Once again it’s Grizzmas Eve, ladies and gentlemen. And this year feels just a little bit different.
Mostly because of the things you already know. Gone are Memphis Grizzlies icons Zach Randolph and Tony Allen, as well as future Hall of Famer Vince Carter. Tyreke Evans, Ben McLemore, and Mario Chalmers have arrived. Chandler Parsons is somehow now a bench big, James Ennis III is somehow now a starter, and Memphis just yesterday waived its 2016 1st round pick (Wade Baldwin IV) and a guy they just signed to a three-year contract (Rade Zagorac).
Yes, it has already gotten weird.
And there is room for even more weirdness to arrive, as the unknown clouds the vision of Grizzlies prognosticators and fans. Arguments can be made for Andrew Harrison to be a starter, and arguments were made for Harrison to be waived. You can logically state that Memphis will be lucky to win 37 games, and you can soundly argue Memphis could win 42 or more contests and extend their playoff streak to eight. The only certain pieces to the Grizzlies puzzle are Marc Gasol and Mike Conley, and just how good they can be alongside this new roster is even in question to an extent.
So many questions. Tomorrow night we start getting answers. But for now, let’s join in the guessing game fun and look ahead to what exactly this team will be.
Which Grizzlies player not named Gasol or Conley will impact Memphis the most?
Once upon a time, this spot was reserved for Chandler Parsons. But the aforementioned demotion to the bench surely limits whatever potential he had to be that game changer for Memphis, which surely lowers the ceiling for this roster overall. Having Parsons overall to potentially be that Zach Randolph-esque bench scorer for the Grizzlies is probably the best use of Chandler at this stage, contract aside, and perhaps this new role will revitalize him...
Or maybe Parsons just isn’t good anymore and he will get stretch provisioned. I can’t talk about it. Tears of sadness are welling up as we speak.
In the here and now, JaMychal Green now bears the burden of being the third best player on the Grizzlies. His role must expand, as he will be expected to alleviate the pressure Gasol and Conley are sure to feel and convert open shots while attacking the glass on both ends of the floor. He also must continue to defend multiple positions and help make his defense right with his ability to move and take good angles on the pick and roll.
He needs to do what he has been doing, just for longer stretches, more consistently, and at a higher level. That may be asking a lot of a player who was in the D (now G)-League just four seasons ago. If he isn’t able to be what Memphis needs him to be, it will be a long season.
How Many of the Calculated Risks Will Pay Off?
Any argument for the Grizzlies overachieving this coming season has to have as its foundation multiple players who have questions marks currently on the roster. Wayne Selden Jr. and James Ennis III as potential starters screams borderline role players being forced outside of their preferred roles. Mario Chalmers is coming off of a serious injury to his Achilles that cost him an entire season of his career. Tyreke Evans and Ben McLemore had to sign arguably below-market price deals due to their own injury concerns (Evans) or underachieving play (McLemore)
Add on the ongoing enigma that is Parsons and Brandan Wright’s own health issues and that adds up to seven real questions about the Grizzlies rotation. When you’re more comfortable with what you are going to see from Andrew Harrison than Chalmers or McLemore, that should make any Grizzlies fan question just what this team can do moving forward.
So who should you be most confident in? Here are my confidence rankings, starting with the bottom-
7. Chandler Parsons- Can’t do it, still hurts too much...
6. Brandan Wright- Hasn’t been healthy for an extended period in Memphis yet. Why start now?
5. Ben McLemore- Talented, but missing training camp will hurt him a good bit.
4. Mario Chalmers- Happy for him and his recovery, but as an anchor of the second unit? Nervous feelings abound.
3. Wayne Selden Jr.- He is a remarkable story. Is he an NBA starter or key rotation player? Time will tell, but Summer League was promising.
2. James Ennis III- A hungry player who wants to show what he can do and will get the opportunity. Here is to hoping the moments aren’t too large.
1. Tyreke Evans- Combining contract with talent and upside, Evans is most likely to thrive on the roster and live up to potential expectations as a strong sixth man.
Say three or four of those hit. That leaves four or three holes in a roster that does not have that luxury. It seems more likely than not that the Grizzlies will be without at least one or two of these guys for an extended period - what will Memphis do then? Outside of Andrew Harrison there isn’t much proven NBA talent on the roster, and there were folks calling for him to be cut 48 hours ago.
This roster could potentially be quite deep. It could also be a raging dumpster fire by January. The middle feels like a safe play, but can six or seven good to great NBA players get to the playoffs out west?
What Must Marc and Mike Do to Get These Grizzlies Going?
