Are the Memphis Grizzlies Serious NBA Title Contenders?
Ask the casual NBA fan about who the championship contending teams are and you will get a variety of answers.
Conference leaders Atlanta and Golden State will be mentioned. Some will say the Spurs or the Bulls. The superstar-led teams such as Cleveland or Oklahoma City, despite their current record, will of course be brought up as well. One team that continually seems to be forgotten is the Memphis Grizzlies.
It might be the small market, the perceived lack of a superstar, or their style of play, but the Grizzlies remain overlooked in the title picture by most observers. With a record of 36-12, they are the number-two team in the Western Conference and have the third best record in the entire NBA. The Grizzlies are on pace to break their franchise record for wins (56) that was set only two seasons ago. They can even eclipse the 60 win mark if they keep winning at their current rate. But does that really make them contenders?
Before we can answer if the Grizzlies are a legit championship contender, let us take a quick look at who the Grizzlies are.
Offense definitely appears to be the weak point of this team, but that’s not necessarily the truth. They are 11th in the NBA in points per game (101.3) yet rank 28th in three point attempts and makes. Based on their pace -- the fifth-slowest in the league at an estimated 91.9 possessions every 48 minutes -- they have the composition of the defensive team everyone knows them to be, but the Grizzlies rank ninth in the league in Offensive Rating (108.1).
They may not be flashy, but they are efficient.
With stars such as Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph leading the way, they are also tops in the NBA with 47.2 points in the paint per game. Gasol in particular has taken control of the offense. While his defense has always been a staple to the Grizzlies’ winning ways, this year he has brought something extra to the table. Gasol is destroying his previous career high of 14.6 points per game with an increase of over 27 percent to a team-high 18.6 points per game. When Randolph was out of the lineup for a nine-game stretch, Gasol averaged more than 20 per game.
The Grizzlies have a balanced scoring lineup as well. Randolph and point guard Mike Conley are both averaging over 17 points per game, too. Starting shooting guard Courtney Lee is averaging double-digit scoring. He is also second in the NBA with a .463 shooting percentage from behind the arc, mainly due to his selective nature. Lee puts up only 3.0 attempts per game compared to NBA leader Kyle Korver's nearly six three-point attempts per game.
Their offense is better than advertised, but their defense is as good as ever.
The key to the Grizzlies’ winning ways always comes down to defense. The Grizzlies lead the West in points allowed, as their opponents are scoring only 96.0 points per game. Their Defensive Rating (the number points allowed per 100 possessions) of 102.5 puts them fourth in the West behind other playoff-bound teams Golden State, San Antonio, and Portland.
What the Grizzlies excel the best at on defense is denying points in the paint. With their two best players (Gasol and Randolph) patrolling the painted area, Memphis is second in the West behind only the Los Angeles Clippers, allowing opposing offenses to score 40.0 points in the paint per game. In fact, Gasol and Randolph rank ninth and 14th, respectively, in the NBA in Defensive Rating. Add in Tony Allen, who ranks fourth, and they are the only team in the NBA with three players in the top 15 of defensive efficiency.
Zach Randolph in particular has stepped up his defensive game. His career Defensive Rating is 106, and this season Randolph is posting a 100, the second-best in his 14-year career (it was 99 in 2012-13). His rebounding rate of 21.2 ranks fifth in the NBA, while his 12.1 rebounds per game place Randolph fourth in overall rebounds per game.
The Trade for Jeff Green
Even with their early season success of being 25-11, Memphis tried to upgrade at small forward and acquired Jeff Green from Boston. They hoped his addition would be the finishing touch on a championship roster. So far, it seems like a success, but let's break it down.
In the 11 games since the Grizzlies traded Quincy Pondexter, Tayshaun Prince, and a first-round pick to Boston for Jeff Green, they are 10-1. While many will declare that Green was the missing piece, there are a couple of reasons besides the addition of Green that account for the recent hot streak. First the teams they have played in their last 11 games are a combined 260-281 for a .481 percent winning percentage. Also, for context, prior to Green joining the team, the Grizzlies had a 78 percent winning percentage with Zach Randolph in the lineup. When Z-Bo missed nine games from December 21 to January 7, the Grizzlies lost five games. Their Defnsive Rating while Randolph was out was horrendous too. The Grizzlies ranked 25th in the NBA with a 106.0 rating during that span.
To Green’s credit though, in his 11 games with the club, Memphis’ 95.0 defensive rating is third in the NBA, and their 10.2 Net Rating is fourth-best behind only Cleveland, Golden State, and Atlanta. Also, the Grizzlies have gone a perfect 7-0 since making Green a starter and sending Tony Allen back to the bench.
Green’s addition to the starting lineup has strengthened the defense of the reserve unit. With Allen out of the starting lineup and back to the bench, the second unit is leading the entire NBA with a Defensive Rating of 81.4. The next best team is the Knicks at 94.2. The reserves also carry a positive 6.5 plus/minus in their time on the floor.
The bench is not without its flaws though. As a whole, the second unit ranks 19th in the NBA with 31.9 points per game. Memphis brought in veteran Vince Carter to boost the second unit, but he has failed to average more than six points a game and is struggling to maintain a .334 percent shooting percentage. That is even not considering the foot injury that currently has the veteran out for an extended period of time.
So, Are the Grizzlies Contenders?
Our nERD rating, which refers to a team’s overall efficiency, ranks Memphis fifth overall behind Golden State, Los Angeles (Clippers), Atlanta, and Dallas. We also give them a 5.0 percent chance of winning it all, good for sixth-best among NBA squads. So while they possess the third best record in the NBA, the Memphis Grizzlies are really our fourth best team in the Western Conference.
With their four top-50 players (Gasol, Randolph, Conley, and Lee) based on our individual nERD metrics, I think it is fair to consider Memphis a title contender, although their lack of scoring depth is scary. If, God forbid, Randolph or Gasol were to fall to an injury, the Grizzlies could easily find themselves out in the first round of the playoffs.
With all that said, do I give them a legit shot to win the title? Absolutely. With their defensive prowess and firepower down low, the Memphis Grizzlies could be lifting the O'Brien Trophy come June.