Coming into this season, as it’s been in recent years, the Western Conference was expected to be a battle to the death for playoff spots. Those teams outside of the conference elite would need to perform at their best to separate themselves from the morass of contenders and claim one of the top eight seeds.
It was that fight, combined with a dark cloud of injury, that led many experts to leave Memphis out when projecting the final standings. For Memphis to have a shot at the postseason, it was said, they’d need to stay healthy, and even that hardly ensured a spot in the tournament.
To this point, that hasn’t been the case. The upper tier of the Western Conference has been what was expected, with the Warriors alone at the top, and the Spurs continuing their run of excellence, despite my protests that “COME ON THEY CAN’T DO THIS FOREVER.”
And as for the rest? Nearly all of Memphis’s rivals for the West’s remaining playoff spots have questions to this point in the season.
- Russell Westbrook has triple-doubled Oklahoma City to the West’s sixth-best record to this point, a feat that’s put him into the MVP discussion even while his team isn’t even in line for a home court advantage in the playoffs. But while the Russell Westbrook Hate Tour has been everything we’ve expected it to be, the Thunder are below .500 (a not-so-nice 6-9) when Westbrook doesn’t have a triple-double. If Westbrook misses any sort of time, or if the grind of an 82-game season eventually wears him down, the Thunder would likely collapse in on themselves so quickly that the entire state of Oklahoma would be trapped within the Thunder’s event horizon.
- Minnesota’s over/under total was set at 41.5 going into the season, meaning that, to hit the over, they would’ve had to improve by 13 games from last season. Even that seems tame when you realize that there were certain prognosticators that had the Wolves winning 50. Instead, Minnesota has struggled in the early going, getting demolished in third quarters and struggling to find a way to win as Tom Thibodeau continues to grind his young players down. At 8-19, the Wolves would now need to go 34-21 to hit their over (and an absurd 42-13 to reach 50 wins).
- Denver’s roster of young talent feels like the hardest to peg. The Nuggets had won three straight before losing recently to bring their record to 12-17, just half a game behind the Blazers for the eighth seed. Those wins came against Dallas, New York, and Portland, though, hardly the West’s elite. It’s hard to know what to expect from the Nuggets moving forward. They’re still feeling out their lineup issues, but there’s also the possibility that they could be sellers at the trade deadline depending on how things shake out between now and then. Still, Denver is only half a game out of a playoff spot right now, and that may encourage them to stay the course in hopes of a late season push.
- Portland’s offseason was spent paying a lot of money to lock into their current team and also add Evan Turner, who’s been a disaster to this point in the season. The result has been about what was expected: Portland’s defense is near the league’s worst, and only Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum have managed to keep them from being a complete dumpster fire. Right now, they’re just barely clinging to a playoff spot over Denver, and it’s conceivable that a team that went to the second round last year could wind up sitting at home when the playoffs roll around.
- Another of the West’s biggest question marks, the Kings are currently in 10th, but just a game behind Portland for the final playoff spot after Boogie put the team on his back against the Blazers on Tuesday. Like Denver, so much of this season depends on what happens at the trade deadline, when they’ll possibly look to get rid of Rudy Gay and Omri Casspi, to say nothing of the oft-discussed Boogie Cousins situation. Memphis isn’t helped by the fact that they’ve lost the first meeting of these teams so far, either, but if the Kings are big sellers, that might not even matter in the end.
- The Mavericks may be trending slightly upward based on their health, but they’ve already dug themselves an enormous hole, and they’re still just 4-6 in their last ten. I’m well-aware that Carlisle is a Warlock, but even he’s not immune to the fifth exception to Gamp's Law of Elemental Transfiguration, which clearly states that you can’t magically conjure up a playoff basketball team out of the sort of scraps that he’s been provided. (Author’s Note: This is an obscure Harry Potter reference and I refuse to apologize for it.)
- Meanwhile, the Pelicans, just over a season removed from being the West’s 8th seed, look like they’re an Anthony Davis injury short of going straight into the toilet. They’ve benefited from Jrue Holiday’s return, but the rest of the roster is a disaster. At this point, it’s nearly impossible to see New Orleans figuring into the playoff picture.
From Preseason to Now
Going into the season, FiveThirtyEight projected the Grizzlies to finish 35-47, with just a 21% chance at the postseason. As of right now, even while riding a three-game losing streak, the Grizzlies are projected to finish 43-39. Their playoff chances? An encouraging 76%.
All of these comments should be heavily footnoted. For one thing, we’re not even to the halfway point in the season. There’s still a lot of basketball to play. About this time last season, the Portland Trailblazers were 11-20 and looked dead in the water. They’d go on to finish as the five seed. Regardless of whether you think Portland is actually good (and I’m not sure they are), that should at least serve as a warning that things can change quickly in the NBA, for better or worse.
But Memphis also still has an ace up its sleeve: Health. Conley is still working himself back into the form he was in prior to the back injury. James Ennis and Vince Carter just returned from their injuries. Brandan Wright and Deyonta Davis may eventually come back. And then there’s Chandler Parsons, who’s played a smattering of games and still has yet to show his best form in Beale Street Blue (assuming it still exists).
Add to that the continued development of Andrew Harrison, along with the possibility of adding a piece via trade, and the Grizzlies have an arsenal of weapons they’ve still been as of yet unable to unleash. They may never reach their true ceiling, but by finding ways to win close games (and go 7-2 without their second best player) Memphis has given itself margin for error as other teams in the West have faltered.
For a team that looked as if it’d be fighting for it’s playoff life before the season, that’s a pretty good place to be in.