It’s easy to read the Memphis Grizzlies decision to bench Zach Randolph and Tony Allen last week as a concession that the NBA had caught up to their style of play. The Grizzlies have been zagging while the rest of the league was zigging for years and almost no one plays their style of basketball - two traditional big men, posting up rather than shooting 3’s and holding the ball instead of pushing the pace - anymore. When they couldn’t put away the Golden State Warriors when they were up 2-1 in the second round of the playoffs last season, it was the final nail in the coffin of the Grit ‘N Grind era.
However, it’s just as as easy to read the decision as a concession to age. Randolph and Allen are 34 and the mid 30’s are traditionally the age where basketball players begin to move out of their prime and begin the inevitable process of decline. The Grizzlies success was based on Randolph’s ability to dominate smaller defenders on the block and Allen’s ability to lock up the league’s top players on the perimeter and if two of a team’s top players can no longer perform at a high level it doesn’t really matter what style of play they have.
The numbers back that up. Randolph is shooting his lowest field goal percentage (45.8%) since his final disastrous season with the New York Knicks all the way back in 2007 while Memphis has a higher defensive rating when Allen is off the floor (104.3) than when he is on (108.7). Their performances this season are about what you would expect for a 34-year old big man without the height to dominate smaller players in the post and a 34-year old wing who depends on speed and athleticism to defend at a high level.
When the Grizzlies first emerged on the national scene in 2011 with a stunning first-round upset of the San Antonio Spurs, Marc Gasol and Mike Conley were just entering their primes while Randolph and Allen were in the middle of theirs. Five years later, Gasol and Conley are in the middle of their primes while Randolph and Allen are exiting theirs. Regardless of their style of play, the Grizzlies were always going to need younger players to put around their best two players if they were going to remain relevant in the second half of the 2010’s.
The tricky part for Memphis is that it was going to be difficult for them to re-tool on the fly when they were a small-market team that was A) not a traditional free agent destination B) were already committed to paying a core group of players in their prime and C) couldn’t afford to go too deep into the luxury tax to supplement their core. They could tinker on the margins by adding veterans who would play for cheap and trying to trade for low-cost role players but the key for teams in their situation is utilizing the draft.
Here’s a look at what they have done in the first round in the last five drafts:
2011: Gave up their pick as part of a 2010 trade for Ronnie Brewer
2012: No. 25 - Tony Wroten
2013: Gave up their pick as part of a 2011 trade for Shane Battier
2014: No. 22 - Jordan Adams
2015: No. 25 - Jarell Martin
The trades for Brewer and Battier were a mixed bag in that Brewer never found a niche in in Memphis, while Battier was instrumental in their upset of the Spurs before leaving to play the final seasons of his career with the Miami Heat and winning two titles in the process.
Wroten was exactly the type of high-upside gamble that teams in the latter portion of the first round should be taking. He was an elite high-school prospect who had one up-and-down season at Washington and slipped to the 20’s because of concerns about his jumper and his middling production as the point guard of a team that had two other future NBA players - Terrence Ross and CJ Wilcox - and still missed the NCAA Tournament.
The problem for the Grizzlies was that his wild style of play and his inability to space the floor wasn’t a great fit for a team that wanted to control tempo and throw the ball into big men in the half-court. Wroten flourished at times amidst the chaos in Philadelphia before an ACL injury derailed his career and he is just now starting to get back on the court. It remains to be seen what type of player he will be after the injury but his career path shows just how much patient teams have to have when drafting 19-year olds.
The Grizzlies' draft moves from 2011-2013 made sense at the time but there was never a combined push from the front office and the coaching staff to identify and develop young talent and grow them in their system. It’s hard for contending teams to pass up the chance to improve immediately by dealing picks for veterans and it’s even harder for them to integrate young players while trying to maximize their chances to win. Memphis hasn’t been able to walk the tightrope when it comes to contending and reloading at the same time like San Antonio and they are starting to reap the reward of harvests they never sowed in 2016.
That’s where their first-round picks from 2014 (Adams) and 2015 (Martin) come into play. They have both been hobbled by injuries that have prevented them from playing much this season but it’s unclear if there are any minutes for them with the Grizzlies even if they were 100% healthy. There are veterans ahead of them and Dave Joerger is coaching for his job on a nightly basis so it’s hard to expect him to deal with the growing pains of two guys who would be a junior and a senior if they had stayed in college.
Adams is the prototypical example of a guy whom the stats loved and the scouts had questions about. He played like a lottery pick in his two seasons at UCLA - averaging 17.4 points, 5.3 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 2.6 steals a game on 48.5% shooting as a sophomore - but concerns about his athleticism caused him to slip to the back half of the first round. At 6’5 210 with a 6’10 wingspan, Adams has the size, reach and well-rounded skill-set of an NBA SG but it’s still unclear whether his lack of high-level speed and quickness will prevent him from guarding or scoring efficiently at the NBA level.
Martin is kind of the inverse of Adams in that he has the size and athleticism to be an NBA PF but there are questions about his reach (6’10 wingspan) and his jumper (a career 30.8% three-point shooter in two seasons at LSU). Martin can create his own shot off the dribble and finish at the rim but will he be able to consistently knock down perimeter jumpers in the NBA to open up the rest of his offensive game and will he be able to guard considering that he has the arms of a SG?
In a best-case scenario, Martin develops into a pace-and-space stretch 4 who opens up the floor for Gasol and Conley while Adams becomes a two-way wing player who can stretch the floor and become a secondary playmaker in a more wide-open offensive system. In a worst-case scenario, Martin’s jumper remains hit or miss while his lack of reach and Adams lack of quickness make it impossible for the Grizzlies to play acceptable defense with both of them on the floor.
The odds are against Martin and Adams becoming high-level NBA players because of where they were picked in the first round for the same reason that the odds are against the Grizzlies being a high-level NBA franchise from 2011-2020. The only way for small-market teams to beat those odds is to ace the draft and the only question left for Memphis to answer is whether they aced the draft in 2014 and 2015.