It has been well documented how intense the start of the season has been for the Memphis Grizzlies. Their schedule is tied for sixth hardest in the entire NBA as of today, and playing half of their games against 2015 NBA Playoff teams was certainly a challenge. Blowouts were had; Memphis lost a whopping 11 games by double digits, and of those losses eight of them were by 15 or more points. That isn't just bad- it is horrible, and it leads you to an estimated win-loss of 13-21, according to ESPN.com. Using this information, you can consider the fact that the Grizzlies are 18-16 a minor miracle.
The Grizzlies will finish the month of December 8-8, a far cry from the 12-4 record I predicted on our GBBLive Podcast before the season began. This Grizzlies' team is notorious for going on a run, however, and it is quite possible that I was just a month early with my prediction.
First, a look at the entire month of January, again from ESPN.com
Now, after looking through the month ahead, consider the following deeper dig in to the numbers-
- The month of December was easily the best one of basketball for the Grizzlies. Of their eight losses only three were by fifteen points or less, and the Grizzlies have not lost by double digits in over two weeks, the longest span of the season so far. Yes, the bar is set low to start, but stick with me.
- In December, Memphis sported their best net rating of the season for a month at -2, which sounds like the bar going lower, until you consider the past ten games for the Grizzlies. It has been a stretch of mediocre basketball record-wise (5-5), but a net rating of +4.1 says that the Bears of Beale Street are playing better ball since the switch in the starting lineup.
- The Grizzlies' two best players, Marc Gasol and Mike Conley, have picked up production in those past ten games, playing their best ball of the season on both ends of the court.
- The January schedule feature zero back-to-backs: NONE. While the Grizzlies have strangely performed quite well on 0 nights rest (8-2 with a 48.4% shooting percentage) a veteran team like Memphis will surely benefit from extra time off.
- Memphis' schedule in January also includes more home games (nine) than away games (five), a first so far this season. The Grizzlies' longest road trip is January 2nd through the 6th, and that is followed by a season-long six-game home stand from January 8th to the 18th. For almost two full weeks, the Grizzlies will be in the comfort of their own homes, able to spend time with family. Don't underestimate that- they're human, and that should be a good opportunity for a streak of wins against teams who have a combined record of 88-106 as of this writing, good for a 45.3% win percentage.
- While we are at it, extending the schedule out to February 5th, over the next 16 games the Grizzlies only play current playoff teams (again, as of this writing) five times. Of those five games, only three will be against teams currently above .500- Oklahoma City, Boston and Orlando. The Grizzlies get the Celtics and Magic both at home, while they will play the Thunder on the road.
- Finally, and perhaps most impressively- according to ESPN.com's RPI, or Relative Percent Index, Memphis is currently the 12th best team in the NBA. This measurement is, as ESPN describes it, "...a basic formula that is 25% team winning percentage, 50% opponents' average winning percentage, and 25% opponents' opponents' average winning percentage." It measures not only your record, but the quality of opponents who beat you and those who they played. Considering how poorly this season has gone for the Grizzlies' being 12th in that kind of a statistic ahead of current playoff teams like Dallas, Miami, Orlando, and Houston makes you think that perhaps a corner can still be turned.
Say the Grizzlies were able to win, over these next sixteen games going in to February 5th against the New York Knicks, ten games. 10-6, against the schedule outlined above, seems more than reasonable. That would get Memphis to 28-22 through 50 games, good for a 56% winning percentage. That should be good enough to keep your head above water out West, especially considering how weak the conference is, especially at the bottom. Falling below the seven seed is almost impossible.
However, say Memphis goes 12-4, as I hoped they would have done in December. Now you're looking at a 30-20 ball club, with a 60% win percentage, which would be on pace for 49 wins. Meanwhile, the Dallas Mavericks are about to embark on a tough January- five sets of back-to-backs, nine games against current playoff teams, including a combined six games against Chicago, San Antonio, Cleveland, Golden State, and Oklahoma City (who they play twice.) It isn't much easier for the LA Clippers, who play eight current playoff teams in January but only two sets of back-to-back games.
The Grizzlies could very well be even or close to it with the Los Angeles Clippers for the four seed in the Western Conference by the end of the day February 5th, with considerable space between them and Dallas for the five seed. After all of the turbulence and turmoil that the first 34 games brought Memphis, the next sixteen could put the Grizzlies in position to host a first-round playoff series...just like they did last season.
It won't be easy, of course. Games you think you are supposed to win will be lost, gut-check wins against teams "better" than you will be had. With the recent surge in play by these Grizzlies, however, and the lightening of the schedule, Memphis may be on the precipice of a nice run that should entrench them firmly in the mix for a four seed in the ever-crazy, ever-dangerous Western Conference playoff chase.