Mario Chalmers, after bitter end with Heat, loving big role with Grizzlies

Associated Press
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Mario Chalmers came up in trade rumor after trade rumor after trade rumor last summer.

It wasn’t difficult to see why the Heat would want to deal him. Goran Dragic had supplanted Chalmers in the starting lineup. Without LeBron James around to create open looks for him, Chalmers had slumped in his role as a spot-up shooter. And Chalmers’ $4.3 million salary was a huge liability to a team facing the first luxury-tax repeater rate in NBA history.

But when an early November report said the Grizzlies were interested in Chalmers, he said he spoke with someone from the Miami organization. (The guard declined to name the person.)

“That really made me feel like I was going to be there for a while,” Chalmers said, meaning the rest of the season.

A week later, the Heat traded him to Memphis.

Chalmers said he found out through Twitter.

“For me being there so long, and nobody had the respect to tell me that I was about to get traded, that’s how it went down,” Chalmers said.

His head spun. He had spent his entire eight-year career in Miami, and he let his guard down after getting the impression he’d finish the season there.

A phone call from Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger helped ease his mind. Chalmers heard a simple message: “We need  you to score.”

That he has.

Chalmers  is pouring in points for Memphis, which has turned around its season since empowering Chalmers as a high-usage backup point guard.

He scored 29 points in 23 minutes in his third game with the Grizzlies, tied for the third-highest mark of his career and his top output in nearly three years. And he barely knew the offense at that point.

“It’s basically playing in the summer time,” Chalmers said.

Chalmers is scoring 11.5 points per game with Memphis, which would be a career high over a full season. And he’s doing it in just 19.5 minutes per game, which would be a career low.

His 21.2 points per 36 minutes dwarf previous marks:

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Showing his ability to handle an instant-offense-off-the-bench role should only increase Chalmers’ stock this summer, when his contract expires.

He had already proven he can be an adequate spot-up shooter next to a major star (and that he can’t do it without one). Since his rookie year – the last time Chalmers felt so entrusted to make plays – he shot 39% on 3-pointers with LeBron on the court as a teammate and 31% without LeBron. Teams who need someone to fill that role should consider Chalmers.

Apparently, so should teams who need more of an offensive punch. Chalmers has comfortable with the ball in his hands in Memphis.

The two roles should widen the pool of suitors this offseason. That versatility might be the boost Chalmers needs as he crosses age 30 before entering free agency.

But Chalmers didn’t come to Memphis just establish his scoring bona fides. He has quickly proven a fit in the Grizzlies’ “Grit and Grind” ethos.

“He’s a pest,” Mike Conley said. “He gets up and into you.”

“He’s gritty,” Marc Gasol said.

“He’s very feisty,” Joerger said, “and he’ll get after you.”

Memphis was 3-6 when Chalmers arrived and has gone 10-4 since.

It’s an oversimplification to say he turned around the Grizzlies, but his work off the bench has been instrumental. Memphis’ starters were outscored by 0.6 points per game pre-Chalmers, and they’ve been outscored by 1.7 points per game since his arrival. The difference has been other lineups – many of the best ones being led by Chalmers.

The Grizzlies have scored 105.1 points per 100 possessions with Chalmers on the court (equivalent to third in the NBA) and 99.0 without him (equivalent to 23rd). And it’s not just his offense that has shined. Even when his shot isn’t falling, Chalmers gets playing time due to his defense. Memphis allows just 97.8 points per 100 possessions with him playing (fifth), down from 106.0 (28th) without him.

The Heat also quietly played very well with Chalmers on the court before trading him. That makes Chalmers the only player whose teams have outscored opponents by at least 12.5 points per 100 possessions with him on the court not on the Warriors, Spurs or Thunder (minimum: 300 minutes):

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All this is without Chalmers feeling fully comfortable in the system, which delights Joerger.

“I think the best of Mario Chalmers is yet to come for our team,” the coach said.

Chalmers probably wouldn’t mind if it came Sunday, when the Grizzlies visit Miami. He said he’s “definitely” looking forward to that game.

Of course, Memphis fans have already seen Chalmers at his best. At Kansas, he made a 3-pointer in the final seconds of the 2008 NCAA championship game against the Memphis Tigers to force overtime:

Memphis lost in the extra period, and Chalmers said local fans have brought up the shot “all the time” since he came to town.

“But they kind of forgive me now, so it’s cool,” Chalmers said.

They have?

“That’s what they say.”

You believe that?

“No, not really.”

A little less trusting and a lot more productive, Chalmers is finding his groove with the Grizzlies.