Preview and Chat: The Memphis Grizzlies

Reed —  April 11, 2009

Records: Lakers 63-17 (1st in West); Grizzlies 23-56 (12th in West)
Offensive Efficiency: Lakers 112.8 (3rd); Grizzlies 103.6 (28th)
Defensive Efficiency: Lakers 104.9 (6th); Grizzlies 109.6 (21st)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Fisher, Kobe, Ariza, Gasol, Bynum; Grizzlies: Conley, Mayo, Gay, Arthur, Gasol.

Thoughts on the Portland Loss:

This loss hurts on a few fronts. First, is the obvious implications regarding home court versus Cleveland. We are now two games behind Cleveland in the loss column and I don’t see them losing two of their remaining three games, especially with only of them away from home (vs. Boston, at Indy, vs. Philly). I was probably one of the strongest advocates of going for home court till the end, believing strongly that we will probably play Cleveland in the finals and that home court could be determinative given how close the teams are in talent. This has been debated to death on the boards, so I don’t want to belabor the point. I’ll just say that my gut feeling is that when teams are fairly equally yoked it is very rare that one team wins in 5 and thus having the final two games at home under the 2-3-2 format is a monstrous advantage. In support of that point, note that since the 2-3-2 format was instituted in 1985, the road team has only closed out on the home team’s floor in a game 6 or 7 three times. In other words, if the home team can get through games 3-5 away to return home, they almost always prevail. If we play Cleveland, I just don’t see us closing them out in 5 games, and that makes life pretty difficult. But, that’s putting the cart well before the horse.

The second ramification of the loss is psychological. I wrote on this after the Boston and Cleveland games in February, but I believe that psychological edges matter in basketball. The most talented team does not always win. Sometimes it is the team that believes in itself – or that least doubts itself. Remember back to the old Lakers-Kings series, when Sacramento had the home court and seemingly more talented teams. On paper, they should have broken through at least once. But they never believed they could and thus Peja and Christie and Webber kept missing the key shots and free throws while Kobe and Horry and Fox and Fisher kept making theirs. Talent gave way to psychology. The same thing happened in game 6 of the finals last year (not that Boston wasn’t the better team, but they weren’t 30 points better – they were just 30 points more confident). I’m not saying that this will happen with Portland and us, or that Portland necessarily has the mental edge, but I do think they’ve implanted a seed of doubt and that concerns me.

Darius also raised a good point about why Portland matches up with us so well on paper:

In the past Portland is a team that we’ve discussed as being built in the Spurs model (I even remember a discussion I had with Kurt and on the boards stating as much), but I actually think they’re built more in our mold and it’s the reason that they match up with us so well. I mean, Kobe/Roy, Blake/Fisher, Outlaw-Batum/Ariza, Aldridge/Gasol, Oden/Drew, Fernandez/Sasha, Bayless/Farmar … all of these guys play almost the exact role for their respective team and are also similar players. The only guys that stand out as not having a direct counterpart (who actually play meaninful minutes) are Walton/LO on our side (and Joel on their side), but those guys are actually unique players across the entire league. LO being an all court PF doing tons of guard things and Luke being a pass first, post up SF who has a tremendous feel for offensive basketball through an understanding of angles and how to play around the basket with and with out the ball (and Joel really is an Oden clone but with a lower offensive ceiling). Anyways, just an observation.

The thing that most concerned me from the game itself is our crunch time over-reliance on Kobe at the expense of the set offense. We had our most success in the second quarter when we pounded the ball inside, took advantage of Gasol, Drew, and Odom’s power-skill advantage, and ran the set offense through them. I understand that Kobe is our closer and has earned the right to take the game into his hands, but why abandon going inside and running the triangle with 5-6 minutes left in the game rather than just for the last few possessions. When you run the Kobe-Gasol high pick and roll for that long you let the opponent know what’s coming and make it easier for them to take your best options away. Too often the result is a contested long Kobe jumper against long, agile defenders (Batum, Outlaw, Roy). Why not keep running things through Gasol until nearer the end – who is so efficient and such a good decision maker? You could make a strong argument that Gasol has replaced Kobe as the better focal point of the offense. Why not feed Kobe the ball within the flow of the offense, when he can get it lower on the block or in a better position to attack and set up others? We saw too many “hero” shots from Kobe down the stretch. We all know he can make those, but given our weapons he doesn’t have to anymore. It’s tough to overcome a 9-24 performance on the road.

