Calathes Solidifying His Role

Posted on March 27, 2015

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By Travis Nauert

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After last year’s perpetual uphill battle that was the playoff chase, the Grizzlies were left with one lasting image; a Zach Randolph-less team getting tossed from the playoffs in a winner takes all Game 7. Easily forgotten is Mike Conley playing on one leg. He was physically limited after straining his right hamstring in game 6, rendering the backcourt depleted.

Less than 24 hours before the series even began ,Nick Calathes, entrenched as back up point guard at the time, was suspended for 20 games after violating the NBA’s anti-drug policy. He tested positive for Tamoxifen, a substance primarily used to treat breast cancer. Calathes was not ill, but Googling the story confirms what you see; he is bald. Suboptimal genetics (minus the NBA body/athleticism) and self-conscience cost him 7 games in the playoffs and an additional 13 games this season.

Beno Udrih commandeered the backup point guard role seamlessly, sparking wonder as to how the Grizzlies survived without his midrange leaner, or relentlessly positive, Twitter account. Hopefully, Calathes emerged from a state of deep meditation, realizing that even George Costanza pulled women despite hairline shortcomings.

In retrospect, the Calathes suspension helped Memphis turn a longtime weakness/ reserve guard play into a differentiating strength. And in the Golden Era of NBA point guards, teams need multiple ball handlers capable of creating and defending. Calathes’ absence gave the then recently-acquired Udrih an opportunity to contribute.

Now, the Grizzlies frequently employ two guard lineups, and this allows the team to accelerate their offensive pace or counter teams going small. In those situations, the backcourt contains any combination of Conley, Udrih and Calathes (choose 2) alongside Courtney Lee or Tony Allen. Any two out of Jeff Green, Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol, or Kosta Koufos make up the frontcourt.

A Calathes lineup brings the dynamic of a second ball handler, a playmaker with pure point guard skills, who possesses the height of a shooting guard or small forward at 6’6”. The height discrepancy is problematic for opponents, especially when the Grizzlies are defending. As of this writing (3/25), Calathes has played 104 games for the Grizzlies and recorded 101 steals. That includes 18 games with 2 steals, 5 games with 3 steals, and 5 games with 4 steals. He gets such stats in bunches, not unlike the Grindfather.

For the moment, Calathes appears to have regained the form that earned him Western Conference Rookie of the Month last February. Yes, Calathes debuted in the NBA last season as a sprightly middle 20’s balding rookie. After three years at the University of Florida, he spent four years playing in Greece and Russia.

Yet we must consider the month of February. Calathes peaked at this time in 2014, averaging 10.7 points, 4.6 assists, 3.6 rebounds, and 1.8 steals in 28.6 minutes per game for the month. He cooled off in March and April, before the suspension made him unavailable for the playoffs. Now, he has made his way back into the rotation. He has averaged more minutes each month since his initial return on November 23 against the Clippers with 9 minutes per game in December, 14.6 in January, and 14.9 in February.

Calathes began building momentum in late January with strong performances in Dallas and at home against Denver. While not a fully comprehensive measurement, the eye test reveals his concerted effort to push the ball down court after made or missed baskets on the defensive end. This allows the Grizzlies to pursue fast break opportunities when the numbers are in their favor, or simply setup the offense earlier in the shot clock.

On this side of the All Star break, Calathes has been phenomenal. He changed the tone of the Portland game with 3 steals in the 2nd quarter. Vince Carter was performing his commentating duties and had high praise for Calathes. He was also effective against the Clippers with 4 points, 3 assists, 3 rebounds, and 2 steals in 16 minutes. On a rather forgettable Wednesday night in Sacramento, he added another 3 steals and 7 points.

This is not a Calathes for MVP argument. This is not a Calathes for Sixth Man of the Year argument. He is the eighth or ninth man off the bench. Maybe the ninth or tenth if and when Vince Carter returns. But that is the point. Barring injuries or foul trouble, Calathes is the last man in the regular rotation and he has become very effective in that role. He will never be a significant scoring threat, but he distributes the ball well and is a fresh effective defender that can spell Conley.

The Grizzlies hope and think they found the last piece to the puzzle in Jeff Green. Calathes is not the player who puts them over the top, but if he can extend this form into the spring, then he will continue to see good minutes. He can make just enough plays with the time he is given to help the Grizzlies win close games that they will undoubtedly face in the playoffs. For under a million dollars, the Grizzlies have a bargain in Nick Calathes.

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Posted in: Grizzlies, Sports