December 9th, the anticipated re-opening of the NBA's training camps and free agency period, is less than two weeks away. Days ago, hope for a season of any length that would begin before October 2012 seemed dwindling at best, lost at worst. Next thing you know, you're waking up on Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend, the lingering fog from a still-severe food coma/mild hibernation slowing the central nervous system and all extremities to an alarmingly sluggish pace, to a text from Mom: "The NBA is back!" And I knew my mom wouldn't joke about such things.
For anyone still putting up with the labor negotiations, almost-deals and broken-down talks that will be etched on the tombstone of the 2011 NBA lockout's 149 day impasse, this day was probably going to feel like a shock whenever it came. To wake up to the unexpected news gave it that Christmas morning feel, except even that day is scheduled every year. The day the NBA and its players got the handshake deal we kept hearing about seemed to be circled on the same calendar as the Rapture, or the return of the dinosaurs.
Even now, the return to regular league operations, and nifty things like active players on the NBA's official Web site, hinges on ironing out wrinkles and majority votes, but we're oh so close. December 9th is less than two weeks away, and presumably very shortly, everything in NBA-Land is going to be moving really, really fast. The Memphis Grizzlies, after providing last season's jolt to the Western Conference, will be working towards picking up where they left off.
The Grizzlies will be without the element of surprise, but, provided last spring was, as many believe, the beginning of something sustainable as opposed to the height of their power, they'll have a new lease on competitive life in the NBA. It begins, as Tom pointed out a few days ago, with re-signing center Marc Gasol, and continues with assimilating Rudy Gay back into the team's framework. Gasol's value to Memphis probably can't be matched by any other team. The Grizzlies are aware of this and seem intent on making sure he stays put. Clearly, losing him changes everything. It's a problem Memphis hopefully won't have to face if all goes well.
As for Gay, his perimeter scoring and attacking abilities should compliment the inside forces of Gasol and Zach Randolph, who will most certainly draw the most attention from opposing teams when the season begins. The sliding scale of touches and offensive focus will be the real work in progress as the team reconfigures its offensive flow, and the job of point guard Mike Conley as table-setter just became all the more important in making sure everyone eventually flips to the same page.
Transitioning and mixing together what the Grizzlies looked like with Gay as the number one option and Randolph as the focal point won't happen overnight, and due to the proposed shortened 66-game season there's less time to fuss with the controls than usual, but Memphis should be able to survive an offense that's slightly out-of-whack with a harassing defense and general inclination towards chaos. Their experience together last year also will play a large role; this was a tight-knit group that can hopefully draw from last season's successes when they hit their low points in 2012.
That said, what Memphis accomplished a season ago will be put to the test right away, and though some teams will get their sea legs under them sooner than others, the Grizzlies will be under a harsher spotlight than usual (okay, a spotlight) to continue ascending. As Tom Ziller mentions here, this newfound pressure will also come from owner Michael Heisley, who will have invested millions into the team's core of Randolph, Gay, Conley and hopefully Gasol with the idea of contending with the NBA's elite right now. The new CBA, once in effect, will encourage smaller market teams like Memphis to spend a bit more when the time comes, to take their shot if the target is in sight. Ziller notes that a franchise like the Grizzlies can likely only continue spending serious money so long as the play on the floor is in agreement with the payroll. The window is open, but there's no promise of its duration.
Barring a flat-out letdown or the usual derailments, such as major injuries, the Grizzlies don't have the feel of a team that was only meant to show up for a season and disappear back from where they came. The future is bright in Memphis; one, simply because basketball is, at long last, back, and two, because this team, even with the obligatory kinks and one (albeit major) signing that need to be worked out, has the components and confidence of a contender. The difference this season, and going forward, is that there's a lot more riding on that optimism than ever before.