It’s almost that time of year, the NBA Playoffs are vastly approaching. As usual there are several classes in terms of playoff teams. There’s your pretenders, your contenders, and then that other class that people seldom mention. The darkhorse class, home of the team that creates matchup issues for both the contenders and pretenders. The team that moves silently through the conference as well as the league knocking off top teams without making national headlines. The talking heads don’t label those wins as upsets, because that team is not a pushover yet not good enough to be considered true contenders. Their almost in limbo, they exist but are seldom mentioned. This year’s biggest darkhorse……. The Memphis Grizzlies.
Many remember the big upset last year in the first round, when Memphis took down the San Antonio Spurs. They did that without one of their best players in Rudy Gay, Zach Randolph led a young team to the surprising victory. The Grizzlies advanced to the second round and put up a great fight against Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder. This year the Grizzlies were dealt another blow when Randolph(ZBo) went down for much of the shortened season, instead of imploding the Grizzlies flourished. That had much to do with an early season trade, they acquired a young forward with upside in Marreese Speights. Speights filled in for Randolph and even developed his game as a member of the Grizzlies. The Grizzlies also added a touch of veteran leadership to the second unit; a once “franchise player” named Gilbert Arenas. Memphis is currently 5th in the Western Conference Playoff race, they are 32-23. Their last two wins were against the teams that played in last year’s NBA Finals, they beat the Heat & Mavs in back to back games. They went up early on both teams and fended off several rallies, it speaks volumes to the mental make up of this team. Let’s take a look at what makes THIS team THE team every contender wishes to avoid in this year’s playoffs.
Mike Conley Jr– Mike has improved every year in the league, this year might have been the biggest jump. He is now a reliable starting point guard in this league, his numbers this year: 13 pts, 7 ast, 2.4 stl, and 2 turnovers. Conley is shooting 43% from the floor and 36% from three. The most important improvement, taking less shots and running the team efficiently.
Tony Allen– The defensive guru on this team, the basketball version of Darrelle Revis. Allen is by far one of the best, if not THE best one on one perimeter defenders in the NBA. What makes this so intriguing, Tony was a very offensive minded player in college. Allen has added to his shutdown defensive ways by being more assertive on offense this year. Allen is averaging 10pts, 4rebs, and 1 steal while shooting 48% from the floor. What’s interesting when looking at Allen’s defensive numbers, he does such a great job denying the basketball that he rarely ends up in iso situations (62). Due to his lockdown abilities he ends up in far more Pick and Roll situations (98). In P&R situations, Allen forces a turnover 21.4% of the time and holds the ball handler to 29.6% shooting in those opportunities. The best way to attack Allen, to run off screens and get free. Outside of that he will be RIGHT there to bother you.
OJ Mayo– Mayo has done a great job providing the second unit with offense this season. He is a gifted scorer, like Conley he’s learned to be more efficient than years past. On the season OJ is averaging 12.5 pts, 3 rebs, 2 ast, and 1 steal. He’s shooting 40% from the floor and 36% from three. Mayo’s contributions can’t be taken lightly; as Tony Allen is a defensive minded player; Mayo is just as offensive minded. Mayo is a great weapon for the Grizzlies to have as he’s able to put up big numbers in the scoring column on any given night. His lack of size and ability to play defense is the reason he comes off the bench, he’s definitely embraced his role and has made the most of it.
Gilbert Arenas– Agent Zero contributions are yet to consistently show on the court in terms of stats, but he does give them a leader on that second unit. Arenas has finally put ego aside and started playing basketball, he’s done a great job leading the unit and hitting shots when needed. In the games against Miami and Dallas, Arenas hit 7 of 10 shots from deep. His ability to knock down threes is greatly needed by this Memphis team, that might be their biggest deficiency as a unit. Agent Zero is shooting 46.2% from the floor, and 43.5% from deep.
Rudy Gay– Rudy is averaging 18.4 pts, 6.4 rebs, 2.3 ast, and 1.5 steals. Memphis really missed his presence offensively in last year’s playoffs. He’s one of the Grizzlies two go-to guys, him and Randolph. He’s not doing too bad a job coming off of last year’s injury. He’s shooting 44% from the field and 32% from three point land. The key this year for Rudy, he’s done more than settle for bad iso situations. He’s started to post up more, he’s also doing a better job of cutting when Zbo or Gasol is posting up. We all know Rudy is a gifted offensive player; here’s something that hardly gets talked about, Rudy is great at defending the pick and roll. Gay is ranked 22nd in the league defending the ball handler in those situations; of 84 P&R opportunities Gay has forced a turnover 28.6% of the time and only 29.6% of those opportunities resulted in points.
Marreece Speights– Speights has done an incredible job filling in for Zach Randolph this year. Speights contributions go much further than the box score, on the year Mo’s averaging 8 pts and 6 rebs a game. If you were to watch a Grizzlies game, you’d see his energy is contagious. He fights for EVERY rebound, whether on the offensive or defensive glass. Speights has had 5 double-doubles this season, on numerous occasions he finished games 1 rebound shy of a double-double. ZBo is now healthy and has been playing of late, Speights has remained the starter until Zbo regains his All-Star form.
Zach Randolph– ZBo has played in just 18 games this season, he’s been a big part of the resurgence of the Memphis franchise. In those 18 games, he’s averaging 12 points and 7 rebounds. In the past two games, against Miami & Dallas he got to play 29 minutes. In both games Randolph responded by posting double-doubles; 14pts & 14 rebs against Miami, 15pts & 11rebs versus Dallas. Zach coming off the bench has only strengthened the already strong Grizzlies second unit.
Marc Gasol- Marc has improved every season in the NBA, yet he’s still forgotten when people think about the best big men in the league. How does one ignore his contributions? Gasol is averaging 15 pts, 9.5 rebs, 3.1 ast, and 1.91 blk a game. Marc is ranked 6th in the league in scoring off of offensive rebounds, he’s ranked 37th in the league in converting post up opportunities, and 26th in converting iso opportunities. Gasol is extremely talented on both ends of the floor; offensively he may not be as graceful as his brother, but he has very good range on his jumper and is a good post player. Defensively Marc is everything his brother is not, he has no problem being physcical. It’s hard to score in the paint on Memphis due to Gasol’s presence defensively, it’s not always blocked shots. Marc does a great job rotating and helping his teammates, he often plugs the cutting lanes and is not a liability in defending the pick and roll. Marc’s best at one on one defense, in 135 post up situations he’s caused a turnover 17% of the time. Only 34.8% of those chances result in baskets for the offensive player, Gasol is the anchor to the stout Memphis defense.
The Grizzlies have one of THE best front lines in the NBA in ZBo, Gasol, & Gay. Couple that with Conley’s steady play at the point guard position, Tony Allen’s ability to harass the opponents best perimeter player and you have a formula for success. It’s very hard for opposing teams to score in the paint let alone rebound well against the Grizzlies. The x-factor with them going forward is whether Conley can handle his own against the elite point guards the league has to offer and if they can make enough three point shots to keep opposing defenses honest. Otherwise teams will be able to sag and help in the post, the key is if Memphis can stay healthy and enter the playoffs with a healthy Randolph & Gay. IF that happens, expect the Grizzlies to make a further run than last year as THIS year’s darkhorse!!
Thanks to Synergy Sports for the statistics!