Lost amidst the Dwightmare, JJ Redick blockbuster, Sooner frugality, and Utah's tankapalooza creating a vulnerable contender in San Francisco, has been a very solid offseason for the Memphis Grizzlies. The Western Conference may be tougher than ever, but Memphis should be even better than last season's 56 win team. They won't get many headlines during the regular season, and do not have the offensive talent to steamroll the bottom half of the league in the regular season like their competitors in Oklahoma City and Los Angeles, but they may be the toughest team in the West, or even the league, to beat in a seven game playoff series come next May.
Despite the team's "grit 'n grind" ethos, their success starts with their two All-Star talents. Marc Gasol has wrested the crown of "league's best center" thanks to a devastating mix of team defense and offensive skill, and the assumption that this will finally be the year Tim Duncan returns to his home planet. His modest averages of 14 and 8 belie the impact Gasol has on the game. As the best passing big man in the league, and an excellent outside shooter (49% from 16-23 feet) he opens gobs of desperately needed space for Zach Randolph and the Memphis army of cutters, while also scoring effectively in the low post when needed (49% on hook shots). He was also named the defensive player of the year in recognition of his work manning the middle of the Grizzlies' defense, which finished second, only to Indiana, who had the advantage of playing extra games against the Central Division. It can be difficult to calculate the precise impact of a 7'1, 270 pound rim protector that can stay in front of most guards 18 feet from the basket, but Memphis was much worse without him on the court by raw and adjusted on/off measures.
Last season was also significant for the Grizzlies because it marked Mike Conley's jump to (near) stardom. Another player with modest averages at 15 and 6, like Gasol, Conley only shines when one looks closer at his contributions. Those start on the defensive end, where Conley made the NBA's 2nd team all-defense. He has a legitimate argument, buttressed by on/off stats and an excellent steal rate, as the best, or most consistently excellent, defender among regulars at his position. Offensively, Conley does nothing spectacularly, but everything at a "B to B+" level, making him one of the most valuable two way guards in the league.
The Grizzlies are hoping for another good season from elder statesman Zach Randolph, who remains an elite rebounder, but has seen his role and efficiency decline since his 2011 destruction of the Spurs. Randoph will probably have his role and minutes reduced during the regular season to keep him fresh for the playoffs, and give development time to management favorite Ed Davis, who will be entering restricted free agency. Davis has the potential to be an extremely valuable player, adding rebounding, shot blocking, efficient scoring, and a midrange game that showed signs of improvement last season. He was buried during the stretch run by former coach Lionel Hollins. Successfully integrating the 6'10 lefty into the team's defensive system would push the team's ceiling even higher. Randolph possesses a pricey player option for the 2014 season, and Davis' development and role will likely determine whether Randolph compiles the numbers to make opting out a wise decision, and whether the Grizzlies decide to trade an opted in Randolph next summer.
Grindfather, Twitter poet, and fan favorite Tony Allen stayed with Memphis, at only $5 million a year, a bargain for one of the league's five best perimeter defenders. Although the Spurs took advantage of Allen's lack of shooting, he remains extremely valuable when the Grizzlies match up against a team with a high scoring wing, and the Grizzlies other moves have made it easier to survive with one non shooter on the floor, especially with Allen's cutting ability. Finding playing time for Tayshaun Prince, who, at 2 years/15 million probably has the worst contract on the team, may be more difficult. Prince is still a savvy defender, but looked very old and slow in last year's playoffs.
The rest of the team's wing rotation is more intriguing. Quincy Pondexter is an extremely limited 3&D player, but that was enough to win unadulterated praise and take control of the team's small forward spot during last year's Western Conference Finals. Jamaal Franklin was a steal in the mid second round, as a big shooting guard who was athletic and tenacious enough to play power forward and create offense from the perimeter. His jump shot is charitably described as "shaky", but improvement in that phase of his game could be enough to make him a ten year starter. Mike Miller and Mike Miller's glass ligaments were acquired for the playoffs, giving Memphis much needed potential lineups with excellent shooting while retaining some defensive integrity.
The team's highest profile acquisition this offseason was trading for Kosta Koufos, a solid defender, underrated rebounder, and clever interior scorer. Koufos will allow the team to rest Gasol more during the regular season, and give the team 48 minutes of rim protection during the playoffs, a luxury for a team that often needed to survive stretches with Darrell Arthur protecting the rim for crucial playoff stretches. Koufos, the only big man George Karl trusted on defense, gives the Grizzlies one of the best reserve centers in the league.
The backup point guard position has given the Grizzlies problems over the past couple seasons, as they have trotted out Gilbert Arenas and Keyon Dooling in previous playoffs. Jerryd Bayless will probably play more shooting guard, unless Franklin progresses faster than expected. That means the team may be hoping for progress from Tony Wroten, who was horrible in limited time as a rookie, but is only 20, and has tons of potential. The team is also reported to be pursuing Mo Williams, who would give them another shooter, and more offense off the bench. Leaving no stone unturned in the hunt for Conley's backup, the team also signed Greek star Nick Calathes and Josh Akognon, who has his own fan page.
Besides the hope that Ed Davis can start to reach his potential on both sides of the ball, the Grizzlies made a slew of small upgrades this offseason. The differences may not be obvious during the regular season, but the deeper, flexible bench will give new coach Dave Joerger more lineups that he can use to match up with the league's other juggernauts. Need shooting? Conley-Mo-Miller-QPon-Gasol. Need to match up with a Howard-Asik lineup? Gasol and Koufos can do so without killing the team's spacing. Need to punish a team in the low post? Run the offense through ZBo for four minutes, and surround him with a Miller, Williams, Conley, Gasol lineup. If Franklin starts to figure things out, pairing him with Tony Allen could make life hell for opposing offenses. A Gasol-Davis-Franklin-Allen-Conley (or Wroten) lineup is as big and athletic as any team can produce. It's not likely that all of these will pan out, but many of them might, and that matchup flexibility can allow a coach to eliminate an opposing player (see: Tiago Splitter in the finals, Shane Battier and Tony Allen in the conference finals), making a huge difference in a series.