Prior to Monday night's loss to the Charlotte Hornets, things were going pretty well for the Memphis Grizzlies this year. They had an 11-6 record entering the game, and if you exclude an early-season 36-point loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves, in which they were missing their three best players, they were 11-5 with a point differential of plus-3.0 points per game. They had also won seven of their last eight, and eight of their previous ten. Things were coming together.
While the Grizzlies had made several moves to shake up the Grit N' Grind style that had become their hallmark over the past five years, those changes were more cosmetic. Memphis actually had an incredibly similar statistical profile to the teams of their recent past. Prior to the Hornets loss, they had a bottom-ten offense and a top-five defense. They were in the bottom three in possessions per game. The way they wound up with those rankings just was slightly different than before.
New head coach David Fizdale slid Zach Randolph to the bench in favor of JaMychal Green; he encouraged Marc Gasol and the other Grizz bigs to shoot threes; he became the third straight coach to talk about pursuing more early-offense looks; and he placed more of the offensive responsibility than ever before on the back of Mike Conley, who was handling that responsibility beautifully until he suffered a back injury against the Hornets and did not return.
By mid-day Tuesday, we found out (via Woj, as usual) that Conley had suffered a fracture of the transverse process in his lower back, and would be out indefinitely. Subsequent reporting provided timelines ranging from "six weeks" to "six to eight weeks," and though several people have noted that athletes such as Jason Thompson, Hedo Turkoglu, Tony Romo, and Cam Newton have returned more quickly than that in the past, the loss of Conley is as crushing a blow as Memphis could possibly have suffered.
The Grizzlies' major weakness during this era has been the lack of a secondary creator alongside Conley on the perimeter—someone who could puncture the defense from outside-in, force it to collapse, and take advantage of the creases that collapsing offered. They've tried for years to find that piece, cycling through players like Rudy Gay, O.J. Mayo, Jeff Green, and even Lance Stephenson, all to no avail. This summer, they finally found the man they thought would complete that picture, signing Chandler Parsons to a four-year max contact. Parsons fit the bill perfectly: he's a smooth shooter from the outside (38 percent from three for his career) who is comfortable working off the bounce as a ball-handler in pick-and-rolls or attacking a defender rotating his way on a closeout. By adding him to the core they kept intact by re-signing Conley to a max deal of his own, Memphis assembled a roster that, if healthy, looked like it could compete for at least one home-court series in the playoffs.
The key there was the "if healthy" qualifier, and it would appear that the bet on this group staying on the floor has already backfired at least a bit. Gasol missed a game early in the season to rest the foot he broke last year and has otherwise been fine, but Tony Allen missed time with a groin injury and has not quite returned to his usual First-Team All-Defense self. Parsons missed the first six games of the year recovering from surgery, returned for six mildly productive games, and has been out for the last ten days with a bone bruise in his knee—an injury from which there is still no firm timetable for his return. And now Conley is probably on the shelf until mid-January, at the earliest.
If Conley is out for the minimum six-week period that has been prescribed, he'll sit for 21 games during which the average Memphis opponent has a current winning percentage of 0.569—the equivalent of playing a 47-win team every night. Memphis plays the Warriors twice, the Cavaliers twice, the Jazz twice, the Celtics twice, plus the Raptors (tonight), the Blazers, the Rockets, the Thunder, and the Clippers once each during that stretch. That means poor Wade Baldwin and Andrew Harrison will have to deal with Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving, George Hill, Isaiah Thomas, Kyle Lowry, Damian Lillard, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, and Chris Paul while Conley is out; Reggie Jackson could be back with the Pistons by the time Memphis play them in late December, as well. Those are brutal matchups the Grizzlies have almost no chance of winning on a nightly basis, at the league's most important position, in at least 13 of their next 21 games.
They've banked themselves a four-games-above-.500 start to the season, and the Grizzlies showed last year that they are briefly capable of managing to scrape together wins without their most important contributors, but the way Memphis has completely collapsed without Conley in the game this season should be a reality check for those counting on a repeat of 2015-16. The Grizzlies have outscored their opponents by 6.5 points per 100 possessions while sporting the equivalent of a top-15 offense and the top overall defense with Conley on the floor this season, per NBA.com. Without him, they've been blasted by 13.1 points per 100 possessions, scored at the worst rate in the NBA (by a mile), and allowed points at a rate that would place them in the bottom half of the league, as well. Overall, they've been more than 20 points per 100 possessions worse without Conley on the floor. It's that bad.
Gasol has been on the floor for 137 of those Conley-less minutes, and while Memphis has been better in that time than the minutes where Gasol has joined Conley on the bench, it's not by much. Memphis has been outscored by 6.5 points per 100 possessions with Conley out and Gasol in the game, per NBAWOWY.com. That's at least somewhat concerning.
There are, of course, ways to adjust. Fizdale can shift the offense even more toward Gasol and Randolph than what we've seen in recent years. He can toss Allen out there for more minutes than the team has been comfortable with, given his injury issues and offensive limitations, in an effort to clean up the defensive mistakes that are sure to result from playing neophytes like Baldwin and Harrison for heavy minutes. He can hope for even more than he's gotten already out of the ageless Vince Carter. He can try to find more time for rookie sniper Troy Williams or veteran sniper Troy Daniels in order to generate more spacing, and live with the fact that they, too, will make defensive errors fairly consistently. And if the slick-haired forward ever does make it back from injury, Fizdale can try to lean as much as he can on Parsons while hoping his knees don't buckle under the weight of too much responsibility.
Figuring out a way to survive without Conley, the engine of the Memphis offense and the primary point-of-attack defender on defense (who also serves as an integral part of their communication system, by the way: Conley and Gasol told me two years ago that Conley will often relay opposing play calls back to Gasol, who then directs the rest of the players on the floor) would be a trying task under even the best of circumstances. And the Grizzlies are not currently operating under the best of circumstances. Conley's backups have almost no experience and the Grizzlies have nobody else who replicates his skill at piercing opposing defenses off the bounce. The team is about to come up against an extremely tough stretch of its schedule, during which it plays almost every top team in the league, and it has shown almost no ability to perform well without him this season. If Conley misses even just the minimum amount of time, it may ultimately be too much for even the grittiest team to overcome.
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