May 15, 2018, 11:25 am
The Grizzlies entered the season seemingly pre-ordained to enjoy yet another unceremonious playoff berth. Sure, they lost familiar veteran faces like Zach Randolph, Vince Carter and the Grindfather himself, Tony Allen. True, offseason acquisitions of Ben McLemore and Tyreke Evans failed to come even close to keeping pace with the Cold-War-level arms race occurring amongst other playoff hopefuls in the West. But come on – it is the Grizzlies that we are talking about! This was still largely the same team that has managed to grit and grind their way into the playoffs every season since 2010; the same team still lead by Marc Gasol and Mike Conley; and the same team that boasted one of the hottest up-and-coming young coaches in David Fizdale. Instead, this Grizzlies squad now has the dubious honor of owning the second worst record in the Association, has significant question marks around the long-term viability of its aging core of players, and will start the 2018 season under a new (non-interim) head coach. Hoop-Ball’s Post-Mortem series looks at where it all went wrong this past season in Memphis.
The story of the Grizzlies offseason one summer ago was less about players that they brought in (Tyreke Evans, $3M/1yr; Ben McLemore, $10.6M/2yr), and more about who left town. Zach Randolph and Vince Carter were signed on short-term deals by the Kings to provide veteran leadership in a young locker room, while Tony Allen was given a shot at one final encore performance in the Big Easy.
From a front office perspective, it is hard to deny that allowing all three players to walk in free agency made sense. Randolph and Allen are both on the wrong side of 35, and Vince Carter is literally the oldest active player in the Association. With both of its star players in Marc Gasol and Mike Conley on extremely lucrative deals through the 2019 and 2020 season respectively, and Chandler Parsons’ albatross of a contract, the Grizzlies had to get younger and much cheaper in a hurry. However, the numbers don’t tell the entire story. If Gasol and Conley are the face of the franchise, Randolph and Allen were the heart and soul of the “Grit and Grind” era that defined the Grizzlies’ improbable run of seven straight playoff appearances starting in 2010.
It is unfair and inaccurate to pin the Grizzlies’ shortcomings this year entirely on the departure of veteran players that are objectively past their prime, but it underscores the fact that the team entered the season in the midst of an identity crisis. Then-coach David Fizdale was not shy about his desire to move the team’s playstyle away from a slow, physical and grinding style that has defined the Grizzlies for years towards an up-tempo and positionless brand of basketball more in line with the modern pace and space NBA.
The new-look Grizzlies came out swinging with five wins in their first six games against competition like the Pelicans, the Warriors and the Rockets (twice). The momentum didn’t last long as the Grizzles lost Mike Conley for the year just 13 games into the season with an left foot injury, following up a 7-4 start with 11 consecutive losses. From then on, the injury carousel kept turning (see: Chandler Parsons, Tyreke Evans and JaMychal Green) and the losses kept piling up as the Grizzlies tied a franchise-record 18-game losing streak at one point in the year.
The Grizzlies approached the trade deadline firmly entrenched in the tank race to the bottom, and almost assuredly ready to deal upcoming free agent Tyreke Evans to a contender for a draft pick. To nearly everyone’s surprise, Evans remained in Memphis following the trade deadline. The market price for Evans was apparently well short of the first-round pick asking price, and the Grizzlies ultimately opted to hold tight and take their chances re-signing the 28-year old guard this summer on the open market – a move that could prove risky as it appears more likely that they will end up losing Evans for nothing.
Despite the injuries and generally poor play, there were bright spots for the Grizzlies. Evans enjoyed somewhat of a renaissance (before the injury bug set in) following a disastrous 2016 campaign with the Kings. Dillon Brooks already has the looks of a solid NBA rotation player in his rookie season, and the Grizzlies’ young stable of big men behind Gasol and Green showed promise, albeit inconsistently.
