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NBA PM: Grizzlies’ Chemistry is Key to Success

The Memphis Grizzlies understand the importance of continuity and chemistry, which helped them emerge as NBA’s top team.

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Grizzlies Understand Importance of Chemistry

The Memphis Grizzlies organization understands the importance of continuity and chemistry. Take one look at their roster and this is evident, as much of their team has been together for years. The organization has kept the team’s core four intact in recent years, inking Mike Conley (eight seasons in Memphis), Marc Gasol (seven seasons), Zach Randolph (six seasons) and Tony Allen (five seasons) to multiple contract extensions.

This leads to excellent chemistry between the team’s top contributors, which is very important, yet often overlooked in the NBA. Each year, the Grizzlies make a few tweaks to their supporting cast (such as adding Vince Carter this offseason and Courtney Lee during last season), but the core remains the same. Gasol and Randolph form one of the best starting frontcourts in the league, Allen provides perimeter defense and toughness, and Conley runs the show as one of the game’s most underrated point guards.

In today’s NBA, with rampant player movement and teams making drastic changes frequently, it’s rare for a franchise to keep such a talented group together for so many years. However, the Grizzlies have managed to do so because their stars love playing together and are committed to the organization. The team has been to the playoffs in four consecutive years, including a trip to the Western Conference Finals two years ago.

Conley couldn’t be happier alongside his teammates, and he has gotten to know each of their games and preferences over the years. When asked about his relationship with Gasol, in particular, he admits that they often communicate on the court using only a series of looks that have hidden meanings.

“We’ve known each other for a long time and know how each other plays and he so unselfish, it’s fun to play with him,” Conley said. “I know where he wants the ball and he knows where I want the ball and we don’t even have to speak, we just look at each other a certain way and that means a back cut or a give and go or whatever it is. It’s a fun relationship.”

The San Antonio Spurs are the best example of how a team with terrific chemistry and the same core year after year can be extremely successful, but the Grizzlies are convincing evidence as well. It’s tough to be patient in the NBA (especially since executives face a ton of pressure and little job security), but making big changes isn’t always the answer. Many teams feel that they need to add new players or upgrade positions in order to improve, but sometimes additional time and experience together is all a group needs in order to elevate its play.

So far, that’s exactly what the Grizzlies have done. They are currently 15-2, which is the best record in the NBA. They have the fourth-best defense, allowing just 97.8 points per 100 possessions. They also have the eighth-best offense, scoring 106.3 points per 100 possessions. This is a well-rounded team that forces opposing squads to play their grind-it-out, slow-paced style of basketball.

“As long as I’ve been here, that has always been my favorite style of playing basketball,” said Allen, who coined the phrase “Grit and Grind” to describe how the Grizzlies play. “We just keep the game close, we grind it out down the stretch and execute offensively. We try and get the stops when we need them. As far as playing in the mud, I think it’s to our favor when we play like that.”

The Grizzlies have quality wins over teams like the Houston Rockets, Portland Trail Blazers, Los Angeles Clippers and Phoenix Suns among others. However, this upcoming stretch of games is very difficult and will be a great test for Memphis, as they face Houston, San Antonio, Miami and Dallas over their next four games. The Grizzlies are obviously thrilled that they’ve won 14 of 16 games, but are by no means satisfied.

“It says a lot about our focus early on this season,” Conley said. “That’s all we wanted to do, was to come out focused the first couple months of the season and set a good standard for ourselves. Now, we just have to hold ourselves accountable and try to get better.”

This feeling that they haven’t accomplished anything yet and that they still have room to get better comes from head coach Dave Joerger, who is in his second season with Memphis. His hiring was one of the biggest changes that Memphis has made to their on-court product in recent years, when they opted to let Lionel Hollins leave and tapped Joerger to replace him. The move has paid off for Memphis, as they have the best record of any team in the 2014 calendar year and Joerger has his squad playing excellent basketball on both ends of the floor.

Throughout this season, he has been hard on his team, expecting near perfection from the group. Even though they’re the best team in the league, it’s not uncommon to hear Joerger saying that the team could be playing much better and rattling off areas where they could stand to improve.

“We know it’s part of the process,” Joerger said. “It’s a long season and we are in the West. Every possession matters, every game matters and that is what they are coming to an understanding of.”

One thing that Joerger has done since taking over the team is try to improve the Grizzlies’ offense. In Hollins’ last two seasons, Memphis had the NBA’s 20th and 18th ranked offenses. Last year, Memphis climbed to 16th and now they find themselves in the top eight. The Grizzlies are still the slowest-paced team in the NBA, but Joerger has tried to use the team’s defense to start some fastbreaks and create more easy opportunities. He has also spent more time working on offense with his team during practices, although not too much time because he doesn’t want the team’s defense to suffer as a result. Joerger knows that Memphis needs to be elite on offense and defense in order to contend.

“We need to have a high-level offense,” Joerger said. “How you get to that is for behind closed doors. We’re pushing the basketball and getting more looks in transition. Guys are more focused on executing. If you go and spend an hour and a half out of your hour-and-45-minute practice every day on offense, then our defensive end isn’t as aggressive. We have to [keep] our offensive end in the top 10 efficiency wise, while maintaining our defense and our identity.”

That’s exactly what Memphis has done; now, they must continue it for the remainder of the season. Courtney Lee, who was added to the team in January of last season in exchange for Jerryd Bayless, has been a huge contributor on both ends, averaging a career-high 13.3 points while shooting 53.2 percent from the field and 53.2 percent from three-point range (which are also career-highs). He understands that in order for Memphis to reach their full potential, they need to be well-rounded.

