The date was May 9, 2015. The place? FedEx Forum in Memphis, Tennessee.
The 55-win Memphis Grizzlies had just defeated the 67-win Golden State Warriors for the second straight game, taking a 2-1 lead in their Western Conference Semifinal series. Golden State had totaled 90 and 89 points in its two losses, the only time all season it failed to score more than 90 in consecutive games.
Like it had done all of 2014-15 (and the four seasons before), the Grizzlies were trying to wear their opponent down by slowing down the tempo, playing physically and forcing the ball inside on offense.
“Memphis really could win this thing,” NBA fans around the world convinced themselves. The Warriors were the heavy favorite before the series, but nothing was happening was according to plan. Golden State was rattled on offense, missing contested and open shots alike.
As 92.9 FM ESPN’s John Martin said after Game 3, “the Grizzlies have a shot at this thing, against all odds. Let Saturday night be a lesson, folks: When it’s Memphis vs. Errrbody, never, ever take the field.”
Reality quickly set in, however, as the Warriors won the three following contests by 17, 20 and 13 points to win the series in six games.
It was a microcosm of the past four years in Memphis — the Grizzlies’ success gritting and grinding their way to wins would fool fans around the world into thinking they were title contenders, only to have their season come to a disappointing end before the NBA Finals.
Is that the Grizzlies’ destiny again this year with nearly the same roster?
Until they make some wholesale changes to their roster, it is. Let’s find out why.
The Grizzlies’ Talent Doesn’t Stack Up
Somehow, the top of the Western Conference keeps getting tougher.
This offseason, the NBA champion Warriors kept all of their main players and should challenge for the No. 1 seed and the title again next year.
The San Antonio Spurs acquired LaMarcus Aldridge from the pseudo-contending Portland Trail Blazers and stole former Indiana Pacer David West at the veteran minimum.
The Oklahoma City Thunder will get a healthy Kevin Durant back, and its No. 2, Russell Westbrook, had an MVP-caliber season last year. Serge Ibaka is still a stud two-way big, Enes Kanter, acquired at midseason can make a huge impact if his defensive limitations are managed.
The Los Angeles Clippers will compete with the Thunder for the best Big Three in the NBA (Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan) while also gaining new depth in the form of Paul Pierce, Lance Stephenson and Josh Smith.
The Houston Rockets made the Western Conference Finals starting Jason Terry at point guard. Now they have Ty Lawson there, plus James Harden, Dwight Howard and a host of solid role players.
Those five squads represent a lot of talent for Memphis to deal with in the West. In all likelihood, the Grizzlies will face one of those teams in the first round of the playoffs. And if Memphis can get past there, it will probably have to face two more of them all before they can even qualify for the Finals.
Here’s my unofficial rundown of team’s projected top seven players:
Warriors: 1. Stephen Curry 2. Klay Thompson 3. Draymond Green 4. Andrew Bogut 5. Andre Iguodala 6. Harrison Barnes 7. Shawn Livingston
Spurs: 1. Aldridge 2. Kawhi Leonard 3. Tim Duncan 4. Tony Parker 5. Danny Green 6. West 7. Boris Diaw/Manu Ginobili
Thunder: 1. Durant 2. Westbrook 3. Ibaka 4. Kanter 5. Steven Adams 6. Anthony Morrow 7. Dion Waiters
Clippers: 1. Paul 2. Griffin 3. Jordan 4. J.J. Redick 5. Pierce 6. Smith 7. Stephenson
Rockets: 1. Harden 2. Howard 3. Lawson 4. Trevor Ariza 5. Terrence Jones 6. Donatas Motiejunas 7. Corey Brewer/Patrick Beverley
Grizzlies: 1. Marc Gasol 2. Mike Conley 3. Zach Randolph 4. Tony Allen 5. Courtney Lee 6. Jeff Green 7. Brandan Wright
What does all that tell us? Memphis is at a huge talent disadvantage against its Western Conference competition, one it will have to overcome in three consecutive playoff series.
A Structural Weakness
Unless you’ve been living under rock, you know that the NBA is quickly becoming more and more of a three-point shooting league. In broad terms, the league’s analytical movement has helped teams realize that threes are worth 50 percent more than twos—so naturally, it’s nearly impossible to take a “bad” shot from behind the arc.
The squads that shoot the long ball well are usually successful, and the team that don’t, usually aren’t.
Memphis a big exception to that trend. The Grizzlies made just 5.2 three-pointers per game last season, ahead of only the Minnesota Timberwolves, who had the league’s worst record last season.
They simply don’t have the personnel to fire away from deep.
Not coincidentally, the top five squads in makes (the Rockets, the Warriors, the Clippers, the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Atlanta Hawks) were the final five teams remaining in this spring’s playoffs.
In the three final games of the Grizzlies-Warriors series, Memphis shot 12-of-49 (24.5 percent) from three while Golden State made 43-of-95 (45.3 percent) of their long-distance shots.
For those of you mathematically-inclined people, the Warriors had a 93-point advantage (!) in the long-distance battle over a span of just three contests.
In case you need more proof that the Grizzlies can’t shoot worth a lick, their best three-point shooter from last season according to my original metric (explained here) was Conley at No. 54 in the league.
Every conference finalist from 2015 had at least two players higher than No. 54.
You would think Memphis would aggressively work to fix this issue during the offseason, but the team hasn’t yet. The Grizzlies drafted bruising power forward Jarell Martin in the first round of the draft with long-distance snipers R.J. Hunter, Anthony Brown and Joseph Young still on the board.
The closest thing to a knockdown shooter Memphis acquired this summer was Matt Barnes. He shot 36.2 percent from downtown with the Clippers last season, but he also played with Paul, Redick, Griffin and Jordan most of the time. The passing abilities of Paul and Griffin, plus Redick’s excellent three-point shooting ability made it easy for Barnes to get open shots, shots that might not be quite as plentiful in Memphis.
Maybe the Grizzlies find a way to get another impact rotation three-point shooter before the season starts, but it isn’t likely.
Memphis will continue to plug away as one of the league’s better teams in 2015-16, and a Western Conference playoff squad. Head coach Dave Joerger has the Grizzlies well-coached and disciplined on both ends of the floor.
They have a stifling, physical defense and a great mid-range shooting game, which is a major positive.
But without the spacing a prolific long-range attack affords, Memphis will be stuck grinding out wins and hoping their opponents struggle to hit the three-pointers the Grizzlies are reluctant to shoot.