Picture an NBA team with recent playoff appearances and conference title aspirations switching their strategic approach. Instead of using traditional two big-man look in the starting lineup, they bring one off the bench while inserting a forward with a perimeter-oriented game to keep up with the league's 3-point shooting and up-tempo modern style.
You might assume this refers to the Washington Wizards and you wouldn't be wrong, in theory. Now imagine this team making such radical changes during the season. No full summer for mental adjustments or players to understand their new roles. No ironing out issues during training camp, no trial and error during preseason games or the first month of the season.
If you haven't figured it out yet, this mystery team is the Memphis Grizzlies, the latest squad knocked off by the Wizards. Washington wrapped up a three-game home sweep with a 100-91 win Wednesday night at Verizon Center.
Washington shifted gears this offseason by moving Nene off the bench and adding a stretch-4 four forward in Jared Dudley to serve as center Marcin Gortat's new frontcourt partner.
Memphis made the same move by breaking up the interior pair of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. They made this move seven games ago.
"It would be tough," Wizards guard Garrett Temple said of trying to alter a team's DNA in the midst of the season.
The Grizzlies (16-15) concur. Memphis has hovered around .500 all season, but have no dropped four of seven since Randolph went to the bench Dec. 13 while small forward Matt Barnes joined the starters.
“It is going," Gasol said of the change. "Obviously defensively, you feel more confident because you can match up better. Offensively, it is going to take time especially because we do not have as much practice as we would like to, so you are going through a process and learning things on the fly throughout the game, so it is not as easy.”
Randolph and Gasol along with guard Mike Conley helped fuel three-straight 50-win seasons and five consecutive playoff berths. Yet last season the Grizzlies and Wizards, while playing winning basketball, looked dinasour-ish with their traditional approaches.
“The league is changing, man," said Randolph, who scored 16 points in Wednesday's loss. "We’ve got to play to our personnel and our strengths. This might be our strength – trying to play small. You just hope it works and be professional about it and stick with it.”
Let's not assume the Wizards (13-14) suddenly figured out all the keys for playing pace-and-space basketball, though they have the ideal floor leader for the task in point guard John Wall. Nine days prior Washington turned in arguably its worst performance of the year, a 112-95 loss at Memphis during a 1-3 road swing.
Since returning home, they certainly performed better on both ends of the court in decisive wins over Charlotte, Sacramento and Memphis. They did so by making shots and hustling on both ends of the court. They did so in part because they've had 20-something games for acclimation.
"I think the offensive thing was good. We were scoring the ball. It was a matter of us being able to defend. Running, having that pace on offense, but being able to come back and guard people."
Washington still ranks last league-wide in 3-point percentage defense (39.5). During the three-game streak, opponent shot 20 for 62 (32.2). The Grizzlies, not armed with many perimeter threats and still accustomed to interior wars, went 3 of 17.
"We've got to get pace," Temple said of the plan entering Wednesday's meeting. "Memphis is a team that even though they're starting to play small, they still like to walk the ball up. It's in their nature."
It's Randolph's nature to start. That's what he's done for most of his 14-year career. With the league shifting away from the 260-pounder's power game and the Grizzlies needed size off the bench following Brandan Wright's injury, "Z-Bo" is now a bench guy.
“You get used to it," Randolph said. "I’ve been starting and getting that momentum since my third year. It’s a big difference. I accept the role. It ain’t about me, it’s about my teammates and the organization so I’m going to come out and work hard and whenever they call up on me, I’m going to be ready.”
Randolph and the Grizzlies have to get ready on the fly. That makes life much more complicated compared to those who had weeks and months worth of trial and error with their new approach.