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Why Grizzlies need Gilbert Arenas

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Gilbert Arenas may have to dial back his shot attempts if he's going to shoot 27.5 percent from deep, like he did last season. (Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images)

Toss aside all the obvious jokes about card games and the Grizzlies assembling the league’s strangest cast of characters, and you’ll see one reason — and one reason only — why Memphis is not crazy to take a shot on Gilbert Arenas: He cannot possibly be worse than Josh Selby and Jeremy Pargo have been this season.

An addendum: Mike Conley Jr. cannot play 48 minutes per game, not even in the playoffs, where the Grizzlies have the potential to be a dangerous mid-level seed now that Zach Randolph is back. Conley can log 40 minutes per game when the stakes are high, but that still leaves eight minutes of point guard play, and the Grizzlies have essentially given up hope that O.J. Mayo or even Rudy Gay can fill those minutes capably in place of the Selby/Pargo duo.

The wild cards are obviously Arenas’ uncertain health and conditioning coming off a knee operation similar to the one Kobe Bryant underwent over the summer, and whether the Grizzlies are chasing a big name over a more capable option in the D-League.

For the Grizzlies, the question is always going to be whether they can score enough for their ferocious defense to give them a chance in the fourth quarter against the league’s very best teams. In working out that equation, every minute matters. Scoring something like 10 points in the 15 or so possessions the Grizzlies will have to play each night — at the absolute minimum — while Conley sits could absolutely cost them a close game, and one close game can cost a series.

The Grizzlies rank just 22nd in points per possession, and that number actually obscures how much a team that attempts the fewest three-pointers in the league has struggled to score in the half-court, where they just cannot space the floor consistently. The Grizzlies actually get a fair portion of their offense — a tad more than 14 percent of their possessions — via transition chances, and they have been very efficient in converting those fast-breaks; only two teams average more points per possession in transition, per Synergy Sports. The Grizzlies earn those chances through forcing turnovers on defense, something they do more often than any team, as was the case last season. (Memphis, as an aside, is on pace for the highest opponents’ turnover rate any team has put up since the 1998-99 lockout season.) Read More…


  • Published On 11:32am, Mar 20, 2012
  • Making sense of playoff race in West

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    It’s time to give up trying to figure out the Western Conference and just enjoy the ride, as 11 teams battle for eight playoff spots, and two others — the Suns and Warriors — improbably lurk just one game behind the 11th-place Trail Blazers in the loss column. I can’t remember a season in which it has been so difficult to get a firm grip on a simple question: How good is Team X? This is especially so in a lockout-shortened season, when veteran teams may well be saving something for the playoffs.

    We’re nearly 40 games into this thing, and I feel comfortable saying two things about the Western Conference:

    The Thunder are clear favorites, but their D needs improvement. (Layne Murdoch/NBAE/Getty Images)

    1. The Thunder, as we all expected, are the clear favorites. They’re 31-8, rolling to home-court advantage, and even if their scoring margin (plus-6.0 points per game) paints them as a team that really should be something like 27-12 and not all that far ahead of their conference peers, that scoring margin is still nearly two full points ahead of the Spurs’ second-best mark.

    That said, the Thunder, as documented here and here, are riding a ridiculous wave of super crunch-time play that has pushed their record above where it probably should be. They remain a so-so defensive team, except in the final minutes of close games, when they turn into the 2008 Celtics. They struggle to find any scoring at all beyond their top three players; Oklahoma City piled up 115 points last night against the Suns, and only five of their players scored any points. Floor-spacing can be an issue, Russell Westbrook remains addicted to pull-up 20-footers in the first five seconds of the shot clock and the three core big men –Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins and Nick Collison — are almost total non-threats on the pick-and-roll.

