The “How the Heck are They Good?” Teams: Memphis

Posted: 03/07/2016 by levcohen in Basketball

There are 16 teams in the NBA that are currently above .500. It becomes obvious why most of them are good with a quick glance at their rosters. Boston, Atlanta, Miami, Chicago, and Charlotte have a ton of depth. Cleveland, Indiana, Portland, the Clippers, and the Thunder are star-driven. Golden State, San Antonio, and Toronto have depth and star-power. That leaves three teams, but the Pistons can be placed in the second category because they, too, have an all-star in Andre Drummond. In fact, of the 16 .500-plus teams, 12 had at least one all-star, while Damian Lillard and Kemba Walker were probably the two biggest snubs (both, by the way, seem to be taking their omissions personally. Lillard is averaging 33 points per game since the all-star game, while Walker is averaging 24.1). Basically, I’m getting at the fact that, for the most part, the good teams are the teams that should be good besides, of course, Dallas and Memphis. The Mavericks are 33-31 and just suffered a blowout loss to the Clippers; the Grizzlies are 38-25 and coming off a win in Cleveland. These teams are both much better that I thought they’d be, but I’m going to start with the team with the better record and the one I’m more surprised by. I’ll write about Dallas tomorrow.

A little more than two months ago, I wrote about the Grizzlies, who were 18-16 with a -2.9 point differential at the time. Here is what I concluded:

All of this leads me to believe that there’s no real chance for the Grizzlies to turn things around this season. I expect them to finish under .500 and make the playoffs only because there’s no reason to believe in any of the teams in the playoff hunt right now. But they’ll get drubbed by Golden State or San Antonio or Oklahoma City in the first round, and it’ll be considered a lost season.

Since that post, which I wrote at the very end of 2015, the Grizzlies are 20-9 with a +2.8 point differential, so I guess you could say their season hasn’t exactly gone the way I expected it to. The win tonight in Cleveland is probably as good of a place to start as anywhere. First of all, it’s important to note that star center Marc Gasol, the best player on the team, broke his foot about a month ago and is out for the season. So there’s that. The Grizzlies also happened to be missing point guard Mike Conley (foot), small forward Matt Barnes (hamstring), power forward Zach Randolph (knee), and replacement center Chris Anderson (shoulder) tonight. They rolled into Cleveland with a starting lineup consisting of Mario Chalmers, Tony Allen, JaMychal Green, P.J. Hairston, and Ryan Hollins. Meanwhile, the Cavs started Kyrie Irving, J.R. Smith, LeBron James, Kevin Love, and Timofey Mozgov. You would probably have expected the Cavs to win this game handily. But then you would have been underestimating this ridiculous Memphis team. Yep, the Grizzlies won, thanks to Allen’s season-high 26 points (remember, the guy is inept offensively) in his first game back after an eight-game absence, the best all-around game of Green’s career, and 17 points apiece from Chalmers and new addition Lance Stephenson. That pretty much sums up their season.

This is a team that looked like it was giving up on the season at the trade deadline. They traded away Courtney Lee and Jeff Green, two key players, for Stephenson, Hairston, and future picks. When you throw in Gasol’s foot injury, the Grizzlies have lost three of their six best players heading into the season. And remember, this was a team that was supposed to take a step back even if they were full strength. But while they won’t win 55 games like they did last year, they seem likely to win 50+ for the fourth consecutive year. How the heck are they doing this again?

It starts with Conley, who unfortunately will miss at least the next few games with a foot injury of his own. He’s always been good, and he actually hasn’t really been better this season than in the recent past, but the guy always seems to come up big in the clutch. Since February began, Conley’s averaged 17.5 points per game, more than two points above his season-long average and a sign that he has stepped up since Gasol went down. So the Grizz have a steady, good point guard. That doesn’t really explain how on earth they’re 38-25. It has to be said that this team has gotten quite lucky; their season-long point differential is still in the red at -.3, indicating that their record should be 31-32. But still, even that record would be good enough to keep Memphis in the playoffs, and while a 31-32 would fit the narrative I envisioned in the quote above, even that would be outperforming the healthy talent the Grizzlies currently have.

