VOL. 131 | NO. 11 | Friday, January 15, 2016
8 Games Behind Where They Were Last Year, Grizz Need Z-Bo More Than Ever
By Don Wade
You can’t say the sports gods don’t have a sense of humor. On Jan. 12, 2015, the Grizzlies made a three-way trade with Boston and New Orleans that sent away the team’s designated whipping boy with fans (Tayshaun Prince) and the pouty Quincy Pondexter and brought in the athletic, the dynamic, the difference-making, Jeff Green.
The more things change the more they stay the same: Power forward Zach Randolph scored 25 points with 13 rebounds off the bench in the Grizzlies’ recent come-from-behind win over Boston. While the Grizzlies have struggled on offense in fashioning a 21-19 record near the halfway point of the season, Randolph has been very productive in a new role and had a huge hand in keeping Memphis above .500.
(AP Photo/Brandon Dill)
Or so went the narrative.
But it is worth remembering that even as the Grizzlies roared out to that great start last season, the decision-makers believed – knew and understood – the team had flaws and limitations.
Now, in January of 2016 and with coach Dave Joerger having benched Green for the second half of a home loss to Houston exactly one year to the day of the that trade, the Grizzlies approach the halfway point of this season with a much worse record, more challenges, and having failed miserably in the recent experiment to committing to Green over Zach Randolph.
Through 40 games last season the Grizzlies stood at 29-11 (.725). After losing to the Rockets, 107-91, on Tuesday, Jan. 12, the Grizzlies were 21-19 (.525).
That’s math even a sports writer can understand.
The main story line coming out of the Houston game was that Joerger did not play Green a minute in the second half. The masses of fans and media who have been frustrated with Green’s teasing style of play (he’s a better version of Stromile Swift, which is like being a higher grade of Formica) finally got what they wanted.
Joerger’s post-game comments suggest he acted out of necessity in a quest to head off a potential mutiny.
“My decision,” the coach said of not playing Green. “For various reasons, I’m not going to go into.”
So what does this latest development mean alongside the continuing problems with the team – oft-injured point guard Mike Conley injured and sitting again (sore Achilles), the team’s predictably poor outside shooting, the inconsistency of star center Marc Gasol, and effort and defensive issues, at least at times – that go well beyond Jeff Green?
Because if the temptation before was to blame Jeff Green for everything, then it’s really the temptation as Randolph continues to put up double-doubles off the bench and Tony Allen rediscovers his inner Grindfather and even starts making meaningful contributions on offense.
If the Grizzlies end up moving Green before the trade deadline, it will be because they believe they have no other choice. They gave the Celtics a first-round pick in last season’s trade and ridding themselves of Green, who is a free agent this summer, is an admission of a mistake.
But there are bigger issues beyond Green. Conley’s continued health problems (and his contract is up at season’s end) are of concern in the near and the long-term. And the more minutes Mario Chalmers has to play night after night, the more he looks like what he is now: a nice backup point guard.
Gasol has been a shadow of the player who started the NBA All-Star Game a year ago and then made All-NBA First Team. Joerger sent Randolph to the bench because, at 34, he couldn’t keep up on defense with all those stretch fours running to and from the 3-point line.
But the fundamental benefit of Randolph never changed. As Celtics coach Brad Stevens said before Z-Bo scored 25 points with 13 rebounds against them, “Zach was born to score on the right block.”
Through 40 games, the Grizzlies ranked 28th in points at 95.9 per game. But even more telling, the two teams below them are the worst teams in the NBA: Brooklyn and Philadelphia.
The Grizzlies are 28th in made threes at 5.5 per game; only the 76ers and Minnesota make fewer.
Randolph’s in-the-mud offense is a hedge against both those numbers.
“He’s an alpha,” Joerger said.
The Grizzlies rank 27th in rebounding at 41.5 per game, but they are 14th in offensive rebounding at 10.5. Who do you think is responsible for that in large part? Yes, Z-Bo.
Joerger said recently his lineup change wasn’t focused on speeding up the offense (believe that if you wish), adding, “I only wanted to get us better defensively. And focus defensively has gotten much better in the last three weeks.”
Opponents are shooting 44.6 percent against Memphis, which is middle of the pack. The Grizzlies have been scorched a few times, they have locked down a few times.
Because the Western Conference is unexpectedly weaker past the top four teams, a 21-19 record is good enough to have them sitting sixth and in the playoffs. For now. They’re in the midst of a season-long six-game homestand and as Randolph said, “Each one is important.”
Important enough that Joerger did what many thought he would never do: sit down Jeff Green. Relying so much on Randolph and Gasol has its negatives, we all know that, but the “small ball” flirtation has proven to be just that.
Essentially, the Grizzlies are going back to where they started. Albeit with a record of 21-19 instead of 29-11.