“Once you add those two together, [the offense and defense], it’s a deadly combo,” Lee said.

Lee is the kind of role player that Memphis has added over the years to make life easier for their core. This is similar to what the Spurs have done, putting quality pieces like Boris Diaw and Danny Green around their stars Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and now Kawhi Leonard.

The Grizzlies check off all of the boxes for a legitimate NBA contender: dominating defense, elite offense, deep bench, balanced attack, several stars (albeit underrated ones), solid coaching, terrific home-court advantage and the ability to win games in a variety of ways (even if “playing in the mud” is their favorite). This team has been a juggernaut ever since Gasol came back from injury in the second half of last season, and they don’t show any signs of slowing down as long as they stay healthy and together.

Which brings us to Gasol’s upcoming unrestricted free agency. This is the final year of his current contract with the Grizzlies, and while both sides are saying all of the right things and seemingly want to continue their marriage, free agency can be unpredictable. Gasol is Memphis’ most important and irreplaceable player, as evidenced by the team’s struggles when he was sidelined last season, so losing Gasol would be the biggest blow to the Grizzlies’ core and it would set the team back significantly. There will be many executives circling Gasol like vultures this summer because he’s arguably the best center in the NBA these days.

However, Gasol has praised Memphis and it’s where he has lived since he was a teenager, so it seems unlikely he’ll leave, especially since the organization is in such a good place. The team can also offer him more money and a longer contract (five years) than any other suitor since they have his Bird rights. It’s hard to imagine Gasol taking less money and a shorter contract to walk away from the only NBA team and city he has ever known just when Memphis has finally emerged as the NBA’s best team.

All signs point to Gasol and the Grizzlies continuing their marriage, which means their core four could very well be intact once again for the 2015-16 season. And as long as Memphis’ core remains intact, they’ll be in the mix to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy each June.

Davis Can’t Lead Pelicans to Playoffs Alone

After the Washington Wizards’ recent win over the New Orleans Pelicans, John Wall perfectly summed up the Pelicans’ biggest problem.

“I think their coach said when they lost their other game before Atlanta, they were talking about there is no way [Anthony Davis], a player that talented, can only get 12 shots,” Wall said. “They wanted to get him more touches. When you got a guy that is that talented and can get to the free throw line and shoot the ball as well as he does, if he gets 30, and no one else is going and into rhythm, we are pretty fine with that.”

Lately, having “no one else going or in a rhythm” has been a huge issue for New Orleans. Davis has been historically good, ranking near the top of the league in a number of statistical categories by averaging 24.9 points, 11.3 rebounds, three blocks and 2.1 steals while shooting 55.7 percent from the field. His 33.3 efficiency rating is by far the highest in the NBA and he’s dominating on both ends of the court.

However, he hasn’t gotten much help, which is why the Pelicans are currently 7-8 and in the midst of a three-game losing streak.

Eric Gordon is injured, Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans have been inconsistent, and the Pelicans have a huge drop off in talent after their top six players (Davis, Holiday, Evans, Gordon, Omer Asik and Ryan Anderson), as they’re forced to give players like Austin Rivers, Alexis Ajinca, Jimmer Fredette and Luke Babbitt significant minutes. This is not a joke about New Orleans rounding up as many draft busts as possible, this is actually their rotation.

Davis was recently asked about the Pelicans’ offensive issues, on a night when New Orleans’ four starters not named Davis combined to shoot 10-of-42 from the field (23.8 percent).

“I don’t even know,” Davis said. “Some guys are just not making shots. It happens. We cannot let that dictate our defense… The offense was not there. We just have to get back in the lab.”

“As a basketball player, you know that sometimes your shot is just not going to fall,” Holiday said. “Sometimes it carries throughout the whole team. You just have to find a way to fight through it. It’s the NBA. It’s happening to us right now, it’s going to happen to another team down the road. We’re just going to stay together and play defense the same way we have been playing.”

As Wall alluded to, Pelicans head coach Monty Williams has said several times that Davis should be getting 20 to 25 shots per game, but that’s not happening. For some reason, Davis continues to average 17.5 attempts and doesn’t see the ball nearly enough down the stretch. This has to change if the Pelicans want to improve.

They also need more consistent performances from Holiday, Evans and Rivers among others.

“Offensively we have so many guys struggling to hit shots and that kind of stuff happens,” Williams said. “They are frustrated… Anyone would be frustrated. That is part of the NBA and we are not the only team going through that.”

New Orleans will have the chance to end their three-game losing skid on Tuesday at home against the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Most definitely, we gave away a couple games that we could have won,” Davis said. “We just have to find a way to get up out of it. We are playing our hearts out. We just have to find a way to figure out when we have the lead, we have to have solid possessions… We can’t worry about this game or the game yesterday. We have to come out and play and do what we do, defend and get some easy buckets.”

“We’ve been playing good defense, we just have to knock shots down, [score in] transition and make some good moves,” Holiday said. “If they fall then, great.”

“You can’t do anything about that,” Williams said of the losing streak. “The three games are over with. It happens during an NBA season. The biggest thing is that you have to keep your spirit high and understand that you can get out of it by playing hard and sticking together and that is what we do.”

It’s disappointing that the Pelicans haven’t been able to take advantage of Davis’ outstanding contributions and give him the necessary help to put the team in the Western Conference playoff picture. Davis is an extraordinary player, but even he can’t take New Orleans to the next level by himself.

Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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