NBA Season Preview: Memphis Grizzlies

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Last season: Memphis had hoped to turn a magical second-round playoff run (which included pushing OKC to seven games) into momentum for the next season. They were still good — 41-25, which earned them the four seed — but when Zach Randolph went out with knee issues the Grizzlies were not the same. He came back in time for the playoffs but was still not 100 percent and it showed. Memphis had their chances in the first round against the Clippers — they blew a 21-point lead in Game 1 and had Game 7 at home — but were bounced earlier than they planned.

Key Departures: O.J. Mayo never really found a fit in Memphis so now he’s going to try and find a home in Dallas. It’s a loss in that it saps Memphis of bench strength that they got nothing back for in return. Zip. That was the only real name loss, although Dante Cunningham had potential that may blossom elsewhere now.

Key Additions: They brought in Jerryd Bayless, Wayne Ellington and Tony Wroten. We will see if any of these guys actually turn out to be key, but they are going to get the chance. With Mayo gone there is plenty of room and opportunity for someone to step up off the bench and grab minutes and a role.

Three keys to the Grizzlies season:

1) Are Rudy Gay and Zach Randolph healthy and ready to lead the offense? If you’re an optimistic Grizzlies fan, your mantra is that we have yet to really see the Grizzlies running on all cylinders. Rudy Gay missed the playoffs two years ago, Zach Randolph wasn’t right last year. Once we get everyone together…

But will they? And really, just how good can they be, particularly on offense. The Grizzlies are fun because they are a throwback team — Marc Gasol is an old-school bruiser on both ends but with a mid-range shot you have to respect (but he’s so old-school you almost expect a two-hand set shot). Randolph is as gifted a back-to-the-basket scorer from the block as there is in the league. Rudy Gay can slash into the lane with the best of them (although he too often settles for contested midrange jumpers). The question is can they all co-exist? As part of that, who is spacing the floor with shooting? Not Mayo anymore. Solid point guard Mike Conley hit a solid 37.7 percent from three last season and he was the best shooter from three on the team. They didn’t add a shooter this summer. Memphis both avoids and can’t hit the three, so despite all their talent you can defend them. You can pack it in.

Gay and Randolph have to be very efficient for the Grizzlies to score enough to be a real threat. And they have to stay healthy. Can they do that?

2) They need to get some good bench play from someone. Anyone. The Memphis can roll out five quality players to finish games — Conley, Tony Allen, Gay, Randolph and Gasol. But after that the drop off is pretty severe and they need someone to step up. Josh Selby will get his chances, as will Bayless. Are you counting on Flip Murray and Wayne Ellington to give you quality minutes every night? The bench is an issue for the Grizzlies.

3) Are there going to be changes when Robert Pera takes over as owner? The sale seems to be dragging out a bit, but Robert Pera (with minority investors like Justin Timberlake and Peyton Manning) should take over the team at some point this season. That doesn’t mean the team is moving — the lease is rock solid for another nine years — but it does lead to questions about direction of the franchise on the court.

Pera may bring in new people on the basketball side that will chart a new course. Or, he may make more gradual changes. But we don’t really know what those changes will be or what that means for the Grizzlies roster as it exists now. We don’t know, but the sale could be the first step in a roster shakeup.

What Grizzlies fans should fear: That you’ve seen the best of what this Grizzlies roster can do. And this fear feels pretty close to reality. Back when the Thunder beat the Grizzlies in Game 7 of the second round two years ago it felt like those teams could be on similar trajectories, but while the Thunder continue to take off like a rocket ship the Grizzlies regressed. And when you look at this current roster it’s hard to see them being much more than they were last year. Meanwhile the Thunder and Lakers keep getting a lot better, and you can likely throw the Clippers in that same category (not contenders, but getting better than Memphis). Unless there are changes, they heyday of this Grizzlies roster could be in the rear-view mirror. And it feels like that is the case.

How it likely works out: This season is going to look a lot like last season — is a good team and will win a lot of games with a front line only the Lakers can really match. They will play good defense and most nights get enough offense. Gay will show flashes but never really explode like you’d hope. They make the playoffs for sure, but dreams of a title should be dashed quickly, likely even before the second round.

