Hope springs eternal this time of year. From Oakland to Atlanta, Cleveland to San Antonio and everywhere in between there are fan bases, and teams, who feel that they have a real shot to win "The Big One" and achieve the pinnacle of professional basketball- being an NBA Champion.
The city of Memphis is no different. As the "Grit and Grind Era" enters its fifth season, many in the Bluff City believe that this team, these Grizzlies, could be primed for a run. They're healthy, they're hungry, they know what is at stake. Marc Gasol has ascended to near "Superstar" status, Mike Conley remains one of the top Point Guards in the NBA and the supporting cast around them remains strong.
However, the NBA at large (and the Western Conference in particular) is filled with teams with more natural talent, more athleticism, more skills fitting the "Modern NBA", than the Memphis Grizzlies. Most preseason ranking have the Grizzlies anywhere from 3rd to 6th in the Western Conference, and competing with the likes of the Spurs, Warriors, Rockets, Clippers, Thunder, and Pelicans will surely take its toll. Memphis will be thrown to the proverbial wolves with regard to this "Modern NBA" on their opening night as they welcome the Cleveland Cavaliers and LeBron James to Memphis.
A true Superstar. An explosive offense. An athletic, able to consistently switch defense. All things that Memphis is not.
This is not a reason to lose that belief in these Grizzlies, however. While the likelihood of a championship is low, the fact it exists at all is better than about 23 or so of the other teams in the NBA, and a puncher's chance is all a physical team like Memphis may need if certain things fall in to place, some of which is well within their control.
HEALTH- Monitored and Managed
This really is the largest barrier for Memphis between championship contender and pretender. When healthy Memphis has pushed the best of the NBA to the brink, whether it be the Oklahoma City Thunder or the Golden State Warriors. Their style that is so heavily criticized for being the antithesis of the "Modern NBA" is tailor made for raising hell in the postseason, win or lose. That physicality, however, can also lead to injury. The "Core Four" Grizzlies (Marc Gasol, Mike Conley, Tony Allen and Zach Randolph) have all missed large chunks of time the past few seasons with a variety of ailments. Ankles, knees, hands, faces, abdomens, wrists...the list is long but distinguished, and the value of all of these players is so high for the Grizzlies to be successful that any time they miss directly impacts that goal.
Of course, any time that they unwillingly miss, that is. Between the visit during Training Camp to P3 in California, a state-of-the-art athletic assessment and injury prevention center, and quotes from Head Coach Dave Joerger and the players themselves, this may well be more of an emphasis than it has been in the past. Minutes being watched and nights off during brutal stretches of games may mean a loss hear or there in the regular season, but it could pay dividends come April and May when this team is hopefully at full strength.
This is not an original point, as it has been made here and elsewhere multiple times. But it is that important. We know what to expect from the Marc Gasols and Mike Conleys of the world- as long as they don't drop off considerably skills wise, they can lead this team to the NBA's "Promised Land." They can only do that if healthy, however, and an injury to them or even Randolph could spell disaster.
EARLY & LATE SEASON SUCCESS- A Fast Start & Finish
So much depends on how any team starts a season. It builds confidence, it pads early season standing in your conference, it creates valuable room for injury and error down the road. Memphis got off to a terrific start last season, running off 15 wins out of 17 games to get to 13 games over .500. That early hot streak carried through the All-Star Break, where Memphis was 39-14 and 22-12 after that initial 17 game run of success. The Grizzlies went 16-13 after the All-Star Break, essentially a mediocre basketball team during that time, but the rattling off of wins early in the year helped Memphis stay afloat as injuries and fatigued weakened the Grizzlies.
This season, Memphis must finish as fast as they start. The Grizzlies' early season schedule is brutal, with 12 of their first 18 games coming against 2015 NBA Playoff teams (and another against a now healthy Oklahoma City Thunder squad) and their last seven games in April are against six 2014 Playoff teams, including two games in five days against the defending NBA Champion the Golden State Warriors. It is possible that Golden State is resting players at this point of the season, but it is also possible that Memphis will be running in to a buzz saw as the season ends.
