NCAA basketball countdown: No. 33 Memphis

USA TODAY Sports breaks down the projected NCAA tournament field of 68.

      
 

 

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Do the Grind Era Memphis Grizzlies Have an Expiration Date?

For the Memphis Grizzlies, a generation of calm shall come after this offseason’s tumult. Owner Robert Pera found his peace after shaking up the front office almost two years after buying the team. Afterward, he committed to the perfect complementary leaders in basketball operations, a gut-driven scouting eye in Chris Wallace and an analytic mind in John Hollinger.

Moreover, he has at least two long-term players, Marc Gasol and Mike Conley. Neither is a world-beater, but both are top-five at their respective positions and cause problems for opponents on both ends of the floor.

Above all, Pera is learning from experience to be an effective owner in a small market.

Memphis doesn’t have the path toward becoming the San Antonio Spurs, which set the bar for long-term success. That’s a holistic formula that the Grizzlies have yet to learn.

However, one organization’s blueprint for sustenance doesn’t fit all. In six years of Wallace and Hollinger, the Grizzlies have etched out their own, consisting of unequal parts cashing in on underrated draft picks, making risky trades, adding complementary free agents and finding a one-to-one relationship with an NBA D-League team.

Getting in the middle of the title conversation would take time and another major piece, but the Grizzlies will stay good while retaining their “grit ‘n’ grind” identity past Tony Allen’s departure. Rarely can small-market franchises say that about the long run.

 

Making the front office work

The Grizzlies are sticking with a blend of metrics and player study, both of which are needed for successful team building. 

Wallace, who edited and published a yearly college basketball guide before working in the NBA, built the Grind Era with a few questionable moves. He drafted Conley, who was described by Draft Express that year as a “freak” athletically who needed much work as a shooter. 

He pulled off two deals that eventually gave Memphis a wonderful frontcourt marriage. Getting a package including the rights to Gasol in exchange for his older brother, Pau, was unpopular at the time, but, like Conley, the center became a fruitful project.

Zach Randolph forever stands as Wallace’s signature move. Before Wallace threw Quentin Richardson to the Los Angeles Clippers for him, the league had written off the power forward as an inefficient malcontent.

Since Gasol and Randolph totaled three All-Star appearances, they validate the general manager’s ability to win against dim odds on the trade front.

These deals indicate that Wallace can reload the roster if needed with a sharp trade.

Hollinger, whom ESPN.com’s Marc Stein reported will remain the vice president of basketball operations, meshes well with Wallace, bringing information that helps the decision-making process.

His analytic expertise should help drafting. As noted before, Wallace doesn’t have a great draft record, as seen in Conley’s win shares outnumbering the combined total of the other picks.

This year’s draft offered a glimpse of what the Grizzlies will do in the future. As Fox Sports Southwest reporter Rob Fischer tweeted, a group converged in the room:

Indeed, this may result in different people receiving credit for picks. Libertyballers.com’s Michael Levin was among those labeling Jordan Adams a Hollinger pick via Twitter:

These reactions arose because Adams was more attractive as a prospect for his numbers than his athleticism. DraftExpress.com stated Adams was the second-best finisher at the rim in the halfcourt, tops in field-goal percentage among shooting guards and fifth at his position in points per possession.

Chris Herrington of Memphis’ The Commercial Appeal pointed to Hollinger, as well as president of business operations Jason Wexler, as ideal to Pera, saying, “Hollinger and Wexler seem to embody the progressive approach to team-building and management that Pera promised from the beginning.”

Hollinger’s trades, which sustained Memphis both in terms of competition and financial flexibility, redeem this notion. In 2013, the Rudy Gay and Marreese Speights trades saved the Grizzlies from the luxury tax. Roping Tayshaun Prince for Gay helped recharge the offense and made it a bit more efficient. 

Picking up Courtney Lee added a shooter to a roster that badly needed one. He found ideal young backups by acquiring Kosta Koufos and Nick Calathes in low-risk deals.