    If this team really has another gear on defense, as perhaps evidenced by its crunch-time play, they might be able to waltz through this conference. If they’ve been lucky, they could be had. Read More…


  • Published On 2:27pm, Mar 08, 2012
  • Zach Randolph’s potential return poses threat to Western Conference

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    Zach Randolph is reportedly participating in contact drills and traveling with the Grizzlies on three three-game road trip this week.(Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images)

    The Grizzlies rank 19th in points per possession, averaging just one point per 100 possessions worse than the league average so far this season. And ranking nearly average has been a giant victory for Memphis, which lost its best player and offensive centerpiece, Zach Randolph, to a torn knee ligament just a week into this compressed NBA season. Memphis had already lost its best back-up big man, the quick and rangy Darrell Arthur, and it was fair to wonder how a team that barely scored enough to begin with would manage to score at all without the stronger half of its one-two interior punch.

    After all, the Grizzlies don’t shoot threes, can’t space the floor, rank near the bottom of the league every season in assists and earned free throws last season at a below-average rate. This is a tenacious defensive team with a smart, burly center in Marc Gasol and perhaps the league’s greatest perimeter defender in Tony Allen. We knew they would work hard, and that their defense would help them stay in games; they lead the league in forcing turnovers, as they did last season. Rudy Gay was back from the shoulder injury that ended his 2010-11 season, but he was obviously rusty and unsure of himself, and it just didn’t seem like Memphis would score enough points to really push past .500. In the span of a week, injuries turned Memphis from possible title contender to possible lottery team.

    Guess what? The Grizz are 22-15 having played the league’s third-toughest schedule, and Randolph is participating in contact drills and traveling with the team on its three-game road trip this week, per USA Today. No return date is set, but Randolph’s prognosis now looms as one of the most interesting questions of the remaining 30 games or so of this season. Memphis plays 12 of its next 17 games on the road, but the opposition isn’t daunting from start to finish in that stretch; the Grizzlies seem very likely to earn a playoff spot, especially with the Trail Blazers flailing, and if Randolph can even reach 90 percent of the level he showed during last year’s thrilling playoff run, this team will be dangerous.

    Of course, nobody really knows when Randolph will play, and whether he will be ready to perform at a high level in the playoffs. The postseason is only about seven weeks away, and that doesn’t leave much time for Randolph to get his conditioning where it needs to be and re-integrate himself into a team that is different than the one he left in January. It seems extremely unlikely Randolph could reach a level anything like the one he showed last May; head coach Lionel Hollins himself has suggested it’s optimistic to expect anything at all from Randolph this season. Read More…


  • Published On 5:14pm, Mar 05, 2012
  • Grizzlies lose Zach Randolph, identity

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    Zach Randolph is expected to miss about eight weeks after tearing his MCL in a loss to the Bulls on Sunday. (AP)

    San Antonio’s Manu Ginobili will miss six to eight weeks — not four to six, as initially hoped — thanks to the broken bone in his hand. And now, even more jarring, Memphis’ Zach Randolph is expected to miss about eight weeks after an MRI revealed that he tore a ligament in his right knee during the Grizzlies’ loss in Chicago on Sunday, according to the Commercial Appeal in Memphis. Early reports indicated that the injury was a bone bruise, and that Randolph would be day-to-day.

    The Grizzlies, a borderline contender given a healthy roster, could have survived a short Randolph absence, even atop Darrell Arthur’s season-ending injury (torn Achilles), and still made the playoffs. The Western Conference is so competitive, and the schedule so grueling, that it would be surprising if teams in the race for the bottom two or three playoff seeds separate much from each other and the teams that end up just outside the postseason picture. Lose Randolph for a week or so, fill Arthur’s minutes with newly acquired Marreese Speights and Dante Cunningham, and you’re still a playoff team.

    Lose Randolph for two full months — half the season, including up to nine back-to-backs — and you’re in major trouble. To say the Grizzlies’ entire offense is built around having two monster post players in Randolph and Marc Gasol is a bit much, because Rudy Gay is back from shoulder surgery, Mike Conley has developed into a credible starting point guard with a decent outside shot and Memphis creates easy baskets from its ball-hawking defense. But it’s only a bit much.

