Mike Miller and the Memphis Grizzles, Title Contenders?


Yesterday, Marc Stein reported that the Miami Heat’s sharpshooter — and former Grizzly — Mike Miller has decided to come back to Memphis for two more years, starting next season. This is absolutely fantastic. Personally, I think the Miller signing is the difference between the Grizzlies standing pat at 4th-5th seed, and them improving to be potential title contenders.

Yes, Mike Miller makes the Grizzlies potential title contenders. I’m serious.

Jun 9, 2013; Miami, FL, USA; Miami Heat shooting guard Mike Miller (13) reacts during the fourth quarter of game two of the 2013 NBA Finals against the San Antonio Spurs at the American Airlines Arena. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

To begin with, the drafting of Jamaal Franklin, the Koufos trade, and the Calathes trade all improve the team markedly. The team had gotten better. Not better enough to give Memphis more leverage over teams like the Clippers or Rockets (who also improved, probably a little more), or the Spurs or Thunder (who are just fearsome, always), but they got better nonetheless.

We, as fans, weren’t content with these small improvements to the team because we recognized that they weren’t enough to change the Grizzlies’ standings much. We’re collectively so excited about Miller, in part, because we know he is enough value added to move the needle a little bit.

Memphis has gotten to the point now where we won’t be happy until the Grizzlies grind themselves into the Finals.

Well, be ready, because this could be that year.

Editorial note to begin with: obviously, none of this is anywhere near guaranteed. We all know how intensely competitive the Western Conference is. The Thunder and Spurs are always real threats, the rival Clippers got better this offseason as well, the Rockets have just become really scary, and even the Warriors are sleepers again. One small mid-season injury (one of the ones that always happen) could be the difference between three seeds at the top of the conference.

I just think the Grizz have gone from being longshots to a team with real, legitimate cause to scare the bejeezus out of the top teams.

Let’s start here: The Grizzlies have a reputation for being a really bad offensive team, but a terrifying, punishing, “oh my god why are you doing this to me leave me alllooonnneeee” defensive team. This is only kind of true: in the Rudy Gay era last season, the Grizzlies were the best defense in the league, and the 9th worst offense in the league — ranked 21st overall, per NBA.com.

Starting a little more than a week and a half after the trade for Tayshaun — or, when the offense with Tayshaun started to click — the Grizzlies were actually the 12th most efficient offense in the league, which isn’t awful by any means.

The Griz were actually more efficient on offense than the Spurs (who were missing Parker for a large stretch of that), the Warriors, the Pacers, the Bulls, the Celtics, and the Hawks. That’s certainly not spectacular, but it’s better than bad.

Remember too, that they maintained that number 12 spot — better offensively than more than half of the league — despite also being the absolute worst 3 point shooting team in the NBA. The Grizzlies were really, really close to being good enough to contend last season, since, typically, only teams that have both a top 10 offense and top 10 defense can crack the NBA Finals. By the time you get to the Conference Finals, the best teams can either exploit the weak offense or defense and then move on.

That is exactly what we saw the Spurs do to the Grizzlies. The Griz had figured out how to operate expertly in the midrange, thanks, mostly, to Marc Gasol’s elbow-passing wizardry. By the time that Memphis hit the playoffs, though, and the Spurs had multiple games to figure them out, it didn’t take the Spurs long to capitalize on Memphis’ lack of three point shooting and totally collapse the paint on defense. Previous teams hadn’t even bothered with thinking about how to defend the Grizzlies, and instead focused their effort onto trying to score against them. The Spurs did the opposite, and the results were drastic.

Look at the spacing, here, before the play even formally starts:

Gasol has the ball near the elbow, where he often runs the Grizzlies’ offense. Look especially at the space Ginobli is giving Tony Allen. The play hasn’t even started yet, and Ginobli is closer to the paint than he is to his man. The Spurs were crashing the paint before the plays necessitated it, because that removed the space that the Grizzlies had developed to work in.

Then, here:

See how, in response to a pick and roll, both Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli completely leave their men to cover the paint. Ginobli makes Randolph completely inaccessible (if he wasn’t already), and Parker interrupts the roll before it can even happen. Tellingly, Allen chose to cut to the rim on this play, and he also happened to flub the layup.

All this, really, is to say that the Grizzlies offense was not very far removed from being “contender-level” good. The Grizzlies were 1.5 points scored per 100 possessions away from being a top-10 offense. But, the one fatal flaw keeping them from being a top-10 offense — three point shooting — also happened to be something that was particularly glaring, and, ultimately, exploitable.

But, friends, fellow fans, compadres, brothers and sisters, hear me now: the tyranny of the midrange defense is no more, for Mike Miller is come.

It may seem like a bit of a stretch to say that one good three point shooter changes all of the Grizzlies’ shooting problems, but seriously, the difference is massive.