 

Roster building

The Grizzlies have a couple of more seasons with their current core trio of Randolph, Conley and Gasol, but the long-term focuses on a set including the latter two.

Gasol becomes eligible for an extension on Dec. 12. That will bring the first chance when Memphis can ensure the future with their six-year pro. Pera told The Commercial Appeal (subscription required), “I think re-signing Marc is at the top if not THE top priority for the team.”

Not only do the Grizzlies ensure their identity for the long-term by having two former All-Defensive Team members under 30 but also a game-changing defender leading the way.

Gasol was fifth in defensive rating in 2012-13 and made the Memphis defense one of the best down the stretch in 2013-14 by allowing 101 points per 100 possessions.

Both are disciplined while forcing turnovers. Gasol grabbed a steal per game in four of the past five seasons. Conley, who lowered his defensive rating three straight years before last season, was 20th with a 2.4 percent steals rate in 2013-14 and was fourth at 3.4 percent the year before.

Conley, who has two years left on his contract, has emerged as a veritable scorer at the right time. The 26-year-old averaged 17.2 points per game in a season when Randolph furthered his decline as a shooter, making 46.9 percent from the field.

Also, Conley showed dependability as a lead guard as he put an 11.5 percent turnover rate next to a 24.6 percent usage rate.

The pair shared facilitation duties. Conley had six assists per game last season. Gasol, who averaged 3.9 assists per 36 minutes, distributes the ball from the elbow. 

They form a foundation with their passing and above-average scoring. Since they likely won’t post much more than 32 points per game, maintaining a group of shooters around them will be part of the process in the long run.

 

An owner awakened

The 36-year-old Pera grew tremendously in his second full offseason with the Grizzlies. After Dave Joerger was close to joining the Minnesota Timberwolves, Pera reached out to Joerger. He and Joerger had a heart-to-heart talk that led to a greater understanding, according to Ronald Tillery of The Commercial Appeal (subscription required).

“What’s between Robert and I is like wow,” Joerger said afterward.

Amid the front-office fallout, Pera reached out to John Hollinger to stay, per Geoff Calkins of The Commercial Appeal (subscription required).

Speaking on the SB Nation Drive & Kick podcast, Paul Flannery reports Herrington described Pera as “extremely bright” and well-meaning while adding, “He’s very new to this and it’s showing in sometimes painful and awkward ways. It’s a combination of naivete and confidence.”

Pera, who had been quiet and disengaged before shuffling the basketball operations, decided to become more involved after the shakeup.

After emphasizing the importance of keeping Gasol in the aforementioned article, Pera discussed organizational strategy, saying:

We’re not going to be able to build a championship team by going into free agency and getting superstars (like the Lakers or Heat).

What we’re going to have to do is, we’re going to have to become the best team or one of the best teams in the NBA at player development and developing the pieces and we’re going to have a tight culture that brings out the most in our pieces, our players.

Part of that includes use of their new NBA D-League partner, the Iowa Energy. Partly, that’s committing to developing players the way Gasol and Conley were brought up.

 

Conclusion

Pera’s renaissance came at a time when Grizzlies fans needed reassurance. After being knocked out of the first round of the playoffs for the second time in three years, Memphis might have seemed like a team on the edge with an aging leader in Randolph and a star heading toward a contract year in Gasol.

He recovered from turmoil by leaning on a pair with expertise and experience to work toward the future. Wallace has managed to find the right opportunities to build the team. Hollinger has developed analytics and maintained a forward-looking mentality in management.

They start at this future with two peak-level players, Conley and Gasol, who can ensure success through defensive leadership and facilitation on offense.

The Grizzlies will need to make trades or draft players to transform from a team that will stay good to one that consistently contends for titles. But that will depend on Pera’s vision and, particularly, players Hollinger and Wallace may identify.

 

Unless otherwise noted, advanced metrics come from Basketball-Reference.com.

