How good can the Memphis Grizzlies become?

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The Memphis Grizzlies provided one of the 2011 playoffs’ most endearing storylines for reasons that went beyond a mere appreciation for the underdog. They won their first-round series against the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs, sure, but it was the way the Grizzlies won — and the personnel with which they did so — that gave them their undeniable appeal. The Grizz were relentless, audacious, and thanks to Tony Allen, just a little bit insane. The playoff potency of that combination goes without saying at this point, but it should be interesting to see just how far the Grizzlies can climb without any true top-tier prospects in the pipeline. Memphis will be putting their own version of the one-star model to the test over the next few seasons, with their advancement dependent on the collective growth of a number of talented — but sub-elite — contributors.

The Grizzlies were good enough to usher the Spurs out of the postseason, but faltered slightly against an impressive Oklahoma City team. That’s an awesome showing for an eighth seed, but the Grizzlies will no longer be working within the expectations of an underdog club. Memphis has officially arrived, and while their ascent has brought the franchise its first ever playoff series win and an air of respectability, so too will come the weight of all they’ve earned. Wins only matter if a team can win consistently, and the season to come will serve as a referendum on all Memphis has accomplished thus far.

Zach Randolph and co. are certainly up to that challenge; their playoff success was no fluke, and virtually every aspect of their performance against the Spurs and Thunder should be replicable next season. That said, competitive teams do more than simply affirm their initial claims. The next few seasons in Memphis will be defined by the team’s ability to take the next step, a framework that would seem problematic for the Grizzlies on first glance. Memphis is essentially locked into their current roster (with the only exception being O.J. Mayo, who will likely be dealt as soon as possible) thanks to the team’s salary structure, and can’t count on any tremendous internal improvements.

Still, there’s reason to believe in the Grizzlies’ upward momentum. Their avenues toward improvement may not be as straightforward as those of younger, talent-laden clubs, but with a few minor tweaks, the Grizz could be ready to climb into the ranks of the West’s quasi-contenders. Such a climb is hardly a given, but whether or not Memphis can continue to thrive against such lofty expectations depends on a few crucial factors:

Incremental gains across the board

Memphis doesn’t have a star-in-waiting on the verge of a substantial leap, but the majority of the team’s rotation players are inching toward their respective primes. Mike Conley, Rudy Gay, Marc Gasol, and Darrell Arthur are all 26 years old or younger, and Xavier Henry — an intriguing long-term wing prospect — is just 20. All will see better production in their NBA careers if everything goes according to plan, and while a single player’s modest boost in field goal percentage or rebounding may not seem like much, collectively that group’s gains have the potential to propel the Grizz forward.

Memphis also benefits from the fact that the team’s vets — Zach Randolph, Tony Allen, et al — are still well within their most productive NBA years. If Zeebo keeps rolling, Allen continues to play some of the best perimeter defense in the league, and the rest of the crew develops on course, the Grizzlies could be ready to improve substantially even without a breakout star or a significant addition.

Shot redistribution

Rudy Gay’s shot selection isn’t quite worthy of an intervention, but he still needs to understand that a more conservative offensive role would be the best for both himself and the team. Randolph is the Memphis’ most dominant offensive player, but Gay plays in the most dominant offensive style. It’s all well and good that Gay posted career highs in field goal percentage and three-point percentage last season, but his shot creating ability still isn’t quite profound enough for him to function as an offensive star. Instead, he’s much better off deferring to Randolph and the team concept; Conley, Gasol, and Arthur are capable enough to be trusted with more shots, and only by working in concert with them can Gay maximize his own offensive efficiency.

Randolph is incredibly productive and Gay is an impressive player in his own right, but those two will have to lean more than ever on the cast around them for offensive buoyancy. The road to Memphis’ improvement comes in ramping up their middling offensive performance, and considering that Gay overstepped his bounds a bit in the way he controlled the ball early in the 2010-2011 season, striking a proper balance seems to be the most sensible way to reach that end.

