Memphis Blueprint

Pistons look to Grizzlies as model for how Monroe-Drummond will work

Greg Monroe and Zach Randolph
Monroe and Randolph square off in a marquee match-up
J. Dennis/Einstein (NBAE/Getty)

Memphis, home of the blues, might as well also be home of the blueprint for the Pistons.

Built around their dominant frontcourt tandem of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, the Grizzlies won 56 games last season, reached the Western Conference finals and enter the 2013-14 season as among the half-dozen or so most legitimate NBA title contenders.

In considering the possibilities ahead of him for playing alongside Andre Drummond, Greg Monroe spent a chunk of his summer studying Randolph in particular. In plotting his playbook after being hired by the Pistons last June, Maurice Cheeks consulted longtime friend Lionel Hollins and wound up hiring Henry Bibby, an ex-Philadelphia 76ers teammate who was on Hollins’ staff in Memphis before the Grizzlies made a coaching change following their playoff loss to San Antonio.

“We try to utilize some of the things they did while (Bibby) was in Memphis,” Cheeks said. “I’m good friends with Lionel, so we talked about a few things, how we can utilize a big lineup like that, for sure.”

Cheeks said the Pistons haven’t yet installed sets from Hollins’ Memphis playbook, but as the season plays out they could fold in various elements that cater to the strengths of Monroe, Drummond and Josh Smith up front.

“We still are talking about some of the things they do, because they have some agile big players, some guys who can pass the ball, score the ball, just like we do,” Cheeks said. “In time, we may do that.”

Gasol and Randolph are both accomplished and versatile scorers, which gives Memphis broader possibilities in ways it can attack with its big men at present. Drummond has made significant strides as a back-to-the-basket threat over a year ago, but the Pistons aren’t likely to make dumping the ball into him on the block a staple of their offense anytime soon.

But Monroe, already a good post scorer, prepared for playing farther from the basket over the summer and first results were impressive. He scored 24 points in the season-opening win over Washington, requiring only 15 shots while forcing the Wizards to put him at the foul line 15 times. The interior passing ability of their big men that the Pistons expect to be a mitigating factor in concerns over spacing the floor was on full display as Smith piled up five assists, squeezing the ball through tight windows two or three times, and Monroe three.

“That’s how we’re all going to have to play,” Monroe said. “Spacing, cutting, making plays for each other. I think we all did a good job of that – sharing the ball, moving the ball – for our first game. It’s a new position, (but) I still feel comfortable. Growing up and in college, I played in those areas, so I feel comfortable at the elbow and cutting. I played the Princeton offense (at Georgetown), so it’s all the same.”

Monroe sees parallels between himself and Randolph that go beyond playing next to a dominant 7-footer. He watched tape to see “the way he’s successful without using athleticism. I think we’re similar in that regard. We’re both left-handed, so just watching some of the things he does, just trying to find ways to get better. … We kind of have a similar format, two big guys, so with the success they’ve had the last couple of years, Western Conference finals last year, it’s definitely something that I would say is worth taking a look at and seeing how they do things and how they work together.”

Memphis has found success, if falling short of a championship so far, despite the same concerns over outside shooting the Pistons face. In fact, the Pistons have more shooting options than the Grizzlies, who start Mike Conley, Tony Allen and longtime Piston Tayshaun Prince with Gasol and Randolph.

When the Pistons and Memphis meet tonight in the Grizzlies’ home opener, Monroe and Drummond will be more concerned with defending Gasol and Randolph than emulating them.

“Those guys, Gasol’s been playing a few more years than our guys,” Cheeks said. “He’s a very, very skilled player where he can shoot it, he can pass it, rebounds it. He does a lot of things well. He’s been around the game a long time. As time moves on, hopefully our bigs can do some of the things that guy does, but he does them at a very high level right now.”

Monroe and Drummond, 23 and 20, have time on their side, which means the Pistons do, too. Gasol was already 23 when he debuted for Memphis five years ago, Randolph 28 and on his fourth NBA team when he came to the Grizzlies four years ago. Thinking about the levels Monroe and Drummond will enable the Pistons to scale over the next four or five years puts smiles on a lot of faces around 6 Championhip Drive.