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5 Players the Memphis Grizzlies Need to Step Up Next Season

The Memphis Grizzlies are looking for reinforcement on the wing after they couldn’t keep up with the Oklahoma City Thunder in the playoffs with a core focused on scoring in the paint. Their main offseason signing, Vince Carter, reinvented himself in recent years doing just that.

The Grizzlies count on him warding off decline in his 16th season. Carter can make good by remaining accurate on the striking number of three-pointers he launches.

The Grizzlies are banking on a sharp year from Quincy Pondexter. They extended him for four years last fall only to see him miss most of the season due to injury.

Likewise, Courtney Lee needs to bounce back after his three-point shooting soured down the stretch last year.

Generally, the Grizzlies need more from the outside because their core players have already reached their peaks. Marc Gasol and Mike Conley won’t score much more than they currently do, and Zach Randolph has tailed off a bit. This slow-paced offense will require sharpshooting from a few players so that Memphis can keep up with high-scoring playoff teams, even while they grind them defensively.

Follow along for breakdowns on how a few Grizzlies players need to raise their games.

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Memphis Grizzlies waive guard Jamaal Franklin

Memphis Grizzlies announce they have waived guard Jamaal Franklin

      
 

 

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Memphis Grizzlies waive guard Jamaal Franklin (Yahoo Sports)

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — The Memphis Grizzlies have waived guard Jamaal Franklin.

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Diagnosing Memphis Grizzlies’ Weak LInk in 2014-15

Behind Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph stands the Memphis Grizzlies‘ biggest potential problem. Kosta Koufos, Jon Leuer and Jarnell Stokes will be fine off the bench, but if given too much responsibility, the Grizzlies’ reserve big men would become troublesome.

Indeed, the Grizzlies have a couple of other sore spots. Tayshaun Prince appears to be one of the least inspiring starting small forwards in the NBA. Three-point shooting causes concern.

However, the Grizzlies have enough depth behind Prince to either minimize his minutes or supplant him in the starting lineup. Subpar three-point shooting and a low volume of threes won’t break the team because they’re among the better performers inside the arc.

The gap between the starters inside and their backups might be their undoing after it set them back last season.

 

Fear of another Gasol injury

After brushing off long-term injuries to Rudy Gay and Randolph in prior seasons, the Grizzlies found that Gasol is the one whose absence they can’t overcome. 

Kosta Koufos was overwhelmed while filling in for Gasol for 23 games. Koufos struggled to hit shots, connecting on 45.9 percent despite taking most of his shots at the rim.

A normally stout defender, Koufos flailed at attacking ball-handlers. He allowed 106 points per 100 possessions, six more than his rating as a reserve.

The Grizzlies suffered tremendously on that end without the 2012-13 Defensive Player of the Year. They allowed 109.5 points per 100 possessions.

Beyond the arc, they allowed 35.6 percent.

Insurance behind a top-10 player in the league is difficult to find, especially if said player does as many things as Gasol does. No center combines passing, mid-range shooting, defense and free-throw shooting as well as the Spaniard.

For that matter, finding a backup center with any combination of Gasol’s qualities is nearly impossible. 

At the moment, Gasol seems to be confident in his knee. He’s playing without his knee brace. He started sharply in the FIBA World Cup with 15 points, 10 rebounds and four assists in the group play opener against Iran.

 

Power forward depth best left untested

The Grizzlies have two decent backups behind Randolph in Leuer and Stokes, but an extended period relying on the two without their veteran power forward could leave them vulnerable. 

Chris Herrington of the Memphis Commercial Appeal (subscription required) noted, “In terms of experience, power forward, behind Randolph, might be the thinnest position.”

Leuer has played 123 games in three seasons, and Stokes is a rookie.

Twenty-five-year-old Leuer is a fantastic scorer when he gets significant minutes. In 18 games with 15 or more minutes last year, he averaged 13.2 points per game. He scored in double figures in 14 of those games. He led a rout of the Detroit Pistons on Jan. 5 with 23 points.