A little bit of everything...but that doesn’t change much for these two. Marc is going to have to rebound better than he has since the 2011-2012 season, where he averaged almost nine rebounds a game, with the departures of still-close-to-elite-rebounder Z-Bo and underrated wing cleaner of the glass Tony Allen. Mike will have to take on an even larger burden as both scorer and facilitator, and will likely see his usage rate go up as David Fizdale finds more ways to get him the ball whether he is initiating offense or playing off the ball.
Conley and Gasol both will likely have to improve upon their great offensive seasons of a year ago due to the demotion of Chandler Parsons. The fact that the likely opening night starters alongside them will be former D (now G)- League players who, while hard working and worthy of their opportunities, do not have the scoring ability (especially off the dribble) to make their own shots doesn’t help either.
This team will now depend on Conley and Gasol more than ever before. It is their locker room, it is their team to lead. It will be on Conley to be that calming force on offense and Gasol to steady the ship defensively. If they do not step up and do things they haven’t quite been asked to do at any other point during their times as Grizzlies, Memphis will miss the playoffs. The organization goes where they take it.
What Happens if They Start Slow?
Given the make-up of the roster, they can’t really afford to. But the schedule lines up for them to hang around .500 heading out of October, and from there it remains the same through November as Memphis takes on a heavy hitter (Houston four times in the first month of the season, Portland twice, Golden State, San Antonio) but usually follows it up with a team likely to struggle (Indiana, Orlando, Dallas, Brooklyn). 11-9 entering December is possible, which a quarter through the season would put them on pace to win roughly 43 or 44 games. That’d be awesome.
But on the other hand, if Memphis starts slow and loses opening night against the Pelicans, the following games are against Golden State and Houston. An 0-3 start is very possible considering the Grizzlies’ history on opening night (2-8 the last 10 seasons). Say they split the early home and home against Dallas, then lose again to Houston and then beat Charlotte. That’s 2-5 coming out of October, with a five-game road trip out to take on the L.A. teams, Portland, Houston (again) and Milwaukee from November 4th through November 13th after a game at home against the Magic.
4-9 in the first 13 games doesn’t seem that far-fetched. Can this team as constructed get out of that early hole?
If that type of record holds as we enter 2018 and Memphis is, say, 13-24 almost halfway through the campaign, will calls for trading Marc Gasol and maximizing this year’s draft pick grow louder? Probably. That doesn’t mean it will happen, of course, but the thing about the unknown is you have to consider the good (44 wins would be a massive success) alongside the bad (30 wins would be awful...but could also happen depending on health).
So What is the Expectation?
There really shouldn’t be any.
Outside of near All-Star performances from Marc and Mike (neither will make the team, but both will have very good-to-great years) you can’t expect much from the talent surrounding these two. Poor drafting and the lost (so far) calculated risk signing Chandler Parsons has crippled this team. Hindsight is always 20/20, but if Memphis had drafted Malcolm Brogdon at #17 overall in the 2016 NBA Draft instead of Baldwin, or even #35 instead of the now departed Rade Zagorac, they would have a good starter at the two.
Jarell Martin was in the mix to get waived, Deyonta Davis hasn’t progressed to this point, Jordan Adams is no longer on the roster, and neither is Wade Baldwin IV or Rade Zagorac as we mentioned before. Jamaal Franklin, Tony Wroten, Josh Selby...the list goes on and on of wasted pick after missed opportunity after lost investment. At some point that comes back to bite you...
It is very likely this is the year.
Now, the official prediction from me was 42-40 when I did the preview for SB Nation (you can read that here). But that was back when hopes for Chandler Parsons were higher. Even with Marc Gasol and Mike Conley at the peak of their powers, in the gauntlet that is the Western Conference that feels like wishful thinking. You need a majority of Evans/McLemore/Chalmers/Wright/Selden/Ennis to all have good-to-career years. You need Parsons to give you 8-10 points off the bench every night, including a three or two per game. You need a team full of new faces and old ones in new roles to gel very quickly...it all seems insurmountable.
I will stand by my 42-40 projection, which likely keeps them in the playoff mix and perhaps snags Memphis the seven or eight seed. But the sins of past offseasons may well catch up with the Grizzlies this year and lead to tough decisions for this front office, and tough nights for a fan base already on edge with the departure of those responsible for the most successful era in Grizzlies history.
All good things come to an end. A lot has to go right for the good times to continue to roll in Memphis this season...but the Grizzlies have made an identity for themselves out of outperforming expectations.
Maybe it is the belief instilled over the past seven seasons, or the excitement of Grizzmas Eve. But hope still springs eternal at the beginning of the season, and as the Grit and Grind Era showed us it isn’t the end destination that matters, especially in the era of Warriors and LeBron. It’s the journey.
Merry Grizzmas Eve, everyone. It’s time to start all over again.