    Gay is struggling to rediscover his game and his place in this offense, and the two-man post attack is really what defines Memphis when it has the ball. It’s not just the obvious stuff, like the fact that Randolph can score in the post against anyone, ranks among the league’s great offensive rebounders and draws constant double teams — a crucial thing for a team that lacks outside shooting and thus needs to create space from the inside-out. It’s not even just that he and Gasol, two bullies with touch, are an unmatchable nightmare for a team with just one reliable big-man defender it trusts with major minutes. Ask the Spurs, and Matt Bonner.

    Read More…


  • Published On 2:42pm, Jan 04, 2012
  • Grizzlies reload front line in trade

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    The Grizzlies have agreed in principle to a three-team trade that will land them big man Marreese Speights. (Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images)

    The Grizzlies fell into the “if everything goes right …” category before the season, but things have only gone wrong so far, especially on the front line. Darrell Arthur, one of the league’s most important bench players last year, is out for the season with an Achilles tear. Zach Randolph, the hub of Memphis’ offense, is reportedly out for eight weeks with a torn MCL (I’ll have more on his injury later), and you never want to rush a big guy back from a knee injury for the sake of an early season win — not even in this compressed season.

    So the Grizz have agreed to acquire Philadelphia’s Marreese Speights, a big man with a reliable mid-range jumper and little else, in exchange for second-year guard Xavier Henry (heading to the Hornets, as this is a three-team deal), as first reported by ESPN.com and confirmed by SI.com’s Sam Amick. The Sixers will receive two second-round picks and a small trade exception, equal to Speights’ $2.7 million salary, in exchange for their troubles. They have a year to fill that exception in a future trade without sending any salary out, and though many such exceptions go unused, they can prove handy; Boston, for instance, dealt phantom assets for Keyon Dooling and absorbed Dooling’s salary via a trade exception created in last season’s Marquis Daniels salary dump.

    Speights, a restricted free agent after this season, is the head-liner here, and a signal the Grizzlies are unsure whether the recently signed combination of Dante Cunningham and Hamed Haddadi is worthy of taking Arthur’s minutes. Cunningham is a decent mid-range shooter for his position and a willing defender, but at 6-foot-8 and 230 pounds, he’s often undersized. Speights is listed at 6-10 and 245 pounds, so he brings some legit front-line size along with his jumper. Haddadi has the size covered, and while he’s been a rebounding/shot-blocking machine in very limited minutes (including 31 useful playoff minutes last season), he just hasn’t been able to stay on the court. Read More…


  • Published On 1:32pm, Jan 04, 2012
  • Grizzlies face tough decision now that they have a championship window

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    The Grizzlies could trade for a big man, but doing so would almost certainly cost them O.J. Mayo and they may still go over the tax line. (AP)

    The Grizzlies play in the league’s second-smallest market, trumping only New Orleans, and they have been consistent money-losers even when they win. But their moment has arrived, and it is a moment that will test the new collective bargaining agreement and the league’s undisclosed revenue-sharing plan — the products of a lockout intended to help prop up small-market teams.

    However they did it, the Grizzlies have accomplished what every small-market team is supposed to in order to win: They have assembled a four-man core on three cheap deals and one big one (Zach Randolph), and then paid the price when those three cheap pieces became eligible for their first big NBA contracts. They have about $50.5 million committed this season to Mike Conley, Rudy Gay, Marc Gasol and Randolph, and their bill for just those four players will jump to about $58 million in 2014-15, per ShamSports and other sources. Depending on Gasol’s exact starting salary and what the Grizzlies have agreed to pay Josh Selby this season, they might be as little as about $500,000 or $750,000 under the league’s luxury-tax threshold — a tough place for a money-losing small-market team to be, though the Grizzlies actually paid the tax six seasons ago.