Leuer’s 46.9 percent mark from long range provided a boost.

He also improved tremendously on the defensive boards. He averaged 6.8 rebounds per 36 minutes, 2.2 more than the year before. His 22.8 percent defensive rebounding percentage is a 6.9 percent improvement.

However, that was against second-unit players. Leuer has hardly been tested on the boards against elite starting big men. 

While Leuer scores and rebounds well off the bench, he’s challenged on defense when on the floor for a substantive period. He allowed 103 points per 100 possessions, but 108 in 11 games when playing between 20 and 30 minutes and 120 in two games with more than 30 minutes.

Randolph may need help from Gasol to keep defenders in front of him, but Leuer’s defensive troubles are too great for Gasol to manage.

On the other hand, Stokes can fight on the inside defensively and rebound, but he is questionable on offense. He pulled down 10.5 boards per game in his last season at Tennessee. His 7’1″ wingspan and grit allow him to compete with NBA big men.

DraftExpress.com points out in analyzing situational figures that Stokes is reliant on shots at the rim and lacks shooting touch.

 

Unless otherwise noted, advanced metrics come from basketball-reference.com.

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Memphis welcomes in transfers Johnson, Godfrey

Memphis adds Vanderbilt transfer Kedren Johnson and Calvin Godfrey from Southern

      
 

 

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Early Win-Loss Predictions for Memphis Grizzlies Next Season

The Memphis Grizzlies hold hope they can cash in on a healthy Marc Gasol and better scoring depth to reassert themselves as outside contenders. Then again, as recent Grizzlies history has shown, health is no guarantee.

Rallying after injuries to key players is a recurring theme for this incarnation of the Grizzlies. They’ve endured long-term absences of key players in three of the past four years.

 

Depth

With only a small scoring lift to be expected from the starters, the defense-minded squad turned to the bench for a boost. After retaining Mike Miller became unlikely, they nabbed another outside shooter in Vince Carter who would be more productive despite not being a high-ranking three-point shooter like Miller.

Carter averaged 11.9 points in 24.4 minutes per game while hitting 39.4 percent from downtown. That’s 4.5 more points per game than their leading 2013-14 bench scorer, James Johnson.

Since Carter takes 45.7 percent of his shots from long range, the Grizzlies don’t lose spacing with the departure of Miller.

Another bonus of adding Carter is he can eat more minutes from Tayshaun Prince, who had career-worst numbers in his 12th season. Carter, along with a healthy Quincy Pondexter, ensures Dave Joerger can focus more minutes on productive players at the 3 spot.

The Grizzlies have an array of three-point shooters on the bench. Besides Carter, Pondexter, Beno Udrih and Jon Leuer are capable marksmen. If Pondexter can make close to the 39.5 percent from 2012-13, his last full season, he should keep a place in the rotation.

Leuer hit 46.9 percent of his threes last season and Udrih has made 35.6 percent for his career.

By re-signing Udrih and guaranteeing Nick Calathes‘ 2014-15 contract, Memphis commits to depth behind Mike Conley

Calathes came through when Conley went down last season. He averaged 14.7 points per game and allowed 99 points per 100 possessions in seven contests. Also, he demonstrated confidence as a ball-handler, averaging 2.9 turnovers per game.

Udrih scored in double figures three times in the playoffs.

He’ll start the season as the backup point guard since Calathes will miss the first 13 games while serving the rest of his suspension for violating the NBA‘s substance abuse policy.

Even though Ed Davis departed, Jon Leuer isn’t guaranteed to rise in the depth chart. Drafting Jarnell Stokes effectively replaced Davis, as the four-year pro fell out of the rotation in the second half. Stokes possesses the inside toughness Davis lacked.

Joerger platooned reserve big men, choosing Leuer when he needed shooting and Davis when the matchup called for a presence on the boards. 

