2016-17 record: 43-39. 7th in the Western Conference. Lost in the first round of the playoffs to the San Antonio Spurs in six games.
Transactions: The Grizzlies lost in the first round to the Spurs in what was – in my view – the best series of the first round from a basketball stand point. They played San Antonio hard in a six game series that included a game four that was maybe my favourite game on the entire 2017 playoffs with a thrilling fourth quarter shoot-out between Mike Conley and Kawhi Leonard that went into a thrilling overtime that saw Memphis gut out a 110-108 victory.
To me it was an instant classic that epitomized everything that there was to love about the Grit N’ Grind Memphis Grizzlies. It wasn’t just the play of Conley and Marc Gasol that lead the way to victory. It was the decision to insert a resurgent Zach Randolph into the line-up and be paid back with some excellent play from Z-Bo. It was Tony Allen playing his lock-down D. It was Vince Carter coming in at 40 years old to hit key three pointers and also show some of that old half-man, half-amazing athleticism in the most exciting first round series of the playoffs.
But the Grizzlies still lost in six games in the first round and were a 7th seed in the West.
Most teams in the current era have to struggle with the same decision in the face of the dominance of the Golden State Warriors and the question of rather simply making the playoffs enough – do they retool for the future or stay the course and hope to stave off regression.
In the Grizzlies’ case, they made the decision to head into a different direction which finally signalled the end of the Grit N’ Grind era. Carter moved on in free agency. The Grindfather, himself, Tony Allen is shockingly gone as well. But the biggest loss of all is Zach Randolph.
The loss of Z-Bo hurts. It’s the reality of the business side of the NBA, but this was a man who came to the organization eight years ago and helped lead a turnaround that took a team that was constantly a bottom feeder in the Western Conference to a team that’s now made the playoffs for seven straight seasons. Randolph went from a much maligned problem child who had gone from the Knicks to the Clippers for a pair of one season stints after starting his career as one of the notorious so-called “Jail Blazers” to a beloved face of an NBA franchise in Memphis.
At 36 years old, it’s understandable why a Grizzlies team at a cross-roads wouldn’t give him a contract, but it still has to hurt the fans, the organization and Z-Bo to part ways.
For the Grizzlies part, they’ve preemptively announced plans to retire Randolph’s number 50 and stated that no other member of the team will wear the number in the interim. A fitting tribute to a player who took turned an also-ran into a contender and underwent a similar personal journey to respectability and widespread acclaim while in Memphis.
So the question then became with the departure of key veterans, what direction would the Grizzlies take?
The signing of Wayne Selden was an indicator of what direction the team would take. The 22 year old is a young and unheralded talent who spent most of last season with the Iowa Energy of the G-League before coming up the NBA via a 10-day contract with the New Orleans Pelicans and then getting acquired by the Grizzlies once that deal expired.
While with Memphis, Selden appeared in 11 regular season games and quickly earned himself a spot in the rotation. He then played key minutes in the Spurs series and won over David Fizdale with his high motor and solid defense. Given his young age and potential, it made a lot of sense to bring him back and see what he can become with a steady role in the rotation and increased minutes.
Selden had an excellent performance at Summer League where he averaged 22.7 points, 3.8 boards and 3.0 assists and was one of the leaders on a Grizzlies squad that went 5-1. If he is able to continue to develop on the offensive end, he will be a major piece of a new look Memphis rotation this coming season.
The Grizzlies also took a flyer on 20 year old Kobi Simmons who declared for the draft after his freshman year in Arizona but went undrafted. Simmons had a pretty underwhelming season as a Wildcat, but was once one of the most highly touted prospects in the United States. Still he has shown ability with his lightning quick speed and athleticism and superior ball handling skills.
Simmons is on a two way deal so will likely find himself spending most of his time with the Memphis Hustle of the G-League (also the best basketball team name ever). There are a lot of raw skills and ability – including a 38.5 inch vertical – that makes this investment well worth it. If Simmons can develop into a rotation player, this signing could turn out to be a major bargain down the road.
After four seasons in Sacramento where he largely failed to capitalize on the hype surrounding him as as highly touted draft pick out of Kansas, Ben McLemore is hoping that a change of scenery can help him ignite his NBA career.