    Will they go there again? That depends on a lot of things, including the willingness of owner Michael Heisley to spend money and whether the tax line — set around $70.3 million this season — jumps faster than the salaries tied to Memphis’ key players over the next half-decade.

    But if you look at the history of small-market teams who cracked the elite, you’ll see all these poor sisters have spent when they sensed a championship window. The Kings, doing so poorly now they nearly moved to Anaheim this season, sported top-five overall payrolls twice during the height of the Chris Webber era. The Spurs have paid the luxury tax three times in the last six seasons, though only once (in 2009-10) did they pay more than even $1 million in tax penalties; San Antonio had the luxury of keeping its spending to that level in part because one of their core stars (Tim Duncan) was so great they could subsist on cheap role players — until Duncan’s game slipped a bit, and they took the high-priced gamble on Richard Jefferson. Read More…


  • Published On 2:55pm, Dec 19, 2011
  • Shane Battier gives Heat more options

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    Shane Battier, who announced on Thursday that he will sign with the Heat, gives Miami more small-ball options with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. (US PRESSWIRE)

    Shane Battier has to agreed to sign with the Heat, making one of the league’s most versatile teams even more versatile.

    Batter gives the Heat more small-ball options, since both he and LeBron James have logged time as power forwards in small lineups. Battier’s still a very good defensive player, even if he has slipped a bit with age, and his ability to defend wing players at a higher level than Mike Miller should help James and Dwyane Wade conserve a bit more energy next season, or roam more freely since Battier can take the other team’s wing stud. Battier doesn’t have the “lethal from anywhere behind the arc” range of Miller or James Jones, but he’s a very good shooter, especially from the corners, and he has a nifty post game he can break out against smaller defenders.

    He can also work as a screener in pick-and-roll plays — as he often did with Mike Conley in the playoffs — giving Wade and James more crazy pick-and-roll combinations with which to experiment.

    And some good news for Miami fans, if not for “competitive balance” true believers: SI.com’s Sam Amick reports Battier has accepted the “mini” mid-level exception open to teams over the luxury tax and valued at $3 million per season over three years. That’s much lower than the “full” mid-level exception open to non-tax teams and valued at $5 million per season over four years. It’s also possible, according to Amick and ESPN.com’s Brian Windhorst, that Battier has agreed to accept a chunk of the full mid-level rather than the mini mid-level, and that distinction could matter.

    Battier’s willingness to take the “mini” mid-level would be huge for Miami, because any team that uses the full mid-level to take their payroll over the tax line cannot spend beyond a wall set at $4 million over the tax — about $74.3 million this season. Adding Battier for the full mid-level and retaining Miller would have left the Heat with only about $2 million to take care of Mario Chalmers, a restricted free agent, and fill the rest of the roster — including their need for a fourth veteran big. Battier taking the “mini” mid-level would leave Miami free to spend as much as it wishes in a season where the old dollar-for-dollar tax still applies. The Heat wouldn’t have to use the amnesty clause on Miller, and they could match a competing offer for Chalmers. Read More…


  • Published On 11:46am, Dec 08, 2011
  • What to watch in Game 5 of Grizzlies-Thunder

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    Mike Conley's ability to play Russell Westbrook to a near draw in Game 3 was a key reason Memphis held a 2-1 lead entering Monday's game. (Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images)

    As a neutral fan in this crazy Grizzlies-Thunder second-round series, I’m hoping this baby goes the full seven. That has been the one thing missing from this most unpredictable playoff season — a winner-take-all seventh game.

