BQ #4: Can Memphis continue their playoff success during the regular season? Can Zach Randolph be an MVP?

We would have loved to finish all the burning questions before the season started. Really, truly. But we both work full-time jobs, with bars to go to and rent to pay. We would love to apologize, but we do this for free. Handle it.

Why is this even a question?

The Grizzlies were once the laughing stock of the league; not just because of their poor on-court performance, but even more so because of their poor front office management that only prolonged their in-game deficiencies. In a few short years, GM Chris Wallace traded 26 year old 7 foot star Pau Gasol to the Lakers for 27 year old draft bust Kwame Brown, Pau’s fat brother Marc Gasol and a draft pick. He drafted All-Star Kevin Love, only to trade him to Minnesota for the disappointing OJ Mayo. Only two years ago, with the number two pick in the 2009 Draft, Wallace took Hasheem Thabeet, whose only discernable NBA skill seems to be being 7’3″. Thabeet was selected over other more talented, albeit shorter, players like Tyreke Evans, James Harden and Eric Gordon. Extensions were handed out to Rudy Gay ($82 million) and Mike Conley ($45 million), when most critics argued that both players were worth only 2/3 of that.

Then something miraculous happened; all of the moves started making sense. Pau’s fat brother turned out to be one of the league’s most effective centers. Marc was recently rewarded with a $55 million dollar contract extension. With the Lakers’ pick, Memphis selected young, fearless guard Greivis Vazquez. Draftee Mike Conley went from potential bust to NBA-quality point guard and Rudy Gay proved to be worth the money so many thought he did not earn. The most unforeseen benefit of all these moves was that the cap room created by Kwame’s expiring contract allowed the Grizz to trade for undervalued head case Zach Randolph.

Last May, the Grizzlies barely beat out competing Suns and Rockets squads from making the playoffs as an 8th seed. Many people saw them giving the top-seeded Spurs a hard time en route to a definite San Antonio victory, but nothing more.

There are a lot of really good NBA players, but very few elite NBA players. I don’t really know why this is. What’s the difference between OJ Mayo and Dwyane Wade? Well, the easy answer is that Wade is just much better than Mayo. He gets to the rim whenever he wants, possesses tremendous court vision and always seems to get a bucket whenever his team needs him the most. But…couldn’t OJ Mayo do this? Couldn’t he see the court as well as Wade? Could he weave in and out of the lane and get to the basket as easy as #3? And let’s expand this further; could we apply all these same questions to Eric Gordon, Josh Smith, DeMar DeRozan and Monta Ellis? I think they all could be as good as Dwyane Wade. But they aren’t. While some of these guys give or take in athleticism or natural skill, the advantages that each man has in some facet of his game should be enough to equalize the playing field. It doesn’t though. Physically, I don’t know that there’s a large difference. I can’t tell you why Wade is an elite player and these other guys are not.

This is how everyone used to feel about Zach Randolph. I could have written the same paragraph about him, comparing Z-Bo to Amar’e Stoudemire, Tim Duncan or Charles Barkley…except instead of “I can’t tell you what the difference is”, I would think “well, because he’s crazy”. Some guys, like Z-Bo, don’t make THE LEAP because something in their minds is holding them back. They just can’t put it together; the reasons for which are beyond the means of my comprehension.

Whatever it was disappeared last April with Randolph. He became one of the hardest covers in the entire league, and even beyond LeBron, Wade, Dirk or Kobe, became the one guy that I felt couldn’t be stopped no matter who you put in front of him. This went beyond my simple examination and observation of his game; it was absolutely true. In two playoff series against the Spurs and Thunder, Z-Bo averaged 22 points and 11 rebounds, nearly leading his team to a Western Conference Finals berth.

Going into 2010-2011, the Grizzlies come back to the league having proven that they can dominate anyone they play on any night. At this time last year, none of us even thought about the Grizzlies as a playoff team. Now, they are a trendy Finals pick and Z-Bo a MVP candidate. Amazing.