The potential is there for the 7th overall pick in the 2013 Draft to develop into a solid player in Memphis. Despite a career low 19.3 minutes per game last season, his shooting improved to a career best 38.2% from three point range which should be a huge boon to the Grizzlies offense on the wing if he can continue to develop his long-range game. The 24 year old also has all of the athletic tools to make an impact on the back end and should be a fit into the defense-first style of this team.
It can’t be stressed enough that a lot of McLemore’s difficulties thus far in his career likely stem from being on one of the most chaotic franchises in the NBA. Sacramento was a circus with one of the worst front offices in the league and a coaching carousel that alienated their star player – DeMarcus Cousins – so much that he was literally traded for pennies on the dollar while the mindset of the team kept changing from one extreme to another. It’s understandable why a young player wouldn’t be able to reach their full potential in that sort of situation.
Tyreke Evans joins the Grizzlies on a bargain one year, $3.3 million deal. The 27 year old swingman has been limited over the last two seasons due to dealing with knee problems that saw him appear in only 25 games in 2015-16 and 40 games last season. After being dealt to Sacramento as part of the DeMarcus Cousins trade, Evans had a resurgence off the bench hitting 43.8% from three point range and adding 11.6 points in 22.4 minutes per game.
If Evans can continue that sharpshooting for Memphis, he will be a huge to the offense. He can score, facilitate the offense and play multiple positions which provides the team which much needed line-up flexibility. If Evans can stay healthy and continues to come off the bench for the Grizzlies, he could be a sleeper pick for Sixth Man of the Year.
After missing an entire season with a torn Achilles, 31 year old Mario Chalmers is looking to get back into the NBA. If he’s healthy and able to bounce back from one of the worst injuries possible for a basketball player, he can provide the Grizzlies with a quality back-up point guard. If not, he’s on a low risk partially guaranteed contract. Here’s hoping that Rio can rock again.
2017 NBA Draft: The Grizzlies entered the draft without a pick but remedied that by sending the Brooklyn Nets 2019 second rounder to the Orlando Magic for their 35th overall pick which they used to select Ivan Rabb out of California who is a mobile big man that stands at 6’10” with a 7’2” wingspan.
Rabb fell in the draft because of his decision to return to the Golden Bears for a sophomore season rather than declare for the NBA Draft after his freshman year where he was projected as a top ten selection. In his second year, he didn’t make the leap that a lot of NBA scouts were wanting him to and therefore his draft stock took a hit.
He’s an exceptional rebounder and is also very mobile and can run the floor really well. Defensively, he’s able to use wingspan to switch onto opposing guards and defend well on the low post, skills which will quickly endear him to coach David Fizdale and allow him to potentially fill a big need for Memphis off the bench.
Rabb is a very raw prospect and at only 220 pounds needs to add a lot of muscle to his frame. Offensively, he’s still developing and likely won’t bring a lot to the table initially for the Grizzlies due to his the very slow and un-NBA type offense that was used at California. He didn’t get much opportunity to work as a roller or deal with pro level spacing which could open up new possibilities for him if he’s able to adapt quickly.
Memphis also acquired the 45th overall selection in the draft by sending a future second round pick in Houston and used that selection to draft Dillon Brooks out of Oregon who had a great junior year averaging 16 points on 48.8% shooting including 40.4% from three point range on his way to winning PAC 12 player of the year.
Brooks is a skilled aggressive and versatile scorer who can score inside or outside. He’s at his best when he attacks the rim and has shown the ability to play in the post at the college level. He’s a high intensity, high energy player who will compete with everything has any chance that he has to do it which will really help him to develop into the scoring wing that the Grizzlies desperately need.
The 21 year old stands at 6’6” and weight in at 220 but only has a wingspan of 6’6” which limits his ability on the back-end to an extent when matched up with opposing wings. He also doesn’t have the lateral quickness necessary to excel on defense at this point in his career. His incredible drive, however, can help him overcome these deficiencies to an extent as he works really hard on one-on-one D and isn’t the type of player to back down from a challenge.
Brooks should fit right in with the Grizzlies gritty attitude and culture and could turn out to be one of the biggest steals of the second round for Memphis.
Outlook: Mike Conley is one of the best NBA players I have ever seen who has never been selected to an all-star team. He’s an incredible presence on both sides of the ball who is coming off the best season of his career where he put up 20.6 points per game on 46% shooting including 40.8% from three point range and added 6.3 assists, 3.5 boards and 1.3 steals. He also posted a team high player efficiency rating and lead the team in win shares and yet couldn’t crack the all-star team in a loaded Western Conference, which just doesn’t seem fair.
