VOL. 7 | NO. 43 | Saturday, October 18, 2014
For now, the Memphis Grizzlies’ window of opportunity is open.
With four straight playoff appearances in the immediate past, there is no reason to believe the Grizzlies won’t get there again. But it’s not about just getting there, not about playing a tough seven-game series, as the Grizzlies did in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs against Oklahoma City last season, only to come home after a dispiriting Game 7 loss.
To a man, the Grizzlies were left to wonder what might have been had they started the season faster, earned a higher seed (they were a 7 last season), and avoided the Thunder until later. Yes, injuries played a part – most notably center Marc Gasol’s knee injury. But excuses are like goofy mascots: every NBA city has one.
“This year, we shouldn’t get off to a 5-10, 5-15 start,” said power forward Zach Randolph. “There shouldn’t be no way. It’s not gonna be like that this year. We’ve got the same core guys. I think this is our year.”
Point guard Mike Conley also stresses the importance of a better start.
“That’s our main focus, giving ourselves some leeway going into February and March, those months where we always seem to be fighting an uphill battle trying to make it,” he said.
Conley, Gasol, Randolph and swingman Tony Allen have been what we’ve come to know as the Core Four for several years now. So there’s a comfort level for them with each other and for those around them.
“A good bunch of guys,” said Dave Joerger, who before taking over as head coach last season was an assistant under Lionel Hollins. “They care about each other. They’re going to each other’s weddings. They’re supporting each other at their charity events. It’s been a good run and a bunch of good guys to do it with.”
That said, there is perhaps a greater sense of urgency heading into this season.
“We do understand our window is small,” Conley said. “We don’t have five or six years to get it done. Age plays a factor. You’ve got contracts (Gasol can be a free agent after the season, Conley can be a free agent after the 2015-2016 season). All kinds of different things. We’re just trying to get it done now.”
Two seasons ago, the Grizzlies made their run to the Western Conference finals only to be swept by last season’s NBA champion San Antonio Spurs. But four years ago the Grizzlies, as a No. 8 seed, upset the No. 1 seed Spurs in the first round of the playoffs.
Such history is perhaps instructive when looking at the Grizzlies and wondering about their window and how many chances they might have to reach an NBA Finals.
“The window is closing, but I think the window was closing on San Antonio like seven or eight years ago,” said veteran Tayshaun Prince. “People said the same thing about our team in Detroit (which won an NBA title) and we broke it up and we shouldn’t have. San Antonio is a proven fact of that.”
This edition of the Grizzlies will be minus its best 3-point shooter after Mike Miller reunited with LeBron James in Cleveland. But veteran Vince Carter has come in as a free agent to take his place and, even at age 37, offers a more versatile and dynamic game.
“Vince Carter kinda fell in our lap a little bit like Tony Allen in 2010,” said general manager Chris Wallace. “We didn’t really think anything would occur and then it was almost like a gradational pull that put the two of us together.”
"This year, we shouldn't get off to a 5-10, 5-15 start. ... We've got the same core guys. I think this is our year," said Zach Randolph, talking about the need for a quicker start to the season this year.
(AP Photo/Brandon Dill)
Joerger’s biggest immediate challenge is determining the rotation on the wing. Carter, Allen, Courtney Lee, Quincy Pondexter (back from a knee injury), Prince, and possibly rookie Jordan Adams, all figure into the multilayered equation.
“Competition,” Lee said. “We’re only gonna make each other better. I don’t worry about the rotation. That’s not my job. That’s coach’s job.”
Conley believes this team can be better than it was a year ago when it won 50 games. But if that sounds familiar, he gets that, too.
“I say that every year,” he said with a laugh. “But I really believe it. I think we got better just with age, growing another year. Having Quincy back will be huge. I’m very impressed with our rookies (Adams and forward Jarnell Stokes).”
One advantage to this season over last: familiarity between Joerger, his staff and the players.
“We got hit with a new offense (last season),” Allen said. “We tried it; it didn’t work. We went back to the old way of thinking, pound the ball inside, let Marc and Z-Bo feed off each other and let Mike Conley run the show.”
Not only did Conley run the show, he averaged a career-best 17.2 points. With Randolph (17.4 points), he became a counted-on scorer.
“I liked a lot of the stuff we were able to do offensively in the last 25 or 30 games,” Joerger said. “I liked what we did with Mike Conley, encouraging him to be a scorer first. That’ll help him be more of a playmaker, if he’s a threat offensively.”
If the Grizzlies are indeed better this season, it could come from expanded offensive versatility – in part due to adding Carter, and Pondexter’s return.
“We got a big bowl of gumbo this year,” Allen said. “We just gotta get it together. That’s all it is, get it together.”
While the window of opportunity is still open.
Top Seven Must-See Grizzlies Home Games
1. Wednesday, March 25, vs. Cleveland: Have you heard, the Cavs picked up Shawn Marion? Also, a nice little two-way player named LeBron James.
Not to say LBJ is a big deal or anything, but even the Oct. 22 preseason game here with the Cavs is being nationally televised. As a bonus, former Grizz sharpshooter Mike Miller returns to FedExForum and Kevin Love will actually have a chance to play for a playoff team. This March 25 game will be the toughest ticket of the season and it’s not even close.
2. Friday, April 3, vs. Oklahoma City: It’s easy to imagine the Grizzlies and Thunder, the team that put Memphis out in a first-round Game 7 last spring, still jostling for their respective playoff seeding as the season winds down. And Tony Allen will be hurt if you don’t come see him make Kevin Durant’s life miserable.
3. Tuesday, Feb. 10, vs. Brooklyn: The return of Lionel Hollins. The bet here is that fans will mostly focus on the good from Hollins’ time coaching the Grizzlies – three straight playoff appearances and a run to the Western Conference Finals. So, there should be more cheers than boos for the Nets’ coach. But Hollins has a knack for saying the wrong thing in the wrong way, too, so it could be an interesting evening from pregame media scrum to postgame presser.
4. Wednesday, Oct. 29, vs. Minnesota: Opening Night. You want to be there. Period.
5. Friday, Feb. 27, vs. L.A. Clippers: Talk about bang for your buck. If you’re among the first 5,000 fans through the door, you get a pair of Grizzlies flip flops and you get to boo Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, the actors who inspired this giveaway.
6. Tuesday, Nov. 11, vs. the L.A. Lakers: At this point in Kobe Bryant’s career, you better catch him early in the season because you know he’s going to get hurt.
7. Friday, Dec. 26, vs. Houston: Which is more unlikely, a gift-giving fat man flying a sleigh powered by reindeer or James Harden playing defense?