Shore up their inexplicable shortcomings on the defensive glass

Memphis isn’t without their fair share of weaknesses: the Grizz could stand to contest shots a bit better, they could get to the free throw line a bit more, and they could exercise more patience in their half-court offense. Yet all of those limitations are understandable and explainable, while the team’s inability to secure defensive rebounds is a bit more baffling. Despite having a top-10 defensive rebounder (Randolph), another big with strong rebounding numbers (Gasol), and a group of pretty solid positional rebounders, the Grizzlies ranked 21st in the league last season in defensive rebounding rate. Randolph’s boards alone should be enough to vault Memphis toward rebounding respectability, but the team’s risky defensive style has apparently afforded opponents with a chance to dominate the glass. The Grizzlies need to strike that happy balance between generating turnovers and maintaining some semblance of a stable half-court defense, at least so much that solid individual rebounders don’t suffer as an aggregate.

Jeff Hornacek on Joakim Noah: “We’ve moved on. He’s ready to move on”

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Not that anyone actually thought Joakim Noah would be back with the Knicks this season — not after Noah and coach Jeff Hornacek got into an argument that ended with Noah shoving his coach.

But if anyone thought with Kristaps Porzingis out for the season with a torn ACL the Knicks might turn to Porzingis for a little boost, think again. Via Al Iannazzone at Newsday as the Knicks got back to post All-Star practice.

“There’s really nothing more to say about it, update it. We’ve moved on. He’s ready to move on and maybe have an opportunity somewhere else. That’s really our focus to go play Orlando. We have 23 games left. We’re trying to get our young guys to step it up. That’s kind of old story and all done with as far as I’m concerned.”

The Knicks would love to trade Noah, but he has the most untradable contract in the NBA — two years, $37.8 million left after this season. It would take the Knicks attaching a couple of first-round picks and taking back some dead salary to make it happen. The Knicks may eventually buy him out, but the more likely option is they keep him through the summer (in case he is needed as salary in a trade), and possibly into next season (depending upon how big a discount he would give the team to be bought out and move on).

Trail Blazers hope for another post-All-Star break revival

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PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — The Trail Blazers have enjoyed post-All-Star break revivals the past two seasons.

Those late-season rallies will no doubt be an ongoing theme in the congested Western Conference playoff race once Portland resumes play on Friday in Utah.

“I mean, I think that’s in the back of our minds. We know that we’re usually a better team in the second half of the season,” Portland guard Damian Lillard said. “We can’t just go into it saying, `All right, we’re always good at this part of the season.’ I think mentally we have to understand how close of a race it is and that we’ve got to be sharp all the way through.”

Portland is 32-26 at the break, tied for sixth in the West, which is better off than it was last season at the same point.

But the Blazers are one of five teams in the West with 26 losses. The Warriors and Houston Rockets sit comfortably atop the standings with the next eight teams jostling for position.

The Blazers headed into the All-Star Game with a 123-117 victory over Golden State, snapping a seven-game losing streak to the Warriors. Lillard had 44 points, his third straight game with 39 or more and the best scoring stretch of his career. His 133 points over the last three games is the best such run in franchise history.

Afterward, Lillard sounded like he was taking it upon himself to improve the Blazers’ playoff position.

“Each season, it’s always a few teams that fall by the wayside and we’ve just got to make sure we’re not one of them,” he said. “As a leader, I’ve got to be the guy to lead that charge.”

In 2015-16, Portland was 27-27 at the All-Star break after winning eight of nine games going into it. The Blazers finished the regular season 44-38 and in fifth place in the West. They got past the Clippers in the first round of the playoffs before falling to the Warriors in the conference semifinals.

Last season, Portland lost three straight games to go into the break at 23-33. Shortly thereafter, an overtime loss at Detroit put them 11 games under .500.

But in March, Portland caught fire and went 13-3, best in the NBA. Lillard was named the conference’s Player of the Month, averaging 29.1 points, 4.4 rebounds, 6.0 assists and 1.4 steals in 16 games. Terry Stotts was named Coach of the Month.