The million dollar question (make that $196.5 million actually) is how far the front office believes this team can go with a core of Mike Conley and Marc Gasol. The Grizzlies’ payroll isn’t pretty with nearly $196.5 million sunk into Chandler Parsons, Conley and Gasol through the 2019 season. The youth on the Grizzlies at this point isn’t exactly building block material, but with a healthy Gasol and Conley the Grizzlies may have enough complementary pieces to ascend back into back-end playoff contention as early as next season. However, if they do squeak into the playoffs, it is hard to see them making a deep playoff run with the top of the West seemingly turning into more of a buzz saw with each passing season.
Ultimately, success for the Grizzlies this season is hard to measure in terms of wins and losses. Marc Gasol is still a force to be reckoned with, Mike Conley made his two-way impact known through an extended absence and young project players showed measured improvement. All that said, there is no way to mince words here – the team was blatantly tanking down the stretch. Grizzlies own a nearly 20 percent chance at the first overall selection in the 2018 NBA Draft, and a roughly 55 percent chance at landing inside the top three. They have done their part, but now the “success” of this season comes down to their tank effectively tipping the scales in favor of the first overall pick and praying that the ping-pong gods smile down on Memphis on March 15.
In an early season bombshell, the Grizzlies fired then-head coach David Fizdale following a 7-12 start this season. At the time of the firing, the team was in a tailspin after losing starting point guard Mike Conley, but it would later be revealed that circumstances beyond the teams eight game losing streak contributed to the early-season departure of one of the hottest up-and-coming names in the NBA coaching world.
Reports indicate locker room sparring between Fizdale and All-Star center Marc Gasol going back to the 2016 season continued to fester until things reached a breaking point as the team struggled early in the 2017 campaign. Ownership appeared to be faced with a choice – Gasol or Fizdale – and it didn’t take long to see where their loyalties lie.
Following Fizdale’s exodus, associate head coach J.B. Bickerstaff was promoted to interim head coach for the remainder of the season. Early in the offseason, the team announced that they would be officially announcing Bickerstaff as the teams new (sort of) head coach with a three-year deal.
It is unfair to take Bickerstaff’s record of 15-48 as a head coach of the Grizzlies as a reflection on his abilities as a head coach – he inherited an injury-riddled team in the midst of an identity crisis with a likely mandate to tank from the front office. Bickerstaff doesn’t have an extensive resume as a head coach in the NBA beyond this past season and one brief stint in Houston after Kevin McHale was fired in 2015. However, he has been a long-time assistant with stops in Charlotte (2004-2007), Minnesota (2007-2011), Houston (2011-2016) and Memphis (2016-present). What he may lack in head coaching experience, he seems to make up for in relationship building. Gasol and Mike Conley both emphasized in exit interviews that Bickerstaff should retain the head coaching position following his season in the interim role.
His coaching philosophy is also somewhat of an unknown at this point. Rotations were variable as the Grizzlies only had one 5-man lineup that logged over 100 minutes total on the season (though injury played a large part in that). At a pace of 94.74, they were again near the bottom of the league, ahead of only the Mavericks and Jazz. However, this season was so far outside of the norm that it is hard to read too much into the numbers. Bickerstaff should be granted a fairly long leash, as expectations for the Grizzlies will likely remain modest next season, and the potential to outperform those expectations with a healthy core and fresh lottery talent remains.
ADP: 33/28 (ESPN/Yahoo), Total Value: 379/380 (8/9 cat), Per-Game Value: 126/127 (8/9 cat), Games Played: 12
Following a season where Conley broke his back and only missed nine games as a result, it was a bit of a shock to see the timetable for return go from questionable, to 2-3 weeks, to out for the remainder of the season following what was initially reported as a relatively minor Achilles injury. The lost season is all the harder to swallow given his top-25 finish last season, but there may be a silver lining in this debacle.
In the 12 games that Conley played this season he shot just 38-percent from the floor on 14 attempts per game. The sample size was small, but that is a nearly unfathomable decline from a career 44-percent shooter who managed to end last season around the 46-percent mark. Conley noted that his left foot has been bothering him on-and-off for the better part of three seasons, and it seems likely that a lingering injury to start the season may be partially responsible for the poor shooting.
