• Joe Keller

Can Memphis Go All the Way?

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*Photo via USA Today

The Memphis Grizzles have been a constant figure in postseason play in recent years. This will be the fifth year in a row they will be playing in April, but unlike past seasons, there seems to be more pressure on them to get to the Finals. They’ve been a solid team for some time now, but not talked about in serious title contention, even after a trip to the Conference Finals two years ago. This year they have the second best record in the West and third overall. When you have that kind of a record, especially out West, you will be talked about as a serious title contender, but are they for real?

The answer is yes, while I believe they are fully capable of making it out of the brutal Western Conference, and could ultimately be crowned NBA Champions. I do have some doubts. My doubts are not with the talents of this team, but the talents of the teams they play against. The West is historically good this year, so good that it wouldn’t surprise me if any of the eight teams in the playoff picture made it to the Finals. To understand how good the West is, the 2-7 seeds are separated by just 5 games. The Grizzles currently hold the two seed, but have been struggling a bit lately. They’ve played .500 ball in their last ten games, which shouldn’t cause a panic in Memphis, but with the Grizzles having the 5th toughest schedule remaining, playing .500 basketball is not going to cut it if they want home court. If the season were to end today the Grizzles would host the Mavericks in the first round, while I think Memphis would win this series it wouldn’t shock me if Dallas pulled off an upset. However, we still have a few weeks left that will determine playoff seeding, and in this loaded conference things are bound to change.

As I said before the West is real deep, and more teams than ever before have legitimate title aspirations. The Grizzles are in that conversation, and their body of work this season proves it. They were one of three teams at the All Star break to have a winning percentage of .750 or better, the other two are the top two teams in the league, Golden State and Atlanta. They play one of the best brands of “team” basketball in the league, because of this system there isn’t one big time stat stuffer in the lineup. This is why only one Grizzle was named to the All Star team, the lone All Star, Marc Gasol, who is leading the team in scoring (18.1) and 10th in the NBA in blocks. (1.75) Everyone on this team knows its role and its shows. They have different players ranked in the top 10 of multiple NBA categories, Zach Randolph is 6th in NBA with 11.4 rebounds per game and tied for 6th in most double doubles, Randolph has posted a double-double in 33 of the 53 games he’s played.

They say defense wins championships and if that’s the case Memphis is the front runner. They have one of the league’s best defensive wings in Tony Allen who is 4th in the league in steals with 2 per game. This stingy defense is allowing a league best 95.5 points per game. In the playoffs you have to be able to neutralize great scorers, especially in a conference that has the likes of Curry, Harden, Durant and Westbrook. The Grizzles are tough, have a great inside presence and play great defense, all things that are essential to a championship run. However my concern with this team is on the offensive end. Offensively this team relies on a slow half-court game. They like to pound the ball into the paint to their two bigs. They are heavily dependent of slowing the tempo down, because they aren’t a very athletic team. Out of all the current playoff teams they score the least per game. I’m worried they don’t have that one scorer that can go out and get them a bucket when they need it, which is important in a playoff series. They tried to solve that problem by acquiring Jeff Green from Boston, in January. The Green experiment has been met with mixed results. The Grizzles got Green to be that go to athletic wing player that can get a bucket when the offense gets stale, but Green is averaging just 12.5 points on 40% shooting and 32 % from three, after averaging 17.6 in Boston. Green’s drop in production could be that his minutes have drop by five since leaving Boston, because defensive specialist, Tony Allen plays the same position.

The Grizzles are 19-8 since acquiring Green so the move hasn’t hurt the team’s chemistry. Hopefully Green can be that go to guy in the playoffs, and find his shooting touch, but for now it seems that Gasol is going to be that guy, he hit a game winner earlier in the week, and has earned the right to have the offense go through him. We will see how Memphis performs down the stretch, but I believe their playoff experience, toughness, defensive ability, and continuity make them real contenders.