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VOL. 131 | NO. 31 | Friday, February 12, 2016

Life Without Marc? Yes, and Grizz Still Have Something to Play For

By Don Wade

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In their first game after learning their franchise player had fractured his right foot and would be lost to the team indefinitely – and yes, perhaps for the rest of the season – the Grizzlies reacted just the way that was needed: They went out to Brooklyn and demolished the hapless Nets before starting their All-Star break.

(Daily News File/Andrew J. Breig)

But when the schedule resumes Friday, Feb. 19, with a game vs. Minnesota at FedExForum, center Marc Gasol’s absence will feel more like the gaping hole that it is.

The offense runs through Gasol.

The defense is directed by Gasol.

The Grizzlies’ we-can-always-play-better refrain is given voice through Gasol.

So what happens from here? That’s the obvious, big question. Let’s take on a few more specific questions.

Gasol aside, how’s the Grizzlies’ overall health?

Not to be an alarmist, but always in jeopardy. Until the foot fracture, Gasol, 31, had started 51 straight games. But Tony Allen, 34, had missed seven games with knee and hamstring injuries, point guard Mike Conley, 28, missed six games with a sore left Achilles, and power forward Zach Randolph, 34, had missed five games with knee soreness.

Track record almost guarantees more missed games along the way.

Big man Brandan Wright, who had knee surgery and was brought in last off-season to be Gasol’s athletic back-up man, is expected back after the All-Star break.

Stylistically, how will the team play now?

Truthfully, that was a legitimate question before Gasol got hurt. Coach Dave Joerger has long wanted to play smaller and faster and several weeks ago he committed to it in a huge way – with mixed results – by sending Randolph to the bench and starting Jeff Green.

Z-Bo played well off the bench and rejoined the starting lineup and Green had a strong spurt playing in a reserve role. At Brooklyn, Joerger rolled out this starting lineup: Conley, Courtney Lee at shooting guard, Allen at small forward, 6-9 JaMychal Green at power forward, and 6-9 Randolph at center.

Joerger never has liked playing Randolph for extended minutes at center – especially on the defensive end. So, while the players scatter to assorted beaches, Joerger gets to spend his vacation re-configuring lineups for the start and end of games.

It would be nice to believe there are more 39-point third quarters in which the Grizzlies make seven 3-pointers – that’s what they did to the Nets – but we know that’s fantasy. Duplicating the ball movement, however, is a worthy goal.

“We’re missing our best player,” Randolph said. “We’ve got to move the ball, screen-and-roll, be that team.”

Will the Grizzlies make a trade before the 2 p.m., Feb. 18, deadline?

It would have been easier in years past and certainly without Gasol’s injury. Because the salary cap is going up, expiring contracts have less appeal.

So such players, most notably Jeff Green and Lee, probably bring back less in assets than they might have. Other teams will also now see the Grizzlies as the wounded bear they are and play harder in trade talks for a big man.

Matt Barnes also has an expiring contract and so does back-up point guard Mario Chalmers. The Grizzlies traded for Chalmers early and he’ll be needed, so he’s not going anywhere.

General manager Chris Wallace obviously will look to bolster the center position, but the asking price for anyone of real worth may simply be too high. By league rules, the Grizzlies cannot re-sign Ryan Hollins for a third 10-day contract so the team must decide whether to sign him for the remainder of the season.

And then there’s the whole Now vs. the Future part of the equation. If you believe the rest of the Western Conference is just a collection of props while the Golden State Warriors breeze to another NBA Finals – and there’s good reason to think that way – why do anything that further compromises the Grizzlies’ longer-term interests?

What’s the worst-case scenario for the season?

The bottom falling out, missing the playoffs, and having to convey this summer’s first-round draft pick to Denver (from that 2013 trade with Cleveland) would be bad. The pick is protected 1-5 and 15-30. But if the Grizzlies, say, finish ninth in the West? The pick falls in that 6-14 range and goes to Denver.

That’s a double-shot of pain for a team that desperately needs to get younger talent.

What’s the best-case scenario for the season?

Presumably this question excludes the possibility of Stephen Curry and Draymond Green, Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge, and Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, all running away to join the French Foreign Legion.

That settled, the Grizzlies are 31-22. They are three games ahead of Dallas for the 5 seed in the West and five games in front of ninth-place Houston, which is 27-28. If the Grizzlies just go 14-15 over their last 29 games they finish 45-37. That should be good enough to get in the playoffs this year.

And that would allow them to hang on to that first-round draft pick. Anything they accomplish after that has to be considered a bonus given the injury to Gasol.

Truth is, the season probably ends in the second round no matter how this goes. And that was the case before Gasol’s injury. They’re not beating the Warriors, San Antonio Spurs or OKC Thunder.

So the task is clear: Make the Big Fella proud, keep playing hard and get to the playoffs for a sixth straight season.

It would be an accomplishment.

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