Perhaps the most difficult leap to make in the NBA is from "very good" to "great."
It’s why the league has a tanking problem. It’s why teams like Golden State and Atlanta -- void of any splashy offseason moves -- are big surprises this season. When your NBA team is already very good, there aren’t many avenues to explore in order to improve it.
Instead, the front office needs to fine tune its roster, making subtle yet solid moves. Taking chances on players who couldn’t fit elsewhere, striking trades when the right player is available and trusting coaches to develop and improve young players.
After a long period of being first-round fodder for Western Conference rivals (three straight early exits from 2003-06), the Grizzlies have fortified their team in recent years to push the limits of "very good." They made the Western Conference finals in 2012-13 and could be headed there once again this season. Memphis is currently second in the West (37-12), and years of shrewd moves have made this Grizzlies team the best championship contender the franchise has had to date.
Memphis has always been a tough out in the playoffs, even with a fairly predictable offense. Since the 2011 playoffs, the Grizz have been knocked out after losing Game 7's three times. In 2012-13 Memphis lost in the conference finals to a San Antonio team that absolutely blitzed the Grizz in a sweep. The Spurs whipped the ball around the perimeter, neutralizing Memphis’ interior defense. A defensive stalwart like Tony Allen had no place on the court, as the Spurs lacked a dominant on-ball scorer for Allen to key in on.
The offensive side of the court wasn’t much better. Allen and Tayshaun Prince’s lack of shooting allowed the Spurs to double- and triple-team Zach Randolph in the post, eliminating Memphis’ best offensive weapon (just 33.9 percent from the field).
Last spring, the Grizzlies were on the verge of taking control of their series against Oklahoma City until Reggie Jackson unleashed a three-point barrage in a double-overtime Game 4 win for the Thunder, tying it at 2-2. Memphis would lose in seven, with Randolph suspended for the last game of the series.
This season, Memphis has been a consistent force in the West. Their defense has been typically sound, currently ranking No. 8 in efficiency. But it’s their offense that has transformed the team into a new beast. After being ranked no higher than No. 16 in points per possession the last four seasons, the Grizz have made the leap to No. 9, ranking higher than the likes of Portland, San Antonio and Houston.
Despite the improved play, a lot of what you see on the offensive side for the Grizzlies is the same as last season.
Conley can take those hand-offs and finish in the restricted area, where he shoots over 58 percent. He can also hang out by the three-point line, where he is shooting a career-high 42 percent. Joining Conley beyond the arc is Courtney Lee, who is also converting threes at a lights-out rate of 46 percent (also a career high).
This is one huge facet of Memphis that is different this season -- the improvement from within. Conley’s effective field-goal percentage has steadily increased since 2010, and Gasol has gone from a defensive linchpin and slick passer to a fringe MVP candidate with his all-around game.
Lee has been a much better guard to pair with Conley than Jerryd Bayless, who was traded for Lee in January 2014. Lee also has some playoff experience, playing an integral part in Orlando’s run to the finals in 2009.
The three-point shooting of Lee and Conley has bolstered the Grizzlies' attack, but it certainly hasn’t turned them into a jump-shooting offense.
Their catch-and-shoot points per game and effective catch-and-shoot field goal percentage are almost identical to last season, according to SportVU data on NBA.com. Memphis even actually shot better overall from three last season. The Grizzlies are also shooting the second-most close shots per game for the second year in a row, according to SportVU.
So how do we explain the uptick in overall efficiency? The shooting of Lee and Conley, plus the additions of Vince Carter and Jeff Green, means defenses can't key in on one player, and the bruising Randolph has taken advantage. The days of ditching Memphis’ perimeter players and doubling or tripling Randolph are over.
Randolph is shooting just over 50 percent this season, his highest mark since the 2010-2011 season. Randolph’s shooting percentage from within 10 feet has improved from last season, and he’s taking more of those shots. His improvement, in addition to the high-level of halfcourt execution from a group of players so used to playing with one another, simply makes the offense that much better.
Since acquiring Green from Boston on Jan. 12, Memphis has only lost once. Although Green hasn’t fully acclimated himself yet, he’s still made an impact, with a recent game-winning three-point play in Phoenix. Perhaps most important, his positional versatility will be key in the playoffs.
While the Spurs often play two bigs, Golden State and Oklahoma City can go small, and the Thunder are especially dangerous with Durant at the four. Now, Memphis can counter with three wings in addition to Conley and Gasol or Conley and Randolph.
In the past, a three-wing lineup would’ve included Prince or Bayless. Now, The Grizz can play a Carter-Lee-Green trio, or Allen-Lee-Green trio, maintaining the team’s defensive integrity while keeping shooters on the floor. Memphis is still more than capable of imposing their style of play on a game, but now they’re better equipped to handle smaller teams.
It took the usual combination of luck and guts for Memphis to reach this point. A needed coaching change from Lionel Hollins to Dave Joerger, Green and Lee coming available at the right time and the improvement of the roster have given the Grizzlies a top-10 offense and defense, which is often the recipe for championship success.
Variety especially is the spice of life in the playoffs. In seven-game series, the ones the Grizzlies have fell short in, offenses become more and more predictable as the games wear on. This season, Memphis is better equipped to mix up what they do. They can survive a three-point shootout, see if Green can create his own shot from the wing, or keep it at the elbow with Gasol.
The hard part is far from over, not with the West’s postseason bloodbath looming. But after years of just being very good, Memphis may finally have the pieces to bring a trophy to Beale Street.