The good news is that the surgery should address any lingering issues that Conley was dealing with to start this season, and set him up nicely for a bounce back year in 2018. Given the frustration that Conley produced this year for fantasy owners, he could end up being a draft day steal next year and is a great buy-low candidate right now for win-now teams in dynasty formats.
ADP: 34/32 (ESPN/Yahoo), Total Value: 29/36 (8/9 cat), Per-Game Value: 37/41 (8/9 cat), Games Played: 73
After Coach Fizdale was fired, the extent of tensions between the second-year coach and the big man became fully known. The two apparently did not see eye-to-eye over the direction of the team, and reports of locker room disputes appeared to have spilled onto the floor as Gasol saw his minutes limited in several early-season contests. After head coach J.B. Bickerstaff took over for Fizdale 19 games into the season, Gasol saw a slight uptick in playing time. That was short lived however as he was increasingly held out with minor injuries and racked up considerable late-season rest days as the Grizzlies’ tank gained momentum.
At 33 years old, Gasol remains one of the premier big men in the NBA and in fantasy hoops. It was a tumultuous ride, but he still managed to provide early-round value for fantasy owners on the back of his traditionally well-rounded stat set. Gasol didn’t quite manage to hit top-30 value on a per game basis as he did last season, and that can largely be attributed to a huge dip in his field goal percentage. He shot a career low 42-percent from the field this season as he attempted a career high 4.4 triples per game – no doubting the correlation there.
Barring any major changes to the Grizzlies frontcourt rotation, Gasol is likely to produce at around the same level next season. Another year of tanking limiting his utilization is the fear, but the Grizzlies do not tend to stay bad for long. Ultimately, his value next season will likely depend on who the Grizzlies end up with in the 2018 draft (a class loaded with big man talent at the top). Until we see how the dominoes fall on draft day, Gasol remains a top-40 play next season.
ADP: 117/142 (ESPN/Yahoo), Total Value: 208/207 (8/9 cat), Per-Game Value: 162/161 (8/9 cat), Games Played: 55
Similar to many of his teammates, injuries were the main theme of Green’s season. He suffered an ankle injury four minutes into the season that kept him sidelined for the next 12 games. Upon returning he saw fairly significant rotation minutes, but never could put it all together to reach his top-100 potential due to a combination of poor shooting from the field, lackluster defensive stats and additional injuries.
The Grizzlies frontcourt rotation was anything but predictable down the stretch, and Green found himself outplayed at times by younger big man options in Deyonta Davis, Jarell Martin and rookie Ivan Rabb. If he can hold onto a starting role next season and avoid the injury bug, he could turn in top-150 value as a late-round rebound specialist, but it seems more likely that Green is leapfrogged in the rotation by one of the aforementioned players above or lottery talent acquired in the draft.
ADP: 118/147 (ESPN/Yahoo), Total Value: 105/114 (8/9 cat), Per-Game Value: 43/44 (8/9 cat), Games Played: 52
It was a tale of two half-seasons for Tyreke Evans. Prior to the All-Star Break, Evans was absolutely crushing his ADP and putting up top-50 value, averaging 19.5 points on 45-percent shooting with 2.1 triples, 5.1 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 1.0 steal and 0.3 blocks per game. The injury to Mike Conley left the keys to the offense squarely in his hands, and Evans was shooting a career-best nearly 40-percent from beyond the arc on a career-high 5.5 attempts per game. All was well, and it looked like Evans was set to have the comeback performance of the year, then the calendar turned over into February and everything changed.
Evans was suddenly yanked from the rotation in the days leading up to the February 8 trade deadline under fairly dubious designations, and never managed to string together more than three games played in a row for the remainder of the season due to injury. It is hard to say how much of the missed time was truly due to nagging injury, and how much was due to some blatant tanking by the Grizzlies. Regardless of the rationale for shutting him down, Evans was never able to get back on track after a tremendous start to the season.
