Let’s start this piece with two acknowledgments, in defense of the Memphis Grizzlies (pun intended):
First, the Western Conference is unfair. The defending champions from Oakland, the Golden State Warriors, didn’t make any moves because they didn’t need to. Meanwhile, though, the San Antonio Spurs brought in LaMarcus Aldridge and some other reinforcements. The Los Angeles Clippers retained DeAndre Jordan — somehow — and added Paul Pierce to be a teacher and guide to loose cannons Lance Stephenson and Josh Smith. The Houston Rockets will remain extremely formidable after making the Western Conference finals last season. The Oklahoma City Thunder should return to the latter rounds of the West playoffs with all their stars healthy. Six high-quality teams will populate the West at minimum. The Grizzlies were going to have a very hard time cracking the top three in this group of six. This doesn’t even include the New Orleans Pelicans with Anthony Davis or the up-and-coming Utah Jazz.
Second, in light of the offensive firepower which resides in the West, would one move by the Grizzlies — one realignment of their chessboard at this late stage of offseason maneuvering — give them a fundamentally new disposition? Probably not.
It would indeed be hyperbolic to say that the tinkering and tweaking on the edges of the Memphis Grizzlies’ 2015-2016 roster is going to make the difference between the conference championship and a second-round exit.
Fair enough, Griz.
Now, with all that having been acknowledged… WHAT THE HECK ARE YOU DOING?
The Grizzlies might be playing a long game in terms of stockpiling assets they can give way before next season’s trade deadline, thereby changing their roster relatively late in the proceedings and making a dash at the NBA title with a much-improved mixture of players. However, the collection of moves made in Memphis over the past month points to a very intentional building of a roster based on the constant strength of the team in this, its most prosperous period.
That strength is, of course, defense — and not just defense itself, but defense with (as Gregg Popovich might say) “a little bit of nasty.” Memphis, as a city, loves this team because it is feisty and not the slightest bit intimidated by anyone, anything, anywhere, anytime.
Tony Allen, “The Grindfather,” is the soul of the Grizzlies. Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol form the heart, and Mike Conley represents the lungs of the team, but it’s Allen whose character animates the ballclub more than anyone else. Complete dedication to — and excellence in — the art of playing defense in a way that gets inside the opponent’s head is Allen’s specialty. That such persistent quality coexists with gawd-awful offense — enough to swing the second-round series against the Golden State Warriors — does not make Allen a bad player. It does, however, leave Memphis short of the glittering goal known as the NBA Finals.
Moreover, it HAS left the Grizzlies short of the Finals over the past several years.
It’s worth reminding everyone that even though this franchise did make a West finals appearance two years ago, it never did win a game in that series. In this respect, the Grizzlies are tied with the Los Angeles Clippers for conference finals victories: zero. For all the good times the Griz have given their appreciative city, and for all the occasions when they’ve looked like a real title threat (they definitely were when they took a 2-1 series lead over Golden State), their offense has held them back. More precisely, their inability to hit perimeter shots has severely limited their output and, accordingly, their odds.
One by one, the Grizzlies have tried to find shooters, but none of them have been good enough to make a difference, or more precisely, the defining difference which leads to the NBA Finals.
One would think that in the offseason, the Griz would be set on addressing their foremost weakness, as opposed to accentuating a strength which really doesn’t need more accentuating.
Yet, what player did Memphis just add to a roster already graced with Tony Allen’s method-to-his-madness defense?
A player curiously like Allen — that’s who:
Matt Barnes on playing OKC next season: “I’m glad I got a group of guys that think the same way I do.”
— John Martin (@JohnMartin929) July 28, 2015
Matt Barnes — as seen in the cover photo for this story — has always had the heart of a Grizzly. He’s just a little bit off center, but his energy, combativeness, and defensive acumen all eclipse most of his peers.
Barnes does indeed think the way his new teammates do. He’s seen enough of the Grizzlies as a Los Angeles Clipper to know what it’s like to play Memphis. Now, Memphians are surely saying, “One of us… one of us… one of us…,” as Matt becomes the second basketball Barnes to come to the state of Tennessee this year, the previous one being Rick, the new head coach of the University of Tennessee Volunteers.
Barnes might have the mind of a Memphis Grizzly, but he also has the shooting stroke of one. Barnes did hit some big jumpers in the Clippers’ series win over San Antonio, especially in Game 7. However, he and the rest of the ever-confounding Clips regressed against Houston, reaffirming the Clippers’ inconsistent identity instead of providing a moment of transformation for the franchise. Now, as Barnes comes to Memphis, the idea that he’ll considerably improve the Grizzlies’ shooting numbers is tenuous at best, laughable at worst. This franchise, stocked with certain kinds of players, keeps bringing them aboard.
Much as Barnes reinforces what Allen does on the court, reserve Jarnell Stokes is basically an unskilled version of Randolph. Brandan Wright gives Memphis more size and more length — what, it didn’t have enough of those qualities? Before signing Wright, the team drafted Jarell Martin of LSU, another big and long guy bereft of shooting range. (He made a total of only 41 threes in two college seasons, hitting just under 31 percent of his tries and benefiting chiefly when he eschewed the long jumper.)
Perhaps this is Memphis’s way of saying, “You want small ball, NBA? We’re going to be the counter for you. We’ll punish your lack of size!” That could perhaps pry open opportunities for the Grizzlies during the season, and it’s true that playoff basketball is generally slower basketball compared to the regular season. Yet, quickness and three-point shooting have undeniably become a lot more valuable today than in the Magic-and-Bird days. The nature of the sport has shifted, and so while Memphis’s contrarian route has a purpose and a logic to it, the Grizzlies still need to reinforce the parts of their arsenal that aren’t sufficiently developed.
Matt Barnes is far more a redundancy than a fresh new piece the organization needed.
This is Memphis’s problem, though. The Grizzlies just keep pushing ahead, adding players with basketball virtues that already exist in great abundance on their roster. We’ll see how the team hits — or misses — jump shots in the coming season and playoffs.