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2010-11 Memphis Grizzlies Preview: Can They Build On Their Surprise Season?

The Memphis Grizzlies were one of the surprise teams last year. Can they build on that and enter the crowded Western Conference playoff picture?

Let's rewind one year for a second. At the time, the Memphis Grizzlies were seen as a complete disaster of a franchise. In our preview last year, we said that the Grizzlies are "not exactly the image of stability or reliability." This was a team that voluntarily traded for Zach Randolph and his massive contract, kept Jammal Tinsley and signed Allen Iverson. It couldn't have worked, right?

As it turned out, we were all wrong. Sure, the Grizzlies didn't make the playoffs, but they came pretty damn close. Memphis put together one hell of a run in December and January, vaulting right into the Western Conference playoff picture. They beat top teams, created a good home atmosphere for once and were filled with good young players. They faded in the second half and ended up missing the playoffs by several games, but it was a much more successful season than anyone anticipated. 

A lot of things went right for Memphis last year. Randolph, for maybe the first time in his NBA career, displayed a good attitude as an anchor in the post. He cut out his propensity for launching bad shots, instead focusing his efforts on his strength: scoring in the paint. Improbably, he also emerged as a leader for a young group, enhancing their play rather than stunting it. But it wasn't just Randolph. Starting center Marc Gasol, previously known as the throwaway prospect in the incredibly lopsided Pau Gasol trade, shed weight and became tougher, giving Memphis one of the best frontcourt duos in the league. Shooting guard O.J. Mayo accepted a complimentary role, and enigmatic small forward Rudy Gay improved his efficiency. Even point guard Mike Conley had his moments, particularly with his jump shot. Memphis' bench struggled, mostly because second overall pick Hasheem Thabeet was a huge bust, but everything else was great.

And yet ... there's a sense that Memphis has nowhere to go but down. An offseason of controversy, mostly generated by outspoken owner Michael Heisley, can do that to you. First, Memphis gave Gay a maximum contract, a move that may have been a necessity, but could hamper their small-market payroll down the road. Then, Heisley got engaged in a pointless spat with rookie Xavier Henry over the incentives clauses in his rookie-scale contract. Heisley famously claimed he hadn't read the Collective Bargaining Agreement before this summer, which killed any leverage he had. Things eventually got resolved, but the resentment could easily linger going into this season.

All these distractions mask one major positive with the Grizzlies: their best players are mostly young. As SB Nation's Grizzlies blog Straight Outta Vancouver writes:

Mike Conley, O.J. Mayo, Rudy Gay, and Marc Gasol all have plenty of room to grow as players and will hopefully make big strides, especially on the defensive end.

These young guys all are fantastic individual talents as well. The Grizzlies will have plenty of weapons in almost every lineup imaginable this season, and just about everybody can create their own shot. Defenses can't really stack against any single player because everyone is a threat to score. Also the Grizz love to use their individual skills out in the open court and are often bailed out off broken plays.

The Grizzlies also have another thing going for them: their outstanding starting lineup is back. As Straight Outta Vancouver notes, the lineup of Conley, Mayo, Gay, Randolph and Gasol posted one of the best +/- splits in the league last year, mostly because they, surprisingly, play well off each other. 

The starters are extremely efficient offensively because all five guy's skills merge nicely. Last season the big question was how everyone will get along with Zach "Blackhole" Randolph. Turns out Z-Bo is only a blackhole for missed shots; he and Marc have developed nice chemistry moving the ball between the high and low post. Conley and Mayo spread the floor, while Rudy slashes and finishes.    

The bench, though, remains a weakness. Memphis tried to solve that problem by drafting Henry and Maryland's Greivis Vasquez and also signing Tony Allen and Acie Law, but all those guys have question marks. As young as the starters are, the Grizzlies' bench is even younger. As Straight Outta Vancouver writes, that unit must take a step forward this year.

Youth on the bench is the even bigger problem. All three of last year's draft picks are struggling to earn significant minutes in the rotation. Sam Young doesn't play the team game. DeMarre Carroll doesn't play the NBA game. And former #2 pick Hasheem Thabeet has barely been able to stay on the court for over 15 minutes this preseason due to foul trouble. Darrell Arthur and Acie Law are the old men off the bench, and they're 22 and 25.

While the Grizz's starters were great last season, the bench remains a huge question mark. Hopefully Xavier Henry outplays Sam Young, and hopefully Tony Allen can bring his Boston Celtics mindset down South. If those two can't be major contributors, the Grizzlies will struggle to be a playoff team in the West. Arthur and Law are also important, although they've looked great in the preseason.

That lack of depth is a big reason why I don't see Memphis improving a ton this year. Straight Outta Vancouver disagrees, predicting a 48-34 record and a playoff appearance. I'll be much more pessimistic and predict a 37-45 record. The West is just too deep this year.