Reviewing the Memphis Grizzlies in 2009-10: A Deceptive Step Forward?

Posted on May 21, 2010 by


Jamie Vann Struth is an economist based in Vancouver, BC. He owns an economic development consulting firm and crunches sports statistics for fun. His history with the Grizzlies goes back to the beginning, when they were born in 1995 at the exact time that he arrived in Vancouver to attend graduate school at Simon Fraser University. He has continued to follow the Grizzlies in Memphis and waits patiently for the NBA’s inevitable return to Vancouver.

This is part one of a two-part post on the Memphis Grizzlies.  In this first part, Jamie will review the 2009-10 season. In part two, he will address the progress of the team’s young players and whether or not the Grizzlies should re-sign Rudy Gay.

The Memphis Grizzlies appeared to take a major step forward in 2009-10, adding 16 wins to their total and nearly reaching the .500 mark with a record of 40-42. Only the Oklahoma City Thunder, with a 27-win improvement, made a bigger step. 

The Grizzlies’ appear to have made significant progress in Year Two of owner Michael Heisley’s Three-Year Plan to achieve playoff contention. Was this improvement expected, and does it foretell even greater things to come?

Expectations, or Lack Thereof

Entering this past season, the Grizzlies were upstanding members of the NBA’s laughingstock class. Along with the Clippers, Warriors and Timberwolves (and maybe a few others), they were viewed as a frugal and dysfunctional organization that was largely ignored both nationally and by their own fans (ranking 29th in NBA attendance the previous year). This reputation was based on performance (after 15 years in the NBA, the franchise is still seeking its first playoff victory) as well as a series of player transactions in the last several years that were widely ridiculed and often seemed motivated more by financial considerations than helping the team win.

The key personnel moves entering 2009-10 included the following:

  • The drafting of center Hasheem Thabeet of Connecticut with the #2 pick in last year’s draft.  The scouting report on Thabeet showed a potentially dominant defensive center in the mold of Dikembe Mutumbo who was acknowledged to be much less NBA-ready than other top draft picks (including the Memphis college product Tyreke Evans, who was chosen 4th in the draft and became NBA Rookie of the Year). Chad Ford, ESPN’s draft guru, called Thabeet the most likely high draft pick to be a bust in the NBA.
  • The acquisition of veteran power forward Zach Randolph in a trade from the Los Angeles Clippers.Randolph had a history of excellent production, but also a very poor reputation for off-court problems as well as selfish and apathetic play. This trade was possible due to the cap space the team acquired in probably the most ridiculed trade in NBA history. On February 1, 2008, the Grizzlies traded Pau Gasol, their top win-producer in the previous several seasons (although not that year), to the Los Angeles Lakers. Gasol has since contributed greatly to the Lakers winning two straight Western Conference titles (and counting).  Why, the critics pointed out, would the Grizzlies agree to pay Randolph $16 million per year after trading away a similarly-paid player in Gasol who did not carry the same baggage, just over a year earlier?
  • The signing, just before training camp, of veteran guard Allen Iverson for backcourt depth. There was widespread doubt about Iverson’s ability to suppress his immense ego and play a backup role behind both of the Grizzlies’ youthful starting guards, Mike Conley and O.J. Mayo. Of course, Iverson is famous in Wages of Wins history as perhaps the best example of a player whose reputation vastly exceeds his actual production of wins. Iverson ended up getting hurt early in training camp and missing the start of the season; at which point he made several appearances off the bench, complained publicly about not starting, and quit the team only 67 minutes into his Grizzlies career.

The 2008-09 team went 24-58 and national expectations were for little change. The average prediction of a pre-season panel of 10 ESPN “experts” was for a 13th-place finish (which ended up being the Golden State Warriors with a record of 26-56). Some of the local media observers of the team were more optimistic, projecting win totals into the 30s, but there was no expectation of playoff contention.

The early-season performance of the team was reviewed in this forum in early January, when the Grizzlies were a surprising 16-16 and still very much in playoff contention. Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol were identified as the key contributors to the team’s better-than-expected start. The following table updates the data in that post to include the entire season.  (Please note that the basic WP48 calculations were provided by Andres Alvarez, and then modified to improve the allocation of players by position. This was done using lineup data at and personal observation of the team.)

Table 1 – Memphis Grizzlies in 2009-10

Based on their off-season moves, the Grizzlies could be expected to modestly improve from 24 wins to just over 30 wins this season. The rookies contributed only 1 win, as did the two players added in mid-season (Jamaal Tinsley and Ronnie Brewer). The boost in expectations was entirely due to the addition of Zach Randolph (0.150 WP48 last year) in place of Darko Milicic (0.057 WP last year).

The team ended up producing 36.4 wins, an improvement of 5.2 wins over expectations. As stated earlier, the biggest boosts came from Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, who together produced 9.3 more wins than expected. O.J. Mayo and Rudy Gay had modest improvements over the previous year, while Mike Conley regressed significantly with only 3.7 Wins Produced, less than half his expected production.

Evaluating the Team’s Improvement

As the Grizzlies enter Year Three of the Three-Year Plan, it is essential that team management correctly assess the reasons for improvement and whether future gains can be expected.  After all, a 16-win improvement is great, but 40-42 is not.

The first thing to understand is the team’s record indicates some random good fortune. Their efficiency differential (the average points difference between the Grizzlies and their opponents, per 100 possessions) was -2.4, which is consistent with a record of 37-45. The Grizzlies were therefore “lucky” to win three extra games. This balances the previous season, when the team went 24-58 with the efficiency differential of a team going 26-56. So while the team improved by 16 wins, its improvement in efficiency differential is only consistent with an improvement of 11 wins.

The second key factor is health, and more specifically the team’s remarkable good health. The youthful core of Gasol, Gay, Mayo and Conley missed a total of 17 games (13 of these by Gasol at the end of the year). But even more important was Zach Randolph playing 81 games, after averaging only 61 games in the previous five seasons.

If Randolph had played only 2,115 minutes, which was his average in the previous 5 years, and he was replaced by some combination of DeMarre Carroll and Darrell Arthur (average WP48 of -0.021), the team would have been worse off by 4.9 wins. In reality, having Randolph miss an extra 20 games likely  would have pushed both Rudy Gay and Marc Gasol to play more power forward while Thabeet and Haddadi played more center (and Young played more small forward), in which case the drop-off from Randolph may not have been quite this severe. The key point, however, is the Grizzlies bench was very weak and not only didn’t include a single above-average player, but featured several players who made a negative contribution to winning.

Third is the improvement in Randolph’s performance. He came to Memphis highly motivated to restart his career and ultimately appeared to mature into a solid citizen and good teammate. Improved production followed as compared to the previous year.  Specifically, Randolph improved his rebounding, shot-blocking and foul shooting, and committed fewer turnovers. He also took far fewer 3-point shots, which helped improve his shooting percentage, but his effective field goal percentage (which takes the extra value of 3-pointers into consideration) was unchanged.

Can Zach keep it up? It’s certainly possible as he just turned 28 and could have a few more years at nearly the same level of production (although once he moves far past 30 we can expect production to decline noticeably). But one possible red flag is his public demand for a new contract as he enters the final year of his current deal. Will he be able to ignore this possible off-court distraction next season? That is something only those much closer to the situation can determine.

The final issue in evaluating this team is the progress of the team’s young players.  That issue, though, will be addressed in the next post on the Memphis Grizzlies.

– Jamie Vann Struth

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