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Grizzlies Season Preview: Predictions (Part 1)

Which player will play the most wing minutes? Which teams will make the playoffs? How many minutes will the Core Four play? And, of course, a hot take.

Grizz bench
Grizz bench
Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Have you purged last year's Grizzlies team completely from your memory? I have, and in fact do not remember this so called "last year" you speak of, though sometimes when I'm stuck in a mundane task - mowing the grass, mired in the desolation that is suburban Atlanta traffic - I see Westworldian flashes of Jordan Farmar, or some dude named Alex Stepheson (clearly not real) and I wonder if maybe I am mistaken, and everything people keep telling me about last season was, like, real.

We live in a brave new world. Jon Leuer is worth ten Lance Stephensons now. The Grizzlies signed a max free agent, and have the highest paid player in the NBA (same old cheap Grizzlies, tho). Hell, the Grizzlies shoot three pointers now!

Actually, let's start there. Here's a prediction I made one year ago, that was actually a prediction for 2016-2017!

1). Marc Gasol will take more than 60 three pointers.

Why write when you can copy and paste? Here's what I predicted a year ago:

We all saw the video of Gasol taking three pointers at an open practice, but I think he's still at least a year away from adding it to his repertoire. But make no mistake: the natural progression of Gasol's game is to add a three point shot.

(Editor's note: Our own Andrew Ford examined Gasol's 3-pt shot last year.)

I had a Twitter Archivist dig this up to prove I'm a Gasol three pointer truther:

truth

Having a center that can shoot threes unlocks paths to offensive efficiency that the Grizzlies have lacked. But the problem is that moving Gasol out to the three point line fundamentally changes the way the Grizzlies' offense functions. If Gasol is at the three point line, he isn't at the free throw line, or in the low post.

It's all happening.

Gasol shooting threes changes the entire geometry of the Grizzlies offense. He already punts the offensive glass to set the defense, now he's just in better position to do so. As an added bonus, shifting Gasol's offensive role from posting up will reduce stress on his body and help prevent injury.

(Hrdlicka note: I've just written prediction number 2. I hold out my hand mere inches from my monitor, and yes, it's still warm. I look out over a barren landscape of dust blowing between cacti {I'm in a desert now, just go with it}, and in the faraway distance a sun hangs low, red, feeble, and fat. My men sit atop impatient horses, everyone looking to me for answers. With a bandanna I've produced from nowhere {because, again, desert}, I wipe my grimy brow. "A take passed through here recently," I say, "And it was a hot one." "Where to?" They ask, and in response I point out to that same horizon, and a sun that is setting on a team that once had Kevin Durant.)

2). The Oklahoma City Thunder will miss the playoffs.

Don't be maaad - extremely Chance voice.

Losing a generational talent will do that. Nothing on this team works. They have no shooting, one two-way wing, and that player, Victor Oladipo will have to run backup point because Cam Payne is out (quietly kind of a big deal for them). Steven Adams is a defensive force, and good on offense with space to roll into, but all that space is gone now.

For OKC to make the playoffs, Oladipo will have to become the player that he has not yet shown he is: a two-way lead guard, able to hit threes at a league average rate and run an offense. His defense is already there. Baby Sabonis probably needs to be good, particularly from mid-range. Ilyasova will have to stay healthy. Donavon will have to find ways of playing a frontcourt of Adams and Roberson (yes, Roberson at power forward) for stretches without his offense suffocating.

The threat of a Westbrook trade looms. Adding a year to his deal only increases what OKC can ask for, rather than ameliorating their need to deal him. With less spacing, and more impetus to do literally everything all the time, there is a decent shot that Westbrook puts up awful efficiency numbers, and "Is Westbrook Actually Good" articles begin to surface. (Hrdlicka note: Yes, yes he is).

It's also fair to wonder if we've already seen the best of Westbrook. I love him. I love watching players who give zero effs, attack with abandon because they are compelled to, because even on the sub-atomic level where we're all mostly empty space, Russ's quarks are dashing through that empty space trying to dunk on the Higgs Bosons foolish enough to not get the hell out of the way.

