STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
The Grizzlies assumed a troika of risks heading into the 2009-10 season - one of which flopped miserably (signing Allen Iverson to be a backup point guard), one of which propelled them into relevance (trading for Zach Randolph) and one of which may determine their standing in 2010-11. The first was the signing of Allen Iverson. The Grizzlies expected him to start the season as Mike Conley's backup and eventually overtake the starting point guard spot. It was a bad situation for all parties, and the experiment ended after 67 minutes. The second gamble - taking on Zach Randolph - had a polar result. Randolph started 81 games for the Grizzlies at the power forward, and his 20-10 presence in the frontcourt helped the team finish with 40 wins for the first time since 2005-06. The third was taking an offensively unpolished Hasheem Thabeet with the second overall pick of the 2009 draft. Thabeet became the highest drafted player to ever play in the D-League, but the Grizzlies expect him to be a big part of their bench this year.
Before digging into the upcoming campaign, let's acknowledge the strength of Memphis' starting five last year. Mike Conley, Jr., Rudy Gay, O.J. Mayo, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol started 65 of the team's 82 games, and the first four combined with Hasheem Thabeet for 13 late-season tipoffs. That continuity helped them lead all of the association's starting units with a combined 82.4 points per game and had the Grizzlies in contention for a playoff spot for the first time in years. Unfortunately, the team got squat from the bench. The reserves ranked last in the league with 20 points per contest. They did try to bolster the battalion with a deadline trade for Ronnie Brewer, but they floundered again once he went down to injury. General manager Chris Heisley thinks the team can reach the playoffs, evidenced by his signing Rudy Gay to a max deal, but they won't be able to make it there unless the bench (with new additions Xavier Henry, Grevis Vasquez and Tony Allen) steps up.
PLAYING TIME DISTRIBUTION
The Grizzlies head into the season with no debates among their starting five. Mike Conley, Jr., O.J. Mayo, Rudy Gay, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol will each play 32-36 minutes per night when healthy, and Mayo, Gay and Randolph could all play closer to 40 in close contests. Marc Gasol could also play in the upper-30s most nights, but his playing time could take a hit later in the year if Hasheem Thabeet develops. Thabeet could see 15-ish minutes per game in a backup role, or he could be held to single digits if he does not improve much. Tony Allen should serve as the first guard off the bench, and he should play 17-18 minutes. Either Acie Law or Grevis Vasquez could be the primary backup point guard, but both are also threats to be DNP. Vasquez’s fellow rookie, Xavier Henry, should get 10-15 minutes swinging between the two and three, and Sam Young could be dealt a similar hand.
Marc Gasol: The younger Gasol. His 36 minutes per game last season led centers league-wide, and that figure should not decrease much with a dearth of depth behind him at the center position. The neck injury that forced him to miss the last chunk of last season appears to no longer be an issue, as he was able to play for Spain during the FIBA Championships. He should once again team with Zach Randolph to form a formidable frontcourt. Gasol’s defense took a big step forward in his sophomore campaign, as he blocked 0.5 more shots per game and was on the cusp of 10 boards per contest (9.3).
Hasheem Thabeet: Can you say “work in progress?” The Grizzlies knew they had a project on their hands when they took the defense-first, offense-last center out of Connecticut with the second overall pick in the 2009 draft, but Thabeet was one of the rookie class’ biggest disappointments. He averaged 1.16 blocks per game before a late-February demotion to the D-League, but he was timid on the boards and absent on offense. Those numbers picked up a bit when he filled in for an injured Marc Gasol late in the year, but he will be relegated to No. 2 duty with Gasol fully healthy.
Hamed Haddadi: Haddadi may be more than seven feet tall, but he has never pulled down more than eight rebounds in a game during his two-year career. He dealt with some ankle injuries early in the 2008-09 campaign, but was a frequent DNP even when healthy.
Darrell Arthur: Arthur started 63 games for the 2008-09 Grizzlies, but his starting role came to a screeching halt when the team acquired Zach Randolph the following offseason. A torn pectoral made 2009-10 something of a lost season for Arthur, as he did not return to the court until February and was out of shape for the majority of the 32 games he did play. He averaged 7.9 points. 5.3 rebounds and 0.9 steals in eight April games, which were likely his healthiest contests of the year, and should take on a significant bench role this season.
DeMarre Carroll: Carroll will serve time as a backup at both forward slots in 2010-11. His most productive periods last year came when either Rudy Gay or Zach Randolph was hobbled by injury, and the same will hold true for this season.
