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Grizzlies Winning 'Big'

The Memphis Grizzlies are out to an NBA-best 11-2 start behind a big frontcourt, steady point guard play and quality coaching. The Grizzlies have reached the playoffs in each of the past two seasons, but can we now consider them a legitimate title threat?

Guards

Mike Conley Jr. is quietly one of the more steady point guards in the league and a key to the Memphis offense. He missed the game versus Cleveland this past week and the drop in offensive production was noticeable. While he has always been a threat to get into the defense for looks at the rim and mid-range game, Conley has improved as a three-point shooter at 43 percent this season. He is averaging almost 15 points and six assists with two steals per game, but needs to lower his three turnovers per outing too.

His running mate in the backcourt, Tony Allen, is one of the top perimeter defenders in the league. He doesn’t bring much offensively with eight points per game at 38 percent shooting.

Jerryd Bayless has provided good backup point guard minutes. He isn’t outstanding in one area, but is averaging seven points and three assists in 17 minutes.

Wayne Ellington had a big game early in the season against Miami, but hasn’t been much of a factor the rest of the year. Josh Selby has been a non-factor. Backcourt depth could be a weakness for the Grizzlies.

Forwards

Many were critical of the five-year deal Memphis agreed to with Rudy Gay during the 2010 offseason, but he fills the perimeter scoring threat for the club. He is averaging 19 points with five rebounds per game. He has averaged between 18 and 20 points every year since he was a rookie. He has improved his three-point shooting to 42 percent this year and is on pace to attempt the second most threes in his career. He doesn’t impact the game defensively though.

Zach Randolph has been Mr. Double-Double with 12 double-doubles in 13 games. He has bounced back from a injury last season, averaging 16 points and 13 rebounds while shooting nearly 50 percent from the field. He is a crafty offensive player who can work from the low or mid block and pull the defense away from the basket with a mid-range jumper. He is the key for Memphis making a deep run.

The 6-foot-6 Quincy Pondexter gets the most minutes off the bench at 22 per game. He is at a career high in minutes and points through the early season and provides a versatile option off the bench.

Marreese Speights is running out of time to show the potential many felt he had coming out of Florida. He has rebounded well at five boards in 17 minutes, but is shooting 41 percent. That number should be higher as he is best suited to work closer to the basket.

Darrell Arthur has missed the last year-plus due to injuries, but recently came back in the past three games. He has been a non-factor thus far, but could eventually take minutes away from Speights.

Centers

The 27-year-old Marc Gasol is among the best centers in the game and certainly near the top for best passing posts. He is averaging 15 points, six rebounds, four assists and shooting 50 percent from the field. He is a perfect complement to Randolph and allows Memphis to overpower most teams with its size. His assist numbers have improved every year of his career. Hamed Haddadi is the listed back-up, but is a non-factor.

Overview

While most of the basketball world is going to small ball, Memphis employs a big frontcourt that can pound teams for points in the paint and rebounds. They are 10th in rebounding differential and offensive rebounding. It is also an active defensive team in forcing the fourth most turnovers in the league. The Grizzlies own the league’s best record at 11-2, but is this team a title contender? The big question which looms is depth in general, especially in the backcourt. In a fairly balanced Western Conference, Memphis likely slots in the top three or four with San Antonio, Oklahoma City and the Clippers. 

Life After Harden

The Oklahoma City Thunder stunned the basketball world by trading James Harden to the Houston Rockets shortly before the start of the season. The defending Western Conference champions have a 6-3 record going into Friday's game and have won five of their last six games.

Guards

Russell Westbrook is one of the top players in the NBA in the mold of a hybrid point guard who looks to score. He was inconsistent this week, which is what many have come to criticize about his game. He is an explosive, athletic guard who routinely creates space and collapses defenses, but can display poor shot selection (39 percent on the year) and is averaging three turnovers per game.

Thabo Sefolosha isn’t asked to do much offensively, but is tasked with defending the top perimeter threat most nights. He is a slasher who is also a threat to hit the three.

With the trade of James Harden, the key piece coming to Oklahoma City is Kevin Martin. The eighth-year guard is one of the most efficient scorers in the game and the change of secrecy hasn’t changed that. Martin is averaging 16 points on 46.9 percent from twos, 50 percent on threes and 94.2 percent from the free throw line. He is weak defensively and doesn’t dominate the ball like Harden does. How he provides offense with the second unit will be one of the top storylines to watch this year.

The Thunder also welcome back Eric Maynor, who missed most of last season with a major knee injury. He showed a good scoring punch with range on his jump shot in wins over Chicago and Detroit. His impact is minimal now, but he is an important piece moving forward.

Young prospects Jeremy Lamb, Reggie Jackson and DeAndre Liggins have been non-factors.