Joerger explained it in February by saying, “The fact is that Marc and Zach [Randolph] are going to play 36-40 minutes a game. After that, it’s just a matter of what flavor are you looking for?”

In his second year, the coach will continue that rotational strategy.

 

Keeping up the frontcourt

After locking up Randolph, they’ll make the best of his remaining abilities. Randolph had a second straight full season shooting a bit below his career average, hitting 46.7 percent last season. Still, he pushes himself to produce as he averaged 17.4 points and 10.1 rebounds per game.

Gasol and Randolph form one of the best frontcourt duos. Possessing resilience as a below-the-rim player, Randolph is a constant double-double threat. Gasol funnels the offense into the post, leads the defense and knocks down mid-range shots.

As long as Gasol is with him, Randolph’s defense isn’t a problem. He allowed 105 points per 100 possessions for the season, but 103 after Gasol returned from injury.

Overall, Gasol is the biggest game-changer for the team’s defense. According to the Washington Post, their work on that end was almost unparalleled with him back. 

His full-season presence will solidify the supremacy of the “grit ‘n’ grind.”

 

Conclusion

The Grizzlies won’t use their health to vault high in the Western Conference standings. The playoff series loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder served as a reality check to the team as it struggled to keep up with Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant in the last two games.

Memphis adjusted on the edges by signing Carter. Getting Pondexter and Gasol at full strength helps a bit. The Grizzlies can expect Conley to score a little more as he continues in his primacy as a leading shot-taker.

One can hardly guess the impact of their perennial second-half surge. As the Western Conference remains intensely competitive, it might not allow them to pass many teams.

The Grizzlies find themselves stuck in the middle of the conference playoff contenders. As The Commercial Appeal’s Chris Herrington said (subscription required), they can be pegged as “a second-tier contender.”

While the Grizzlies’ core can’t become much more than what it is, the top tier calcifies with the San Antonio SpursKawhi Leonard evolving, the primacy of Westbrook and Durant and the Los Angeles Clippers growing under Doc Rivers.

With that, Memphis will battle for a homecourt playoff spot with the Portland Trail Blazers.

 

Prediction: 54-28 (5th in Western Conference)

Unless otherwise noted, advanced metrics come from basketball-reference.com.

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Are Memphis Grizzlies’ Dark-Horse Days Done Heading into 2014-15?

The Memphis Grizzlies have had a fairly busy summer, at least if you count front-office maneuverings. 

Interim general manager Chris Wallace was signed to a new multiyear deal, and Ed Stefanski was added as the club’s new executive vice president of player personnel. Per Yahoo Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowksi, the latter recently, “worked under former Toronto Raptors GM Bryan Colangelo as the executive VP of basketball operations.”

Wise moves, perhaps, but hardly the kind of forward progress that assures the franchise an immediate upgrade in the roster department.

Those developments were more muted.

Memphis’ biggest summer acquisition was former Dallas Mavericks sixth man Vince Carter, who was signed to a deal reportedly worth three years and $12.2 million. Adding Carter certainly goes at least some way toward addressing the club’s need for scoring, particularly on the perimeter.

“What he brings to the table is what we need. He’s a good shooter, he’s a good playmaker and he’ll be a good leader in our locker room,” said Grizzlies head coach Dave Joerger, per Grizzlies.com’s Bennett Hipp. “He is a top-five pick-and-roll player in the NBA. He is still very athletic. He still makes open shots. We want to play him in a role where we give him the ball and let him do his thing.”

Indeed, that leadership factor may be every bit as valuable as Carter’s still-respectable on-court production.

Per Hipp, Wallace added, “Vince’s value to us is more than just making baskets and what he does in the box score. He’s a tremendous leader.”

For his part, Carter averaged 11.9 points in just 24.4 minutes per contest last season. The 37-year-old could even improve upon those numbers given the Grizzlies desperate need for help on the wing.

But leadership and complementary scoring may not be enough to get Memphis over what’s become an increasingly sizable hump in the ever-crowded Western Conference.

