And does it even matter?
Here’s where we are in the West:
There are four absolute locks (Golden State, Houston, Oklahoma City, and Utah) for the playoffs, assuming no injuries.
The next tier of Denver and Portland seem likely to make it, but are by no means locked.
After that the Los Angeles Lakers are in a tier of their own as they have the widest range (from lock to completely out) of any Western Conference team.
And then we have a pile-up that includes Minnesota, Memphis, New Orleans, the Los Angeles Clippers, San Antonio, and (depending on the dominance of Luka Doncic) Dallas.
Altogether, that’s 13 of the 15 Western Conference teams listed above as being, at minimum, conversationally in playoff discussion. And you will note that six teams reside in the final tier, fighting for one or two playoff spots.
In this area, the Memphis Grizzlies dwell. No other team has improved as much from last season as Memphis.
Not only will they benefit from the return of their most important player, but they discarded their three worst players while acquiring five better suited, more talented, more experienced, and more basketball savvy players. They also hope that Chandler Parsons will be a net positive this year (which is not what they signed him to be at four years $94 million in the summer of 2016, but which would be gleefully accepted by Grizzlies faithful considering how poorly he has played when he has been able to play).
AP Photo/Brandon Dill
However, it doesn’t at all seem like a foregone conclusion that the Grizzlies will make the playoffs despite the fact that New Orleans, San Antonio, and the Clippers all lost marquee guys (Minnesota is about to join that list). In fact, Vegas has their over/under estimate at 33.5 total wins, a far cry form the supposed 46 needed to make the playoffs. Why might that be?
Last season the Grizzlies finished as the second worst team in the NBA. There were several factors for this, but the biggest factor was that Mike Conley played in just a dozen games, not even 15 percent of the season, due to an achilles injury which he had surgically repaired at the end of last season.
Conley is the team’s premiere playmaker. He is the engine that makes the offense go. Without him, the technical beauty with which Marc Gasol plays from the high post and right block dissipate. Conley’s absence created a gaping whole at the point guard position, and without him the offense cratered. Memphis finished second worst in points per game (not even eclipsing 100 points per game) and fourth worst in assists per game.
However, even though the team should be energized by Conley’s return to the floor, its offensive numbers may not rise much higher than last season. In the previous two seasons in which Conley played 69 games and 56 games, the franchise finished no better than 24th in points and 21st in assists per contest.
That is likely due to the way the team has played more than its personnel on the floor. Memphis has been known for the better part of a decade for its ground and pound offense meant to wear its opponents out in the paint. Teams have exploited this strategy by going small and shooting more threes. Memphis has tried to implement a more modern style of basketball when it hired Dave Joerger and then David Fizdale as head coaches. Yet the team seems to be reverting back to its back to the basket ways after giving interim head coach J.B. Bickerstaff the head job.
Joe Murphy/Getty Images
This refusal to play like the Warriors and identify as their stylistic opposites probably scares oddsmakers who have rightly been convinced that the day of the bruising big man is dying if not already dead.
In addition to playing a physical, diminishing brand of basketball, the team has not shot the ball well over the past eight seasons. Shooting may very well be an issue again this season, but with Conley back and with the additions of MarShon Brooks, Garrett Temple, and Omri Casspi, there appears to be more firepower from deep than before.
The team also lacks playmaking outside of Conley. Their best options are the Brookses, Dillon and MarShon, who are unrelated. Dillon was the lone bright light in what was otherwise a dismal season, showing that he may have been one of the best picks in the second round of the draft by starting in 74 games. MarShon was signed late in the year but immediately contributed to two wins by bursting off the bench as a much needed scoring dynamo.
Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports
Additionally, backup point guard Andrew Harrison could have a mini-breakout year and if Chandler Parsons can be even 50 percent of what he was in 2015-16, he could be a salve. But there has been little to no evidence to suggest Harrison and Parsons will have an impactful year and due to a small sample size for MarShon and the appearance of a “good numbers on a bad team” type season for Dillon, prognosticators, not wrongly, doubt them.
Finally, rebounding looks to be an issue again as Memphis finished second to last in that per game category last season too. Marc Gasol and new draftee Jaren Jackson Jr. will be tasked with the heavy lifting in terms of rebounding. Yet Gasol, despite his size and burliness, has never been an elite rebounder. Jackson is only 19, the youngest player in the league, and definitely not at the same physical strength of the guys he will be banging against. JaMychal Green is an undersized (and under appreciated) forward and the team does not feature any elite rebounding guards or wings.
Those are some legitimate concerns above. However, by changing the locker room personnel, the Grizzlies think they have solved a major issue heading into the 2018-19 season.
The team shifted from a group of physically gifted but not very basketball savvy youngsters to a less athletic but hard working group of experienced players (outside of Jackson Jr.) who know the game well and play with a good attitude.
I wrote this summer about the Grizzlies incoming pieces, Kyle Anderson, Temple, Casspi, Jackson Jr., and Jevon Carter.
To briefly reiterate what is written there, I posited that the Grizzlies acquired players who
Understand the value of defense and play with heart,
Are high character players, and
Have a high basketball IQ.
I went on to synthesize those three traits into one: a winning mentality.
The franchise also added point guard Shelvin Mack, who embodies the above characteristics, to the fray. By adding these players the Grizzlies were also able to get rid of Deyonta Davis, Ben McLemore, and Jarell Martin pretty clearly the three worst players on the team (Davis especially, but to an extent McLemore as well, wasn’t just bad, but worse: disinterested).
To shed three bad-terrible players and add three or four average-good players doesn’t seem like much, but this was a huge swing for the Grizzlies not only in term of talent, but also in mentality. When you can meld attitude with effort, as was evident for seven seasons of Grit N’ Grind, teams often overachieve. This is the winning mentality the front office wants to see.
Rick Bowmer, AP
It strikes me that of the six teams in that fourth tier as explained in the introductory paragraph, Memphis may be the best suited to make the playoffs of the bunch (assuming Jimmy Butler is traded). The Vegas oddsmakers who think the Grizzlies will hover around 33.5 wins, in my purview, seem to be grossly underestimating this team.
Are there concerns about the offense? Absolutely. Are there legitimate concerns about the health of this team? Indeed, there are. Should we cast doubt on a teenaged rookie who it appears will shoulder a heavy load for this team? Some, yes, and for good reason.
But all the little moves the Grizzlies made this summer—shedding disgruntled players, adding two-way value players, signing a head coach whom the players vouch for—while additionally regaining their most important player… these things add up to a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Barring injuries, this team will compete for one of the final playoff spots in the West, and don’t be surprised to see Memphis come April and May.
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