Prediction: I’ll say 48-34, with a 4-6 seed in the West and a real dogfight of a first round matchup against someone like Denver or San Antonio or the Clippers. If they are healthy and get a favorable matchup they can advance to the second round, where they will test whoever they face but it won’t be enough. Most likely this is a one-round and out team with dreams of the second round now. At least until the team is sold then who knows where things go.

Warriors hope to get Shaun Livingston, Matt Barnes back for second round

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OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — The Golden State Warriors hope to get injured reserves Shaun Livingston and Matt Barnes back from injuries for the second round of the playoffs after getting more than a week off between series.

The Warriors said Saturday that Barnes has been upgraded to probable for Tuesday night’s Game 1 and Livingston remains questionable but is hopeful he will be ready to return. Star forward Kevin Durant is expected to be a full go after missing two games and being limited to 20 minutes in Game 4 last round because of a strained left calf.

Barnes has been sidelined since April 8, while Livingston sprained a finger on his right hand in Game 1 of the first-round against Portland.

Golden State begins the second round at home on Tuesday night against the winner of Sunday’s Game 7 between the Los Angeles Clippers and Utah Jazz. The Warriors have been off since sweeping the Trail Blazers last Monday, giving them more than a week between games.

“I’m trying to make sure I rest it as much as I possibly can, because when I do come back I plan on staying all the way back,” Livingston said Saturday. “Hopefully it will be ready for Tuesday.”

After taking Tuesday and Thursday off following their first-round sweep, the Warriors practiced for a second straight day Saturday. They plan to practice again on Sunday and then again Monday once they know their second-round opponent.

There is no update on the status of coach Steve Kerr, who missed the final two games of the first round because of complications from two back surgeries. Kerr talks daily with interim coach Mike Brown and took part in coaching meetings Friday but was not at practice on Saturday.

PBT Extra: Rockets vs. Spurs far more than Kawhi Leonard vs. James Harden

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Kawhi Leonard vs. James Harden. Two MVP candidates matching up in the second round of the NBA playoffs.

However, the San Antonio Spurs vs. Houston Rockets is much more than that.

It’s a battle of pace. It’s a chess match between two of the best coaches in the game. It’s about which team’s role players are going to step up.

I talk about all of that in this latest PBT Extra. Plus, of course, when Leonard will guard Harden.

How to start your Saturday night: Watching 15 minutes of best plays from NBA season

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There are no NBA playoff games Saturday night, the first night since the start of the postseason there hasn’t been one game. Don’t worry, there are two games on Sunday, including Game 7 between the Jazz and Clippers.

But if you need a Saturday night fix, this will have to do: 15 minutes of the best plays from last season, as compiled by NBA.com.

Go ahead, watch it. You’ve got nothing better to do.

 

Paul Millsap says the expected, he will “most likely” opt out of contract

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This is ranked right next to “overeating can lead to weight gain” on the list of surprising things, but we will dutifully report it anyway:

Paul Millsap is going to opt out and officially become a free agent this summer.

Atlanta’s owner as well as Mike Budenholzer, the coach and head of basketball operations, have both said they plan to do whatever it takes to re-sign Millsap with the Hawks. Millsap didn’t sound like someone eager to leave after the Hawks were eliminated from the playoffs Friday.

“It’s been great. I’m looking to expand this and see where the franchise can go. These last four years has been great. I couldn’t ask for anything more.”

Even with both sides singing Kumbaya, keeping Millsap in Atlanta likely means a five-year contract at or near the max, which for a 32-year-old player means the Hawks would regret the last year or two of that deal.

Not that the Hawks have much of a choice here, they have to come in big and keep him. For one, they can’t afford to lose Al Horford and then Millsap for nothing in back-to-back years. If they were going down the rebuilding road, they needed to trade Millsap at the deadline (or last summer) to make sure they got something in return. Atlanta explored trade options at the deadline, but then pulled back (rumored to be because of an edict from ownership, which didn’t want to see the team blown up after the Kyle Korver trade).

By not making that trade the Hawks signaled their intention to remain a good team — a 43-win team this season that got them the five seed — with Dennis Schroder and Dwight Howard, one that draws well at an arena that historically has not been that full, and see if they can add on. They strike me as a team that will win between 42-50 games a year and be middle of the pack in the East for the next few years, unless they can find a way to add an elite player (which is incredibly difficult).

But if the Hawks can’t re-sign Millsap, then the plan gets blown up. So expect them to come in with a big offer come July 1.