Bynum:

I’m very encouraged by Drew’s play. He played 31 minutes in a road back to back and seemed pretty locked in throughout. He lost his legs at the end and was perhaps a bit prone to chucking (especially from the high post early in the clock), but he was also very aggressive, didn’t shy away from contact, and clearly gave Portland problems in the first half. I can envision him being dominant in 3-4 weeks, and that surprises me. If so, we will be in business for the crucial playoff series.

Memphis:

First, I want to review the Gasol trade with the benefit of a little hindsight. Memphis got absolutely blasted at the time. I’m sure many still believe that’s right, but I think the trade is much more of a win-win than Memphis gets credit for. The Grizzlies accomplished several things in trading Pau: (1) long term financial relief – they cut Gasol’s $60M remaining contract and have the league’s lowest payroll this year (a must given their revenue issues); (2) cap flexibility – they’ll be over $20 million under the cap this summer (whether they spend it is another story); (3) lose games to get a better draft pick – if they kept Pau they would have won several more games and not been in a position to draft Mayo, their #1 building block; and (4) acquire young, cheap talent and draft picks – they landed a center of the future in Marc Gasol, Darrel Arthur (with the Lakers pick), and have one more pick to come (Crittenton didn’t work out). Many say that Chicago was offering more with some kind of Nocioni + Gordon/Hinrich package, and maybe that’s true (I question whether Reinsdorf was truly willing to pony up and take on the long term salary), but would Memphis really be in a better position locked into those longer contracts and no man’s land status (too good to rebuild and too bad to contend)? I say, give me Marc Gasol, a few draft picks, the shot at Mayo, and all the cap flexibility.

The key to it all was the inclusion of Marc, who really has developed into an extremely productive NBA rookie. He’s still only 24 and is averaging 11.8 points, 7.4 rebounds, and 1.1 blocks on 53/72% in 31 minutes a game. He’s gotten better as the year progresses, upping his stats to 14.4 and 7.5 on 56% shooting in 15 March games. He’s 6th among rookies in PER at 16.67 (and one of those above him, Speights, doesn’t get enough playing time to really be valued more). When I see Gasol play, you see so many of his brother’s strengths, even if he lacks the same absurd length and agility – quiet efficiency, solid screens, great hands and passes, soft touch, unselfish almost to a fault, etc. He’s not going to be a superstar, but you can win a title with someone like that as your starting center.

The Grizzlies are playing much better of late than their season long record reveals. They have won 6 of their last 9, with two of the losses by three points to elite teams (Portland and Orlando). They are not a team to be taken lightly. During this stretch, all of the Grizzlies young building blocks have finally lived up to their considerable potential. Over the last 10 games, Gay is averaging 19.7 points on 50% shooting (48 from three); Mayo is averaging 18 and 4.9 assists on 46% shooting (90% from FT); Conley is averaging 16.4, 4.1 rebounds and 5.4 assists on 50% shooting (53 from three); and Gasol has continued his steady, efficient play. While Oklahoma City has gotten all of the futures buzz, you get the sense that Memphis is also on the verge of breaking through. If the lottery envelopes bounce right, the young nucleus continues to develop, and their owner allows them to use some of that cap space (especially with so few buyers out there), then they could put together a really nice, young, balanced team. Put in Blake Griffin at PF…

Despite their recent strong play, I think they are probably too small on the front line and too undisciplined defensively to beat us if we pound it inside and run the offensive smoothly. Look for Bynum to break out as Memphis doesn’t have anyone to match his size inside.

–Reed

Reed

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