The Memphis Grizzlies return from unfamiliar territory: the Western Conference Finals.
It was an unexpected trip, especially in January, when leading scorer Rudy Gay was shipped to Toronto. Four months later, Memphis was one of the final four teams standing, hosting the San Antonio Spurs, four wins away from the NBA Finals.
Memphis made offseason moves it believes will make it capable of reaching the next step — new coach Dave Joerger wants to keep Memphis’ grit-and-grind identity, yet play a bit faster.
The Grizzlies’ starting five is as formidable as any, with reigning Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph down low, rising point guard Mike Conley, defensive whiz Tony Allen and Tayshaun Prince, who came over along with Ed Davis in the Rudy Gay trade. Perhaps Davis, new-old Grizzly Mike Miller or Quincy Pondexter, who made his case with a strong playoffs, enters that starting mix at some point during the season.
Memphis needed to improve its shooting (Miller) and to add quality depth at point guard (Nick Calathes) and center (Kosta Koufos). Jerryd Bayless returns as well, and with Calathes in place he can now focus of his off-the-ball strengths.
It’s Davis’ turn to make his mark. The release of coach Lionel Hollins could be a good thing for the fourth-year pro, who averaged nearly 10 fewer minutes per game than he did in Toronto — and was clearly not happy about it. Memphis’s expectation are high. With a proven starting five, Davis and the bench are vital to those expectations.
Key Player: Marc Gasol
Gasol is among the best big men in the league. He scores, He rebounds. He’s the best passing big in the world. And, with Allen, is the team’s emotional leader.
Memphis has a reputation of not having an NBA superstar, but Gasol is just that. The newly-married, 7-foot-1 center averaged 14.1 points, 7.8 rebounds and four assists per game. This season, he can breathe easier. Gasol played 35 minutes per game last season, more than 40 in the postseason. With the addition of Koufos, a starter in Denver, Memphis can afford to send Gasol to the bench more often. Koufos has drawn team praise for his skill level — his biggest skill making it a clean transition when he relieves Gasol.
X-Factor: Mike Miller
Memphis lived near the bottom of the league from the top of the arc. That’s where Miller comes in.
Miller, who spent five year in Memphis, returned to fanfare. The 33-year-old still owns eight franchise records, including 3-point field goal percentage and 3-pointers made. His shooting ability means more spacing for the bigs, but he won’t just camp out behind the arc. Miller can handle the ball and rebound.
Miller should be able to embrace a new start in an old place. During back-to-back championships with the Miami Heat, his role was clearly behind that of LeBron James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh. But his skill set is clear, too. In the Heat’s 2013 postseason run, Miller started five games and hit 44 percent from 3-point range, the second-highest in his eight career playoff appearances.
Rookie Watch: Jamaal Franklin, Nick Calathes
Memphis’ roster lists two rookies, Calathes and Jamaal Franklin. Technically, Calathes is an NBA rookie, but has proved his stock overseas since leaving Florida in 2009. Franklin, on the other hand, is considered a recent draft night steal, an expected first-rounder who fell all the way to pick No. 41.
Calathes, a 6-foot-6 guard, was the 2012-13 EuroCup MVP, a shooter, ball-handler and passer who fills the backup role behind Conley. Calathes shot 50 percent in 17 EuroCup Games and was ready to try his hand back home. Memphis got him from Dallas for lifting the protection on a 2016 second-round pick already owed to the Mavs.
Calathes flashed his skills in Memphis’ first two preseason games — 20 points on 8-of-14 shooting, 11 assists and seven rebounds.
Like the blue-collar city they reside in, the Grizzlies go about their business without flash. That recipe has worked, so don’t expect Memphis to change it, only tweak it. That’s what Joerger is trying to do. Memphis is built on gritty defense, the best team in the league in points allowed (89.3), but scored only 93.4 (28th in NBA).
This season will be a success if Joerger can successfully blend a more proficient offense without losing too much of that defensive prowess.
Memphis’ definition of success used to be making the playoffs. Then it was winning a playoff series.
But last season’s success bred desire. Memphis has a new definition.