The lineup of Conley, Hairston, Barnes, Green, and Randolph has been surprisingly good, posting a +21.4 net rating in a sample size of 42 minutes spread across six games. But one lineup, albeit a really good one, can’t explain the Grizzlies’ success either. By ESPN’s RPM, the Grizzlies are still being led by their experienced players. Their best players by RPM are Conley, Allen, Gasol, Barnes, Chalmers, and Andersen. Meanwhile, the guys I’m really interested in and the ones that have been making the biggest recent difference by the eye test, Stephenson and Green, are dreadful according to RPM. But Net Rating, a less-convoluted stat that simply measures the number of points per 100 possessions above or below average any given player is, says Green is +3.2, best on the team among guys who have played more than two games. As for Stephenson? Well, maybe he actually does still stink. His net rating is -5. Truth be told, I’m a bit flummoxed as to why the Grizzlies are any good. It clearly starts with Conley and the quiet production of guys like Randolph and Barnes, although the latter two have sub-zero net ratings. Heck, even the 39-year old Vince Carter (!) has played some solid minutes, averaging 5.5 points per game in a very consistent 15 minutes per game this season. So if you combine solid production from veterans with an infusion of youth from Green, I guess the success starts to make sense. But this is not the team whose “Grit and Grind” style led to so much success over the last half-decade; with Gasol out, Allen and Randolph declining and Lee and Jeff Green gone, the defense is in the bottom half of the league in terms of efficiency. In fact, the offense has actually been the better unit for reasons that, again, are beyond me.

I don’t want to beat a dead horse, but I’m going to anyway: this team just shouldn’t be good. I still don’t think they are good, but it’s been 63 games now and they are 13 games over .500 and well on their way to a five seed. On paper, this team minus Green, Lee, and Gasol and with many other players ailing does not work, but in reality this team just finds ways to win games, as evidenced by the upset win over the Cavaliers today. Come playoff time, I don’t think the Grizzlies will advance to the second round, but if they play the Clippers in the first round (which they are currently slated to do and which it feels like they do every year), I expect them to push the series to six or seven games, just because they’ve been doing that kind of stuff all season. Anyway, enjoy these not-always-pretty last 19 games of Memphis’s season, because I don’t think the team will look at all similar moving forward. The Green and Lee trades were made with the future in mind, and I expect the Grizzlies to transition away from the Grit and Grind, but this season has been incredible, with the Grizz showing an ability to win even as their front office has taken away key contributors from their team and even as their best player has been lost to injury.

  1. dpcathena says:

    List of Grizzlies’ coaches:

    Name Term[b] GC W L Win% GC W L Win% Achievements Reference
    Regular season Playoffs
    1 Brian Winters 1995–1997 125 23 102 .184 — — — — [5]
    2 Stu Jackson 1997 39 6 33 .154 — — — — [13]
    3 Brian Hill 1997–1999 154 31 123 .201 — — — — [14]
    4 Lionel Hollins 1999–2000 60 18 42 .300 — — — — [6]
    5 Sidney Lowe 2000–2002 172 46 126 .267 — — — — [15]
    6 Hubie Brown 2002–2004 168 83 85 .494 4 0 4 .000 NBA Coach of the Year (2003–04)[7] [8]
    — Lionel Hollins 2004 4 0 4 .000 — — — — [6]
    7 Mike Fratello 2004–2006 178 95 83 .534 8 0 8 .000 [16]
    8 Tony Barone* 2006–2007 52 16 36 .308 — — — — [9]
    9 Marc Iavaroni* 2007–2009 123 33 90 .268 — — — — [10]
    10 Johnny Davis 2009 2 0 2 .000 — — — — [17][18]
    — Lionel Hollins 2009–2013 351 196 155 .558 35 18 17 .514 [6][19]
    11 David Joerger* 2013–present 164 105 59 .640

    Sorry about the format, but maybe the coaching matters.

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