Published October 24, 2012
| Sports Network
The Memphis Grizzlies were the fun group that knocked off San Antonio two seasons ago in the first-round upset of No. 1 versus No. 8.
Last season, they went into the playoffs as the fourth seed, but lost a heart- breaking Game 7 at home to the Los Angeles Clippers. It was a mild step back in the progression of the Grizzlies.
"It's such a long season," said head coach Lionel Hollins. "Last year, our health wasn't as good as we would have liked it. We had a great season. There's a lot of expectations on us. It's not pressure, it's what's you want.
"You want to be playing for a championship. You want to have the opportunity to be talked about as one of the elite teams."
That's the big question - are the Grizzlies an elite team?
The starting lineup is excellent. Marc Gasol is a top-five center in the league and Zach Randolph, when motivated, is still a top-level big. Mike Conley has emerged as a great point guard and if Tony Allen isn't the best defensive shooting guard in the league, you'll have to produce evidence to the contrary.
Rudy Gay is probably still the most important piece of the puzzle.
Gay has averaged right around 20 points per game since his second season in the league, back in 2007-08. His rebounding numbers went up, but Gay is not quite the star that can carry a team.
This is a superstar-driven league and neither Gay nor Randolph is at that level.
"I'm not playing for an All-Star team, I can't say I haven't done that before," said Gay. "It's all about us trying to get better as a team."
Gay's name gets bandied about in trade rumors as teams seek him to be a second or third option. But he is the best option for the Grizzlies and one that is not going anywhere, for the moment.
2011-12 Results: 41-25, second in Southwest; Lost to Los Angeles Clippers in West quarterfinals.
ADDITIONS: G Jerryd Bayless, G Tony Wroten, G Wayne Ellington
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE:
PG- Mike Conley SG- Tony Allen SF- Rudy Gay PF- Zach Randolph C- Marc Gasol
KEY RESERVES: G Jerryd Bayless, F Darrell Arthur, G Wayne Ellington, G Tony Wroten, C Marreese Speights.
FRONTCOURT: Gasol/Randolph/Gay comprise one of, if not the best, starting frontcourt in the league. Very few teams have that much quality at all three positions.
Gasol is a star. He surpassed his big brother Pau and has no flaws in his game. He's a scorer, rebounder, defender, passer and genius of the game. Gasol made his first All-Star game last season and it won't be his last.
Randolph missed a good chunk of last season with a knee injury and he's not getting any younger. At 31, and always a little doughy, Randolph reported in good health and at a good weight this year. Randolph's skill set extends from the low-block to the 3-point line. He's a good rebounder and seems to have really embraced his role as a team leader.
Gay can do a lot of things, but he's not a great shooter or defender. He can score and slash and is playing this season with some built-up attitude. Gay was the last man cut from the U.S. Olympic team, in favor of Andre Iguodala.
BACKCOURT: Conley improved his shooting numbers last season, hitting 38 percent from the 3-point line and 86 percent from the foul line. He matched a career high with 6.5 assists per game and has become the on-court leader Memphis envisioned when it drafted him fourth overall in the 2007 NBA Draft.
Allen is a defensive animal. He averaged 10 PPG once in his career and that was six years ago, but he's on the floor to terrorize opponent's perimeter players.
In years past, Allen wouldn't be needed to score because of O.J. Mayo.
BENCH: Mayo left Memphis and is now in Dallas. His scoring off the bench will be sorely missed as there is no one on the roster right now who is capable of scoring like he did.
Three-point shooting and a backup at the point guard spot were concern areas for the Grizzlies in the offseason. They hope to have addressed both with the signing of Jerryd Bayless.
He missed a hefty portion of last season with injuries, but when he played, Bayless did well. He averaged 11.4 PPG and shot a very strong 42 percent from beyond the arc. Bayless can play both guard spots, but is a defensive liability.
Wayne Ellington was also brought in to shoot from long-range. Why, who knows? He's a career 37-percent shooter from three, but only averaged 6.5 PPG in three years in Minnesota.
Darrell Arthur missed all of last season with a torn right Achilles tendon. The year before, Arthur scored a respectable 9 PPG and is a solid defender.
Marreese Speights came to Memphis early last season from Philadelphia and can score. He can rebound a little, but beware -- if Speights gets the ball, it's going up. There is no passing it.
COACHING: Hollins has this team believing in the hype surrounding it. He wants them not only to be considered contenders, but also to consider themselves contenders. He won't have a deep bench. Hollins turned this franchise around and needs to improve on his playoff runs.
OUTLOOK: Memphis has a great core in its starting five. You can't be excited relying on Bayless and Arthur as your bench threats, but the group that will be introduced every night is very good.
Memphis is not better than Oklahoma City, the Lakers or Spurs, but they aren't far from any other team. They could get that fourth seed and win a round, but a trip to the Western Conference finals seems unlikely.