Why Memphis Is Both An NBA Title Contender And Pretender

Memphis handily beat the then-undefeated New York Knicks on Friday night, the seventh in a row for the Grizzlies after losing their opening game to the Clippers. Combined combined with their victory over surprisingly frisky Charlotte a day later, they now own the best record in the NBA. After losing O.J. Mayo in the offseason to Dallas and only adding Minnesota castoff Wayne Ellington and backup point guard Jerryd Bayless this offseason, they’re suddenly the top team in the league. How did this happen, and are the Memphis Grizzlies legit?

First, the positive, and the reasons why they’re a legit title contender. Even if they hadn’t started this hot, any team that boasts a frontcourt of Rudy Gay, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol is going to be a force come springtime. The surprise is they’re a force now. All three of those players possess size that’s a rare and rarer commodity in an increasingly small-ball NBA, but they’re also extremely adept at protecting the paint, limiting offensive chances with superior rebounding and forcing turnovers to get easy transition buckets.

Remarkably, they appear to have plugged up their shortcomings as well. Specifically, they’ve improved their three-point shooting while continuing to force turnovers, play incredible defense, and rebound at an elite level. They’re currently fourth in defensive efficiency, according to Hoopdata.com, and they rank at or near the top 10 in all significant rebounding tallies. But it’s not their defense or rebounding that’s been an issue the last couple years.

Last season this Memphis team finished 20th in offensive efficiency, but this season they’re up to ninth in the league as of this writing. What’s facilitated that improvement? They’re playing the same stingy defense, but now they’re scoring. Part of this can be explained by having a full season of Randolph. The Grizzlies’ avuncular power forward has been a double-double machine all season with at least 15 points and 11 rebounds in all nine games, and he’s helped them get easy looks at the basket. But while Z-Bo has been their aegis for rebounding and interior defense, their offensive turnaround isn’t related. Shooting, specifically long-range shooting, has been their Achilles’ heel for a couple years now.

This team couldn’t make a three-pointer to save their lives last season, finishing 26th in effective three-point field goal percentage, per Hoopdata. This season, primarily because of the hot shooting of their bench — namely Ellington and Bayless — they’re still not taking very many three-pointers but rank 12th in shooting from there when they do shoot. Again, last year they were 26th and so far this year they’re 12th. That’s a significant leap without affecting the other things they already did so well.

While the improved shooting from long range and a lack of significant injuries are the primary culprits behind their fast start, it’s the shooting that is most likely to disappear and is most worrisome for forecasting this team’s role as a contender. It would be foolish to count on Gay and Ellington and some improved shooting from point guard Mike Conley Jr. to continue like it has. Eventually coach Lionel Hollins‘ bench will cool off, and they’ll be left to forcing turnovers and getting transition buckets to make up for their dearth of long range shooting. But so far so good.

The Grizzlies are one of the top teams in the West. Whether they continue winning at this remarkable clip throughout the season rests primarily on their three-point shooting, which will most likely cool off. In the meantime, they’ll still pound the ball down low with the all around play of their center, Gasol, and their power forward, Randolph, while Gay freestyles from the wing and Conley sets up as their only real three-point shooter in their starting group. This team isn’t going to win a championship or get very far in the playoffs if Tony Allen is hoisting four or five three-pointers a game, but they will if they can continue to shoot efficiently from long range, and continue to do the other things they’ve always been so good at.

They’re still the Memphis Grizzlies we know and love, but now they’re just shooting a lot better. It’s gonna be fun to see if they can continue.

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