The Memphis Grizzlies are one of the league's best teams, which shouldn't surprise those who pay attention. The Grizzlies have been very good for a while now and were one of the league's best last year after Marc Gasol returned. That there were some who believed they'd struggle to make the playoffs is an indication of our tendency to overestimate the immediate impact of well-known acquisitions and underestimating the effect of chemistry and continuity.
Still, the means by which the Grizzlies raced to a 15-3 start that put them atop the West until Wednesday's loss in Houston came much more out of left field. Memphis proudly hangs its hat on its stifling defense, but always fell short because the offense was not good enough to carry it past elite teams.
Here's what's scary for the NBA: it might be now.
The Grizzlies have the league's 10th-best offense, a mark that was even higher after Wednesday's step back in Houston. Combine that with the league's fourth-best defense, and the Grizzlies are knocking on the door of the best benchmark for true title contenders: having a top defense and a top offense. Only one champion in the last 10 years failed to have a top-10 offense and defense: the 2009-10 Lakers, who were 11th in offensive efficiency.
This is happening even though Memphis has the same core it's always used since bursting onto the scene in a 2010-11 first-round upset of the Spurs. What's changed?
It's Marc's offense now
The Grizzlies' offensive rise coincides with a slow passing of the torch from Zach Randolph to Marc Gasol. Old coach Lionel Hollins' Grizzlies were defined by Z-Bo's girth, snarl and inside touch. They, like Z-Bo himself, were proudly traditional in a league shifting away from post play.
That approach ultimately had its limitations. At his best, Randolph was a one-dimensional offensive option, albeit one that was great at his one dimension. To support his game, Gasol needed to be a complementary player that threw high-lo passes, set the important screens and covered for Z-Bo on defense. And Gasol did, brilliantly at times.
Yet Randolph's decline, while slight, was also inevitable. A knee injury in 2012 was the first indicator that Randolph couldn't carry the load the same way he once did. A transition needed to happen, and preferably one that still featured Randolph as a key supporting player because he still has a lot to offer. Second-year coach Dave Joerger's task was to manage that transition and build an offense that could rise to a championship level while still not departing too much from the team's core identity.
This is where Gasol's versatility has become a godsend. He's always had the size, touch and moves to be The ManTM, but Joerger has finally coaxed the aggression out of his exceedingly-unselfish approach. A leaner Gasol has responded, while Randolph has accepted a secondary role thanks in large part to his close relationship with Gasol and an offseason contract extension that took away any angst about his future.
And Gasol specifically is becoming more aggressive in one significant way. He's getting more post touches, yes, but the biggest difference has come elsewhere:
Like many unselfish players, Gasol was trained to look for the absolute best shot instead of settling for a good shot. Thus, he didn't take a ton of mid-range jumpers, using them mostly as a bail-out option when a better shot couldn't be found. But Joerger has insisted Gasol fire away freely for a few reasons:
He's good at making it.
It's an easy way to convince Gasol to remain aggressive without taking him away from his favorite spot on the court, where he can still do damage as a passer, screener and dribble handoff-er.
Even with better spacing and shooting, the Grizzlies may not necessarily get a better shot than a Gasol 18-footer on a given possession.
It helps keep the offensive flow that Joerger has desperately trying to implement as a way to improve on Hollins' system.
Reprogramming Gasol therefore hasn't been as difficult as expected. And because of that, it's even harder for opponents to key on Gasol and his teammates. He's just as liable to do this.
As he is to do this.
Or even this.
That, in turn, makes the rest of the Grizzlies even better. Randolph has recommitted himself as an elite offensive rebounder and standstill shooter, and even runs pick and roll from time to time. Mike Conley is more easily getting into the middle of the lane on pick and rolls. Courtney Lee is freely spotting up in the corner. Tony Allen is sneaking along the baseline. Gasol was always unpredictable, but now he's extra unpredictable because he's turning himself into a scoring threat from his favorite spot in addition to a passing and screening threat.
This is the value of mid-range shooting. If the player is good at it, that adds yet another concern for the defense, even if it's not as dangerous as an open three or a layup. Remember, too, that the efficiency gap that's often parroted is much smaller between an open mid-range shot and a contested three-pointer. Gasol is shooting 44 percent from mid-range and over 48 percent on uncontested shots outside of 10 feet, which are excellent numbers. The fact that he's actually taking those shots now is one huge reason why Memphis has a good offense.
Pace, pace, pace
When Joerger took over after a 2013 Western Conference Finals sweep, his big emphasis was on playing faster. But he didn't necessarily want Memphis to approach 100 possessions per game like the Rockets or the old Mike D'Antoni Suns. He instead wanted the Grizzlies to get into half-court sets quicker so there'd be more time to run through secondary options and move the ball around. The shortcoming of Hollins' offense wasn't necessarily its lack of creativity or shooting, it was its lack of pace. (A lack of pace that, it should be noted, wasn't entirely Hollins' fault: it's hard to play fast when you're waiting for Randolph and a heavier Gasol to get up the court).