Side note: I’m going to assume, from now on, that Quincy Pondexter will be starting. It’s been thoroughly discussed and explained as to why that should be the case, but I’ll keep it simple here: Conley-QPon-Gasol lineups always scored relatively well against SA precisely because they created more space. Allen-Prince-ZBO did not. QPon needs to start, or a lot of this is a moot point.

Let’s start here: last season, the Grizzlies’ best shooting lineup – in terms of floor spacing – consisted of Conley-Bayless-QPon-Prince-Gasol. Even in that lineup, only the backcourt is particularly scary from long range. That lineup played a total of 25 minutes in the entire season. Over more than half the season, the best potential shooting lineup saw only about as much time as half of a game, total. That lineup shot 45% from 3 in that time, for what it’s worth.

In that potential lineup, more than anything, Bayless is the biggest concern. He was great last season as an infusion of energy and shooting, but he’s a chucker, and for every stand-still catch-and-shoot three he makes, he takes a leaning three over a pick.

I would say Prince is a space concern, but if he’s playing the 4, he’ll actually stretch the floor more than your average Power Forward. He was a surprisingly good 3-point shooter last season. He took a lot less of them than in previous years, partially because he’s aware, now, of how slow his shot is, but still. He’d stretch the defense.

Prince’s shot chart:

So, yeah, the left wing is REALLY, REALLY bad. But hey, he’s encouraging from everywhere else!

So, let’s insert Mike Miller into the lineup. Here’s a sample of several lineups (a couple hybrid and one bench lineup), that are all now likely to see significant play time. Conley-Miller-QPon-Prince-Gasol; Bayless-Miller-Prince-Davis-ZBo; Conley-Bayless-Miller-ZBo-Gasol.

These are all in a addition to the Conley-Allen-QPon-ZBo-Gasol starting lineup that’s likely to give defenses trouble. Also, Conley-Bayless-Prince-ZBo-Gasol will probably still happen a lot, and, for what it’s worth, that lineup shot 48% from three last season.

Even the Tony Allen centric lineups that are so bad from 3, usually, would be better with Miller inserted into the lineup. Conley-Tony Allen-Miller-ZBO-Gasol is a lot scarier, offensively, than the same lineup with Pondexter. Miller needs no space to rain 3’s like hellfire, where Pondexter can be given a little leeway.

After all, remember this? (Look to :46 for an example of the kind of set/spacing the Grizzlies could really have with a Tony Allen centered lineup):

Miller probably won’t, and shouldn’t, see too much more than 15 minutes a game. His defense is borderline untenable in long stretches (especially on some of those bench lineups), though he’s bought a little flexibility simply by being on the Grizzlies. Of course, his durability is always a concern. However, the Grizzlies had a total of two lineups last season that shot 3s in significant amounts, and still made them at a decent clip. I’ve already listed 7 that are likely to see real time.

Miller is the difference between the Grizzlies having to dig deep to find three-point shooting, and having it readily on hand whenever needed. The Mystic Wolfman is instant flexibility and space for the offense, something Memphis has never had while also being good.

Imagine, now, Gasol’s elbow passing heroics with Miller camped out in the weak side corner and QPon stationed on the strong side wing. The floor would be totally open to a Conley cut, or, should Conley stay on the strong side corner, ZBo would be free to have the low block all to himself.

The Grizzlies were 1.5 points per 100 possessions away from a top 10 offense at the end of the season. Is the extra lineup flexibility enough to make up that difference? As far as I’m concerned, yes. Miller’s extra shooting would have stopped the Spurs’ defense in it’s tracks. If it can create that much space long term, then yeah. It should be enough.

The Grizzlies defense might suffer a bit with Miller getting 15 minutes a game. But suffer how much? Maybe they’ll be 2nd best defense in the league next season? If the Grizzlies are scoring 105.5 points per 100 possessions or above, then having the 2nd best defense is better than good enough to make it to the Finals.

Don’t forget, too, that Mike Conley and Pondexter still have a lot of upside and room to grow. Conley could be a legitimate All-Star next season, and Pondexter has already proven his ability to be a great NBA starter and role player. It’s more than possible, I think, that Q-Pon proves his real worth, starting next season.

Whether the Grizzlies will be good enough to actually win it all is another question. The Grizz promise to be really, really good. As far as I can tell, every major hole on that team has been plugged, and plugged well. Plus, so much of the NBA season comes down to sheer dumb luck. Who knows if Miller’s body will actually hold up with significant minutes again?

Last season, though, the Grizzlies were more beneficiaries of good luck than they were on the losing end of it: the Thunder lost Westbrook. That was huge, and probably the only reason that Memphis made it to the Western Conference Finals. Next season, though, the Grizzlies should project to be the ones making the WCF, probably even the Finals, barring only bad luck. They flipped the switch. Suddenly, they’re the ones to beat, not the other way around.

Watch out. The Grizzlies are coming.