Grinding it out

AP Photo/Greg Wahl-Stephens

A season that began in the afterglow of a first-ever conference finals appearance and the perhaps even headier September designation from ESPN The Magazine as -- wait, what? -- “the best franchise in sports” is in danger of ending with a return to the draft lottery.

You might think that would reflect poorly on an ownership and front office in its first full season on the job in Memphis (and among those still stinging from the messing-with-success decision to part ways with Lionel Hollins, it probably does). But there’s more to this story.

When controlling owner Robert Pera and CEO Jason Levien took charge of the Grizzlies at the beginning of the 2012-13 season, they were fortunate enough to inherit Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph, Mike Conley and Tony Allen -- the best Memphis quartet since Booker T. & the MG’s. But they were also passed some oddly persistent problems with the rest of the roster, a bunch of small deficiencies that added up to a big multiseason drag on the team’s contending core.

A revolving door at backup point guard spun so fast between not-ready rookies and often past-expiration journeymen that it had become a running joke locally. Behind Gasol, at center, the options were to go small or force-feed minutes to should-be third-stringers. The lack of 3-point shooting was borderline anachronistic and, especially after Rudy Gay was traded, the dearth of above-the-rim athleticism was glaring.

Once the team anted up for Allen in free agency, attending to these myriad small wounds became the focus. But the first aid kit was pretty bare. Trading Gay clarified the team’s pecking order, but it didn’t create much in the way of flexibility. It merely bent the team’s salary trajectory to ride just under the tax line rather than soaring over it. There was no first-round pick in the 2013 draft (a delayed payment to the Rockets for taking on busted-out No. 2 pick Hasheem Thabeet), and using the full mid-level exception would have put the small-market team into the luxury tax. There were a lot of holes to plug and not much in the way of resources to plug them.

Yet at the cost of only a rapidly diminishing Darrell Arthur, an underperforming and positionally miscast Jerryd Bayless, a soon-to-expire trade exception from the Gay deal and a few slivers of cap space, the Grizzlies addressed every one of these nagging issues in significant if not uniformly satisfactory ways: corralling Kosta Koufos, Nick Calathes, Mike Miller, a re-signed Jon Leuer and James Johnson -- a center, a point guard, two shooters and a sometimes game-changing athlete -- for slightly more than the cost of a mid-level exception.

Courtney Lee displaced Allen in the starting lineup, giving the team a badly needed starting wing who could provide above-average defense with above-average shooting. Miller rivals Shane Battier as the most locally popular Grizzlies player during the Hubie Brown/Mike Fratello years, and the 34-year-old has not only brought nostalgic good vibes in his second tour in Memphis but also some desperately needed spacing (55 percent from 3 since the All-Star break). Johnson, an athletic X factor plucked from the D League, is just the kind of Z-Bo-like redemption story Griz fans groove on. The kickboxing journeyman is a classic Grizzlyan defender who has tattooed his name in team lore with one play against the Clippers and spurred a local cottage industry in nickname creation (people’s choice: “Bloodsport”; runners-up: “Kid Dynomite” and “Dr. JJ”).

The Grizzlies remain a very low-volume 3-point shooting team, but now have the ability to field lineups with multiple 3-point threats. With this supporting cast, the Grizzlies would likely have put up more of a fight against the Spurs in last season’s West finals, and they likely wouldn't have lost a home Game 7 against the Clippers two springs back, in which Hollins reached down to his bench in the fourth quarter for Gilbert Arenas and Hamed Haddadi. By contrast, new coach Dave Joerger struggles to even find minutes for better options Beno Udrih and Ed Davis.

Yet the Grizzlies are still in danger of missing the playoffs entirely after three straight years in the West’s top eight. The front office has done a great job of building out a full roster, but it’s still the heavy hitters who will decide the team’s fate, and injuries have plagued this team’s core all season.

Gasol and Conley combined to miss a mere 11 games in the previous three seasons. This season, with Gasol going down to a November knee injury and Conley sidelined by a January ankle sprain, they’ve missed a combined 32 games. Last season, the full four-man core took the court in 69 of 82 games. Even with full health the rest of the way, that group will only hit 36 games this season.

Since Gasol’s return, the Grizzlies have shown glimpses of what they can be at their best: Conley controlling the game and knocking down open shots; Gasol picking apart opposing defenses with his high-post passing and shooting and anchoring the Grizzlies’ defense at the other end; Randolph scoring and rebounding on the low block; and a deep, diverse cast of role players pitching in – Miller and Lee hitting 3s; Allen hounding ball handlers; Prince defending long wings and blending in; Koufos providing a paint presence on both ends; Calathes keeping Conley fresh; and the trio of Davis, Johnson and Leuer providing athletic and/or floor-stretching options.

The Grizzlies are 30-15 this season when Conley and Gasol both play, a .667 winning percentage not far behind last season’s franchise-best mark and one that would place them fourth in the West. Even with Gasol still wearing a heavy knee brace and Conley, by his own admission, playing at about 75 percent, the Grizzlies have the league’s sixth-best record since the All-Star break. But heading into Friday’s game against Denver, Memphis is 44-31, and in eighth place in the West thanks to a tiebreaker over the Phoenix Suns.

The Grizzlies struggled early with a full roster and have shown some strain in the past week despite being at full strength again. Going 1-3 in four road games against teams ranked among the league’s 10 fastest-paced highlights concerns about how well Joerger, in his first season as an NBA head coach, has deployed the team’s improved depth and athleticism. Joerger has acquitted himself well in his debut season by any reasonable standard, but he won’t get a pass from most Memphis fans if the Grizzlies fall short of the playoffs, especially given Hollins’ recent success in that regard. Even if the championship-caliber core has been hurt, it’s a championship-caliber core nonetheless.

Near the season’s lowest point, in mid-December, Grizzlies player personnel director Stu Lash was asked by a season ticket-holder at a pregame “chalk talk” about an ESPN.com article that cited the Grizzlies’ “Playoff Odds” -- a system designed by the team’s own VP, John Hollinger -- at under 2 percent. Tanking, the article said, may be the Grizzlies’ best option.

“We’ve got a veteran team that knows how to win in the playoffs,” Lash responded. “Our focus now is simply on getting there.”

That sounds like a good spin, but it was also what the front office believed. With what they inherited and what they added, the Grizzlies have assembled a team that should be capable of competing with anyone in the postseason. If they can get there.

Chris Herrington is an entertainment editor and NBA contributor for the Memphis Commercial Appeal. Follow him, @HerringtonNBA.