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Is there anything that has panned out better for this franchise than the development of Marc Gasol? Let us be real here, he came over to the Memphis Grizzlies in the infamous (now famous) trade of his brother, Pau, as an afterthought clouded by the fact that the greatest NBA resume heading east of the Mississippi River in the deal was that of Kwame Brown. Nowadays, there are plenty of people thinking about the Grizzlies’ big man, who was named Defensive Player of the Year, Second team All-NBA, and carried-in-part this Grizzlies team to the Western Conference Finals for the first time in franchise history.

Over at Grantland, they ran a piece called “My Brother’s Keeper: The Sad Fate of Marc Gasol” just over a week ago, and it is a smooth read in which the writer, Carles, showers the fifth-year big man in a whole lot of love. If you have not yet given it a look, it’s worth the investment, but be forewarned that as the title implies, the rest of his Grizzlies outlook is three shades of bleak on the brightest of days. It does ring true that there is a great degree of incertitude enshrouding the near future for this incarnation of the Grizzlies, which is plenty reason for worry in the Bluff City. However, Carles’s argument rests upon more than just that; to which I put on my Grizzly blue glasses and shout “au contraire!”

Carles’s opinion of the implications of the Western Conference Finals on what lies ahead for Mike Conley’s body of work with the Grizzlies stands as a grand illustration of the ways that he and I see in different colors. He states,

“At the beginning of the Grizzlies-Spurs series, there was talk of Conley playing Tony Parker to a draw. As the series evolved, it became clear that Parker was still on a different level than Conley, a middle-of-the-pack point guard. This should be a troubling revelation for Marc Gasol, but that’s what happens when you are finally the best player on your team. You can see all of your teammates’ ceilings from above, while still ascending toward your own.”

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Now this is definitely a troubling point for Gasol if true, but to say that Mike Conley is not still ascending in his own right is an exhaustive stretch to make. If anything, their respective ages insinuate that the 28-year-old Gasol will reach his peak awfully soon, while the 25-year-old Conley has some more time to extend his roots a bit farther. Conley had his hands-down best NBA season yet in 2012-13, and for arguably the first time in his career, he generated national accolade for his performance — on both sides of the ball.  He’s a fluid, ambidextrous genuine point guard with few, if any, apparent holes in his game. His proficiency running the show shines through in his control over the tempo, he was named second team All-Defense for the havoc he creates in the passing lanes, and he exceeded 20 points scoring a total of 23 times in 2012-13 between the regular season and playoffs. Carles, himself, even references this Grantland article highlighting the developing brilliance of Conley’s play at the helm, and a quick Google search (a “something search” as my fellow Arrested Development aficionados may know it) can find you countless others that follow in the same vein.

The part of Carles’s assessment of Conley that I would rather hone in on though is the Tony Parker aspect. Yes, Parker dominated the Grizzlies in the four game set, but does that suffice to render Conley back to the middle of the pack? Not sure. If anything, it is more indicative of the way that the Spurs offensive attack shredded the Grizzlies’ defense. They ran Parker off screen after screen after screen, effectively dishing out a beating on Conley’s legs from the chase and body from the bumping. Part of me has always believed that the best way to slow a guy down on offense is to make him work his behind off on the other end of the floor, which is exactly how the Spurs took Conley out of his element. The use of the argument that Parker ran ruff-shod over the Grizzlies to deconstruct Conley back to being a middle-of-the-pack guard warrants even less merit when juxtaposed with the way that he took it to Chris Paul in the first round. Is that a forgotten fact, or are we saying that Paul is not on Parker’s level?

I am not trying to say that he is or will be perfect — Conley definitely has some work to do. His shooting percentages in the playoffs indicate a need for improvement in the realm of consistency shooting the ball, but what reason do we have to believe that he will not come back next year even better? Having grown through the course of his career with the need to feed the very hungry offensive mouths of Rudy Gay, OJ Mayo, and Zach Randolph — not to mention the lesser hungry, but arguably more deserving Gasol — there was hardly a time in which he was called upon to be the aggressor in putting the ball in the basket. The low percentages seem to be an aberration that we can chalk up to growing pains adapting to new responsibilities on the biggest stage.

Moving on from Conley, the notion that post-centric teams cannot succeed in today’s NBA rises as the next point of contention. Carles is far from alone in this belief, but he states that,

“Centers are no longer the centerpiece of the NBA’s championship contenders. They remain a significant classification, but as the Miami Heat have proven, they can be rendered obsolete with proper offensive and defensive scheming.”

Of course, I have the revisionist’s benefit here of writing more than a week later than his publication, and having seen the Indiana Pacers take the Miami Heat to seven games behind the evolving giant that is Roy Hibbert, but can we truthfully say that centers-as-centerpieces have gone extinct? Gasol is the centerpiece of the Grizzlies and Hibbert the cornerstone of the Pacers’ attack — two out of the four conference finalists of this season. I would have a hard time saying with a straight face that there would not be more teams that are reliant on post driven attacks if there were more serviceable centers available to the league.

Credit: Nelson Chenault/USA TODAY Sports

When, if ever then, would be the right time for Gasol and Hibbert-types to serve as the top dogs, so to speak, of an NBA roster? I am not saying that I feel this way, but I can see an argument that they would not possess the potential to be as dominant in an era such as the ’90s that featured many true greats at the center position. If anything, now, when the tradition of post play is weakened around the league, seems like the perfect time for teams like Memphis to pounce on the opportunity.

