First of all, yes the Memphis Grizzlies are contenders this year and could definitely win the Western Conference. This is because of the balance, depth and ability to defend and score at an elite level. They finally have a bench to help their fantastic starting five and have an excellent coach, which all adds up to one of the most complete teams in the NBA.
It all starts with their inside presence, with arguably the top big man duo in the NBA, in Zack Randolph and Marc Gasol. Randolph is leading the league in rebounding and has been a machine on offense, posting up and hitting mid-range jumpers consistently and has been un-guardable. He is using his weight to bully players inside and is simply playing at an elite level, scoring whenever he wants. Marc Gasol is playing at an unbelievably high level on offense as well, showing a versatile and complete game. He has developed a very complete low post repertoire on offense, using a wide variety of moves. He also has become one of the best mid-range shooting centers in the league and is dangerous inside and out. But what is most impressive with Gasol is his passing ability, averaging almost five assists per game, so the team can run the offense through him at times. He always finds the open man and has become arguably the top passing big man in the NBA. With both players capable of scoring both inside and out, teams can simply not stop them down low, because if they double team one, the other one will dominate and few defenders can take either one, one on one, so they will get their scoring inside.
The Grizzlies also have an elite player on the perimeter in Rudy Gay. The team’s leading scorer is one of the top athletes in the league and a pure scorer. He has improved his shooting and can score beyond the arc, in the mid-range and can get to the rim at will, which creates easy dunks, lay-ups and increased free throw attempts. He is a complete player on offense and with Gasol and Randolph down low, they will never struggle with scoring.
The Grizzlies also have the luxury of having a pass first and efficient point guard in Mike Conley Jr., who sets up their scorers, runs the offense to perfection and does not take shots away from stars. He may not be a star himself, but he is the perfect distributor to help run this team in their half court offense, but is also productive on the fast break.
As impressive as they are on offense with Gay, Randolph and Gasol, they also have an elite defense. This starts with starting shooting guard, Tony Allen, who is arguably the top perimeter defender in the NBA. He simply loves to defend and play hard and he consistently shuts down the other team’s leading scorer. Conley, may be small, but he is very quick and is able to stay in front of any point guard and year after year is among the league leaders in steals. Rudy Gay is such an impressive athlete that he has the ability to be a very effective defender and must work harder on the end, but he is still a plus defender. Even if teams get past Allen and Conley they still have to deal with Gasol down low, who is an excellent defender and clogs the lane. With their elite rebounding they are also able to limit offensive rebounds and limit second chance points and attempts. It is a rarity to have a great offense and defense, but the Grizzlies have both.
What sets these Grizzlies apart from previous years is a much deeper and improved bench. Marreese Speights is an excellent rebounder and offensive player and has been a very solid sixth man for them. The addition of Jerryd Bayless has been very good, as has brought instant offense off the bench and has helped make up for the loss of OJ Mayo. Wayne Ellington has finally found his niche in the NBA and has been one of the league’s top shooters this season. Every team needs an ace three-point shooter and Ellington has become that in Memphis, which means that he will get the chance to play at the end of games. With the double teams given to Gasol and Randolph down low, Ellington will get constant open shots in the clutch. Darrell Arthur is a blue-collar bruiser, able to score and defend inside, get rebounds and bully players. Every team needs a player like this and his toughness is important to the team, like Nick Collison in Oklahoma City. The biggest surprise is former first round pick, Quincy Pondexter, who has shown the ability to score inside and out and has brought excellent scoring off the bench. The team has needed improved depth behind Gay and Allen for years and they have found a very capable backup and with his athleticism, he could become a great defender. In years past it was just the starters, Mayo and Arthur, but now they are much deeper and they can now give their starters the needed rest they have not been given in recent seasons.
The biggest overall improvement with this team and what gives them the chance of winning the title, is that they are completely healthy. The last two years they have been without Gay or Randolph for extended periods of time, but they are both healthy and playing at an All-NBA level. Many have said that Gay and Randolph simply do not play well together, but they have rarely been able to play together for an entire season and with that chance, they are proving that they can win together and will both be productive for Memphis.
It is sometimes forgotten that Memphis has one of the league’s top coaches in Lionel Hollins, and he demands defense and has an excellent offensive strategy, letting Conley run the show, giving Gay his opportunities outside and giving the ball to their big-man duo on the inside. They are balanced, well coached, tough, deep and have plenty of scorers and defenders, which all ads up to a great team, without any weakness. The Memphis Grizzlies certainly could win the West and have a chance to win it all this year.