If the Grizzlies hope to keep a possible home court advantage not just in the first round of the playoffs, but beyond, they have to finish. If they can take these combined 25 games and go 16-9 or better, the Grizzlies will be in good shape.
CAREER YEARS- Rising to the Moment
Every team that wins a championship usually has a player or two play at their very best throughout the season and postseason. Last year, Draymond Green and Stephen Curry displayed their value and skill at the highest level yet, and throughout the playoffs Andre Iguodala and Harrison Barnes were key pieces to Warriors wins. At key moments, stars and role players playing at their peak led them to winning a championship.
Memphis has players who are poised to perhaps take similar leads. Mike Conley is in a contract year and while a drastic upswing is unlikely continued development is possible as he embraces his role as the second-best player on this Grizzlies' team. Courtney Lee is also in a contract year, hoping to take advantage of a growing salary cap and making himself valuable not just to the Grizzlies, but to other teams in the NBA. He appears locked in this preseason...
...but it is, after all, the preseason. Can he continue a 13 point per game on 56% shooting tear through the regular season? Unlikely. Can he find a way to be one of the players who puts Memphis over the top by being this aggressive and close to this efficient? Absolutely.
Other players who could have this sort of impact are Brandan Wright, whose athleticism in the front court will give Memphis new looks offensively, and Vince Carter, who obviously will not have a career year but a potential return to Dallas Mavericks Sixth-Man Vince Carter status could make all of the difference for the Grizzlies.
JEFF GREEN- Getting the Most Out of Him...One Way or the Other
The enigmatic Jeff Green will have a direct impact on this Grizzlies team's success, like it or not. If he remains on the roster, he will play major minutes whether it is off the bench or as a starter. Dave Joerger appears willing to give Green multiple chances to show his worth as a starter, but he has yet to consistently show a good fit alongside the Gasols and Randolphs of the world. Green's skill set fits more naturally with the bench, who have the potential to get out and run a little bit more and use their athleticism on a more consistent basis. Jeff would be "the man" on that unit, and his skills could be supplemented more effectively whereas he is the supplementary piece among the starters.
Green's role on the team extends out from just being a starter or bench player. He also is, and will continue to be, the subject of trade talks and if a trade does happen with Memphis he is the likely key piece that will be moved. If a trade were to occur, whether it involves Green (again, probable possibility) or not, needs to be a decisive win for the Grizzlies. It must be for a player who is either a game changer (Carmelo Anthony dreams can probably be pushed aside) or a better fit alongside those expected to be game changers for Memphis already. Names like Joe Johnson and Danilo Gallinari have already been rumored, and Luol Deng was a target of the Grizzlies before Green came to Memphis.
All of these names and almost certainly more will be floated around if the Grizzlies are underachieving, or even if Memphis is rolling and Green is the only underachiever of the bunch. The Grizzlies' Front Office and Coaching Staff has their hands full with regards to this situation. Green's dreaded "potential" is potentially damning to a team now in win-now mode, but losing a trade sending him out after one that many would argue they lost bringing him in would end championship aspirations and also potentially cripple the franchise moving forward.
No piece remains from the Rudy Gay trade, the last major deal Memphis executed. If they pull the trigger on another landmark move, it needs to be a home run. And if he remains on the roster, Jeff Green must be the best version of himself yet.
A lot needs to happen for these Grizzlies to win a title. Health, fast starts and finishes, career years and finally realizing Jeff Green's value in any variety of ways is a laundry list, and that still may not be enough. The NBA is just that good. However, if these various tasks can be achieved, Memphis will be in prime position to take out a team who is supposedly better than them and compete for the NBA Championship.
As fans, that is all that can be asked for. Opportunity to compete with the best there is, to see how your team measures up among the elite when they are at their very best themselves. That is the allure of sports; the Wide World of Sports thrill of victory and agony of defeat, and the journey you take with those around you to get to that moment.
This team can do it, they can find that place in that moment. It will just take one hell of a journey to get there.