Evans enters the offseason an unrestricted free agent, and that is probably not great news for his fantasy value. Even with Mike Conley back in the rotation, Evans is likely to have more value on a talent-starved Grizzlies squad than most other places in the Association. The Grizzlies probably don’t have the cap room to put in a serious offer for him, so it is more likely than not that he starts the 2018 season in a different situation. Until we know the specifics of where he lands, consider Evans a top-100 player with a top-75 upside in the right spot.
ADP: NA/143 (ESPN/Yahoo), Total Value: 309/303 (8/9 cat), Per-Game Value: 246/244 (8/9 cat), Games Played: 36
Since signing a 4-year $94.5 million deal two years ago, Parsons has only appeared in 70 contests for the Grizzlies. Despite the fact that this essentially amounted to yet another lost season for the 29-year old forward, there were bright moments early in the season where the talent that landed him such a lucrative deal shined through. On October 28, Parsons dropped 24 points on 9-of-11 shooting with six triples in only 19 minutes against the Rockets. Not long after that he scored 10 points on 4-of-7 shooting with two treys, two steals and two blocks in 20 minutes against the Clippers.
Then in late November, the Chandler Parsons of the 2016 season was suddenly back. He began missing games due to knee soreness, knee tightness and maintenance rest, and then only appeared in a handful of two- or three-game stretches for the remainder of the season. It is tough to place all of the absences on his shoulders (or knees) – the Grizzlies had little to no incentive to risk further injury to Parsons as their focus quickly turned from playoff seeding to the draft lottery odds.
It is hard to say what this season may mean for the next. If he truly was battling with yet another string of knee issues, it may be time to declare Parsons officially past his prime as an NBA rotation player. However, if he was sidelined more due to tanking gamesmanship on the Grizzlies part, then it is hard to say what to expect from him in 2018. The upside is still there to warrant a late round flier, but there will probably be better ways to burn a late lottery ticket selection on draft day.
ADP: NA/NA (ESPN/Yahoo), Total Value: 154/170 (8/9 cat), Per-Game Value: 211/231 (8/9 cat), Games Played: 82
In the first game of his NBA career, Dillon Brooks put the fantasy world on notice following a 19-point performance on 7-of-13 shooting with five rebounds, two assists, four steals and two blocks in 29 minutes. Following that big coming out party, he struggled to keep up the pace despite earning a spot in the starting rotation for the remainder of the year.
He had periods of top-150 value buoyed largely by inflated percentages, but spent a majority of the season as a fringe standard league player based on steady contributions of threes and steals – averaging 1.1 and 0.9 per game respectively on the season. He demonstrated an ability to attack the rim and showed steady improvement as a scorer and secondary facilitator for the Grizzlies, but his fantasy upside still remains limited by his stat set.
His youth, upside and defensive prowess should ensure that his spot in the rotation is safe next season, but don’t expect a huge leap forward into the top-100 from Brooks. A big top-40 finishing week may have inflated his draft stock slightly, so keep an eye on his ADP and know that paying a top-100 price may end up as a losing investment.
ADP: NA/NA (ESPN/Yahoo), Total Value: 204/209 (8/9 cat), Per-Game Value: 242/254 (8/9 cat), Games Played: 73
Martin did not exactly set the fantasy world on fire, but he did at least show signs of life this season after failing to crack the top-350 his first two seasons. He outplayed JaMychal Green at times this season, and averaged 11 points per game on 44-percent shooting with 0.8 triples, six rebounds and 0.7 blocks over the final two months of action. That isn’t useful outside of deep leagues, but his improvement this year warrants recognition. He won’t likely be an asset outside of 20-team leagues and deeper, and a lottery-caliber big man joining the Grizzlies could put even his deep league utility in jeopardy.
