There is no sugarcoating what happened in Memphis last season. It was nothing short of a disaster. Point guard Mike Conley's season-ending injury, a fractured relationship between All-Star center Marc Gasol and coach David Fizdale (who was fired after 19 games) and an early-season swoon had Memphis out of the playoff chase by Christmas. Getting back into the realm of playoff contenders will be done with Conley and Gasol leading the charge, and coach J.B. Bickerstaff operating without that dreaded interim label. The Grizzlies are fashioning their rebuilding project around the Gasol-Conley tandem while also counting on an infusion of exciting young talent, in the form of prized draft pick Jaren Jackson Jr.. The Western Conference landscape saw an influx of established All-Stars this offseason, making the Grizzlies’attempt to rejoin the playoff elite even more difficult.
Max contracts for Conley, Gasol and Chandler Parsons didn’t allow the Grizzlies to chase big stars in free agency. But they did select two potential impact players in the Draft in Jackson Jr. and Jevon Carter. ... Jackson Jr., who turned 19 on Sept. 15, was the youngest player drafted and is still growing into his 7-foot frame. He can shoot from beyond the 3-point line -- witness his NBA Summer League debut -- and has the length and athleticism to work around the basket on both ends. He’s a future star if developed properly. Carter is a defensive monster who will serve as an ideal change-of-pace point guard off the bench …The Grizzlies did add Kyle Anderson, a restricted free agent, when the Spurs declined to match his offer sheet. Anderson fits the multi-dimensional focus the Grizzlies are trying to build with and can work at shooting guard and small forward …Shelvin Mack is veteran insurance at point guard, Omri Casspi serves the same role at forward, while the trade with Sacramento for Garrett Temple added another veteran capable of playing multiple positions.
1. What will Parsons bring? The prospect of Parsons contributing in a way that justifies his salary just isn’t realistic, given his injury history. But this might be the best time to have a player with his skill set on the roster. He won’t interfere with the development of Jackson Jr. at power forward or Anderson’s transition either. Having another distance shooter with his size would allow Bickerstaff to tinker with some small-ball rotations that wouldn’t be possible otherwise. Now if he can just stay healthy.
2. It's Bernie's show now. After twice serving as head coach on an interim basis, Bickerstaff finally gets an opportunity to run his own show. He’s the son of longtime NBA coach and executive Bernie Bickserstaff, so he’s been around the game forever. And he’s well-respected around the league by coaches, executives and players alike. (Word travels especially fast in player circles when it comes to coaches.) Bickerstaff has a well-earned reputation as a no-nonsense grinder that hasn’t shown any interest in self-promotion. That should serve him well in a locker room with leaders like Conley and Gasol.
3. Another NBA-ready rookie? The Grizzlies found a gem in second-round pick Dillion Brooks. The former Oregon Ducks star was projected as a first rounder in the lead up to the Draft but fell to the 45th pick. He outplayed his Draft slot, shooting 36 percent from beyond the 3-point line and showing himself more than capable of holding his own on both ends of the floor by season’s end. He’ll be tough to dislodge from the starting lineup with all of the experience he gained as a rookie (82 appearances, 74 starts).
MAN ON THE SPOT
Gasol might not have asked for the spotlight he had to endure after he and Fizdale’s rift became public, and wound up costing Fizdale his job. But it’s here now and it won’t go away anytime soon, what with Fizdale resurfacing in New York and the Grizzlies trying to pick up the pieces from a lost season. As good as Gasol was just a few years ago —he was the league’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2013 and All-NBA first team in 2015 —he’s not viewed in the same light these days. Injuries have played a part and there was bound to be a natural decline as the Grizzlies’ "Grit-and-Grind" aura faded and the quality pieces around him were either traded away or moved out of town in favor of a franchise refresh. (No one likes to use the more appropriate term, “rebuild.”) To his credit, Gasol has maintained a similar level of production. But he’s not viewed in the same light outside of the bubble in Memphis. Gasol can do wonders for his image beyond the city limits by leading this Grizzlies team back to relevance in the rugged Western Conference. Do that and the perception will match Gasol’s reality.
Mike Conley | 17.1 ppg, 4.1 apg, 1.0 spg
Conley’s only issue is whether he stays healthy enough to impact this team the way he did earlier in his career.
Kyle Anderson | 7.9 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 2.7 apg
Anderson’s size and versatility should serve as an ideal complement to Conley at point guard.
Marc Gasol | 17.2 ppg, 8.1 rpg, 4.2 apg
Gasol’s long-distance marksmanship (34 percent on 3-pointers last season) is easily the most improved aspect of his game.
Dillon Brooks | 11.0 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 0.9 spg
A surprise starter during his rookie season, Brooks could be primed for a breakout season in his second year.
Jaren Jackson Jr. | 10.9 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 1.1 apg (Michigan State)
His modest numbers in college don’t tell the story of Jackson’s immense potential at this level.
Garrett Temple | 8.4 ppg, 2.3 rpg, 1.9 apg
The Grizzlies went in search of veteran leadership and stability and found it in this “pro’s pro.”
JaMychal Green | 10.3 ppg, 8.4 rpg, 1.4 apg
It was Green, and not Gasol, who led the Grizzlies in rebounds last season, when he started in 54 of 55 games.
Shelvin Mack | 6.9 ppg, 3.9 apg, 0.8 spg
Conley’s injury history makes Mack a valuable insurance policy.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The Grizzlies are a prime example of what happens when a franchise tries to reconstitute itself without a full-blown commitment to rebuilding itself from the ground up. There is an inherent risk in operating in that way that is capable of setting your franchise back dramatically if things don’t go according to plan. The Grizzlies have two of the best players in the league at their respective positions (when healthy) in Gasol and Conley. They also have some solid role players and an energetic coaching staff ready to dig in. If Jackson Jr. is the impact player the Grizzlies believe he can be and the veteran cogs stay healthy enough, this team has a higher ceiling than most realize. Best-case scenarios rarely come to fruition, however, so 35-47 seems like an appropriate measure for what should still be a significant bounce-back campaign in Memphis.