The Grizzlies can be the fourth- or fifth-best team in the NBA, right in that second tier. But the margin for error to beat teams in the West like Oklahoma City and the Lakers is so small. I wouldn't give them much of a chance against that top group. The Grizzlies are good enough to win two games in a series like that, but no more. They are one top outside-shooting threat away from being able to compete with the elite.
They have three legitimate All-Star candidates in Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph and Rudy Gay. Nobody is better in the low post than Randolph, period. He was obviously out of shape last year after missing almost three months with a knee injury, and he never really got it going like he usually does. But when he is healthy, you can take it to the bank that he'll get 20 [points] and 10 [rebounds].
The Grizzlies show a lot of confidence in Randolph. They throw it to him and get out of his way. He's a pure one-on-one player, but defenses can't play him that way because he demands a double team. He's a really good finisher, he has a nice jump shot from 18 feet and he's really quick to the rim. The ball gets off his hands quicker than more athletic guys. And he has tremendous hands. He can squeeze the ball off the rim and make perfect catches in the post. He still doesn't play great defense, but you live with it because of his production.
[Chris Mannix: What to expect from the Grizzlies this season]
Gasol is the glue. He does so many things for them: score in and out of the post, rebound, defend and pass. He gets better every year. He's a great passer from the high post, and from that spot he can make that 15-footer consistently.
They run a lot of high-low action. If Gasol couldn't play at the high post, he and Randolph would be in each other's way. But they complement each other perfectly. Zach likes the right box, Marc likes the left. Marc likes to play the high post, Zach owns the block. It's one of the best front lines in the league.
There's been a lot of talk about whether Gay and Randolph can play together. I think they can. They need time -- two years ago Gay missed a bunch of games because of injury and last year Randolph was out a lot. They can't mesh in just five or 10 games. They need to play consistently together where they're both healthy and in the flow. A lot of this is going to be on coach Lionel Hollins. He has to space them on the floor.
Gay is a superior athlete in a league with great athletes. They used him as a post-up player more than I thought they would. But he also has to be an outside threat because they are the weakest perimeter-shooting team in the league. He needs to knock down shots, because every team is going to sag down and double Zach and March until the Grizzlies prove that they can beat you from the outside.
Mike Conley is not elite, but he's right on that next level. His decision-making at point guard has gotten a lot better. He was so up and down early in his career, but the last two years he has taken control. Having a coach like Hollins, a former point guard who won a championship [with the Trail Blazers in 1977], has really helped him grow. Conley has improved in all aspects of the game. You have to respect his range now because his shot is better. He is a very good pick-and-roll player, and he's become a vocal leader.
[Rob Mahoney: Southwest Division preview]
The problem last year is that the Grizzlies didn't have a reliable backup for Conley. Teams could press the Grizzlies once Conley came off the floor. O.J. Mayo gave them shooting, but he couldn't bring it up the floor and run the offense when he got minutes at the point. Jerryd Bayless is a much better backup for Conley than Mayo. Bayless is more of a scoring point guard than a distributor, but he will help them. Conley won't wear down as much because they can trust Bayless to run the team. They could even play Conley and Bayless together sometimes because Bayless can score. Bayless is one of their few scoring options in the backcourt.
They don't have anyone who can replace Mayo's shooting. Wayne Ellington is too inconsistent on threes. Same with Josh Selby. Memphis is hoping one of them can become a consistent threat, but I don't see it. Rookie Tony Wroten isn't a shooter, though maybe he could play some minutes at both guard spots. Will Bayless shoot it as well as he did last year [when he made 42.3 percent of his three-pointers with Toronto, his first season above 35 percent]? They are going to be bad from the outside. That's why Gay's shooting will be so important.
Tony Allen obviously is not the answer as a shooter. He's only good for his defense. He and Conley create a ton of turnovers and use their speed to get out in transition. Allen scares me when he has the ball, but I think he scares the Grizzlies more. But because the other four starters can score, Allen just has to bring that toughness and defense to a really good starting lineup. He defends the opponent's best guard and makes him work.
The frontcourt is clearly going to be their strength if they stay healthy. They missed Darrell Arthur last year [when he was out all season with an Achilles tear], and he'll be set back again this year [because of a leg injury]. But he can hit the 16-footer and he's active defensively. Marreese Speights is also a face-up big man who can make shots and back up Gasol. Neither is a post-up player, but they are both good rotation pieces.