Think about it, if the league is gravitating towards small-ball lineups and a “shoot ‘em out” style, you cannot expect that you will beat those Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder types at their own game. And I don’t think that the answer is to throw your hands up and concede to try and build the way that they do. When you don’t have the license to spend in the front office, the bright lights of the big city, or in Oklahoma City’s case a Kevin Durant to attract the type of players that everybody wants, you need to be crafty and find your own way to tread water. As a small market team, it pays to play the contrarian.

This is a copycat league.  It was the Phoenix Suns that paved the way for today’s incarnation of breakneck basketball and stretch four lineups with Mike D’antoni and their seven seconds or less offense. They won a lot of games, made a lot of headlines, and inspired the Marc Iavaroni-era of Grizzlies basketball. Conley was supposed to be the “Ferrari” that drove the team to its glory, Gay the Shawn Marion uber-athlete hybrid forward, and so on. But Conley was not Nash and Gay was no Marion. Other teams in the league were catching on as well and could run and space the floor more effectively with their personnel than the Grizzlies could with the weapons at their disposal. Iavaroni flopped in Memphis, and Lionel Hollins was hired with the directive from then-owner Michael Heisley to model his team in the shadow of the Detroit Pistons, who would suffocate the opponent defensively, grind out games, and score less than your local 13 year old rec league; something most other teams stopped trying to do years ago. This sounds like quite the motion to the contrary.

It is this very identity that the new regime in the front office management must now wrestle with weighing the costs and benefits of, as highlighted by Carles’s next excerpt:

“In the Western Conference finals, the Grizzlies were exposed by the Spurs, a veteran team that has had to assume an amorphous identity to avoid playoff matchup problems. The Spurs preyed upon the Grizzlies’ flawed twin towers model”

I fear that he may be onto something here, but not because of flaws in the “twin towers” ideology. He follows this comment with the spot on assessment that, “[o]ther than Gasol, it felt as if the Spurs were playing against an aggregation of one-dimensional role players.” There is hardly much resistance from me on that statement, as outside of the emerging Quincy Pondexter, there is very little to get excited about looking ahead at the wing positions. Tony Allen and Tayshaun Prince are as good as they are going to get, are on the wrong side of the big 3-0, and even on their best days, do little to convince opposing defenses not to crowd the paint on Gasol and Randolph. Carles’s astute profession of the Spurs’ “amorphous identity” is highly indicative of what will be the next step for the Grizzlies as an organization to take. They must find a way to add and develop personnel that complements the team’s core competencies, but can also effectively deviate from the preferred methods of attack when “plan A” collapses. The aforementioned Pondexter displayed an ability to do just this, but appeared to be the only Grizzly ready and willing to seize the provided opportunities to do so against the Spurs.

Carles argues further in assessing the prospects of the Grizzlies that it is essential in today’s NBA to have an athletic rim protector to combat small-ball attackers, which I agree with to some extent, but to much lesser one than the necessity for versatility. I do not think that the absence of above the rim defensive ability in a Gasol and Randolph tandem concedes them incapable of succeeding in protecting the basket. I was initially tempted to respond to this with the good old “they did make it to the Western Conference Finals” quip, but that type of argument holds water about as well as a brown paper bag, so I decided to instead consult team statistics to assist in the matter. Lo and behold, the Grizzlies fared pretty favorably, relinquishing just 38.5 points in the paint to the opposition on a per game basis — good for a ranking of fourth stingiest in the league {1}. Of course, per-game statistics like these can be skewed by the tortoise pace that the Grizzlies exhibit, so I investigated further by dividing by pace numbers courtesy of ESPN, and displayed the results in the table below {2}. For simplicity sake, I only included the top 10 ranking teams in the league.

Opponent Points in Paint

Credit: Steve Danziger/3 Shades of Blue

Looking at the pace-adjusted numbers, we see the Grizzlies drop in rank from fourth in the league to eighth. While this is in fact a drop off from their second-in-the-league defensive efficiency, falling within the top ten in this measure is hardly a death sentence {3}. Of course there are various other factors to be considered, but in a raw picture of paint protection they could be a lot worse off than eighth-ranked. What is of greater intrigue here is the fact that renowned rim protectors such as Joakim Noah, Dwight Howard, and Larry Sanders all saw their teams scattered outside of the top ten in this measure, with the Chicago Bulls, Los Angeles Lakers, and Milwaukee Bucks positioned at 13th, 20th, and 29th, respectively. This is beginning to shape into a discussion for another day, though.

Credit: John Raoux/AP Photo

Regardless, the Grizzlies do have their athletic big waiting in the wings, by the name of Ed Davis, who has shown an ability to block and alter shot attempts around the basket like a madman with his combination of length and athletic prowess. The writing may be on the wall for a future Randolph departure, but for the rest of his Grizzly tenure, I foresee he and Gasol to continue on as a dominant tandem in spite of their collective deficiency in the foot speed department, so long as they maintain their ability to punish the opposition for going small on the other end of the court.

With the league gravitating towards gravity-defiant play and long bombs away, the Grizzlies’ best bet at this point is to keep the core of their game grounded in their slobber-knocker ways. The new front office faces some major decisions this summer, and will have to do its diligence to diversify the roster if this team is to take another step forward, but its holes will not sink the ship if filled properly. It is not implausible that the new brass can plug them up right and maintain a proper balance of continuity and correction.

There is plenty of reason to for the fans — and Marc Gasol — to remain aboard for the long haul.

 

Footnotes:

{1} http://www.teamrankings.com/nba/stat/opponent-points-in-paint-per-game

{2} http://espn.go.com/nba/hollinger/teamstats/_/sort/paceFactor

{3} http://espn.go.com/nba/hollinger/teamstats/_/sort/defensiveEff

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