Grizzlies preview: Memphis is sole bruising team in whiplash West

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-US PRESSWIRE

The Grizzlies appear healthier heading into the 2012-13 season. But do they have enough to crack the West elite, or are they to be relegated to the second tier?

There are the Memphis Grizzlies that beat the No. 1 Spurs in 2011, took the Thunder to seven deep games just two years ago, have one of the most talented and productive frontcourts in the game and landed the No. 4 seed last season despite Zach Randolph missing two-thirds of the season. There are also the Memphis Grizzlies that got beat by a Clippers team allergic to defense despite home court advantage last year and despite having Z-Bo back for about six weeks going in; a team that didn't do much (if anything) to improve from that status in the offseason.

Who are the Memphis Grizzlies?

FEATS OF STRENGTH

The Grizzlies handled business primarily on defense last season, finishing No. 7 in the league and No. 1 in the Western Conference. Offense was a much tougher gig, and missing Z-Bo for so long surely mattered. Memphis was No. 19 in the league in offense, and No. 12 of 15 in the West. But Z-Bo wasn't too much of the equation, because he was healthy in 2010-11 and the numbers were similar: Memphis was near the top of the league in defense, and mid-pack on offense. So this is the Memphis Grizzlies: an Eastern-style team playing in the West. No wonder no one ever ever ever wants to face them in the playoffs.

One thing to note about the team's recent offensive history: in '10-11, Memphis missed Rudy Gay for a substantial stretch, and of course the Grizz were without Randolph for much of the '11-12 season. Those are Memphis' two best scorers. (Note that I said "scorers" and not "offensive players": Marc Gasol's impact on that end remains underrated.) Now that the team has lost O.J. Mayo and just missed out on acquiring Ray Allen, those two scorers become even more important. To keep up with a highly efficient West elite led by the Thunder, Lakers, Spurs and Clippers (with the Nuggets and Jazz not far behind), the Grizz are going to need to have spells where they score much more efficiently than middle of the pack.

An issue some teams have is that their best defenders are their worst offensive players. Tony Allen, Memphis' stopper, fits that definition. But Lionel Hollins has been able to find a balance that doesn't rely on Allen too much. In fact, at times you'll see Twitter imploring Hollins to re-insert Allen in the fourth quarter of a tight game. But the coach grasps the trade-off, and unlike many other coaches, is OK sacrificing some measure of defense -- and trust me, [Mayo - Allen] is a big ol' sacrifice defensively -- for a boost to the team's average offense. Hollins understands his team and its needs.

AIRING OF GRIEVANCES

Keep in mind that Memphis is one of two teams (with the Jazz) that has essentially abandoned the three-point revolution. Utah, however, is a highly efficient offensive team, thanks to a dearth of turnovers and power moves galore by Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap (which lead to high two-point conversion). Memphis' offensive calling card is offensive rebounding, but that doesn't come close to making up for overall efficiency issues. The fact that the Grizzlies don't convert two-pointers at a particularly high rate is a problem.

The Grizzlies also remain light up front. Marreese Speights put together a nice season, and Darrell Arthur will in theory be back fairly soon. (Poor Darrell Arthur. He missed all of last season with a preseason injury, then broke his leg days before training camp this year.) But that's about it in terms of players Hollins will actually trust. We know Memphis can survive being short-handed, with '11-12 as our witness. But it's not optimal, and could be a problem against these big rivals in the postseason. Consider how deep the frontcourt of Denver, Utah and of course the Lakers are.

FESTIVUS MIRACLES

It will be miraculous if ...

There isn't a storyline that could totally be based on Zach Randolph on this season of Boardwalk Empire.

Tony Allen renounces the spontaneous exclamation mark.

O.J. Mayo doesn't try to score 40 on Tony Allen this season.

Tony Allen doesn't stop O.J. Mayo from scoring 10 this season.

Hamed Haddadi doesn't skip the visit with President Mitt Romney when the Grizzlies win the championship.

The Memphis Grizzlies aren't a part of an intricate WWE storyline.

Mike Conley doesn't try to dead lift Marreese Speights during a huddle.

THE HUMAN FUND

Let's get sincere.

Team MVP: Zach Randolph

Team X-Factor: Zach Randolph

Team Finish: 2nd in Southwest | 6th in West

Best Championship Hopes: Zach Randolph

***

The Hook is a daily NBA column by Tom Ziller. See the archives.

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