With three Eastern Conference all-stars heading West this season, I don’t see that changing for one of the best point guards in the entire NBA.
Conley’s dilemma kind of personifies where Memphis is at in the loaded West. They have two of the best players in the entire association in Conley and Marc Gasol and yet it probably alone isn’t enough to make the playoffs in the Western Conference.
There are just too many question marks about the Grizzlies supporting cast.
Injuries in particular loom large. McLemore injured his foot in the off-season so his reclamation project will have to wait. The Grizzlies still don’t know what they could have in Mario Chalmers coming off an absolutely devastating Achilles injury at 31 years old. Chandler Parsons was a shell of himself last season due to his recurring knee problems.
Parsons health remains one of the biggest questions marks heading into the season. If he is healthy and can regain his old form, he can become a consistent third option for Memphis and can a lot of pressure off Gasol and Conley with his ability to handle the ball and facilitate and also the constant scoring threat he can be from the wing. Having him back to his old form really could be the difference between Memphis being able to push for the playoffs and falling out of the playoff picture entirely.
If Parsons isn’t back to 100%, James Ennis and rookie Dillon Brooks will be looked to play a bigger role in the rotation. Tyreke Evans could also get some increased time at the wing, but he has similar concerns with the health of his knees and putting him in the starting line-up will take the offensive punch out of the second unit. These are the types of difficult decisions that David Fizdale will be faced with throughout the season.
The Grizzlies will also have to to give bigger roles to young players with the departure of vets like Carter, Z-Bo and Allen. Wayne Selden is going to be a major player in the rotation and will likely start at the 2 spot with McLemore’s injury. 22 year old big man Jarell Martin is an unproven commodity who has spent a lot of time going back and forth between the NBA and the G-League and will likely be looked on to take some of Z-Bo’s second unit minutes. 20 year old Deyonta Davis is also going to get big minutes up front and the opportunity to make a major leap If Mario Chalmers doesn’t work out, it’s going to be 20 year old Andrew Harrison and 21 year old Wayne Baldwin factoring into the guard rotation.
Young players are great and exciting. Untested young talent has the ability to surprise and the hustle and energy they can bring to a game often take opposing teams by surprise. However young players also make mistakes. Sometimes costly mistakes that make the difference between wins and losses. There is a surprising amount of young players on this Grizzlies squad who could be playing major roles on the team with the departure and injuries to some key veterans. They can and in most cases will rise to the occasion, but like all young talent will learn by making mistakes at times.
Of course a major boost could be given to Memphis if they can re-up with JaMychal Green. The 27 year old is currently unsigned and remaining in RFA limbo. He is the obvious successor to Z-Bo at the 4 as he is a tough defender and physical presence upfront but plays a much more modern game with his high flying and ability to stretch the floor with his three point shooting. Re-signing Green would add much more credibility to this team as it relates to the Western Conference playoff picture, but he’s currently on the outside looking in and that is the worst possible place to have him if you’re the Grizzlies.
There is a lot of uncertainty and too many questions about the Grizzlies depth to believe that they are heading back into the playoffs in such a loaded Western Conference. Of course, the Grizzlies have been counted out in almost every year of their seven straight seasons of playoff appearances, so they can surprise.
There’s no doubt that Conley will be brilliant and likely have his best season yet. Marc Gasol will also have a great year as at 32 years old he’s also coming off an incredible season where he averaged a career high 19.5 points per game and added a decent touch from three point range to his arsenal shooting an impressive 36.6% from downtown. He remains an force to be reckoned with on the defensive end of the ball and with the departure of Z-Bo now inherits the face of the franchise role.
The question is for how long. Gasol is turning 33 this season and with so many questions in the Grizzlies rotation, things could go south if injuries pile up and younger untested players are asked to carry and if the decision comes to blow it up, he could be moved. That will be one of the most intriguing story-lines to watch unfold this season.
In a stacked Western Conference and with so much uncertainty in terms in this line-up after some big losses in the off-season, I see Memphis slipping out of the playoff picture. A healthy Parsons and a re-signed Green would go a long way to assuage that belief, but where things stand right now the West is just too loaded to see the Grizzlies in the playoffs at this point.
Watch them go and prove me wrong. I’d gladly take that for data.
Prediction: 38-44. 11th in the Western Conference.