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NBA AM: The Overlooked, Underrated Grizzlies

Memphis quietly had a strong summer and they shouldn’t be overlooked entering next season.

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Which NBA teams improved the most in free agency this summer? Basketball Insiders’ experts discuss.

The Overlooked, Underrated Memphis Grizzlies

The NBA’s summer of 2015 will go down as one of the most memorable in recent history. With the salary cap set to increase over the next several seasons, teams opened up their checkbooks and spent accordingly. One estimate had the total price tag at $1 billion spent after the first day of free agency alone.

The cap is projected to climb over $100 million as soon as 2017 so teams were motivated to lock players into deals now, with the hope being that contracts handed out this summer may end up looking like bargains in the future.

It seems as though just about every team in the league improved in some form or fashion, either through free agency, trades or the draft. Now that the bulk of free agency is over, many have started to look at the “winners” and “losers” of the summer (as Alex Kennedy and Moke Hamilton discussed on a recent podcast). Of course, teams like the San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Clippers, Cleveland Cavaliers and Milwaukee Bucks among others have been pegged as winners thus far.

While there was a ridiculous amount of lucrative contracts thrown around this summer, one team that remained fairly quiet was the Memphis Grizzlies. They entered this offseason with one goal in mind: re-signing unrestricted free agent Marc Gasol. 

Leading up to the summer, many expected Gasol to ultimately stay in Memphis. Reports surfaced prior to the start of free agency that he’d only be meeting with the Grizzlies. After all, this was someone who attended high school in Memphis after making the move from Spain (when his brother, Pau, played for the Grizzlies). Not to mention, he spent his entire seven-year career with the Grizzlies and felt comfortable staying there long-term.

Grizzlies fan began to get restless as no news surfaced from either side after free agency began. Players like Anthony Davis, Kevin Love, Jimmy Butler and Kawhi Leonard had already agreed to stay with their current team, while Gasol remained a free agent. It wouldn’t be until July 6 that news broke that Gasol would re-sign with the Grizzlies.

When Gasol and the Grizzlies finally reached a deal, it was a five-year, $110 million agreement. With the Grizzlies retaining arguably the best center in the NBA, they should also be viewed as one of the clear-cut winners of the offseason along with teams like the Spurs and Clippers.

Gasol would later say that he told the Grizzlies he’d come back on the first day of free agency, but it wasn’t reported until later since he was in Spain and disconnected from social media.

“Once the dust settled and I started thinking about the process of next season and the years after that, every scenario would bring me back to Memphis,” Gasol said last month at the press conference announcing his new deal. “It never opened up to different teams. So, it was actually pretty easy. … Nobody really had a doubt that I was going to leave. [I] just needed to take some time and settle.”

Gasol returning was perhaps one of the biggest moves of the summer, even though it was expected. He’s coming off of a career year in which he averaged 17.4 points, 7.8 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 1.6 blocks. He elevated those numbers in the postseason to 19.7 points, 10.3 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 1.7 blocks. Keeping Gasol around means the team will remain competitive in the Western Conference, and it could prove critical to keeping Memphis an attractive destination for future free agents.

The Grizzlies finished last season tied for the West’s third-best record with the Spurs, but ultimately earned the fifth seed after the Portland Trail Blazers grabbed the fourth seed as a division winner (despite finishing with fewer wins). Even though they are a perennial contender with a talented core, unique style of play and excellent chemistry, the Grizzlies are seemingly one of the most overlooked teams in the league.

They don’t make splashy moves, they don’t play a sexy brand of basketball and their leading scorer is Gasol, a center. In contrast, the reigning NBA champions run a high-octane offense, have a ton of shooters and are led by MVP Stephen Curry, who seems to be comfortable shooting as soon as he crosses the half-court line.

But the Grizzlies are fine with being different and being underrated. They embrace the “Grit and Grind” style of play. With the players that they have on their roster, it’s no wonder why they play that way. Gasol, Zach Randolph, Mike Conley, Courtney Lee, Tony Allen, Vince Carter and newcomer Jeff Green are the key players in head coach Dave Joerger’s system.

They finished 26th in pace last season, but had the fourth-best defensive efficiency in the league. As a result, they were 13th in offensive efficiency (points scored per 100 possessions). For a team that averages just 94.2 possessions a game, that ranking is remarkable. By comparison, the Warriors led the league with 100.7 possessions a game.

