12 of their first 18 games were against 2015 NBA Playoff teams. Tony Allen has been a recent topic of conversation due to his lack of energy and possible lost step on defense, which would render him potentially useless on the court. Jeff Green remains a weekly debate topic as to whether he is even good at basketball or not, much less should he start or come off the bench. Lineups, injuries (no Jordan Adams as well as Wright), scheme adjustments (more pace on offense at times, more switching on the perimeter on defense), it all has player a role.
Essentially, there has been a lot of smaller reasons that have added up to a larger result. Their advanced stats are thrown off by their blow out losses earlier in the season, but they are playing better ball the last few weeks. They were 9-3 in their last 12 games heading in to last night's contest with the Oklahoma City Thunder, so the tide is turning.
2. The core of the contending Grizzlies teams has been the combination of stifling defense and the imposing frontcourt of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. So far this season Randolph's stats are well below his established averages. But with a vintage Randolph effort the Grizzlies would appear to have a significant matchup advantage against Detroit's PF's, do Randolph's struggles feel like veteran working himself back into form after an injury or does it seem like a more serious sign of age related decline?
There has been a lot written about this on GBB and elsewhere in recent weeks. Zach is due for some age-related decline, as we all are at some point, and there may be something to that in this case. It also could just be the fact that Z-Bo just doesn't fit as well in that Power Forward role given how other teams have gotten more athletic for the most part at that position. He is not rebounding at previous levels, he struggles defensively and if he cannot convert in the paint and rebound, where is his value?
Believe it or not, it may be as a back-up Center in certain looks. The sample size is small, but there has been some promise there, and that could be a natural fit for Zach moving forward. A quick hook to start the game and him subbing in for Marc Gasol around the 2 minute Marc in the first quarter could allow for Memphis to pick up the pace and get more possessions.
Zach is still good for a "Vintage Z-Bo" performance every once and a while, but PFs like Detroit's are giving him more and more trouble this season. And if Van Gundy decided to defend him with Drummond? Zach will be a non-factor.
3. Mario Chalmers has been on fire since joining the Grizzlies. Are we likely to see Memphis move towards smaller and faster line-ups featuring Chalmers and Conley on the court more at the same time?
As long as Z-Bo is on this team, it is hard to see them go smaller all of the time. Even when the Grizzlies do go small (Chalmers/Lee/Barnes/Jeff Green/Gasol, for example) they are somewhat limited pace wise. What I do think you will see more and more, especially if Memphis eventually pulls off a trade involving a wing or two, is Mario Chalmers alongside Mike Conley. He allows for Mike to play off the ball & get the ball of of screens and other set plays where he does not have to be ball dominant. Chalmers also can defend other perimeter wings and help the Grizzlies defensively, like Nick Calathes did last season. His flexibility defensively and ability to free up Conley offensively is where is value may lie long-term.
4. Branden Wright was somewhat of an underground favorite amongst Pistons fans who wished the team would go out and sign him. He instead landed with the Grizzlies and despite being limited by injuries, when on the court has been his usual productive self. How would you grade his acclimation to the team, and do you see him as a long-term fit at PF?
The sample size on Wright is just too small to decisively say right now. In theory, his brand of above the rim finishing on offense gives the Grizzlies a new wrinkle and could lead to better pace. Imagine a Conley/Lee/Jeff Green/JaMychal Green/Wright lineup and the potential to run and dunk- would be pretty fun. Wright also in theory fits well with Marc Gasol, who can play at the elbow/free throw line, creating space for Brandan to work on the wing in various pick and roll sets.
His bum knee bums out Grizzlies fans, but it especially bums out Head Coach Dave Joerger. The Grizzlies are undersized and undermanned in the front court, leading to rumored trade discussions for a bench big. It is possible that that sort of deal goes down in the next month or so, but in the meantime Memphis will continue to long for what may be. Wright needs minutes with these guys to find a good fit, and he just hasn't had enough to call him a good (or bad, as he potentially is alongside Zach Randolph) fit.
5. After four seasons in a row of being a top 10 defensive team (twice top 3), Memphis currently sits at 20th in the league in Defensive rating. What do the Grizzlies need to do to regain their place amongst the NBA's elite defensive teams?
Their rating wasn't helped by the disaster last night against the Thunder. Marc Gasol, Tony Allen and Mike Conley have all underachieved (and in the case of Tony Allen drastically) on that end of the floor, so that is a good start. Memphis over-helps, they reach instead of moving their feet, they struggle communicating and their effort is not consistently there. Jeff Green is a great example of all of these issues; as much as I like Jeff (and I like his "potential" a good bit) he has been a disaster defensively more often than not. All that adds up to multiple blowouts against good teams.
What do they need to do? For starters, give a damn. For guys like Tony Allen, it's possible that steps have been lost and they just aren't physically capable of being what they once were. But there are plenty of guys on this roster who aren't putting in the effort/time to be more effective defensively. You don't have to be at practice- that much is clear with the eye test.
Memphis' MO this season has been to beat the mediocre-to-bad teams and lose to the good-to-great ones. This fact gives me hope tonight, alongside the fact that several Memphis starters got a lot of rest last night, that they can pull out a win in Detroit. It would not shock me in the least, however, if the Pistons came out and ran the Grizzlies off the floor. If the effort isn't there tonight, this can snowball quickly.
A huge thank you again to Joe Mullinax for taking the time! And check out the great work at Grizzle Bear Blues!