Last season: 40-42, which was a revelation because going into the season with Zach Randolph, OJ Mayo and Allen Iverson many expected no passing, followed closely implosion and disaster. But Iverson was shipped out and the team coalesced, Marc Gasol took a huge step forward, Randolph had a career year and they were about average. They may have overachieved expectations more than any team in the league last season.
Head Coach: Lionel Hollins, who deserves credit in part for that turnaround in record. He did it by having a tight rotation of the few guys he could trust, but on a team without much depth that’s how you win.
Key Departures: Ronnie Brewer (who was let go so they could offer Rudy Gay a max deal… just like Kevin Durant got), the ability to sneak up on teams who don’t think they are any good.
Key Additions: They kept Rudy Gay at five years, $82 million. Max deal. These contracts often have one of two impacts: Guys play better because they are both driven and now want to live up to that money; or they think they’ve made it and can coast. No predictions on Gay here — he played well for USA Basketball this summer — but we’ll see which way he goes. Or maybe he just stays who he is.
Tony Allen is the new Ronnie Brewer (solid signing), also on board are rookies Xavier Henry and Greivis Vasquez.
Best case scenario: This team takes the next step forward into one of the lower playoff spots in the West.
For that to happen: The dreaded internal improvement — everyone on the team that took a step forward last season needs to do it again, and other guys need to step forward so Hollins can trust his bench more.
That can happen, but it’s rare.
It starts with Rudy Gay, who needs to be a leader for this team now. And that starts on the defensive end — the place he was weakest. We know he can be dynamic on offense and particularly in transition, but if the Grizzlies are really going to improve it has to start with their 19th in the league defensive rating. Wing defense was particularly sad. Gay can lead by example here. OJ needs to follow and needs to be himself on offense, as well.
The other key is Mike Conley at point guard improving, he needs to become better at creating shots for those talented post and wing players around him. He is the key to their offense getting better, and in a contract year we’ve seen amazing things happen. Not going to bet on it, but it could happen and it’s key.
Zach Randolph can continue to just shoot and rebound. The Grizzlies need to feed him on the low block every time he gets good position (he is one of better post scorers in the league). They need to use Marc Gasol as the roll man on the pick and roll more. These two need to remain one of the better front lines in the league. Hasheem Thabeet has to give them some depth along the front line. Quality depth, not what he did last year.
They have to get contributions from Xavier Henry and Greivis Vasquez right away, giving them needed depth.
More likely the Grizzlies will: Look a lot like last year’s Grizzlies, nice but not thrilling. That’s what happens when you don’t really address your flaws (say, point guard). Potential is there but will remain untapped in a real way. A team that can post you up but one you can run on.
To expect players to make those kind of steps forward seen last season — even young players — in consecutive years is asking a lot. To expect it across the board is foolish. Some on the Grizzlies will continue to improve, others will remain stagnant or fall back. But it will not be consistent, and neither will the Grizzlies be.
Prediction: 38-42, which leaves them in the NBA’s no-mans land — not good enough to make the playoffs, too good to get a high lottery pick to jumpstart the franchise. You’d say maybe the team could spend a little or make a smart personnel move, but with Michael Heisley as owner nobody should expect it.