They're headed in the right direction. But they're going to have to get better internally -- based on the improvement of players they already have -- in order to continue to improve and build on last year. That's a dangerous plan when you're not one of the top teams to begin with. When you're one of those top teams, you don't want to mess with what you have. But if you're trying to move up, you probably need to keep bringing in better talent.
Their strengths and weaknesses are all related. They score well inside, which is a good base for any offense. But teams are going to scheme around that and make [Memphis] beat them from outside, which is a weakness. You can also beat them in transition because they're in the paint so much and can't get back fast enough.
The league is going to catch up to what they do. Their inside offense isn't as good as the cuts and weakside dives you see Utah running. Memphis pounds it inside to their three frontcourt guys, with Rudy Gay, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol accounting for more than half of the team's offense.
Unless they get great shooting from rookie Xavier Henry, they have to hope that O.J. Mayo can grow as a shooter and that Mike Conley will extend his range and willingness to shoot the open shots, though I haven't seen a whole lot of willingness from Conley to do that. My feeling is that Mayo is the one guy who can become a better shooter.
Gay is one of those guys who is being paid more than he's worth based on his athletic potential. He's like Andre Iguodala -- he hasn't warranted his salary, but he has the gifts that give him a chance to warrant it someday. I don't see it because he hasn't shown the ability to put the ball on the floor for more than two or three dribbles, which means he isn't really a creator and that limits his value to his team and the pressure he puts on the defense.
There's no doubt Gay can get his shot off because of his length and ability to get off the ground after a one- or two-dribble pull-up. At the end of the close games, you'll see him going back and forth with the dribble. He doesn't go anywhere with it, but then he gets his shot off.
Gay is not creating anything in terms of getting into the paint and sucking in a whole lot of defenders, so he's not the kind of guy who improves the people around him. Rebounding is not a strength, but they have big guys to take care of that anyway. Defensively, I've seen him hold his own, though he'll take his nights off like anyone does. Basically I don't see him as a leader as much as he is a guy searching for his shots.
Conley is a traditional point guard who tries to get everybody involved and he has decent control of the team. But it's kind of a my-turn offense with them. Whoever has it going is the guy they're going to go to, and then everybody else is standing, watching, waiting. They're all getting touches in spots they want and Conley has something to do with that.
But I don't know if Conley would be a starter on a good team because he doesn't have that aggressive mind-set or scoring aptitude to where he's really going to go after it. Plus, he's a small guard, and you have to have that attack mode if you're a smaller guy. But he's just a solid guy who is setting up the other guys, and he understands who he is. He isn't particularly good at anything other than pushing it when they really need it. His pick-and-roll game is OK but not great because you can slide under the pick with him. That's another reason why they do post-up and take turns -- the pick-and-roll game isn't solid.
It was a little unfair that Mayo got hyped so much coming into the league; at first, I thought I was going to see more of an athlete. But if you just view him for who he is, he has a good feel for the game by the way he moves on the court, and there's a pro style to him. He can do a lot of things -- put it on the floor, shoot, handle, see the floor and pass it. He has a chance to be a pretty good player. You read and hear that he wants to play more point guard, and if he could cast himself like Chauncey Billups, he'll definitely have a chance. If not, he'll be an undersized 2. I don't see him playing a lot of defense. I haven't seen the intensity, but he's athletic enough that he could get it done.
Randolph's numbers [as an All-Star last season] didn't surprise me because he's always been able to put up those numbers. Has he toned himself down? I noticed he cut down his jump shots, which made him more efficient. It seemed like everybody accepted him on the team. I like the fact that he's left-handed so he's a guy you can post on the other side, which is nice when you have a center like Gasol, who is right-handed.
Gasol looks like an easy guy to play with. Whenever Randolph is the focal point and teams try to front him, you see Gasol pop to the top and make the pass down low. He just plays basketball and makes the right play. Gasol surprised me last year by getting into shape and putting a lot of work into his body. He scores mainly by getting you in the air to foul him or create space. He has a nice right hook, but if he's having trouble with that, he'll get you up and under -- the moves of a poor man's Kevin McHale.
Hasheem Thabeet is a project. Right now, it doesn't look like they picked the right guy with the No. 2 pick in last year's draft. All I saw him from him as a rookie was a big guy clogging the middle. The only time they could give to him in the post was if he ducked in and they threw it from top and he could finish around the basket. I did see a presence defensively, but that's the minimum expectation for someone like him. He needs to develop just one move -- a turnaround jump shot to the baseline, or a jump hook. That's the first step, and then after that he needs to learn to read the double team and all of those other things. He has a long way to go because he's not particularly mobile and he's not a good free-throw shooter, which indicates he doesn't have touch.
GM Chris Wallace must have some sort of emotional tie to Tony Allen going back to their days in Boston. I like Allen's intensity, which you expect from a role player coming off the bench. But he's a guy who will make more mistakes as you give him more minutes. He's a guy you can bring in to change the energy of a game, but he doesn't address their need for outside shooting.
How much will they get out of their rookies? Henry did a good job of shooting the college three, and as a general rule the Kansas guys all have a pretty good sense of basketball, which means their learning curve is reduced. The question with Greivis Vasquez is whether he is athletic enough to make use of all of his skills.
Lionel Hollins is an experienced coach who isn't out there claiming the credit, which I appreciate. But I'm going to give him some of the credit for how they did last year. He has a good understanding of the league and that helped his demeanor when they were on their bad streaks. I could see him staying there a long time because he's mild-mannered and professional.
They can make the playoffs if enough teams ahead of them falter -- say if Denver trades Carmelo Anthony. I don't see Memphis taking a big step up this year.
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