Are the Memphis Grizzlies Contending or Pretending?

An early-season look at the success of the Memphis Grizzlies.

I’m calling the bluff of those who say they knew the ageing Memphis Grizzlies were going to be this good!

The Grizzlies are now 10–2 including wins over Western Conference playoff contenders New Orleans, Phoenix and Sacramento as well as an emphatic win over the Houston Rockets. In fact reputable NBA analyst Nate Duncan believes the Grizzlie’s first quarter against Houston may have been their best quarter of basketball with this core group EVER!

So is this the year for the Grizzlies? Are they truly contenders?

There are a few things that point to yes.

The Grizz currently have the second best defense in the league allowing a stingy 91.8 points per-game, which allows for their mediocre offense to get the job done more often than not.

For the last few seasons I’ve tagged Memphis with the ‘they’re a tough out in the playoffs, but are not winning anything’ tag. I did so because their once aggressive, quick and furiously rotating defense of 2011 lacked its intimidating edge. Marc Gasol being sidelined with injury was a large reason for this drop-off.

The Big Burrito, as he was known at his Memphis high school, only managed 59 regular season games before returning for the playoffs last season; and the impact he has on this team is frightening. Marc adds the bite to this Memphis defense and acts as the teams anchor on both ends of the floor.

His career averages of 1.5 blocks per game add a level of rim protection that without him, the team lacks drastically. Let’s face it, we all love Z-Bo but I’m betting he can’t actually jump over a cheese burger!

The shot blocking is great however it’s Marc’s ability to change shots that has added the extra spice to this Grizzlies unit. Bigs like Gasol and Asik are often underrated defensively as they don’t average the 2-3 blocks a game with a SportsCenter-worthy fifth-row spike. However, changing an opponent’s shot, playing solid, strong post defense and pushing players off the block into unfamiliar territory is what gets wins and Gasol does these things on a nightly basis.

The development of Courtney Lee (15 points per game) and the somewhat underrated play of Mike Conley (17 points, 6 dimes and 1.4 swipes per game) in the backcourt, has given the Grizzlies just enough offense to continue bagging up W’s.Conley, although never entering the top 5 PGs in the league conversation, is the perfect floor general for this Memphis squad. He has the ability to get in the lane and score, which the Grizz desperately need, but also understands the importance of getting interior touches for their terrible-twosome of Marc and Z-Bo. Conley understands why Memphis has been successful and plays his game accordingly; locked in, active defense and grind-it-out offense.

Father Time catches up with everybody and I, for one, thought the days of consistent Z-Bo 20 & 10s were done and dusted; yet Z-Bo continues to surprise me. He’s not quite 20 & 10 - in-fact he’s 17 & 11 on the season - but with Marc back on the floor that may well be just enough production to keep the Grizzlies in the hunt when the bright lights of the post season turn on.

Things are going well for Memphis and many have them touted as serious contenders this season, especially after this hot start. However, there are a few things that give me pause.  Their soft schedule to start the year, Marc’s (and others’) health and their offense are all factors that will need addressing throughout the season if this Grizz squad is actually the real deal.

The Grizzlies are yet to be tested at championship level. Sure they have had some solid wins and there is no doubt they are back to playing grind-house style basketball like in 2011, but their only notable wins have been against playoff-hopeful opponents. Wins over MIN, IND, CHA, OKC, MIL, LAL & DET have set them up for early season success and a 10-2 record. However, after a few more ‘gimmies’ the Grizz will face their first real test of the season. A run of LAC, POR, SAC, HOU, SA, MIA and DAL over the space of 8 games awaits, and will ultimately show us if this Memphis crew is up to the challenge.

Two out of the last three seasons Marc has averaged under 65 games, which when taking into account all the things he does for this team, is a real concern.

Z-Bo has been a warrior for Memphis, however he’s on the wrong side of 30 these days and I’ve little doubt that at some point this season he’ll need to be rested thoroughly.

This Grizz roster works as a unit and if they’re going to have enough offensive punch to take care of the real contenders then they’re going to need a fully healthy roster come playoff time.

The Grizz are currently ranked 18th in points per game (98) and 21st in assists per game (20.3). They have a clear deficiency on offense and for me to consider them a true contender this needs to be dealt with. Courtney Lee is trying his best to provide the Grizzlies with a legitimate offensive X-Factor and, although he’s improved, it simply isn’t enough. The Grizz need another piece to this puzzle and a trade is necessary in order to accomplish it.

It’s a dangerous game messing with a unit that so obviously works well together. It’s also dangerous to trade away something that defines what you are as a franchise; namely defense (Tony Allen), but at some point this Grizzlies roster needs to make a move for some offense, and giving up a little D might be how they can make that happen.

It’s an unpopular opinion at the moment, but I am of the belief that this Memphis Grizzlies unit is still a championship pretender. Having said that, they’ll still be one hell of a tough beat come playoff time and may even see their way to the second round.

A 10-2 start, the play of Marc Gasol and their defensive rating show me that the Grizz are to be respected and have done a great job of taking care of business. However age, injury, a lack of offensive firepower and their soft early season schedule simply leave me with too many unanswered questions to consider them championship contenders.


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