But Russ has never changed (that is compelling in and of itself), and soon his nuclear athleticism will start to fade and something else will need to plug the gap. Russ will still be great, but I think losing a ton of spacing around him will begin to show the kinks in Westbrook's game.

Either that or he will dominate. You know, whichever.

3). None of the Core Four will play more than 74 games, or more than 2,500 minutes.

I'm not being pessimistic. In fact, this is what I hope happens. This is what should happen when any player approaches thirty, particularly ones with injury histories.

Since Gasol entered the league, only twenty-three times has a center played more than 2,500 minutes in a season. Marc has done it four times. Dwight has done it four times, but unless you consider both Lopez twins the same person, then no other center has done that. Worse, most of the other centers on this list (DeAndre Jordan, Andre Drummond, The Lopezes) are logging minutes in their early to mid-20's. Gasol's heaviest minute totals came in his age 28 and age 30 seasons.

Since he entered the league, Gasol played 2,796 minutes at age 28. Joakim Noah is the only center at age 28 to play more, with 2,820.

Gasol is the only center to log over 2,500 minutes after the age of twenty-eight, and were it not for two serious leg injuries, he probably does it three times in a row. (Hrdlicka note: Dirk Nowitzki has played over 2,500 minutes several times into his thirties, but isn't listed as a center. Perhaps his role on the perimeter helps his longevity, something Gasol might start to emulate. Or perhaps Dirk is a freak. Or both).

The brutal facts are that Gasol has missed the better part of two of the last four seasons. In the other two, he played more minutes than any other centers his age have any business playing. This is the context for Gasol's age thirty-two season, and while the Grizzlies cannot afford for him to re-injure his foot, they also cannot afford to saddle him with the same workload.

Gasol should sit back to backs. The team has a glut of bigs and should use them. Brandan Wright should occasionally start, and Jarell Martin should get spot minutes at center.

The minutes toll is less severe on Mike Conley, but he should sit some too. Using the same minutes threshold, since 2008 over a hundred and fifty times has a guard crossed the 2,500 minute threshold. Said a different way, for every center who has played 2,500 minutes, over eight guards have done so. Centers may be in shorter supply, but guards can play more minutes.

Injuries cut three ways. The most obvious way, the way most people fixate on, is missing games due to another injury. But once a player has a serious injury, they are usually not quite the same. Before Chris Paul hurt his knee he was the best point guard I'd ever seen. This was before the flopping, when he attacked the game with abandon rather than controlling it with contempt. I will never see a player that small play that well ever again.

Gasol's numbers might return, but they will be gathered in different ways - we've already talked about three point shooting. This is what happens when you pass thirty. It's what happens once you break your foot. He's skilled enough to still be very good, but saying that Gasol will be the same player over the next three years that he was before pays serious disservice to a player who has started an All-Star Game, won a DPOY, and was, for my money, a top ten player in the NBA for about 18 months.

The final way injuries hurt is maintenance. TA and ZBo have already entered the maintenance phase of their careers. Their trips to the Inactive List always last a couple games longer than we think. They need this time. The problem is that the drop off from TA and ZBo, to whoever is the 6th and 7th best players on this team appears massive right now. Wings like Troy Daniels and James Ennis will be playing thirty minutes when TA sits.

What happens if Conley sits a back to back because of soreness? The knock on effect is this: two rookie point guards play forty-eight minutes against a league that eats rookie point guards alive. These young guys should play - particularly Baldwin - but let's not pretend that the Grizzlies don't lose production when they do.

Again, I don't want to seem pessimistic, and part of what is scary is that the Grizzlies bench has no track record. Someone in that group will step forward. More on that in Part 2. (Hrdlicka note: The easiest way to get people to read a few thousand words is to break it into two sections)

4). Teams I like more than you: Denver Nuggets (if the Thunder miss the playoffs, the Nuggets make it), Dallas Mavericks (wing depth, and can trade a pick for a point guard if they need to), Boston Celtics (like them for the 2 seed and 55 wins), Orlando Magic (like them to make the playoffs).