    But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Wednesday brings Game 5 in Oklahoma City, where both teams will try to recover less than 48 hours after a triple-overtime classic in Memphis. Here are a few of the things I’ll be watching for as the two teams battle for the upper hand in the deadlocked series:

    The point guard battle

    The Mike Conley-Russell Westbrook matchup isn’t always a one-on-one battle, since Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins is giving the Westbrook defensive assignment to O.J. Mayo during crunch time. But Conley’s ability to play Westbrook to a near draw, in terms of overall production, was a key reason Memphis had a 2-1 lead going into Monday’s game. Conley is rarely spectacular, but his pick-and-roll work with Marc Gasol has given the Thunder major problems, and he has hit enough mid-range jumpers that the Thunder’s strategy of going under screens has been, at best, a wash.

    The matchup leaned more heavily in Oklahoma City’s direction Monday, when Conley went just 2-of-12 from the field (though he did attempt 12 free throws, and one of those two makes from the field was obviously huge) and continued to have problems defending Westbrook and James Harden. Those problems are probably intractable. Conley is not big enough to handle Westbrook on the block or in transition, and he has a bad habit of jumping early on pick-and-roll plays, giving his man a clear driving lane. The Grizzlies need Conley to clean that up and play efficient pick-and-roll ball with Gasol.

    Read More…


  • Published On 1:00pm, May 11, 2011
  • In defense of Durant’s signature ‘rip move’

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    Kevin Durant pulled the “rip move” on Tony Allen the other day and earned three free throws. You know the rip move, even if you don’t know it by its nickname. It’s the foul-drawing trick Durant and others, including Kobe Bryant and Chauncey Billups, use when they see a defender guarding them closely and perhaps extending his arms out forward toward the offensive player’s chest or shoulder area. If Durant notices a defender in that sort of position, he’ll bring the ball down to his hip and then raise it up in a very quick shooting motion, “ripping” his arms through the space between him and his defender and crashing them upward into the outstretched arms of his victim.

    The defensive player rarely moves much, but Durant usually gets the call anyway. The “rip move” is unpopular outside of Oklahoma City, and there is perhaps no player more vulnerable to it than Allen. The Grizzlies’ swingman loves to get chest-to-chest with his guy, and that positioning gives Durant the chance to create contact simply by going straight up with the ball.

    Again, this is not a popular thing. Rob Mahoney has railed against it on this very blog. Nuggets forward Kenyon Martin has called for it to be banned. Opposing coaches have characterized it as cheap and unfair to defensive players who, critics say, are penalized for the sin of standing near Durant.

    The league has consistently backed the move as legal; Stu Jackson, the NBA’s vice president of basketball operations, reiterated that to me this week. Jackson did say the league’s competition committee discussed the move last offseason after a few members expressed concern about it, and that he’s “sure” the league will look at it again this offseason.

    “But unless someone comes up with a better interpretation of our rule book, those are all defensive fouls,” Jackson said.

    The rule book is important because the rip move debate often centers on the somewhat vague notion of a “legal guarding position.” But if you look at some of Durant’s successful rip moves a bit more carefully, they actually implicate a much simpler rule: A defensive player is never allowed to place his forearm on the body of an offensive player above the foul line extended. Ever. The rule book could not be clearer about this; go to that link and watch the first video for a great example. The use of a forearm — specifically a forearm — in this way for even a split second is supposed to be an automatic foul. A defender can put his hand on an offensive player along the perimeter as long as the touch does not impede the offensive player’s progress, Jackson said. And post defenders are allowed to use their forearm against an offensive player who has his back to the basket below the foul line extended. But the forearm above that line is a no-no.

    Read More…


  • Published On 1:00pm, May 06, 2011
  • Credit Memphis for some of Westbrook’s TOs

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    Memphis forced 18 Thunder turnovers in Game 1, seven from Russell Westbrook. (AP)

    It has been a rough couple of weeks for Russell Westbrook, a fantastic player who has had three shaky playoffs games in a row and has two things going against him:

    1) He’s on the same team as Kevin Durant, meaning every so-so shot he takes will be seen as a possession wasted.

    2) He’s 22, and still learning how to play point guard in the NBA.

    Read More…


  • Published On 2:45pm, May 03, 2011


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