The Memphis Lions Try and Roar

Posted on August 31, 2009 by

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The Memphis Grizzlies, as I have told Chip Crain of 3 Shades of Blue, are the Detroit Lions of the NBA.  Like the NFL team I follow, the Grizzlies have an owner that tells the fans that winning is important.  At the same time, though, this same owner takes actions (or inactions) that contradict the stated desire to field a winner. Consequently, the results in Memphis and Detroit are quite similar.

The Grizzlies completed their 14th season in 2008-09.  In all but three of these seasons, the Grizzlies have failed to win 30 games.  Even when the team had a winning record, it failed to surpass 50 regular season victories and the Grizzlies are still waiting to win their first post-season game.

The 2008-09 season was quite consistent with this history. Memphis finished with 24 wins, 24 games behind the 8th seed in the playoffs.  When we look at the how the team’s players performed, we can see who was responsible for this outcome (other than the owner, of course):

Table One: The Memphis Grizzlies in 2008-09

An average NBA player posts a 0.100 WP48 [Wins Produced per 48 minutes].  Last season Memphis employed three above average players: Mike Conley [0.135 WP48], Kyle Lowry [0.114 WP48], and Hamed Haddadi [0.270 WP48].  Lowry finished the season in Houston and Haddadi was on the bench for all but 120 minutes.  This means the Grizzlies finished the season with only one above average player who actually played on a regular basis. And Conley was not very far beyond average. 

Looking at the history of the players Memphis employed on 2008-09 reveals that the final results were unsurprising.  Of all the players who played 1,000 minutes or more in Memphis last season, Lowry was the only player who had ever posted an above average mark in his career prior to last season.  And once again, Lowry wasn’t with Memphis when the season ended.

With the end of each season, though, hope springs eternal.  The Grizzlies have once again been granted an entire summer to build a winner.  And now that September is about to begin, it seems like a good time to evaluate this team’s progress.  As of right now, here is the depth chart in Memphis (WP48 from 2008-09 at the position listed reported):

First String

PG:  Mike Conley (0.135)

SG: O.J. Mayo (0.054)

SF: Rudy Gay (0.049)

PF: Zach Randolph (0.163)

C: Marc Gasol (0.093)

Second String

PG: Marcus Williams [0.067 WP48 in 2007-08]

SG: Marko Jaric (-0.005)

SF: DeMarre Carroll (rookie)

PF: Darrel Arthur (0.032)

C: Hasheem Thabeet (rookie)

When we look at this depth chart we see that the population of above average Grizzlies has at least doubled.  That’s progress, but probably not enough.  In the Western Conference this team shouldn’t expect to make the playoffs.  But it might win more than 30 games. 

To make this happen it would help if Thabeet could be an above average performer.  Of the players selected out of college on draft night, Thabeet was one of the most productive players last season.  So it’s possible that he will be a productive NBA player his first season. If that happens, the Grizzles have potentially three above average players (Randolph, Gasol, and Thabeet) in the frontcourt. Not only could these players help with their own production, they also might push Rudy Gay permanently into the small forward slot.  Gay is not a great small forward, but he’s a very poor power forward.  So keeping him out of the four spot is a plus.

Looking at the backcourt… the starters are Conley and Mayo.  Conley led the team in Wins Produced last season and he has a chance of repeating that ranking this next season (by itself, not a good sign).  Mayo was selected by the coaches to the First Team All-Rookie team.  His productivity, though, was inconsistent with that ranking.  Nevertheless, young players can get better so it’s possible Mayo will do more next season.

There is talk of adding Allen Iverson to the back-court mix.  Some have suggested that Iverson can substantially boost ticket sales.  As I noted in July, I am skeptical of this story.  If Iverson is going to help the Grizzlies he is going to have to produce on the court.  But last season Iverson’s WP48 was only 0.037.   So although he does a bit more than Marko Jaric, Iverson doesn’t appear to be an upgrade over Marcus Williams.  At least, Williams did more when he got semi-regular minutes in 2007-08. 

If we put all this together – with or without Iverson – this is not a playoff team and it’s unlikely this team will win 40 games.  But it’s possible the Grizzlies could surpass the 30 win mark.  Yes, that doesn’t sound like much.  But this team has only reached that mark three times in its entire history.  So for Memphis, 30 wins is an achievement.

So the Memphis Lions will continue in 2009-10.  Let me close by noting, though, that there is one big difference between the Grizzlies and Lions. When we look at the players that will be employed by Memphis this next season it seems pretty clear that post-season basketball is not going to happen in Memphis in 2010.  For the Lions, though, hope remains.  The Lions have changed at least half their starting line-up from last season.  Plus they have a host of new reserves and an entirely new coaching staff.  Because football performance is so hard to predict, fans of the Lions can continue to hope for a few more days.  Of course, a week from Sunday the Lions go to New Orleans and reality will begin to be established.  And at that point, the Detroit Grizzlies may indeed appear. 

Then again…. last season, Drew Brees and the Saints scored a touchdown the first six times they got the ball against Detroit.  This year, it’s possible the Lions new defense can stop the Saints once or twice.  And maybe Matthew Stafford (or Daunte Culpepper) will hook up with Calvin Johnson for two or three (or four or five) touchdowns and Kevin Smith will run wild.  And then maybe, the Lions can keep this close and maybe….

Okay, football may be hard to predict but even I am having trouble maintaining this much hope. Still, I think the Lions are on the right path.  As for the Grizzlies… well, the team is on a path.  I am not sure, though, that this path is going to the playoffs any time soon.

– DJ

The WoW Journal Comments Policy

Our research on the NBA was summarized HERE.

The Technical Notes at wagesofwins.com provides substantially more information on the published research behind Wins Produced and Win Score

Wins Produced, Win Score, and PAWSmin are also discussed in the following posts:

Simple Models of Player Performance

Wins Produced vs. Win Score

What Wins Produced Says and What It Does Not Say

Introducing PAWSmin — and a Defense of Box Score Statistics

Finally, A Guide to Evaluating Models contains useful hints on how to interpret and evaluate statistical models.