When people talk about teams that the Mavericks could easily leapfrog next season, or teams who might fall out of the playoffs, the Grizzlies are the popular answer. The smallest market of small market teams (or, close to it), and a tough-to-watch grind-it-out style have made them unpopular among the West's elite.
Counting them out as contenders for the West, however, would be a grave mistake.
The Grizzlies have been capped out every offseason for the last few years going in, with their salary largely committed to their core of Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol and Mike Conley. So, every year, the Grizzlies can only afford to make relatively small changes around that core. Still, change they have, and usually for the better.
This offseason they lost James Johnson, Ed Davis, and Mike Miller to free agency, and waived Jamaal Franklin. Some of those losses really hurt, James Johnson in particular. Davis never played very well in Memphis, though (Jon Leuer may actually be a better option, weirdly: Leuer's a crack shooter and a solid rebounder) and Jamaal Franklin never played at all.
To replace Mike Miller, though, the Grizzlies got Vince Carter from the Mavericks, who is more durable, a much better defender than Miller, probably as effective as a spot up shooter, and more versatile. Wing defender and corner 3 specialist Quincy Pondexter will also be returning from injury.
As well, Memphis drafted consummate scorer Jordan Adams and post player Jarnell Stokes (basically Zach Randolph-lite).
The Grizzlies' offense has struggled for basically every season of the Gasol-Randolph era, and it will probably struggle again. That said, the offense has also gotten a little better every season, and that trend should continue as well.
After Marc Gasol returned from injury last season, the Grizzlies were the 14th best offense in the league for the rest of the season. That number is just about the definition of mediocrity, to be sure, but it's a far cry from being a bottom 10 offense, as they had been the season before.
The source of the Grizzlies' offensive struggles has forever been their woeful 3-point shooting. Randolph is a low post monster -- even with increasing age -- and Gasol is just an overall wizard. He can shoot out of the high post, he has a trademark Euro running hook, and has the assist rate of many point guards. Those guys alone create a functional offense for the team.
Still, two of the Grizzlies' starters are just completely incapable of scoring (Tony Allen and Tayshaun Prince), which has seriously limited the Grizzlies' offense. Mike Conley is a fantastic all around player, but he can't carry that backcourt by himself.
The additions of Mike Miller and Courtney Lee were so huge last season because they finally gave the Grizzlies real, consistent, deadly three point aces to add to their arsenal, which was a HUGE boon to that team. Lee, in particular, was nailing shots off the dribble going around screens, which added some spacing that they had never had.
The Grizzlies were dead last in 3-point attempts for 2014, but were top 15 in 3-point percentage, and that made a big difference.
In this iteration of the team, Lee returns, along with Vince Carter replacing Miller. Carter should be just as good spotting up, but he also has the tendency to hit shots off of on-ball screens, something that should free up even more space in the backcourt.
Lineups of Conley-Lee-Carter will be fantastic for spacing, without giving any consolations on defense. Quincy Pondexter and Jordan Adams, too, can be added into the lineup without any horrible consequences on either end.
With that extra space, Randolph in particular will have more room to operate inside, allowing him to stave off the real drop off a cliff from age for another year.
The team's offense will probably be better, but how much so? Given that the rest of the league's offense has gotten better, too, they may end up staying pat at 14th or so in the league, but if their defense gets even better, that may be enough to do real damage.
The Grizzlies will either be the best or second best defense in the league, depending on where the Bulls fall. They will be the best defense in the West. That's a fact, and that fact makes them absolutely killer. Defense, as I've written before, is so much more important than offense when it comes to winning.
The Grizzlies were the third best defense for most of last season, and based on the average offense of the teams in their respective conferences, the Grizzlies would have been the best in the league had they been in the East.
They were already the best defensive team by talent, and they've gotten better. If that doesn't scare you, then I don't know what to say.
The Grizzlies last season had to get their injection of offense from lineups featuring Courtney Lee and Mike Miller, which could be a drag on the team's defense. Now, those injections of offense will come from Vince Carter and Quincy Pondexter, who are both quite good defenders. Courtney Lee, too, should be solid when surrounded by above-average players.
The Grizzlies will even be able to roll out Conley-Allen-Carter-Koufos-Gasol lineups that will absolutely murder other teams defensively without sacrificing a ton on offense.
There's just not much else to say. They will be a murder-filled-death-buzz-saw for other teams when they come into Memphis. That kind of defense is hard to overcome. There's a reason that Memphis was the best team in the league by net efficiency for more than a month after Gasol got healthy.
When the Teams Meet
Dallas against Memphis could very well be "the number 1 defense faces the number 1 offense." Dallas plays Memphis really well, though, or, at least, they did last year.
The thing is, Memphis' defense is geared to stop traditional, efficient offenses. Dirk Nowitzki breaks those kinds of defenses: there's no real planning for Dirk, and his presence bends defenses geared to stopping 3-point shooting and drives. He can make players like Chandler Parsons and Monta Ellis much more effective against Memphis just by his presence.
The Mavs might have an advantage against the Grizzlies, but it'll be tight one. If the Grizzlies can unlock the Dirk conundrum, then Memphis could sweep Dallas and it would make sense. If not, Dallas could easily sweep Memphis in turn, or anything in between.
Beware of Memphis though. They're not a fringe team or negligible. They're a real threat, ready to maul any team that comes in their way.