How will this play out?

The Grizzlies do four things extremely well; score in crunch time, defend both the perimeter and interior, rebound and take care of the ball. If Dr. Naismith created a team as his perfect vision of basketball, this might be it. Not to belabor the point, but there is a reason why this team is considered a title contender.

Looking at Memphis, I can’t see any easily discernable weaknesses. With Z-Bo, Gasol and new addition Dante Cunningham, they have great size. Their guards and small forwards comprise one of the best rebounding backcourts in the league. Conley, Tony Allen, Gay, Sam Young and OJ Mayo all guard the perimeter well with their mobility and athleticism. They can get easy buckets from Randolph and potentially Mayo. Shooting could be a potential weakness, though Allen, Conley, Young and Mayo could easily solve that problem. So why was this team an 8th seed last season?

Like BockerKnocker, I attribute a lot of their losses during most of last season to the team slowly discovering what every person’s individual skill level was, and how they could apply the right fraction of that to best affect the team’s success. For example, Z-Bo had to properly learn that he was going to be the primary scorer on the team, rather than Mayo or Gay. Conley had to discover that (surprise surprise) his role was to distribute the ball and be ready to knock down any and all shots. Sam Young and Tony Allen had to become defensive pieces whose most reliable offensive weapons would be cutting to the rim or hitting elbow jumpers. Most importantly, they had to learn how to complement each other well enough on defensive rotations and play with the type of swagger that showed everyone that yes, they were good enough, and yes, could beat you. Luckily for the Grizz, it came together at the right time.

The only detriment to the team’s early season success could be the very same addition that makes them a title contender; the return of SF Rudy Gay from injury. Gay was sidelined from March with a shoulder ailment, and missed every part of Memphis’ unexpected playoff run. As I just got done writing how difficult it was for the team to adjust to each other’s strengths and weaknesses, I think a time for change involving arguably the team’s second most talented player will be a truncated version of last year’s up and down first half. However, after the team finds its proper levels, I don’t see why they couldn’t be one of the top three teams in the West, or even the league.

How will this affect the season?

Along with the Bulls and Thunder, this Grizzlies team may be the only squad properly equipped as is to beat Miami. Their vaunted defense and the frontcourt duo of Z-Bo and Gasol could be the frontcourt that punishes an undersized Heat big man corps of Joel Anthony, Udonis Haslem and Chris Bosh. Gay, Allen, Xavier Henry, Young and Quincy Pondexter all would take their turns hampering James and Wade.

Z-Bo seems to have put it all together, and no longer can we ask rhetorical questions as to why his physical skills belie the type of player he isn’t. Just look at this roster and with a clear head and eye for the game, tell me what the weaknesses of this team are. I’m still not sure. This is one of the best teams in the league, and Zach Randolph could be your MVP. I can’t believe it.

Player to watch: OJ Mayo

Oh, it could be this guy. In his first two seasons, 3rd overall pick OJ Mayo averaged 18.5 and 17.5 points, on nearly 45% shooting. Though his game was not without its many drawbacks (nearly a 1:1 assist to turnover ratio), I had no reason to expect that OJ Mayo was not a budding quality NBA guard, at the very least. And then last season happened. Whether it be the different coaching style, the arrival of Z-Bo, or a crippling case of self-doubt, Mayo regressed to the point where he was nearly traded for new Laker and 2nd round pick Josh McRoberts. While Memphis had all the success they had last year without Mayo playing well, he could be the key player they need to put them over the top.

Prediction:

Best they can do: 49-17, 1st in the Southwest, 1st in the West

Lowest they can go: 37-29, 3rd in the Southwest, 6th in the West

Probable outcome: 46-20, 1st in the Southwest, 2nd in the West

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Like this series? Check out the other Burning Questions leading up to the 2011-12 NBA season:

#8: How far can the Knicks go?
#7: Is this the end of the Lakers’ dynasty?
#6: Are the Clippers actually title contenders?
#5 Can the Nets go to Brooklyn yet?

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