2010-11 Forecast: Memphis Grizzlies

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2009-10 Recap

It says something about the Grizzlies' recent history that last season's 40-42 mark is considered a success. Unfortunately, the on-court success masked an ongoing problem that is only becoming more severe: This is one of the league's worst-managed franchises.

The season kicked off with a typical Grizzlies debacle, as they inexplicably signed Allen Iverson despite already having starters at both guard positions and no need whatsoever for yet another ball-dominating scorer (more on that in a minute). Memphis started 1-8, The Answer turned into The Cancer when he had the temerity to complain about minutes after his first game, and faster than you could say "Pau for Kwame," it sent Iverson packing.

This decision, like many during the past two seasons, was a call made by owner Michael Heisley rather than his basketball people. Heisley thinks he knows the game well enough to make most of the decisions and has basically emasculated his basketball staff -- as he was more than happy to indicate in a train wreck of an interview with a local radio station this offseason.

He also mentioned as a casual aside that he often consulted with former Grizzlies and Lakers GM Jerry West to form his decisions. I'm not sure who should be more insulted by that statement -- the Grizzlies' current front office or West.

Thus, the "one step forward, two steps back" nature of Memphis' NBA existence continues. The Grizzlies owned the league's worst bench thanks to various talent-wasting schemes of seasons past, including the botched selection of Hasheem Thabeet by Heisley with the second overall pick in the 2009 draft. Unexpectedly, Memphis stayed in the Western Conference playoff race thanks to the rapid development of Marc Gasol and an All-Star season from offseason addition Zach Randolph.

Heisley defenders will point out that the Randolph decision worked out, at least last season. The troubled forward went the entire season without his name turning up in the police blotter -- that would have to wait until summer, as it turned out -- and filled two glaring needs as a power forward and a go-to low-post scorer.

Lowest Pct. of Assisted FGs, 2009-10

However, Randolph (and Iverson) also exacerbated a team-wide problem: Nobody on this team could pass. Or at least nobody seemed terribly interested in the concept. The Grizzlies assisted on only 47.9 percent of their made baskets last season, which was by far the lowest rate in basketball (see chart) and a big reason their offense was merely average. Randolph wasn't the worst offender, actually. Small forward Rudy Gay and sixth-man-by-default Sam Young were even worse, averaging less than two assists per 40 minutes despite constant gunning.

Memphis, in fact, wasn't a good offensive team at all until a shot went up. The Grizzlies placed just 22nd in "first shot" offensive efficiency, but led the NBA in offensive rebound rate (see chart). This, again, was where Randolph paid huge dividends. He was one of the best offensive rebounders at his position -- as were rookies Young and DeMarre Carroll. Those extra possessions, and the easy put-backs from them, helped the Grizzlies offset all the contested heaves they took otherwise.

Top Offensive Rebound Rate, 2009-10

Thanks to those second shots, the Grizzlies won enough to provide the first genuine bursts of hope in Memphis in some time. The young core of Gay, Mayo and Gasol is a solid foundation, while Randolph is 29 but has a huge expiring contract that could potentially be parlayed into more assets.

However, two weaknesses stand out. First, they didn't defend. A lot of young teams have this problem, but in Memphis it seems more ingrained. Both Gasol and Randolph are big, plodding post players whose limitations make it difficult for the Grizzlies to stuff opposing pick-and-roll plays. Instead, Memphis would rotate to cover them and leave the wings open -- only two teams allowed a higher rate of 3-point attempts per field goal attempt. It also didn't compete with particular zeal in any other phase of defense.

Again, the bench didn't help. However, the Grizzlies were actually fortunate in this regard -- until Gasol missed 13 of the final 15 games, their top six players missed only six games, allowing Memphis to paper over the horrors that awaited deeper on the pine. It's no accident that Memphis, 35-32 at the time, went 5-10 in that final stretch without Gasol. We'll point out for posterity that Ronnie Brewer, acquired at the trade deadline to address the bench woes, played only five games before tearing a hamstring and missing the rest of the season.

In summary, the roster story for 2010-11 doesn't seem radically different than it was a year ago -- a very competent starting five backed up mostly by air.

Offseason Moves

It was another baffling offseason for the Heisley Express, as the Grizzlies made personnel decisions with no rhyme or reason while general manager Chris Wallace and coach Lionel Hollins searched for hard objects to bang their heads against. Let's review:

Did not extend qualifying offer to Ronnie Brewer, signed Tony Allen for three years, $9.7 million
Memphis gave up a lottery-protected first-round pick to Utah at last season's trade deadline to secure Brewer's rights, so one presumed the Grizzlies intended to keep him as a restricted free agent. Instead, he became a five-game rental when Heisley inexplicably decided not to make him a qualifying offer -- just as he'd done a year earlier with Hakim Warrick.

It appears Heisley doesn't understand the mechanics of a qualifying offer. Even if the Grizzlies had decided they didn't want Brewer, qualifying him was good business. With the threat of matching an offer sheet lingering, Memphis could have sign-and-traded him and received assets in return. Instead, Brewer is gone for nothing, and so is the first-round pick.