5). Chandler Parsons will look like an All-Star if you care about on/off metrics

While we are on the topic of Parsons, I want to walk back the idea that the Grizzlies will be a disaster if he can't play this year. They will be bad this year, but they won't be the Brooklyn Nets, a team wandering in the basketball wilderness for the better part of a decade.

Any team with Conley and Gasol together has a floor, and that floor is higher than abject disaster. Second, the Grizzlies already have young players like Wade Baldwin, Deyonta Davis, and Jarell Martin who have way higher ceilings than the Russ Smiths and Jarnell Stokeses of the world. Thirdly, the Grizzlies have enough minor assets (they own the suddenly Bosh-less Heat's 2nd round pick, likely to be in the 30's), and players like ZBo and TA where if the team found itself on the outside of the playoffs looking in, they could cobble together some type of future asset like they did last year.

Finally, this may seem impossible given that the Grizzlies signed two players to max deals this offseason, but the Grizzlies have as clean a cap sheet as a team can have when 3 players take up 75% of their cap. They would have to make tough choices, but there are ways to push the reset button if they have to.

This is why the success of this team is not strictly defined by wins and losses this year. More on that near the end.

But back to Parsons. Only Conley seems able to handle the ball like Parsons can, and the drop off from Parsons to Daniels, or Ennis, will be felt. I would not be surprised if Parsons is near the top of the league in stats that factor in on/off numbers. Hey, speaking of that Ennis guy.

6). James Ennis will play the most minutes of any wing besides Chandler Parsons.

Maybe this prediction is bold. I don't know. I've been writing for a while now and I'm still on Part 1. Anyway, Tony Allen misses ten to twenty games annually - it's practically written in Tony Allen's owner's manual. Expect regularly scheduled maintenance like oil changes, tire rotations, and resting strained hamstrings, backs, or groins. On a minutes per game basis, Allen will be the clear leader. But when he's out, I expect Ennis to get first crack at those minutes, which is not to say I think he's a perfect fit.

Ennis is more of a straight three than a guard/forward hybrid. Ennis has played only 28% of his minutes at shooting guard during his career. This is partly a product of playing on a Heat team with Dwyane Wade, but for Ennis to truly stick on this Grizzlies team, he will need to play some shooting guard.

I think Ennis will struggle to guard shooting guards. He strikes me as more of a straight line athlete than someone with flexible hips able to change directions. And he will have to guard to stay on the court.

But if Ennis even sniffs 35% from three point range (still very much an open question), the Grizzlies will have no choice but to play him. His low usage and ostensible ability to defend and run in transition check most of the blanks one would have when crafting the role player to fill wing minutes around the Grizzlies best players.

7). The 2017-2018 Salary Cap will come in close to $110,000,000.

After initial projections came in higher, the projected cap was edited down to $102mm for next year, because teams spent uber-drunkily this offseason instead of the merely super-drunken spending that was anticipated. Generally the league has always been conservative with their estimates, so expect that projection to go up a couple million naturally.

Then we have the ongoing CBA negotiations. Initial reports suggest that the revenue split will be similar to the previous CBA, but let's say the players claw back a point and a half of revenue. That equates to roughly a $3mm increase in the salary cap per team.

We're already halfway there, and that's before you account for jersey logo sales, and other potential revenue streams (perhaps the NBA announces a partnership with Twitter to stream NBA TV games, similar to what the NFL is doing).

I could write a thousand words (and have previously written more) about what this means for the Grizzlies, but this season could go many different ways and that could change the team's incentives or how they value cap space this summer. My general feeling is that there are too many incumbent free agents worth re-signing (Z-Bo, TA, JaM), and too many teams with cap space for the Grizzlies to actively pursue cap space as a strategy.

Talk to me when the cap approaches $115mm.

Stay tuned for Part 2.

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