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2015-16 Memphis Grizzlies Season Preview

Basketball Insiders previews the Memphis Grizzlies’ 2015-16 season.

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The message was simple for the Memphis Grizzlies this offseason: stay the course. This group has been right there in the Western Conference for several years now, just short of busting through to the game’s biggest stage on multiple occasions. And with much of the same core set to return, headlined by Marc Gasol on a brand new contract, there was no reason for management to do anything outlandish. They made a couple value moves in acquiring Brandan Wright and Matt Barnes as solid depth pieces who can contribute in multiple areas, and will bring back Mike Conley and Zach Randolph to form one of the league’s more unheralded three-man combinations with Gasol. The Grizz have depth up and down the lineup at this point, and could have more versatility from their wing rotation than ever before if Barnes is still effective and everyone can stay healthy. As always, they’ll bide their time and look to sneak up on the right unassuming opponent in the playoffs, where (as usual) no one will want to see them.

Basketball Insiders previews the Memphis Grizzlies’ 2015-16 season.

Five Thoughts

The Grizzlies are going to be tough as nails this year, with a defense that should ultimately be one of the best in the league. Not a lot has changed from a year ago other than the additions of Matt Barnes and Brandan, but that’s not a bad thing considering how good the Grizzlies were last season. Memphis is a team constructed of players in the midst of their peak years and don’t have to keep their fingers crossed that a certain player or two will break out. They’re 100 percent ready to be awesome right now, and that’s exactly what they should be this season.

3rd Place – Southwest Division

-Joel Brigham

The Grizzlies quietly had an excellent offseason. They re-signed Marc Gasol, which was their top priority, but they also added two quality role players in Matt Barnes and Brandan Wright. Both players are on very reasonable contracts and they will fit in perfectly with the Grizzlies’ style of play. Outside of those two players, Memphis brings back much of the same core that they’ve had in recent years and that continuity means they’ll have great chemistry once again. The Grizzlies seem to be flying under the radar a bit since they didn’t make splashy offseason moves like some other teams in the West, but they’re definitely a contender and, as always, they’re a team that nobody wants to face in the postseason. Had they been completely healthy in last year’s playoffs, things could’ve been very different for them. Don’t sleep on the Grizzlies this year.

3rd Place – Southwest Division

-Alex Kennedy

Over the years, the Grizzlies have become one of the most entertaining teams to watch. They hustle. They grind. They aren’t afraid to get gritty. (Sounds like a perfect match for Matt Barnes, right?) The Grizzlies took care of business by locking in Marc Gasol. They are returning their core from last season, giving them an instant edge with chemistry. Health is always a key player in the Grizzlies’ success. If their top players can stay injury-free, this team has another shot at going deep in the playoffs.

2nd Place – Southwest Division

-Jessica Camerato

In a league full of teams transitioning to an offensive-heavy philosophy, the Memphis Grizzlies’ most notable free agent addition over the summer was defensive-minded veteran Matt Barnes. Why try to fix a successful output that isn’t broken? The Grizzlies haven’t won fewer than 61 percent of their regular season games since the 2010-11 campaign. With Marc Gasol, Mike Conley and Zach Randolph still producing at a very high level, the Grizzlies will once again be in the Western Conference playoff mix at season’s end. Book it.

3rd Place – Southwest Division

–Lang Greene

The Grizzlies have cemented themselves as a contender in the Western Conference, especially after re-signing Marc Gasol this past summer. Mike Conley is up there with the likes of Pau Gasol and Luol Deng as players who have long been underrated and the evolution of Zach Randolph is what has truly helped this team grow into a contender. Matt Barnes and Brandan Wright should fit right in with these guys and I would chalk Memphis up for another 50-win season. After that, I’m not sure what happens to Memphis in the postseason, as the Clippers, Spurs and Warriors still seem to be better – at least on paper. Fortunately for the Grizzlies, the game isn’t played on paper. But I can’t take them any higher than third in the toughest division in basketball.
3rd Place — Southwest Division
– Moke Hamilton

Top of the List

Top Offensive Player: Mike Conley

A good case could be made here for Marc Gasol as the offense’s fulcrum, but Conley is the one who keeps Memphis’ attack humming and mostly viable while playing lineups often short on spacing. The Grizzlies were the equivalent of a top-10 per-possession offense while he was on the floor last season, per NBA.com, but slid to a borderline bottom-five unit when he sat down.

Conley is a stud in the pick-and-roll, one of the strongest in the game at keeping the defense continually on the back foot with a great change of pace game and a useful in-between floater. The Grizzlies need this in their primary ball-handler – Gasol and Randolph can both grind out their share of possessions in from the high and low posts, but Memphis lacks anyone else who can create regularly, and the frequent dearth of spacing allows teams to often crowd Conley’s roll men in two-man action.

Conley can punish teams for going under the screen as well, shooting over 39 percent on threes off the dribble last season, according to SportVU figures. He was in the same range on catch-and-shoot threes, making him a threat to space things out for one of the big guys in the post. He’s likely the team’s most irreplaceable piece offensively.

Top Defensive Player: Marc Gasol

The former Defensive Player of the Year may be leaving his physical peak as he reaches his 30s, but his defensive game has never been predicated on any sort of freak athleticism. He’s a savvy veteran at this point, never out of position and always in control of the interior for one of the league’s most consistent defenses.

Tony Allen has a legitimate case here, but two things: The big positions are inherently a bit more important defensively – they wall off the most common area NBA teams score in and are responsible for the majority of the rebounding. Maybe more importantly, while it’s not really a defensive deficiency, Allen’s play on the other end of the floor hurts him here. He’s too often a liability offensively, and the fact that Gasol was able to play seven more minutes nightly last season is important for a group that wants to maintain their defense-first culture.

Top Playmaker: Mike Conley

To be truthful, the Grizzlies don’t have a single high-volume setup man on the roster. Conley and Gasol do much of the creating initially, with Randolph as more of a score-first option on the block. It takes real effort for the Grizzlies to score a lot of the time, though, and without a single dynamic star to move the defense around the chances are tough to come by.

Conley does his best, using his combination of skills to open the floor wherever possible. Gasol and Randolph eat enough possessions on the block that he’s never been among the league’s more prolific assist men, but he’s a smart and diverse player in two-man action with enough moves in the bag to make things happen in isolation in a pinch and draw help.

Top Clutch Player: Zach Randolph

On the surface this may seem an odd choice – Randolph isn’t the Grizzlies’ first option down the stretch of close games and played slightly less in these circumstances than Conley and Gasol. Big Zach certainly isn’t the first guy anyone’s mind jumps to when they think of the league’s premier clutch players.

Here’s the thing, though: Memphis has an inordinate amount of success while he’s on the floor in these situations. Randolph was a team-best plus-24.4 per-100-possessions during the 153 minutes he played in the final five minutes of regulation or overtime and the score within five points last year. Even better, he was a jaw-dropping plus-37.6 per-100 in situations where the Grizzlies were either tied or behind by five or less – Memphis finished 17-9 in these games. Randolph seems to up his game when it comes down to it, raising his defensive intensity and imposing his full physical brutality on opponents when the game slows down.

The Unheralded Player: Courtney Lee

Any guess who played the most minutes last postseason for the Grizzlies behind Gasol and Randolph, with Conley struggling with injuries? It was Lee, who earned coach Dave Joerger’s trust as a reliable two-way guy who doesn’t get outside himself and has some sneaky versatility to his game.

Lee shot a round 40 percent on over 200 threes last year, the most attempts of his career. He’s one of the only reliable shooters on the team beyond Conley, and has the skills defensively to match up with a number of guys on the other side of the ball. These sort of basic plus attributes are useful on both ends of the ball for a team that keeps it simple for the most part.

Best New Addition: Brandan Wright

Matt Barnes is a candidate as well, but Wright should be a perfect fit as a third big with Memphis. He’s long been unheralded as something of a jack of all trades, a smart player on both ends who does what’s asked of him and rarely makes mistakes. He should be an upgrade in this system over Kosta Koufos, who ended up being significantly more expensive (heading to Sacramento). Wright comes in at a great number (under $6 million annually) for each of the next three seasons – pennies as the cap explodes.

– Ben Dowsett

Who We Like

Tony Allen: Long one of the best perimeter defenders in the game, Allen in part represents just how vital shooting has become in today’s game. There aren’t five guys in the world who lock down opposing wings as effectively, but the Warriors played him off the floor in the latter stages of the second round last year when they used Andrew Bogut as his de facto “defender,” allowing the big Aussie to abandon Allen entirely and force the Grizzlies to play four on five offensively. Allen couldn’t punish them for ignoring him, and the series turned in part on Steve Kerr’s ingenuity.

Will teams continue to extend that theme even further? It’s a blueprint a number of coaches should be able to replicate, and it could really limit Memphis offensively while Allen stays on the floor. That said, his value on the other end can more than overcome this at times, particularly against teams with a primary creator on the perimeter. He can suffocate up to three positions, maybe the best guy in the league at simply denying star wings the ball with relentless pressure and the ability to mirror their motions. He’s a joy to watch when he’s engaged, and an ace in the hole for Joerger in the right matchups.

Beno Udrih: Udrih is a nice change of pace backup for Conley, a bit of a jitterbug who has a number of tricks up his sleeve and can keep teams off balance with second units. He assisted nearly a quarter of Grizzlies baskets while on the floor last season. He isn’t quite talented enough to play huge minutes and is in the later stages of his career, but he’s useful for what the Grizzlies need out of him.

