Check out all the excellent work at Grizzly Bear Blues! And follow friend of DBB, Joe Mullinax @JoeMullinax. And please take a look at Joe's super informative responses in our last Q&A HERE if you want to learn even more about the Grizzlies.
1. Since the last time the Pistons and the Grizzlies met, by the numbers it looks like the Memphis defense has been perking up a bit (up to 16th in defensive rating from 20th), while the offense has continued to struggle (27th in offensive rating). Have you seen the Memphis defense start to put things together and return to it's past form? And to ask a broad question, what's causing the offense to continue to struggle?
First, thanks for having me back on your site, I really enjoyed the last time we had this Q & A and appreciate being invited back. With regard to Memphis "perking up", it may have more to do with the Grizzlies' schedule lightening than anything else. Memphis had a murderer's row of opponents to start the season, and things are beginning to ease up a bit. That being said, the defensive improvement is noticeable- it started with the Grizzlies' move to a smaller lineup (which now may be in question moving forward- more on that in a minute) and has carried on through better communication and effort on that end of the court. Tony Allen has led this charge- since his return from a knee injury, more often than not he has been his old disruptive self, creating turnovers and extra opportunities for the Grizzlies to score...
...which they need, because their offense is still putrid. There are reasons for this, of course- Mike Conley has been out with a variety of ailments, most recently a sore Achilles, Courtney Lee has a bum hip, Matt Barnes has an injured hand, among other issues. However, guys they were depending on to be offensive stalwarts, especially Marc Gasol and Jeff Green, have struggled mightily as of late. Gasol is shooting 33.7% from the field in the month of January- that is not going to get the job done for any player, much less your franchise cornerstone. Gasol's problems are the root of their offensive woes, in addition to Conley's absence. Those two guys stir the drink for Memphis, and if Mike cannot play tonight and Gasol continues to shoot poorly the Grizzlies will be in trouble against an improved Detroit Pistons team.
2. About a month ago, Zach Randolph's stats were way below his career averages and I asked if he looked to be in serious age related decline. Then Randolph went off for 21 points and 16 rebounds against the Pistons and lead his squad to a one point win. Now his stats look to be right back around his career averages. Is vintage Z-Bo back?
Average Z-Bo is back, which is better than a lot of NBA Power Forwards. While his rebounding is a shining light on a team that struggles as a whole on the boards, it is his scoring prowess and, surprisingly, his defense that have been most vital to his recent resurgence. The move of Zach to the bench to start games has helped him with his scoring output to an extent; he is going up against second unit bigs more than he used to, which is allowing him to get in to the flow of the game and get his jumper going more easily. Once Zach is engaged, he is tough for anyone to defend, even at this age, because of his footwork and understanding of angles/position on the floor. His scoring pop has been vital for this offensively challenged roster.
Defensively, he looks much more lively, as if the reason he was forced to the bench in the first place (an inability to consistently defend stretch fours/the pick and roll) is not an issue any longer. He is hedging and getting back on the roll man much more effectively, moving his feet instead of reaching, and reacting back out to the perimeter on shooters at a better pace than he was earlier in the season. Randolph was never a dominant defender, but the key for him was to be serviceable enough on that end that his defensive inefficiencies would be canceled out and then some by his very good offensive game.
That seems to be where Zach is back to now - a net neutral to slightly below average defender who is scoring the rock and cleaning the glass. That is the Randolph Memphis has come to know and love, and he has been a key piece to keeping the Grizzlies' ship afloat while Conley and Gasol struggle. He's been this for Memphis for years, and Grizzlies fans love the fact that he is doing it again. The question is, is it sustainable at this point of his career?
3. Looking to the future, the Grizzlies top 8 rotation (players with most overall minutes played) consists of players all between the ages of 28 and 35. How would you like to see the team bridge between its current veteran core and a new core that can compete into the future?
Ah yes, the $64,000 question. This is being debated left and right on Twitter and on the blog. Memphis' future is cloudy right now; Marc Gasol is clearly a part of it (in theory) and Mike Conley is assumed to be back after signing a near-max or more deal this coming Summer. Outside of that? Doubt and indecision reigns. Jeff Green has perhaps officially overstayed his welcome in Memphis- Head Coach Dave Joerger, Jeff's biggest supporter, benched Jeff in Memphis' most recent game, a loss to the Houston Rockets, and the body language of Green and the Grizzlies has not been good as of late with him on the floor. He is a defensive liability who does not give enough effort on that end, an unforgivable sin in Memphis. Whether it is by trade or free agency, he will be gone.
Beyond Jeff, you have the aging Zach Randolph and Tony Allen, as well as wings in Matt Barnes, Vince Carter, and Courtney Lee who may not be on the team next year. Mario Chalmers is also a free agent, Brandan Wright has only played about 100 minutes for the Grizzlies this season, and their younger players are unproven (this year's 1st round pick Jarell Martin), injured (Jordan Adams) or in and out of the Grizzlies' D-League affiliate (James Ennis). The released Russ Smith to sign Ryan Hollins, who then had to be released once Mike Conley got hurt to bring in Elliot Williams, who is probably not better than Russ Smith. They have shipped out multiple first round picks chasing a title, and most of those moves have not panned out as planned (se Green, Jeff).
The future is...unclear, at best, with some questioning whether a core led by Marc Gasol and Mike Conley can win a championship.There have started to be rumbles of ideas for what Conley, and even Gasol, would fetch in a trade. Those ideas are most certainly still crazy, but for a team with few future assets and question about just how good their two best players really are, as the team continues to stew in mediocrity those fantasy proposals inch closer and closer to an improbable reality. Memphis is not a good team right now, and outside of a home run free agent signing in the Summer of 2016 there is a real chance they may not be good again for a while if they cannot right the ship with the current roster as constructed. Expect Memphis to try to trade a wing or two by the deadline, and hopefully get some assets (a young player or draft pick) back in return.
A huge thank you again to Joe Mullinax for taking the time a second time! And check out the great work at Grizzly Bear Blues!