Center Jusuf Nurkic, who came to Portland in a trade a handful of days before the All-Star break, went on to average 15.2 points, 10.4 rebounds and 1.9 blocks in 20 games with the Blazers. Portland was 14-5 with the 7-footer in the starting lineup.

Portland made the playoffs for the fourth straight season, but fell in the opening round to the Warriors.

This season, Portland is in the thick of the race. Lillard leads the team with 26.1 points per game, sixth in the league, while also averaging 6.6 assists. Backcourt teammate CJ McCollum is averaging 21.7 points, and Nurkic is at 14.1 points and 8.2 rebounds.

Stotts was asked just before the break whether he was happy with the team’s position.

“We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us. We’ve got a lot of teams out there fighting for playoff spots,” the coach said. “It’s not about where we are. It’s about where we’re headed.”

 

Karl Malone pranks Anthony Davis in new Redbull video

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Karl Malone still has a few moves left.

Not so much on the court, but the Hall of Famer and one of the greatest power forwards ever was disguised as “Sam the Maintenance Man” where he would disrupt a video shoot by New Orleans Pelicans All-Star Anthony Davis (who thought he was making a basketball video for redbull.com). Malone was decked out in a traditional janitor onesie, a wig of dreadlocks, glasses and extra padding around his gut, and he had fun in his role.

At the end of the clip, you see Malone asking the cameras to cut so he could talk shop with AD on the left block, where Malone was near unstoppable. Check it out.

 

Statement defending self by former Mavs employee makes things sound worse

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In the argument that owner Mark Cuban must have known about the “Animal House” style sexual predatory environment on the business side of the Dallas Mavericks, a statement from a former Mavericks’ employee defending himself is now the best evidence. And it’s pretty damning.

One of the people mentioned directly in the bombshell Sports Illustrated story is former Mavs.com writer Earl K. Sneed. He was involved in a domestic dispute where he beat his then-girlfriend his first season with the Mavericks, then a few months later was arrested — at the Mavericks facility — for assault. He pled guilty to that and went through court-mandated anger management classes. He reportedly had another dispute in 2014 hitting a female co-worker which led to more counseling (this ordered by the team), and as a result of the court issues, he legally was not able to follow the team when it went into Canada to play the Raptors.

Sneed issued this statement to the Dallas Morning News defending himself.

“While both instances described in the report are damning and language used is not accurate, the two relationships described in the report are not something I am proud to have been a part of. I underwent much counseling after both situations, under the direction of [Mavs vice president of human resources] Buddy Pittman, and I feel like I grew from that counseling. I also signed a contract stating that I would not have one-on-one contact or fraternize with female employees after the inaccurately described incident with my female co-worker, who was a live-in girlfriend. I abided by the details of that contract for four years, and received counseling during that period to avoid future instances. I thank Buddy Pittman for helping me to grow during that time, and I thank Mark Cuban for his willingness to help facilitate that growth.”

So let me get this right: Sneed was hauled out of the Mavericks facility in handcuffs, then signed a new contract to stay on employed by the team (for four more years) where he could not do his job if the team went to Canada, and could not “have one-on-one contact or fraternize with female employees” — and Cuban didn’t know about any of this? That strains belief. Sneed’s statement sparked outrage on social media, as it should.

That Sneed stayed employed by the team speaks to the issues in the Mavericks human resources department and the team culture. Both Sneed and the head of HR have been fired in the wake of these stories.

The report says there are no incidents with Cuban, nor any members of the Mavericks basketball team, behaving inappropriately toward women.

Dallas and Cuban have hired an independent investigator to look into the claims and the workplace environment with the Mavericks. When that is done, expect NBA Commissioner Adam Silver to come down hard on the franchise, both to send a message to other franchises (there are rumors the Mavs are not the only one facing issues) and because this all is a big blow to the image of a league that paints itself as progressive.