We interrupt the "Is Dirk OK???!!!???" onslaught to bring you the first installment of our series previewing the rest of the Southwest Division. First up is the Memphis Grizzlies.
Record: 41-25 (2nd in division, 4th in conference)
Season Series: Memphis won 2-1
Key Losses: O.J Mayo
Memphis began the year with enormous expectations, but saw star forward Zach Randolph go down in the fourth game of the year(a game they ended up losing by 40 points) with a nasty injury, and even when he returned six weeks later, he was clearly not the same player as the year before. However, after starting slowly at 12-13, Memphis rebounded to put together their best regular season in franchise history, and really came on strong down the stretch, winning 10 of their final 12.
They finished tied with the Lakers(and had a better point differential) for the third best record at 41-25, five games ahead of Dallas, but caught a tough break drawing the fourth seed and had to face the Clippers in the first round of the playoffs. One of the most memorable moments from that playoffs came at Memphis' expense, as they blew a 24-point fourth quarter lead in game 1. The series itself saw Memphis come back down 3-1 to force a decisive game 7, but the playoff magic of last year didn't carry over, and they would be eliminated.
Memphis returns their entire starting lineup, which ranks among the very best in basketball, and the scariest thing about this lineup is that they've very rarely been healthy together at the same time, so we may not have seen their ceiling as a group. A healthy Randolph forms with center Marc Gasol one of the top frontcourts in the game, and this is where Memphis can pound Dallas, who have a couple of high quality team defenders in Chris Kaman and Elton Brand, but don't have an outstanding one-on-one post defender, which(for all his faults) Brendan Haywood was. Synergy ranked Haywood in the top third among bigs in post-up defense, while Brand and Kaman were middle of the pack.
Memphis not only bruises teams with post ups, but also with lots and lots of second chance points, as they ranked third in the NBA in offensive rebound percentage last season. Memphis also led the league in forced turnovers, thanks to a starting backcourt with Mike Conley and Tony Allen that led the NBA in steals per minute by a mile. The result of these two stats is that Memphis gets tons of extra possessions.
If Memphis has a weakness, it's definitely their outside shooting. As a team they ranked third-worst in three point attempts per game last season, and fifth-worst in three point percentage. Exacerbating this issue is the departure of one of their best three point shooters, Mayo, who now calls Dallas home. So, despite all those extra shots, Memphis is not a very efficient team. One of the poster boys for the disparity between highlight quality play and impactful production is Rudy Gay, who ostensibly is a 20-point per night borderline star, but who too often settles for tough fadeaway jumpshots, instead of using his elite combination of size, length and athleticism to dominate opponents the way he probably should.
In the 2011 playoffs the Grizzlies seem to come into their own, and it was after Rudy Gay went down for the year with injury(and O.J Mayo was benched for Tony Allen). Wing minutes went primarily to defensive-minded, team oriented players, and the majority of shots shifted up front to more efficient scores like Randolph and Gasol. The result was the stunning upset of San Antonio and a thrilling series with Oklahoma City that could have very easily seen Memphis be our Mavs' opponent in the Western Conference finals instead of the still inexperienced Thunder.
Suggesting that the Grizz are better without Rudy Gay might be specious, but it does seem that for all the quality pieces here, Memphis isn't quite a true championship contender as long as Gay continues to fall short of reaching his enormous potential. That being said, Memphis is a very scary team, and on paper appears to be a bad matchup for Dallas. Most "experts" will likely pick them to finish ahead of the Mavs, probably as a top 5 or 6 seed, much like last year. The major question mark will be if Randolph bounces back and shows that his sluggish stretch run was an aberration. The talented forward, who has three years and close to $51 million left on his contract, turned 31 in July, and carries quite a bit of bulk on his 6'9 frame, so if he is on the decline, the outlook going forward is going to be a lot less bright.