Forwards

Kevin Durant is the second best player in the world behind LeBron James and the best scorer in the game. He has been passive early in some games, but showed his knack to finish strong in a road win against Chicago. He is shooting a high percentage with better rebounding and assist numbers compared to his career averages.

Serge Ibaka’s extension may have led to Harden’s early exit. Offensively, his game is built around a good mid-range jumper. He is shooting over 50 percent and has scored in double figures in seven of nine games. On the other end of the floor, he is a dangerous shot blocker at nearly four blocks per game. He isn’t an elite player, but is clearly one of the best young bigs.

On a team with headline players, Nick Collison is a glue guy who brings toughness and defense. In 18 minutes, he’s averaging four points and three rebounds to form a trio of bigs for Oklahoma City.

Perry Jones III tallies eight minutes per game and is a player with excellent potential.

Center

Kendrick Perkins’ hallmark is still his strong post defense. His numbers have declined in the early season with about $25 million owed to him over the next three years. He has just one block in the past five games and he is under five rebounds per game. In his ninth year, Perkins is still a solid center but his best days are behind him.

Hasheem Thabeet, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2009 draft, is with his fourth franchise and seeing back-up center duty at 11 minutes per game. Thabeet is a prime example how being able to handle college athleticism doesn't always translate to the NBA. He lacks physical strength and can’t create his own offense. He missed two games last week with an ankle injury. 

Overview

Oklahoma City's losses have come against San Antonio, Memphis and Atlanta. The Thunder haven’t hit top gear yet with slow starts in numerous games last week. This is still one of the top teams in the NBA (4th in field goal percentage, 3rd in field goal percentage defense and 3rd in point differential). They are also the top free throw shooting team in the league for a group filled with players who can get to the rim. They are among the top tier in the Western Conference with a tough stretch this week against the Los Angeles Clippers, Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers.

Bulls Start Strong Against Soft Schedule

The Chicago Bulls haven’t played the toughest competition (Sacramento, Cleveland, New Orleans, Orlando, Oklahoma City and Minnesota), but they are off to a 4-2 start without franchise superstar Derrick Rose. 

- The backcourt is looking for the lost production of Rose with Kirk Hinrich and Richard Hamilton manning the starting spots.

Hinrich, best suited as a combo guard off the bench for a contender, has been steady at the point and is the second best on ball defender for the Bulls. He is moving the ball and limiting his turnovers (more than five assists to one turnover per game), but his own scoring has been slow.

Like Hamilton, Hinrich is at his best working off the ball on screens along the baseline or on curl cuts. Hamilton, after an injury plagued first season with Chicago, has bounced back at more than a dozen points per game thus far, but hasn’t added much outside of it.

Marco Belinelli is an intriguing scorer off the bench, but is very similar to Hamilton except as a better three-point threat.

A pleasant surprise has been Nate Robinson with his production across the board and trademark energy. His style of play doesn’t mesh with head coach Tom Thibodeau’s system, so his production needs to be monitored. Rookie Marquise Teague has been a non-factor.

- Forwards are the strength of this team, with Luol Deng and Carlos Boozer as starters and one of the better reserves in the league in Taj Gibson (who is fresh off a four-year extension).

Deng has been solid this year at approximately 15 points per game, but needs to attack the basket more on post ups and drives to become a more effective scorer. Deng continues to show himself as one of the top defenders at small forward, including a good late effort against Sacramento’s Tyreke Evans in the season opener.

Boozer, on the other hand, continues his disappointing stint with the Bulls in averaging 13 points and seven rebounds. Boozer is shooting less than 40 percent in floating out of his comfort zones and has seen Gibson taking minutes late in the game. With Rose out, it is Boozer who should be the logical person to set up.

Speaking of Gibson, he continues to be very efficient in his minutes in averaging 18 points and 10 rebounds on a per-40 minute projection. His athleticism allows him to guard multiple positions and he could start for a number of teams in the league. Second year forward Jimmy Butler has seen 14 minutes per game and is an athletic player, but is limited offensively.

Joakim Noah may be better suited for the four spot, but has to be considered one of the top centers in the league. He is averaging strong numbers across the board and is playing with infectious energy. He has offensive limitations, but understands them and works around it. He is a good post defender, but can also protect the rim. However, with Nazr Mohammed not being able to build on a good preseason and the loss of Omer Asik during the offseason, keeping him fresh will be key. Handling minutes of his stars hasn’t been a strength for Thibodeau in the past.

Chicago remains strong defensively as expected, but scoring points without Rose will determine if the Bulls bounce around .500 this year or contend in the upper half of the Eastern Conference. The Bulls are a poor outside shooting team and need to create easy looks to avoid being handcuffed in the halfcourt.

 

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