ADP: NA/NA (ESPN/Yahoo), Total Value: 263/245 (8/9 cat), Per-Game Value: 284/263 (8/9 cat), Games Played: 62
In his second year, Davis showed promise as a rebounds and blocks specialist in an expanded role this season. The athleticism, rebounding and offensive efficiency are there for Davis to be a fringe standard league option if given a larger role. Whether he can ever step into that larger role will depend to a significant extent on whether he can overcome some self-imposed limitations. He appeared generally disinterested at times this season, and needs to work on defending without fouling as he frequently found himself back on the bench in foul trouble. He is unlikely to be fantasy relevant next season outside of super deep leagues, but may have utility as a blocks streamer as long as he sees around 15-20 minutes per game.
ADP: NA/NA (ESPN/Yahoo), Total Value: 236/247 (8/9 cat), Per-Game Value: 216/233 (8/9 cat), Games Played: 56
Injuries to Mike Conley and Tyreke Evans opened up significant run for Harrison. He was able to cash in on the opportunity, and had periods of standard league relevance following the All-Star break. Unfortunately, his own season was cut short with a series of lingering injuries to his shoulder and wrist. Harrison did show some improvement in his second year as he managed to shoot nearly 10 percent better from the field, but his prospects for fantasy relevance next season are marginal with a healthy Grizzlies backcourt.
ADP: NA/NA (ESPN/Yahoo), Total Value: 380/375 (8/9 cat), Per-Game Value: 18/17 (8/9 cat), Games Played: 7
Brooks is almost certain to be one of the more polarizing players in the upcoming fantasy draft season. He kicked back open the doors following an extended absence from the NBA and averaged 20.1 points on 50-percent shooting with 2.7 triples, 3.1 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 1.6 steals in 27 minutes over seven games with the Grizzlies. That statistical output was good enough to make him a top-20 fantasy asset on a per game basis down the playoff stretch. Beyond getting in the good graces of fantasy owners, Brooks’ production was enough for the Grizzlies to lock him in with a guaranteed contract for next season.
It was a great story for both Brooks and fantasy owners who managed to grab him off the wire, but there are many aspects of his seven game run that jump out as unsustainable. Brooks was posting a nearly 30 percent usage rate on a tanking Grizzlies team in its final death throes. That simply will not happen when they are back at full strength. Also, His 50 percent conversion rate from the field and astounding 59 percent shooting from deep are both prime for regression. The small sample size makes Brooks largely an unknown entity. He may likely be a popular late round lottery ticket pick, but reaching for Brooks with a pick inside the top-100 would be ill advised.
ADP: NA/NA (ESPN/Yahoo), Total Value: 330/331 (8/9 cat), Per-Game Value: 289/297 (8/9 cat), Games Played: 36
After spending the early portion of the season with the Grizzlies G-League affiliate, the Memphis Hustle, the team opted to bring Rabb back up to the big show to see what they had in the 21-year-old rookie big man. The early returns were far from inspiring and lacking in consistency however Rabb was able to close out the season with an impressive string of games, averaging 11.5 points on 56-percent shooting (going 80-percent at the line) with 9.0 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.0 steal and 1.5 blocks in four starting appearances. That production was good enough to see him ranked inside the top-50 over that final four game stretch, and could make him an interesting late-round flier candidate come draft day next season. He won’t likely see consistent starter’s minutes given the Grizzlies’ stable of project big men, but there is the chance that he steps into the backup role and leapfrogs Jarell Martin. We will need to see what happens in the draft and free agency, but if Rabb appears poised to earn steady minutes as the primary backup four or five next season, his per-minute production so far seems to indicate that he could have a shot at being at least an end-of-bench standard league player.
As the sun sets on the Grit and Grind era in Memphis, the Grizzlies need to find a new identify. Whether that involves staying the course with an aging core of Mike Conley and Marc Gasol or opting to embrace a full rebuild – ownership and the front office needs to pick a direction and stay the course. Landing an heir apparent franchise player through the draft is a step in the right direction for the long-term vision, but the team’s salary cap situation and aging core leave the Grizzlies with little margin for error if an immediate return to contention is the goal.