After re-signing Gasol, the Grizzlies opted to just make a couple of moves. They lost Kosta Koufos to the Sacramento Kings through free agency, but replaced him by signing Brandan Wright to a three-year deal worth $18 million. He seems to be a near perfect fit for the Grizzlies’ system, given his abilities on offense and defense. He is extremely efficient on offense, as he shot 64 percent from the field last season. He finished seventh among all power forwards in PER at 20.44, which was better than the likes of Paul Millsap, new teammate Zach Randolph and Dirk Nowitzki. On defense, he held his own as well as he averaged 1.3 blocks in 19 minutes per game and held opponents to 49.5 percent shooting at the rim. Given how many players earned large contracts this summer, signing Wright at just $18 million over three years has to be considered one of the most underrated signings of the offseason.

“Brandan Wright is probably my high school nemesis,” Gasol said. “He beat all of us for the state championship in Nashville, but I think he brings a lot of things to the table. [He brings] athleticism that we didn’t have on the bench. [He’s capable] of running and playing above the rim; we’re going to play a lot faster when he’s on the floor. He’s going to set a lot of pick-and-rolls and roll to the basket. He understands his role.”

One of the other big moves the Grizzlies made was acquiring Matt Barnes from the Charlotte Hornets in exchange for Luke Ridnour. The Grizzlies greatly needed another proven perimeter defender and opted to go after Barnes, who’s another player that will fit well with the culture the team has created. Barnes can be a glue guy off of the bench and he has shown he won’t back down from anyone, which is a trait that can also be found in Randolph and Allen.

Memphis quietly had a very strong offseason, keeping their core pieces and then adding players who fit right in and fill a need. They didn’t make splashy additions like other teams, but the solid contributors they added do the dirty work and often fly under the radar – just like the team itself.

The key for Memphis this season is staying healthy. The team suffered some crucial injuries last year in the playoffs, especially with Conley, Allen and Beno Udrih going down. The argument can be made that had the team been fully healthy, they could have challenged the Warriors even more in the second round instead of being eliminated in six games. But injuries are a part of the game, and they’ll use their early exit from the playoffs as fuel for next season.

As it’s said each year, the window for a team to win a championship can close rather quickly. This could be especially true with the Grizzlies after the 2015-16 season. Conley, Green, Lee, Barnes and Udrih are all in the final year of their contracts and will be unrestricted free agents next summer. Memphis only has five players guaranteed on the books for the 2016-17 season. Carter, Russ Smith, Jarnell Stokes and JaMychal Green are on non-guaranteed deals in 2016-17 and the team holds an option for Jordan Adams.

This season will be an important one for the team as it could set the future of the team. If the Grizzlies show that they’re just a player or two away from a championship with their current roster, ownership could opt to retain everyone regardless of the cost. If they don’t show improvement, the roster could undergo drastic changes next summer.

James Harden Moves on to adidas

Houston Rockets guard James Harden will officially make the jump from Nike to adidas, his agent Rob Pelinka confirmed on Thursday. The deal will pay Harden $200 million over a span of 13 years.

Harden will begin wearing adidas on and off of the court starting on October 1.

“We’re a brand of creators and James embodies that more than any athlete in the game,” said Chris Grancio, adidas’ global basketball general manager, in a statement. “His addition to the Adidas basketball family is a game changer.

“This partnership gives him the opportunity to achieve his goals and express himself in a totally new way as a creator. He’s already one of the most recognizable sports figures because of his game, his look, his hunger to win and his style on the off the court. His ceiling is far from reached, which tells you the future for him and our brand looks incredible.”

Reports first surfaced early last week that adidas had planned to offer Harden a deal. The initial reaction was that Nike would opt not to match the offer, since they’re set to take over as the official apparel supplier of the NBA after next season and already sponsor marquee players like LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving among others.

With adidas approaching the final season of their agreement with the NBA as its official apparel supplier, it was believed they would begin targeting more athletes. The company already sponsors players like Derrick Rose, John Wall and Damian Lillard, but they want to add to that rotation as they continue to compete with Nike.

Miami HEAT rookie Justise Winslow and Washington Wizards rookie Kelly Oubre also signed with adidas recently. Each year, adidas tries to add a number of notable lottery picks from the incoming draft class. Last year, adidas signed four of the top six picks in the 2014 NBA Draft: Minnesota Timberwolves forward Andrew Wiggins, Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid, Utah Jazz guard Dante Exum and Boston Celtics point guard Marcus Smart.

Harden will nearly make more money annually from adidas than he will from the Rockets. He has three more years left on his current deal with the Rockets, which will pay him an average of $16.78 million per season, while his new deal with adidas will average $15.38 million each year.

Cody Taylor is an NBA writer in his fourth season with Basketball Insiders, covering the NBA and NCAA out of Orlando and Miami.

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