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.

Devin Booker drops 70 points for Suns in loss to Celtics (VIDEO)

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Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker is just 20 years old. He’s a League Pass favorite, and indeed he should be a favorite in Phoenix for years to come. On Friday, Booker dropped 70 points — yes, 70 — in a loss to the Boston Celtics.

Booker’s 70 points is the best outing of the season. It also made him the youngest player to ever reach 70 points.

His final stat line, as you might imagine, was ridiculous. Booker shot 21-of-40 from the field, going 4-of-11 on 3-pointers and a whopping 24-of-26 from the free-throw line. The Suns phenom also grabbed eight rebounds to go with six assists.

Despite the loss to Boston, 130-120, it’s still an incredible milestone for Phoenix and for Booker. There’s a bright spot out there for the Suns.

Magic’s Aaron Gordon skies to finish amazing alley-oop (VIDEO)

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Aaron Gordon may not have had the best dunk contest this year — apparently drones and dunks don’t mix well — but the guy can still get up and finish with the best in the league.

As he did on this alley-oop against Detroit.

Elfrid Payton had to throw a lob that would get over Andre Drummond, but how many guys in the league can get that high, reach back and finish that? Damn.

Former Hawk Pero Antic’s celebration accidentally punches teammate in face in Eruoleague (VIDEO)

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Former Atlanta Hawk Pero Antic is now playing for Turkish powerhouse Fenerbahce, in case you were not aware.

Fenerbahce was facing Anadolu Efes in a EuroLeague game, it was tight late and former NBA player Ekpe Udoh was at the free throw line for Fenerbahce. He missed his second shot, but the rebound caromed out-of-bounds off an Anadolu Efes player. Antic was pumped.

Maybe a little too pumped.

Ouch.

That was Nikola Kalinic, by the way, the guy Antic now owes dinner to. Kalinic would like the dinner more than the hug and kiss he got from Antic right after the play.

Also, Anadolu Efes held on to win 80-77.

(Hat tip to Ball Don’t Lie.)

James Harden helped recruit Lou Williams to Houston

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The Lakers had been shopping Lou Williams around in the run-up to the trade deadline, the only question was would they get a first-round pick for him. Rumors around the league say that Houston had offered them one weeks before, it was on the table, but the Jim Buss/Mitch Kupchak front office held their cards close and hoped a better deal would come through.

While all that was going on James Harden decided to ease the process and did a little recruiting calling up Williams, the sixth-man guard told Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

“When James called, he asked me if I was interested in playing with them,” Williams told The Vertical. “I told him that I loved the Lakers, but James and them have a group that fit my personality, fit how I play. He said he was going to make it happen.”

Williams then laughed, sitting on the edge of a visiting court following a recent practice. “I’ve heard that before, so I didn’t really put stock into it,” Williams told The Vertical. “I guess James did put the word in, and the team made it happen.”

We all know what happened, Jeanie Buss removed her brother and Kupchak a few days before the trade deadline, Magic Johnston stepped in, called around, and quickly pulled the trigger on a trade that sent Williams to Houston (the Lakers also got Corey Brewer). Williams has averaged 14.5 points per game and had some strong performances with the Rockets, although he’s still finding his groove with the team on the court. Still, he’s been an upgrade for the Rockets’ bench.

Harden knew he would be, so he did his part to make sure it happened.