The Memphis Grizzlies don't bluff, but it may be time to fold their hand. While the rest of league embraced the future by taking gobs of three-pointers, playing with pace and relying on agile big men (if any true big men at all), the Grizzlies kept it old school.
Memphis has a bottom-10 pace factor and shoots the third-lowest rate of three-pointers. The Grizz are No. 29 in the league in three-point percentage and they have never been able to change that with personnel moves. They have always been content to let Mike Conley and Marc Gasol orchestrate a bruising offense that features Zach Randolph in the pivot, strong work on the offensive glass and lots of attacking.
Well, that and an elite defense. Since Memphis' breakout 2011 season, the Grizzlies have finished no lower than No. 9 in defense and as high as No. 2. That's where the grit and the grind come from -- along with their throwback, no tricks offense -- the Grizzlies always pummeled you into submission on the other end. Playing big and brawny doesn't help you light up the scoreboard, but it sure helps prevent the other team from doing the same.
And therein lies the problem for this incarnation of the Memphis Grizzlies: Their defense stinks. It's No. 25 in defensive efficiency, per NBA.com. That isn't because the offense is any better. The Grizz still aren't hitting threes, and the offense has actually fallen from No. 13 in the league last season to No. 24 as of Monday. Memphis is 13-12 and in the hunt for first-round home court in the West, but things look far more bleak than the standings indicate.
Memphis lost two straight over the weekend, getting blown out by the Hornets at home before falling short against the Heat. A week ago, the Thunder beat them by 37 in the Grindhouse. Six days prior to that, the Spurs crushed them by 20 in Memphis. The Grizzlies are 2-4 in that span, but the two wins were miracle affairs: Jeff Green's game-winning reverse alley-oop finish at the buzzer to beat Phoenix, followed by Matt Barnes' answered halfcourt prayer against Detroit. Yes, the Grizzlies are counting on last-second alley-oops and halfcourt heaves to avoid losing streaks. This isn't a good sign, because Lady Luck is going to stop visiting so often.
Luck has absolutely buoyed Memphis' win-loss record. They are 13-12, yes, but per Basketball Reference, they have the scoring margin of an 8-17 club. Many of their wins have been narrow affairs (see: Phoenix and Detroit) and many of their losses have been blowouts (see: Charlotte, OKC and San Antonio).
Memphis has a net scoring margin of -131 through 25 games. In other words, the average Memphis game this season is a five-point Grizzlies loss. Only one team since 1964 had a per-game net scoring margin worse than -5 at this point and at least 13 wins: The 1979 New Jersey Nets, who started the season 14-11 despite being outscored by 5.2 points per game through the first 25. Most teams with scoring margins that bad have between six and 10 wins at the 25-game mark. In other words, this is the worst 13-12 team of all time.
(By the way, those Nets finished with a 37-45 record. The odds caught up with them.)
The Grizzlies look like they might be beginning to bluff. On Sunday, coach Dave Joerger brought Zach Randolph off the bench and played him 26 minutes, which was far less than what starters Matt Barnes and Jeff Green received. Z-Bo hasn't come off of the bench since 2012, when he returned from injury late in the season and then-coach Lionel Hollins didn't want to upset a good team flow. Outside of that season, Z-Bo only had two other games in his Memphis career in which he came off the bench, and never under Joerger.
The bad part is that it may have been the right call to sit Z-Bo. He's 34 and is having his least productive season ever in pretty much every facet of the game: Scoring, efficiency, rebounding and (based on the team results) on defense. Adding Barnes to the starting lineup in Z-Bo's place sacrifices the Memphian identity and puts loads of pressure on Marc Gasol up front, but at least it stretches the floor a little and lets Randolph beat up on second-unit bigs.
Tony Allen, the Grindfather himself, saw pine for the first time this season on Sunday, as well. He's already playing as few minutes per game as he has since his first season in Memphis, and is having the worst shooting and scoring seasons of his career. He's 33. And as noted, the team defense sure isn't lighting it up with Allen on the court.
This season, per NBA.com, the four-man unit with the most minutes for Memphis features (as expected) Gasol, Z-Bo, Allen and Mike Conley. That unit -- with any other Grizz as player No. 5, but usually Jeff Green, Barnes or Courtney Lee -- has a net rating of -9.5 points per 100 possessions and a defensive rating of 106, which would be fourth worst in the NBA.
The core of the Grizzlies is failing, especially on defense. Of course Joerger is shaking things up. You can't pin this downturn on Green's limitations or the failure of the front office to find the right role players. The grit has been rubbed off and the grind is locked up in a straitjacket.
Marc Stein hinted that Joerger is attempting to draw attention to the roster deficiencies as the heat gets turned up on his chair. But the only real roster deficiency here is that the team still relies on Z-Bo and the Grindfather and those guys have become unreliable. Gasol and Conley are slightly worse in noticeable ways too (what happened to Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol?), but nothing like Z-Bo and T.A.
In essence, this is the fault of Father Time. Who is, I remind you, undefeated. (His results vs. Tim Duncan are under review.) Joerger doesn't need to be fired because Z-Bo and T.A. got older and less effective. The front office doesn't need to be swept out because they didn't implode the Grizzlies' identity before it imploded. Fans would have marched in the streets of Memphis had the team traded Randolph or Allen, led by the war drums of the Bongo Lady. It was unreasonable to expect that the front office could be out in front of the death of Grit 'N Grind. When a team captures a city's ethos like this, you ride the wave as long as possible.
Now it's time. Someone will want Allen for a jolt of personality and mentorship (as crazy as that sounds). He's due only $5.5 million in 2017, a pittance in the modern NBA. Z-Bo is due about twice as much next season, and his market might be limited by the stretch-four trend. But in a 20-minute bench role he could do quite nicely for some guard-skewed West team that wants to mix it up or throw something crazy at San Antonio and Golden State.
As for Memphis, the asset cupboard is otherwise fairly bare. The Grizzlies owe the Nuggets and Celtics protected future picks due to a 2013 cap space dump (ugh) and the Green trade. With the right moves, the Grizzlies can rebuild around Conley and Gasol quickly enough not to waste the end of Marc's prime. Conley, however, will be a free agent in 2016, and if he walks, that could be disastrous for the Grizzlies, whether they hang on to Z-Bo and the Grindfather or not.
Of course, Memphis is 13-12 and in the mix for the playoffs. While the numbers look really bad, perhaps that famous grit-tastic esprit de corps pulls together the band of brothers for one last run, one last march into the death grips of modern teams. Maybe there's a last hurrah in this season, aided by a surprisingly mediocre West.
Either way, it would certainly appear that Grit 'N Grind is dying, now or later. You had a good run, Memphis. It wasn't ever pretty, but it sure as hell wasn't meant to be pretty anyway.
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