The Season: Memphis Grizzlies

New Faces: Andrew Harrison (R), Jarrell Martin (R), Alex Stepheson (R), Matt Barnes, Brandan Wright, Ryan Hollins

2014-15 Regular Season Record: 55-27

2014-15 Regular Season Achievements: 2nd: Points (Defense). 3rd: Defensive Rating. 6th: Steals.  7th: Offensive Rating, Free Throw Percentage. 9th: Field Goal Percentage. 10th: 2-Point Percentage (Defense), Field Goal Percentage (Defense).

Leading Scorer: Marc Gasol, 17.4

Leading Rebounder: Zach Randolph, 10.5

The Memphis Grizzlies finished fifth in the Western Conference last season, which was good for the sixth best record in the NBA. After defeating Portland in the first round, they fell to the eventual champion Warriors. It’s not a team with many household names, but Memphis returns an intact starting lineup including the formidable frontcourt duo of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph.

Gasol filled the stat sheet at center, blocking 1.6 shots to go with 17.4 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 3.8 assists per game. Randolph is less of a rim protector but averaged nearly a steal per contest along with 16.1 points and 10.5 boards. Mike Conley played the point and also made major contributions. Conley hit 38.6% of three-pointers and had his best year from the charity stripe en route to averages of 15.8 points and 5.4 assists. Courtney Lee is the returning shooting guard after a 10 point per game campaign, although his Player Efficiency Rating (PER) would rank last among the expected starters. Finally, small forward Jeff Green came over from Boston in a January trade, averaging 13 points for Memphis. This represented a scoring decrease from his time with the Celtics, but that wasn’t surprising given the surrounding talent in Tennessee.

General manager Chris Wallace used his first round pick to select Jarell Martin from LSU. Martin figured to provide power forward depth for Memphis, but he fractured his foot in a September workout and is expected to miss several months. Wallace did swing a deal for point guard Andrew Harrison after he was chosen by Phoenix in the second round. Harrison will play for the Iowa Energy, the D-League affiliate of the Grizzlies.

With all projected starters returning, big free agent signings weren’t expected in Memphis. Instead, the Grizzlies made a June trade in which they swapped Luke Ridnour for veteran small forward Matt Barnes. Barnes has averaged over 10 points several times during his career and was a starter for the Clippers last season. He’s not likely to get the same minutes this season, but should be a key piece off the bench. Wallace also signed Brandan Wright as a backup center. Wright is surprisingly effective for a backup, compiling a PER over 20 last season in just over 16 minutes per game. Ryan Hollins left Sacramento and is able to play backup at either center or power forward.

Memphis also inked several other players to non-guaranteed deals. One of them is Alex Stepheson, a big man out of North Carolina and USC. His professional career has included stops in Greece, Slovenia, and Turkey. Similarly, forward Sampson Carter played at UMass before joining teams in Portugal and the Dominican Republic over the last year. Point guard Lazeric Jones has traveled the world as well after his time at UCLA: Greece, Israel, and Hungary are among the stops in his professional career. Finally, Yakhouba Diawara starred at Pepperdine before stints playing in Italy and France.

Coach David Joerger is emphasizing toughness heading into 2015-16, but that’s already part of the team identity. The Grizzlies ranked second in points allowed per game but was just average on offense. Their 45.8% shooting from the field made the top ten, thanks in part to good inside scoring. However, Memphis placed 22nd in three-point percentage and 20th in rebounding which hurt overall production. Furthermore, Memphis was 26th in offensive pace of play. Some analysts believe this model of tough defense and plodding inside scoring isn’t enough to win a title.

For his part, Joerger believes that allowing for more ball movement and creativity from his wings will supplement what the team already does well.

There are still plenty of reserves returning to Memphis this season. Vince Carter is one of them, although the former All-Star is now behind Barnes on the depth chart. Beno Udrih, entering his third season in Memphis, is an above-average backup at point guard. On the shooting guard side, Tony Allen is a steady bench presence who can chip in eight points and play stifling defense nightly. In fact, he held opponents to a 6.8% lower than average field goal percentage. Jarnell Stokes played sparingly in his rookie year but will likely get more playing time with Martin sidelined. Jordan Adams and Russ Smith are mostly depth at the guard positions, with JaMychal Green filling a similar role at forward.

The MVP of this team isn’t obvious, but I would choose Gasol. Beyond smooth post play and quality defense, Gasol has good range for a big guy. He can hit the elbow jumper regularly and is coming off his best year. While he rarely takes threes during a game, footage from a recent practice demonstrates that he might win a long range competition among players his size.

There’s no escaping Randolph’s importance to this team, but I feel like Conley is the wild card and Most Important Player this season. He has the capability to stretch the defense, having converted 38.6% of three-pointers last season. Conley is also the primary ball distributor, playing a major role in how the offense flows. In addition, the only man on the team with more steals was Allen, who is an all-world defender in anyone’s book.

Even in the West, it would be surprising to see the Grizzlies miss the postseason. The bigger question is whether they can hold their own against formidable opponents like the Warriors, Spurs, Rockets, and Clippers. Memphis actually finished ahead of San Antonio, just a game back of Houston and LA. Defense was certainly a prominent factor in their success. The Grizzlies haven’t lost a lot of talent, so the biggest question is whether they can gain offensive efficiency. Allowing 95 points per contest is impressive, but an in-season trade for a shooting guard might be the upgrade needed for a shot at the Finals.

Projected record: 52-30

photo via llananba