Optimists will argue that Carter isn’t alone. Memphis also selected sweet-shooting guard Jordan Adams with the 22nd overall pick in this summer’s draft. 

But while the UCLA product is certainly another step in the right direction, you can’t help but feel this franchise is in need of a radical overhaul. It fundamentally remains the same team that’s faltered in each of its last four postseason appearances.

Two of those playoffs exits—in 2012 and 2014—came in the first round.

The club’s most successful run (in 2013) included a five-game semifinals series win against an Oklahoma City Thunder team missing its second-best player, Russell Westbrook. The Grizzlies were subsequently swept by the San Antonio Spurs in the conference finals.

Despite repeatedly earning the label of “dark-horse contenders,” the Grizzlies have at no point amounted to more than a frisky, second-tier team.

It’s telling that the three teams to oust Memphis from the playoffs during the last four seasons were San Antonio, Oklahoma City and—most recently—the Los Angeles Clippers. If you had to pick three Western Conference teams with the best chances of making it to the NBA Finals this season, those would probably be the three.

The gap between those teams and Memphis has hardly narrowed.

To be sure, the Grizzlies continue to boast an absolutely formidable defense, limiting teams to just 94.6 points per game (third-best league-wide) and slowing games down to the lowest pace in the Association last season.

But that highly touted defense may be less dominant than it seems at first glance. Several teams yielded superior defensive efficiency a season ago, including both the Spurs and the Thunder. Memphis was tied with the Clippers for the seventh-best mark in the league.

To be fair, that defense could have been even better had Gasol played the entire season.

As USA Today‘s Jeffrey Martin noted in January:

The Grizzlies’ defense suffered during the nearly two months Gasol, the reigning defensive player of the year, missed with a sprained medial collateral ligament in his left knee. When Gasol returned to action Jan. 14 in a 90-87 victory against Oklahoma City, Memphis’ defensive rating was 107, seven games later, it was 103.

More importantly, however, Memphis’ offensive efficiency lagged at just 103.3 points per 100 possessions. That was in large part due to the team ranking dead last with just 14 three-point attempts per game. And when the Grizzlies did take three-pointers, they made just 35.3 percent of them—which tied the Milwaukee Bucks and Orlando Magic for 19th place in the NBA.

In the modern NBA, such an underdeveloped perimeter game won’t cut it.

Carter and Adams will do their parts to an extent, but they’re unlikely to change a game plan that prioritizes interior touches. Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph will together make over $32 million this season, and they’ll continue getting plenty of opportunities to score in the paint.

Randolph’s 24.6 usage rate ranked fifth among power forwards last season. Gasol ranked 11th among centers using 21.2 possessions per 40 minutes. 

Put simply, an inside-outside approach is a huge part of the club’s identity. Whether it’s a formula that can survive in a heavily contested Western Conference is another matter altogether.

Lacking credible outside shooting, Memphis struggles when opposing defenders invariably opt to collapse on the Grizzlies bigs and harass them into less-than-ideal possessions. Randolph—who admittedly does much of his damage from the mid-range—was held to a subpar .404 field-goal percentage through six playoff games in 2014. Gasol made a career-low 47.3 percent of his field-goal attempts during the regular season.

The Grizzlies are overdue for a new, more diversified approach. Unfortunately, they’ve done little to secure the kind of personnel needed for such an approach. 

Instead, the organization handed Randolph a lucrative two-year extension this summer, all but assuring that the near-future resembles recent history—all but closing a title window that may never have been all that open.

For a small-market franchise, there’s certainly an argument to be made that Memphis should be proud of what it’s accomplished thus far.

But for a team that perpetually threatens to capitalize on its 2011 emergence as an upset-capable dark-horse contender, moral victories are of little consolation.

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Vols announce addition of Memphis transfer Woodson

Vols announce addition of Memphis transfer Woodson, whose status for 2014-15 remains uncertain

      
 

 

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