As the NBA off-season grinds toward September, major media outlets are starting to release record projections for the 2015-2016 season. The vast majority of roster moves (of consequence) have been made, with Tristan Thompson's situation in Cleveland being the last outstanding transaction to play out. Regardless of training camps to come, various analyses are predicting where teams will wind up in the coming campaign.
And those early projections are not overly friendly to the Memphis Grizzlies.
After a 2014-2015 season in which Memphis competed for the 2 seed and spent a stretch of the season as at worst the 3rd best team in the Association, they will finish four games worse than they did last season with a record of 51-31 according to ESPN's Forecast Panel. The panel is one of the most successful preseason predictors out there (according to ESPN) and the "world wide leader" certainly has the resources to provide such an in-depth analysis, albeit one of the earliest ones.
On top of that, Bradford Doolittle, who has his own statistical measurements for ESPN, projects that the 51-31 record from the Summer Forecast crew may be too high. He sees Memphis at least two games worse than that, meaning at the best 49-33, and here is his reasoning as to why-
Memphis is the league's second-oldest team and that must have influenced the voters, who see a four-win decline for the Grizzlies. Both my system and RPM project that they're going to be a little worse than that, though probably not enough to drop Memphis out of the playoff picture altogether.
It is much easier to argue for the Grizzlies as a six-seed in the rough and tumble West than as, say, a three-seed. In the projected jumble that will be the 3-6 seeds Memphis is easily the oldest, does not have a true "superstar" like Houston/Los Angeles/Oklahoma City has and is not the scoring machine or athletic juggernaut that those other teams could potentially be. If you assume Golden State and San Antonio rule the roost competing for the 1 and 2 seeds, that leaves Memphis at six with younger teams like New Orleans and Utah potentially nipping at their heels.
The words of these projections obviously are not set in stone, though, and while their overall predictions may be successful these forecasters have been wrong about the Grizzlies before. They projected Memphis to be the 6 seed last season with a record of 49-33, 6 games off the actual pace of the 55-27 Grizzlies. The panel had them tied with the Golden State Warriors, who finished 18 games better than projected at 67-15. Houston was also projected to finish 49-33, but they were 56-26 in actuality and won the Southwest Division and made the Western Conference Finals.
There are three examples of teams out West that were undersold by this prediction system. In fairness, they were exactly right on other teams (51-31 for the Trailblazers, the Clippers at 56-26 are two examples), but like any prediction system there will be hits and misses. Health plays a huge role in that and is extremely difficult to predict (Oklahoma City was projected to win 58 games and the West last season). The teams that are able to stay healthy are often the ones who win it all- Golden State was and is an excellent team, but their health (and the issues with health of the teams they faced in the playoffs) had an impact on their playoff run.
What does this all mean for Memphis and its Grizzlies? In the long run, not a ton. Games are played on courts, not on paper or in computers. While these projections are fun to debate and are based on statistical evidence and thoughts of industry insiders with years of experiences, the Grizzlies are consistently undersold because of their age and style of play. They do not fit the mold of what is viewed as the "modern NBA", which does not come as a surprise to anyone who has followed Memphis the past few seasons. This does not scream out for being a selection to compete. Add on to that the seemingly always looming "three-point shooting" question, and the Grizzlies are natural picks to regress.
These Grizzlies, however, have added athleticism and length in Brandan Wright and Matt Barnes. They bring back arguably six of their best seven players from last season, with only Kosta Koufos leaving the team as a potential long-term loss. The roster has the potential to be more versatile and able to align with the "small ball" lineups that the NBA is trending toward with both Barnes and Jeff Green. Injury issues plagued Memphis throughout the 2014-2015 season, and with better health the Grizzlies have the potential to be in the hunt in the West just like those five teams in front of them. Or, they could be right where ESPN and others have them projected. The West is that tough. But that is why they play the games.
The Memphis Grizzlies have educated fans who get that the West is loaded, that a six-seed is possible, and as ESPN argues maybe even probable. But to write off or underestimate these Grizzlies would be a mistake, a mistake that the NBA and the media has made on several occasions the past few seasons. Health is paramount in the NBA, as is continuity, and if Memphis can achieve the former they bear the latter in spades. That could very well carry them back to where they want to be: playing meaningful basketball games in the FedExForum in May and even June.