The transition wasn't always easy. Memphis started slowly even before Gasol got hurt last year because sets were chaotic, transition defense was a problem and the team was struggling to maintain the energy needed to execute their ferocious half-court defense. But Joerger eventually scaled back some of the bigger changes until Gasol returned from injury, the roster improved and the players started to buy in.
Now, there's rarely a Grizzlies possession that doesn't feature great flow. Look at all the passing and motion on this Lee three-pointer.
You have Conley dribbling off a Gasol/Randolph double screen to start. As Randolph rolled to the left block, Gasol popped to receive a bounce pass at the top of the key. Gasol quickly swung the ball to Lee on the left wing, who entered the ball to Randolph in the post in one motion. Lee then floated to the top of the key off a Gasol flare screen that nailed an unaware Avery Bradley, and Randolph made the quick pass for the wide-open three. Teams can't keep up with that kind of ball movement.
Also, note how quickly the Grizzlies attack off a missed shot. This isn't classified as a fast break, but it's the kind of quick-hitting sequence that was all too rare under Hollins.
In the past, you rarely saw Randolph setting what's called a drag screen in transition like this. Now, it's a part of Memphis' attack.
Perhaps this kind of fluidity could have eventually been developed under Hollins. Joerger certainly benefits from having more shooters like Lee, Quincy Pondexter, Vince Carter/Mike Miller and an improved Jon Leuer, whereas Hollins' bench was shallower. But the Grizzlies also needed to at least dip their toes into the new NBA era without compromising their identity and Joerger has done just that. Why let Hollins leave if that wasn't the goal?
The secret weapon
Memphis' revamped front office made several unheralded moves to significantly improve the team's depth since taking over in 2012, but none were as important as acquiring shooting guard Courtney Lee last year. The deal didn't raise many eyebrows because Lee was in the second year of a disappointing four-year full mid-level deal with Boston, but the Grizzlies realized that his skills weren't being used correctly in Boston and that the price of competent wing shooters was about to go up.
Lee has been far more than competent in Memphis because the Grizzlies recognized that his skills blended with their roster. Under Doc Rivers, Boston ran a structured offense that often required its shooting guard to zip around screens and act as a decoy to other options. This works for Ray Allen or J.J. Redick, but not for Lee, who is far better as the decoy finisher working off others. His best years were in Orlando and Houston, where he could sit in the corner and spot up off other stars. His worst years were in New Jersey and Boston, where he had to run around either with or without the ball to get his offense.
On the surface, it's therefore easy to see why he's fit in so well with Gasol, Randolph and Conley on a team that desperately needed someone to hit three-pointers. But Lee's particular brand of spot-up shooting works in a way other players' won't because he doesn't just stand in a corner and take open shots. He also has a great sense of how to slide into perfect passing position, whether he's on the same or opposite side of the primary play.
It's also important to classify Lee as a spot-up player, not merely a spot-up shooter. He can also take one or two dribbles and pull up, whether it's for a mid-range jumper or his patented floater. Lee is shooting over 57 percent on pull-up jumpers this year, which is only slightly better than the 53-percent mark he posted in a much bigger sample last season. This means teams can't do what they normally do against good spot-up shooters and aggressively run him off the line to limit his effectiveness. It can be just as punishing to lunge too far at Lee as it is to not lunge far enough.
Lee has his limitations -- otherwise he wouldn't have played on five teams in six years. He's not a good pick and roll player and doesn't have great vision when he attacks the basket. He also will likely go through a shooting slump at some point, even though his percentages are starting to normalize.
But Memphis has done yeoman's work to accentuate his strengths while hiding his weaknesses ever since he was acquired for underwhelming backup Jerryd Bayless. His growth goes hand-in-hand with Gasol's emergence -- Marc's passing takes pressure off Lee to handle the ball like most guards, whereas Lee's shooting and ability to attack help defenders trying to rotate back to him gives Gasol and Randolph more space inside. That's the kind of symbiotic relationship every team hopes to achieve with any new acquisition.
The jury is still out on whether the Grizzlies can sustain their improvement in an era where playing two traditional big men and maintaining a good offense is becoming more and more difficult. There are still possessions where the Grizzlies lack good spacing, which the new-and-improved swarming Rockets' defense exploited in Wednesday's 105-96 victory.
Nevertheless, the Grizzlies offer a shining example that teams can evolve while keeping the same core pieces in place. With the right tweaks, staying the same can actually turn a club into something very different.