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2017-18 Season Preview: Can The Memphis Grizzlies Stay Relevant?

Joe Murphy – NBAE/Getty Images

While the rest of the West stockpiled talent, the Grizzlies cut their core in half. Is the franchise’s streak of playoff appearances in jeopardy?

Nearly a year ago, I wrote the 2016-17 season preview for the Memphis Grizzlies. As you’ll remember, it was an exciting time for Memphis. The franchise replaced outgoing coach Dave Joerger with the more forward-thinking David Fizdale and signed Chandler Parsons, a multi-dimensional forward who perfectly complemented Mike Conley and Marc Gasol. My tone was one of cautious optimism. The Grizzlies were already good. With those progressive acquisitions, they were primed to leap above teams like the Thunder and Clippers in the Western Conference pecking order. 

That didn’t happen, of course. The Grizzlies slogged to a 43-39 finish, ultimately losing to the Spurs in six games in the first round. Parsons’ knees, which are made of jello, limited him to 34 games. And when he did play, the $95 million man averaged just 6.2 points per game on 33.8% shooting from the field. Without much depth on the wing, Fizdale was forced into handing big minutes to the 40-year-old Vince Carter (still really solid!) and journeymen like James Ennis III and Troy Daniels.

In fairness, Fizdale found a way to make everything work. He shifted Grizzlies mainstay Zach Randolph to the bench, inserting the more athletic JaMychal Green in Randolph’s stead. He also unleashed Conley and Gasol, both of whom shattered their career highs in points. Gasol, who had never attempted more than 17 threes in a season, launched 268 attempts from beyond the arc and canned them at a 38.8% clip. Conley, meanwhile, went toe-to-toe with Kawhi Leonard in the playoffs and came out on top twice. Had Parsons been healthy and at his best, last season’s iteration of the Grizzlies would’ve likely challenged for the fifth or sixth seed in the West.

The Summer

Memphis is moving in a new direction, though. Randolph and Tony Allen both departed in free agency – the former to Sacramento and the latter to New Orleans – cutting in half the core four of the Grit & Grind era. That will hurt. Randolph was instant offense off the bench last season, while Allen grabbed yet another NBA All-Defensive Team selection. Together, they ate up 51.5 minutes each game, which is difficult to fill with equal talent. 

Left without any draft picks this past June because of past deals, Memphis traded into the second round twice, selecting big man Ivan Rabb with the 35th pick and Swiss army knife Dillon Brooks at pick 45. Brooks is older, more developed, and a much better shooter, having made 40.4% of his threes in his last season at Oregon. He’ll battle for some of Allen’s old minutes on the wing, but with a 6’6” wingspan and middling athleticism, he’s unlikely to be an impact player right away.

In free agency, meanwhile, the Grizzlies were active, if unspectacular. First, they used the mid-level exception to sign Ben McLemore to a two-year pact. McLemore is the anti-Allen – a respectable shooter whose inconsistency and defensive ineptitude make him borderline unplayable. This contract is probably McLemore’s last chance to crack an NBA rotation. 

Memphis also picked up former Rookie of the Year Tyreke Evans on a one-year deal. Evans has missed 119 games over the last two seasons with various knee ailments, but still provides a unique skillset when healthy. Having started his career as a point guard, he can handle a second unit’s playmaking duties effectively, using his 6’6” frame to barrel into the paint and kick to shooters. He has his warts – namely limited range and unspectacular defense – but should anchor Fizdale’s bench unit. 

As it turns out, the Grizzlies’ final notable move happened this week. After a bizarre free agency saga, JaMychal Green re-upped with Memphis on a cheapo two-year, $16 million contract. That’s a steal. Just in the last couple of weeks, restricted free agents Mason Plumlee and Nikola Mirotic somehow finagled their way into deals paying close to $14 million annually. A prototypical glue-guy, Green can defend, shoot threes, and rebound. He’s a solid power forward, better than both Plumlee and Mirotic, and the Grizzlies needed to re-sign him.

Looking Ahead

The Grizzlies’ ceiling is pretty close to where it was last year. Parsons is supposedly healthy now, and if he gets back to his best, Memphis can push for 45 wins and a spot in the Western Conference playoffs. After all, Gasol is still one of the best centers in the league at both ends, and Conley is an ambidextrous assassin who wins the point of attack nearly every night.

The problem? It’s difficult to be bullish about Parsons at this point; nearly 19 months have passed since he played quality basketball. Both Gasol and Conley tend to miss games each year with niggling injuries, too. And now, without Allen and Randolph on hand, a cogent argument could be made that Memphis’ floor is dangerously low. If either star gets injured, the wheels could fall off the wagon entirely. 

Even if we give Gasol and Conley the benefit of the doubt health-wise, the Grizzlies will probably stagnate, barring a miraculous comeback year for Parsons (or Evans). The rest of the conference, however, became much more competitive. Despite the losses of Chris Paul and Gordon Hayward, respectively, the Clippers and Jazz should remain in the playoff picture. The Rockets and Thunder are now among the Western Conference elite. Meanwhile, both the Nuggets and Timberwolves acquired legitimate All-Stars to pair with their young, budding cores. In the zero-sum NBA, Memphis may have declined simply because so many other teams improved. These win predictions from Jacob Goldstein of Nylon Calculus show how vicious the West will be: 

If last season’s Grizzlies preview was defined by optimism, this one is defined by skepticism. A postseason spot is still in play, but it’s far from guaranteed. Simply put, the Grizzlies may not have the firepower around Gasol and Conley to maintain their recent successes – including their eight-year streak of postseason appearances. And that puts the Grizzlies in a weird spot; what happens if they fail to “win now” with two over-30 stars? David Fizdale is slowly ushering in a new era in Memphis, but with Grit & Grind ostensibly finished, the future is anything but certain.

Final Prediction: 41-41, 9th in the West

Edited by Jeremy Losak.

Where did JaMychal Green play college basketball?
Created 9/29/17
  1. Miami (FL)
  2. Western Kentucky
  3. Arkansas
  4. Alabama

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