The consensus before the season began was that the Houston Rockets and Memphis Grizzlies were both "second-tier" championship contenders, with the Rockets knocking on the door of first-tier status and the Grizzlies trying to hang on to their fringe contender label.
What a difference an eighth of a season makes.
The Rockets (5-7) and Grizzlies (6-6) both started out playing bafflingly poor basketball, and although their records still put them both firmly within the playoff conversation, their respective point differentials (-6.7 and -6.4) remain the 4th and 5th worst in the league, below the likes of the lowly Los Angeles Lakers and Sacramento Kings. Moreover, the teams are responsible for two of the most stunning stories going around the league thus far - the firing of Rockets head coach Kevin McHale and somewhat miraculous reformation of Mario Chalmers.
Chalmers' heroics have received their due here at GBB, but McHale's sudden dismissal after leading the injury-plagued Rockets to the Western Conference Finals in last year's playoffs - including a series win over the Los Angeles Clippers after falling behind 3-1 - is easily the most surprising development of this young season. McHale sported a 193-130 as the head coach in Houston, and with a legitimate MVP candidate (James Harden) leading a talented, healthy squad that theoretically got better in the offseason with the acquisition of Ty Lawson, the odds that McHale would be the first coaching casualty of the 2015-2016 season were probably about as good as the Philadelphia 76ers championship hopes.
Rockets General Manager and wannabe amateur gynecologist Daryl Morey had certainly put McHale on a short leash in the past (he was considered a prime candidate for the chopping block before last season), but after re-signing him to a three-year, $12 million extension last December, the firing amounted to a staggering about face, even for the famously mercurial Morey. That said, the move wasn't without cause, as the Rockets early-season woes surprised everybody. The team's defensive regression (Harden's in particular) has been shocking, even for Grizzlies writers who have observed a similarly disturbing trend taking place in Memphis.*
*Houston's defensive rating (27th) is actually better than Memphis' (29th) currently, but that's what playing Golden State twice will do to you, especially when you lose by 50.
McHale's dismissal provides an interesting case study for the Grizzlies' front office, who, if you're inclined to believe certain reporters "hearing whispers," were looking at making a similar move before "Mario Mania" took hold in Memphis. While it's still very early in the season, this is about as important as games played in November get. Just two weeks removed from those reports of Head Coach Dave Joerger's seat getting warm, the team needs to be wary of letting an interim coach come into Memphis and leave with a 2-0 record.
Prediction: Grizzlies 105 - Rockets 102
WHO: Memphis Grizzlies vs. Houston Rockets
WHEN: 7:00 PM CT
WHERE: FedExForum in Memphis, Tennessee
HOW TO LISTEN: 92.9 FM ESPN Memphis
HOW TO WATCH: Fox Sports Southeast/NBA League Pass
For more on the Houston Rockets, check out The Dream Shake