NBA: What Went Wrong for the Memphis Grizzlies?

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The Memphis Grizzlies have been a consistent force in the NBA, making the playoffs in each of the last five years and compiling at least 50 regular-season wins in three consecutive campaigns. Simply put, they have become a staple in the conversation of being among the best teams in the daunting Western Conference. During this time, the Grizzlies have developed the reputation as being one of the grittiest, scrappiest teams in the league based solely on their stout defense.

They have ranked inside the top 10 in defensive efficiency in each of the last five seasons while finishing in the top five in fewest points allowed per game over the past four years. Memphis has been able to establish this defensive dominance with their strong core group of Mike Conley, Zach Randolph, and Marc Gasol. Gasol and Randolph have developed into one of the best tandem big men in the league while Conley has become one of the most underrated point guards in the league.

If the Western Conference had not become so stacked at the point guard position, there is no question that the 28-year-old would be a multiple-time All-Star at this point in his career. With all that in mind, Memphis appears to have settled into a similar position as the Los Angeles Clippers. They are good enough to contend for a playoff spot but don’t possess that star player who can take them over the top.

The Grizzlies ventured out of the first round in three of their last five playoff appearances including a trip to the Western Conference Finals, but the team hasn’t gotten over the hump. They are currently on track to head down the same path this season, especially with the loss of Gasol for the season due to a broken foot.

Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

Although Memphis won three out of their first four games without the services of their two-time All-Star big man, the front office seems to have thrown in the towel on this season by trading one of their core players, Jeff Green, to the Los Angeles Clippers in exchange for Lance Stephenson and a lottery-protected 2019 first-round pick. Green was in the midst of a productive season, ranking fourth on the team in scoring with 12.2 points and 4.5 rebounds per contest.

This move came just two days after the team acquired four future second-round picks as part of a three-team trade with the Charlotte Hornets and Miami Heat, which sent away Courtney Lee and landed Chris Andersen. These actions signify that the front office is looking past this year to the next few seasons. The fact of the matter is that their title chances went down the drain after they lost Gasol for the final two months of the season. Without him on the floor, Memphis doesn’t stand a chance to make it out of the Western Conference.

In fact, the franchise may have realized that it needs to add a star player who can lead the team offensively. This would become a larger need if Conley decides to leave in free agency this upcoming summer. Yes, the Grizzlies have established a solid foundation with their core players and defensive identity, but there’s a missing piece to the puzzle.

Granted a sizeable chunk of the $35 million expected salary space this offseason will go toward locking up Conley to a long-term deal, but it still leaves them with an ample amount of financial flexibility to pursue a high-impact player like Nicolas Batum, Luol Deng, or Harrison Barnes. If they don’t add another player in free agency or via the trade market, they could face the grim reality that they’re stuck being just good enough to make the playoffs.

Statistics courtesy of ESPN.com, Basketball-Reference.com, and NBA.com.

More from Sports Cheat Sheet: