NBA Basketball Column: Free Throws
Memphis - The Sexy Contender
Who are these Memphis Grizzlies?
They're a balanced, efficient team. Starting at point guard - Mike Conley has grown into the perfect table setter. The stats are impressive - in 14 games he's averaging career highs in points per game, assists per game, field goal percentage and three-point field goal percentage at 15.3, 6.7, 49.7% and 46.3% respectively. But the success goes beyond the numbers.
Conley initiates the most fluid half-court offense in the NBA. Unlike so many offenses, which are driven by superstars creating for themselves, the ball is spread around to three key contributors - Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol and Rudy Gay.
Randolph is among the least athletic forwards in the league; his vertical tops out at around six inches. But his skill trumps any lack of athleticism. Z-Bo has an array of post moves, and a reliable jumpshot up to 20 feet that combine to dominate opponents. He averages 17 PPG and a beastly 13 rebounds per game. Also, through the first several years of his career he was maligned for his defensive effort. Under coach Lionel Hollins, Randolph has become acceptable on that end.
Then you have Gasol - a seven footer with soft hands, a smooth jumper, and a point-guard's ability to distibute the ball (4.5 APG). When the Spaniard catches the rock around the free throw line, Memphis's offense becomes especially deadly. From that spot, Gasol can make the jumper if his man gives him room, or he can survey the floor to find men inside for layups, shooters for threes, or cutters like Rudy Gay for highlight reel dunks.
Speaking of Gay - the man is no superstar, but has all the talent of one. At 6'9, he is an athletic freak who can make shots from any spot on the floor. He averages 19 PPG, but only on 42% from the field. Gay may have all the attributes of a star, but he lacks the requisite mentality. He doesn't crave winning like LeBron or Kobe. In last year's playoffs against the Clippers, Gay was defended by shorter, lesser skilled guards, like the 6'4 Randy Foye, and never "took over", even though he outclassed his competition. Instead he settled for poor shots, and more tellingly, dishing off to others in hopes they would alleciate the pressure.
Outside of Gay, coach Lionel Hollins has been superb at defining roles for Memphis's remaining, complimentary pieces. Guard Tony Allen is their defensive stopper, willing and able to defend point guards, shooting guards and small forwards. Forward Darrell Arthur, who missed significant time last year, can defend, rebound hit the open jumper. Small forward Quincy Pondexter can run the floor and finish on the break.
The Grizzlies' style is starkly opposite to today's traditional powerhouse. Miami (LeBron James, Dwyane Wade), LA (Kobe Bryant), OKC (Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook), San Antonio (Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili), New York (Carmelo Anthony), Brooklyn (Deron Williams, Joe Johnson) - are all driven by perimeter positioned superstars. Memphis is driven by its forwards and team play.
It's trendy to pick Memphis as serious threats in the West. But today's NBA requires that individual playmaker. That singular star that wants it more. When the playoffs begin, the defensive intensity ramps up, and the stars separate themselves by way of talent and will. Rudy Gay, the only player on Memphis with true star potential, wilted under the pressure last year. Perhaps that extra year of experience has hardened Gay, along with Randolph and Gasol. But don't take Memphis's hot start as evidence that they're ready to make a championship run.
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