Rudy Gay: Is Gay a maximum contract player? The Grizzlies think so. His stats recovered in 2009-10 from a mildly disappointing 2008-09, but he attempted 40 fewer three-pointers and made 20 fewer. O.J. Mayo may have had something to do with Gay’s decline in attempts from long range, and the Grizzlies may call on Gay to try less with Xavier Henry around. Gay should still be a factor in other categories, and his stat line this year may mirror last’s.
Zach Randolph: Some criticized the Grizzlies for adding Randolph prior to the 2009-10 season, claiming he would be a cancer for a young, developing team. Instead, he was an on-the-court leader for a team that flirted with .500 for the first time in years. Randolph led the league with 330 offensive rebounds, and his 11.7 total rebounds per game marked a career high. It looks like he is finally past his off-court reputation, and his production should remain strong on a roster that looks a lot like last year’s.
Sam Young: Young was the Grizzlies’ most reliable reserve last year, averaging 16.5 minutes in 80 games, largely playing the three. The team thinks it has vastly improved the bench this offseason, which might result in Young losing playing time.
Tony Allen: Ankle injuries limited Allen to 54 games in 2009-10, and his poor play upon his return relegated him to the back of the guard rotation for a time. He only played 16.5 minutes per game last year, which was his lowest average since his rookie season. The Grizzlies singed Allen to bolster their thin bench and provide some defensive energy. Those responsibilities appear to be extremely apt for his talents, and he probably won’t take on a bigger role without an injury elsewhere on the roster.
Mike Conley, Jr.: Conley finished the 2009-10 with averages of 16.3 points and 5.5 assists per game, ending his second straight season in which he struggled for much of the year and then found his stroke in the final two dozen games. But unlike previous seasons, Conley did not have to share the point guard role with others and made 80 starts. This season marks the final year of his current deal, so he will have to play to prove he belongs in Memphis. He will be surrounded by plenty of weapons to help him achieve that goal, and there is no obvious threat to his monopoly on the one slot, so he could be a cost-effective play after the upper tiers of point guards empty.
Xavier Henry: The Grizzlies may have drafted Henry 12th overall with Rudy Gay’s possible departure in mind, but the fact that Gay will stay in Memphis will allow them to bring Henry along a little bit slower. He nailed 69 three-pointers in 36 collegiate games for the University of Kansas last year and was considered one of the better shooters in the draft. His long wingspan should help him play defense in the NBA, which could help him gain minutes during his rookie year. He should get time at both the two and three this year, but O.J. Mayo’s and Rudy Gay’s respective locks on those slots will keep Henry from having too big of an impact this year.
Acie Law: The Grizzlies will be Law’s fifth team in four seasons, so it would be safe to say his career to this point has been disappointing. However, the team’s general lack of point guard depth could propel him into a good amount of playing time should something happen to Mike Conley, Jr..
O.J. Mayo: Mayo’s second year in the NBA went much like his first. Cross that. His second year in the NBA was nearly the same as his first. He played seven fewer minutes, attempted 100 fewer field goals and made nine fewer threes. He pulled down three more rebounds and dished out 20 fewer assists, but he stole the ball seven more times. In essence, he was the same player. He should be the same player in 2010-11 with the Grizzlies keeping pretty much the same unit around him. He might see some extra time at the point with very few options behind Mike Conley, Jr., but the team probably won’t go to Mayo unless Conley gets hurt.
Grevis Vasquez: Vazquez was the Grizzlies’ second first-round selection in June’s draft, and he should immediately slot as one of their primary backup point guards. Vasquez is significantly larger than current starting point guard Mike Conley, Jr., and the rookie's energy could make him an asset off the bench. He averaged 19.6 points per game in the ACC last season, but he probably won’t get enough playing time to even attempt to approach that number in his rookie campaign. Offseason ankle surgery may limit his early-season maturation.
Mike Conley, Jr.: It’s make-or-break time for the former second overall pick. As noted above, he shone over the season’s final month, and there are too many other weapons in the Grizzlies’ starting five for him not to excel. The team’s lack of guard depth should help Conley stay on the court even when he struggles
Xavier Henry: Henry broke several freshman records in his lone season at Kansas, and he had the pedigree of a top-10 NBA draft pick, but he simply won’t get enough playing time on a healthy Grizzlies squad to approach his college numbers. He might be worth a flier in a year or two, but don’t get fooled this year by his draft position.