Signing Allen, on the other hand, was a solid move that should help upgrade the Grizzlies defensively. While he shares his new teammates' weakness for one-on-one offensive play, one hopes his defensive intensity will rub off on the likes of Gay.

Signed Rudy Gay to five-year, $81.6 million deal
In another episode of bad poker, Memphis jumped the gun and awarded Gay, a restricted free agent, a huge contract before anyone presented an offer sheet for them to match. What makes this deal particularly worrisome is that (A) the Grizzlies are a small-market team that has had to keep costs down, and (B) they're paying All-Star money for a player who isn't an All-Star. Inevitably, this is going to cost them down the road when they have to pare down payroll in other areas. The question isn't if, it's when.

Drafted Xavier Henry and Greivis Vasquez
These were solid picks, but the comedy didn't start until Heisley decided he'd negotiate the contracts and offer his rookies 20 percent less than the maximum stipulated in the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA). Teams normally offer the extra 20 percent as a matter of course, usually with some mild conditions -- say, showing up for offseason conditioning work.

Heisley admitted in a radio interview that he had just found out about the rule this past summer, offering a shocking insight into the naivete of an NBA owner. Armed with his new knowledge, he offered Henry conditions based on meeting a minutes-played threshold and making the All-Rookie team. Similarly harsh conditions were attached to Vasquez's deal. Heisley eventually relented, reportedly after a talking-to from the league, saving us from the first contract holdouts since the league's CBA implemented the current salary scale a decade ago.

Sold draft pick No. 25 to Dallas
It's hard for local fans to get excited about a franchise that so willingly sells off useful assets. The irony of Heisley making so many personnel decisions is that fans still don't think he's really trying to win because he cuts corners with moves like this. Or perhaps this was done to make fans feel better about trading a future first-round pick for five games of Ronnie Brewer -- they just would have sold it anyway.

Signed Acie Law for one year, veteran's minimum
I haven't completely given up on Law. He has decent size and quickness but lost all confidence in his jumper as a Hawk. If he gets his shot back, he might prove useful. Although one wishes the Griz would invest a bit more in the open sore that is their backup point guard position.

Biggest Strength: Frontcourt scoring

When the Grizzlies win, it's usually because opponents can't deal with the size and skill combination offered by Gasol and Randolph. It's rare for NBA teams to have a big man who can reliably score in the post but also has the touch to splash down 17-footers. Memphis is blessed with two such players.

Randolph, for all his shortcomings, is an absolute beast on the low block. He has the size to get deep position, a sweet high-arcing shot and good hands and footwork. When he fails it's usually because he's his own worst enemy -- he'll force the action against double-teams. However, he provides an added threat when another teammate shoots, as his wide base and soft hands make him one of the game's most potent offensive rebounders.

Gasol is the yin to Randolph's yang, a 7-footer who relies more on touch than power and ably plays the high post while Randolph goes to the block. Gasol is the team's only good passer, and his preference for posting up on the left block pairs nicely with Randolph's residence on the right side. Gasol remains underutilized too, as he shoots a much higher percentage than his teammates.

Biggest Weakness: Point guard

One is tempted to say "the bench," but if Henry and Vasquez sign contracts and Thabeet shows improvement, it won't be the eyesore it was a year ago. Allen provides a reliable wing to back up Gay and Mayo, Darrell Arthur should be ready to contribute after missing most of last season, and Sam Young will be another year older and wiser.

But the point guard situation? Yeesh. One reason the Grizzlies have such pathetic assist numbers is that Mike Conley creates very little for teammates. While this is partially by design -- no point guard is asked to stand in the corner more than this one -- Conley also has done remarkably little to reassure Grizzlies fans of the considerable faith that's been put in him for the past three seasons.

It's not like they can replace him, either. The only other credible point guard on the roster is Law, who failed miserably in Atlanta. The Grizzlies sometimes talk about having Mayo play the point, but he can't get to the rim even against shooting guards and has poor passing numbers. Vasquez is another possibility, theoretically, but he's way too slow to defend the position.

Sum it up and if Conley stays healthy all year, the Griz rate merely below average at the point … but if he misses any time, this will be a full-blown disaster.


The temptation is to view last season's improvement as a sign that the Grizzlies are on the rise. Based on a more critical view, however, it's obvious they benefited heavily from two events that are unlikely to repeat: (1) an insanely good run of health from the only six players that were any good, and (2) a career year from Randolph.

The upside is that there are some positive trends in the making. The team's relative youth is a good sign going forward, and it should improve defensively with experience. Additionally, the bench is likely to be much better, especially if Vasquez and Henry sign contracts. If so, the impact of any injuries to the starters will be less than it would have been a year ago.

Nevertheless, there are too many weaknesses to project a playoff berth -- starting at the top, where Heisley's meddling has squandered countless assets already. Grizzlies fans can only wait in horror for his next bungle, while hoping to tread water at the not-half-bad level they achieved last season.

By mid-April, I'm sure the Grizzlies will note with pride that they were good enough to make the playoffs in the East for a second straight season. Unfortunately, that isn't where they play.

Prediction: 36-46, 5th in Southwest Division, 11th in Western Conference