Over the last few years, the Memphis Grizzlies have played the role of the NBA’s throwback team. The most notable holdout of the pace-and-space era, Memphis stuck to their guns in terms of playing two traditional big men, holding the ball and trying to win with post scoring and defense. The Grit ‘N Grind era had a lot of great playoff moments but they were never able to get over the hump in the Western Conference and it came to a close this month, when Dave Joerger benched Zach Randolph and began starting four perimeter players around Marc Gasol.
One way to look at it was that the Grizzlies hit their ceiling playing an outmoded style of basketball that wasn’t conducive to winning in the modern NBA. The other way is that they were a flawed team who were able to punch above their weight in the playoffs because they were zigging when everyone else was zagging. The right answer is probably somewhere in the middle. The question becomes how far a better version of Memphis could go.
The good news for the fans of reactionary basketball is that just as the Grizzlies abandoned their identity a new team emerged to pick up their banner. After signing LaMarcus Aldridge in the offseason, the San Antonio Spurs returned to their roots as a Twin Towers team. The Spurs have the top defense in the league and the No. 3 offense, a 25-6 record and a +13.0 point differential and they look like the team most capable of knocking off the Warriors.
In order to match up with a team that can play with five shooters spread out around the perimeter, a two-post team needs six different things on their roster. San Antonio is better equipped to match up with small-ball teams than Memphis in almost every category:
1) A pair of two-way 7’0 who can stretch the floor, post up and make plays for each other
The big men are the foundation of a two-post team and they need to be really special in order to justify bucking most of the trends in the modern game. Gasol and Randolph are high-level players but Z-Bo is a limited defender and Gasol is more comfortable as an offensive initiator than a full-time scorer. Not only are Aldridge and Duncan bigger than their counterparts, they are better two-way players.
If you were designing a player in a lab to punish teams for going small, he would look a lot like Aldridge. At 6’11 250 with a 7’4 wingspan, Aldridge is one of the longest players in the league and he’s a pure shooter whose favorite move is the turnaround jumper. He has the mobility to guard on the perimeter and the shooting ability to dominate from 20+ feet on offense, which creates room for another 7’0 around the basket. Duncan is getting older but he’s still a 7’0 with one of the most refined post games in NBA history whose capable of stepping out and playing at the high post. It’s hard to hide a smaller player on either guy and they can play high-low basketball and punish the mismatch at either interior position.
2) Two more big men who allow you to stay big without compromising your offense or defense
Memphis never had two interior reserves like David West and Boris Diaw, who can both destroy smaller defenders with their back to the basket and step out on the perimeter and open up space in the paint for their interior partner to do work. Their frontcourt rotation puts pressure on you for all 48 minutes and they can even post up their small forwards - Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Anderson - both of whom are bigger than a lot of power forwards in the modern NBA.
3) Three perimeter players who can shoot 3’s and punish teams for packing the paint
The Grizzlies biggest problem was they were never able to consistently punish teams for doubling the post. The Spurs don’t shoot a lot of 3’s but it doesn’t matter as long as they can make them when they are open. The threat of the 3 is more important than the actual number of attempts - everyone in their perimeter rotation has to be guarded from the three-point line, which opens up room for their big men to work in the paint. Even Tony Parker is 11-24 from deep on the season.
4) Two elite perimeter defenders
Call this the Oklahoma City corollary. Any team that’s going to win the West needs someone who can guard Russell Westbrook and someone who can guard Kevin Durant. The Spurs have two of the best 3-and-D guys in the NBA in Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard. The Grizzlies never had more than one - whether it was Shane Battier in 2011 or Courtney Lee in 2014 and 2015 - and they were always having to choose between offense and defense with their perimeter rotations.
5) A PG who can control tempo and keep the game in the halfcourt
A team with two big men can’t afford to get the game going up-and-down - they have to be able to control tempo and enter the ball into the post. This was always the problem for the Indiana Pacers against the Miami Heat, as LeBron James and Dwyane Wade were able to pressure and turn over the Pacers guards and score in transition before the Indiana big men could get back and set their defense.
This is the one area where Memphis has an advantage over San Antonio. You saw the importance of Mike Conley when the Grizzlies were blown out of the water by the Warriors in Game 1 of their second round series last season before storming back to win the next two games following Conley’s return. If there’s a concern for the Spurs, it’s where are they going to hide Parker on defense and whether there’s still enough juice left in his tank to take over a game in the playoffs.
6) A shot-creator on the perimeter who can initiate offense late in games
Even with two big men who can score with their back to the basket, a championship team still needs a perimeter player who can create efficient shots off the bounce late in games when the offense bogs down. The closest the Grizzlies came to that was Rudy Gay and he was neither a great shooter nor a great defender, which created a real crunch with the rest of the line-up. If you follow the math, you need three plus shooters, two plus defenders and one plus creator and you need to fit all of those skills into three slots on the perimeter.
Parker is slowing down but Kawhi Leonard has picked up the slack. Leonard is one of the most complete players in the NBA - he is Tony Allen with the ability to efficiently score 20+ points, stroke 3’s and create shots for everyone else. His emergence as a primary option and a legitimate MVP candidate gives them a ton of options when it comes to setting their line-ups in a playoff series. They can go huge on the perimeter and play him with two 6’6+ wings in Green and Manu Ginobili and they can go small and slide him all the way down to PF.
At the moment, all roads in the NBA go through Golden State and their five-out line-up. At some point in every playoff series, the Warriors will play Draymond Green and Harrison Barnes upfront and dare the opposing team to try and beat them with size. They ran the Grizzlies off the floor in last season’s playoffs but the Spurs are on a whole different level. If a two-post team is going to win a championship in the modern NBA, they are going to look a lot like San Antonio. The counter-revolution has begun.