Matt Barnes: Barnes offers some more stability and a ton of playoff experience. There’s a good chance he becomes the preferred option on the wing to someone like Jeff Green come playoff time, with continued solid two-way play at 35. You know what you’re getting from Barnes: intensity, plus defense and enough other skills to stay on the floor. He’ll compete for regular minutes with the likes of Green and Vince Carter; Memphis’ newfound depth on the wing will allow them to pace each of them, and provide some more versatility come playoff time. He’s a nice offseason pickup for a cheap price.

Dave Joerger: Joerger should be mentioned within the elite circle of NBA coaches more often than he actually is. He’s proven both disciplined and adaptable in his two years at the helm in Memphis. The Grizzlies have been able to stick to their grit-and-grind guns in part due to an effective, no-fluff system that emphasizes their limited offensive strengths, and Joerger has resisted the urge to tinker too heavily and damage what can be a low-margin approach.

Does he have the ingenuity to help get this team through an imposing Western gauntlet? It’s not exactly a condemnation of his style if not, but this might be one of the last chances he has with the current core as Gasol and Randolph age. One of the game’s best at making the most of what he has may have to do even more for the Grizzlies to challenge the West’s true elite, though true to form he’ll keep them one of the postseason’s toughest outs at the very least.

– Ben Dowsett

Strengths

This Grizzlies team continues to be defined by their defense. They’ve been no worse than seventh on a per-possession basis each of the last four years, and they should be right in that range again with most of the band back. They play a mostly conservative style that suits Gasol in the middle, with strong perimeter guys in Allen, Conley and Lee anchoring a strong front line.

They also have a great deal of continuity on their side, vital for a team with a low margin for error. Every member of the team’s core has been in town for multiple seasons; Wright and Barnes are the only real newcomers, and both are veterans who will have little trouble fitting into a great culture. Everyone is on the same page in Memphis, with a limited amount of ego clouding things in the locker room.

The Grizz also have some legitimate depth this year. In Lee, Green, Allen, Carter, Barnes and even sophomore Jordan Adams, Memphis can throw a number of different looks at teams on the perimeter, and can even try larger periods of small ball with someone like Green or Barnes at the four. Wright gives them three bigs who can play serious minutes when needed. This team should run at least 10 deep most of the year and could be among the league’s freshest come playoff time if they can stay mostly healthy.

– Ben Dowsett

Weaknesses

The Grizzlies continue to have issues with shot creation, and it looks to be a primary concern yet again. Conley is the only ball-handler with even token separation skills individually, and even he is much more effective in the two-man game. Randolph and Gasol can both get theirs down low, and Gasol is excellent in the pick-and-roll as well, but with so few other threats anywhere else on the roster and a lack of distance shooting it’s easy for teams to sit on these actions and clog things up.

The Grizzlies are hoping a guy like Barnes, along with continued strong shooting from Lee and Conley, can push them over the top spacing-wise. It’s tough to say if he’ll be enough unless they get some improvements elsewhere, though – the Grizz were 23rd in the league in three-point percentage last season.

In a bigger-picture sense, the past few seasons have seemed to indicate that perhaps the Grizz don’t have an extra gear in playoff time. They’re always one of the league’s toughest outs, and no one ever wants to play them… but they also don’t really seem capable of raising their game quite high enough against the league’s true elite. Part of it is scheme – Memphis plays such a labor-intensive style in the first place that kicking things up yet another notch can be difficult. They also lack a superstar-level offensive player to put them on his back when things get rough, and while some of this is cliché at times, it’s been noticeable in the playoffs.

– Ben Dowsett

The Burning Question

Can the Grizzlies finally get over the hump against the West’s elite?

It seems to be a yearly question at this point. No one would ever dispute Memphis as a legitimate contender by now – they’re one of the league’s most consistent franchises. They just can’t seem to ever take that permanent leap from great to elite, though.

It may never be in the cards, as painful as that might be for the franchise’s faithful. Gasol, Conley and Randolph are a wonderful core, but they’re undoubtedly behind the times of the modern league to some degree with their style and approach. They’ve lacked versatility in a couple instances, particularly against the Warriors last season when they couldn’t rebound after Golden State’s move to Bogut on Allen.

To management’s credit, though, they aren’t going quietly. Barnes and Wright aren’t superstar additions, but they fill real needs and add depth on a tight budget. This is the kind of team ready to pounce at the slightest sign of weakness; it would only take one playoff injury or stroke of misfortune for an opportunity to arise. If they can keep their key pieces healthy, they’ll be lurking as always come May.

– Ben Dowsett

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