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Grizzlies falling behind reloaded Western Conference

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Memphis may see its place in the vaunted West slip starting next year

NBA: Chicago Bulls at Memphis Grizzlies Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

“It’s a weapons race in the NBA. You’re either in the weapons race or on the sideline.”

These were the words of Daryl Morey, Houston Rockets GM, after his franchise made the trade for Chris Paul. A 55-win team added a future Hall-of-Fame point guard in his prime, and that team is still looking to add Carmelo Anthony.

A weapons race indeed.

All of that, of course, is to try to catch the Golden State Warriors, who are in a league of their own. The Rockets will have Chris Paul and James Harden in the same backcourt and it might not mean a damn thing if the Warriors are anywhere close to as good as they were last year. This is a giant swing by the Rockets, and time will tell if it works, but it still doesn’t feel like enough.

The Oklahoma City Thunder are also in the weapons race. They traded Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis to the Indiana Pacers for Paul George in another big swing. Even though Paul George is a rental, losing two uninspiring players for his services is a massive win for OKC. Paul George (and even Russell Westbrook) could leave in the Summer of 2018, but then the Thunder have prime cap flexibility and still will have had a full year of what seems to be a great on-court pairing between Russ and Paul.

The Minnesota Timberwolves, one of the youngest teams in the NBA, traded for All-Star Jimmy Butler, signed former All-Star Jeff Teague, as well as Taj Gibson. They are putting all of their chips in the contending pile, but still get to hedge their bets with super young talent in Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns. The Denver Nuggets are doing the same thing; adding vastly underrated Paul Millsap to pair with Nikola Jokic.

NBA: New York Knicks at Memphis Grizzlies Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

The Memphis Grizzlies have signed Ben McLemore, re-signed Wayne Selden Jr., and the futures of JaMychal Green and Tony Allen are still in the wind. Sadly, Zach Randolph is gone, and the value lost from his absence is worth a post on its own. Memphis is certainly on the sidelines of this weapons race.

And they’re falling behind because of it.

Granted, the Grizzlies don’t have the flexibility to be in the weapons race. Our only trade-able assets either:

A) aren’t good enough to get anything more than a water gun or

B) are those we want to pair with any new players.

It hurts to see the other kids in the neighborhood get shiny new toys when we’re still playing with last year’s edition. But team by team, the Grizzlies are getting passed by in talent. The Grizzlies always play beyond their means and overachieve. But, at some point, slippage is going to occur. This team was a 7th seed for the last two years, their spot in the 2018 playoffs was already far from guaranteed.

Now, those above them are more entrenched than before and those below them are improving rapidly. Even teams like the Jazz and Clippers are still playoff caliber teams despite losing their star players. Memphis will lose role players without adding anything in equivalent talent or skill. The roster will be demonstrably worse from the last year.

This roster will still be good. Mike Conley and Marc Gasol are still in their primes. Conley is fresh off of an amazing playoff series against the Spurs and a career year. There’s no reason to think that they’ll be the ones declining. But Chandler Parsons provided nothing last year, JaM is not guaranteed to come back, and the young players we do have probably aren’t ready to be a third option offensively. Conley and Gasol can be just as great as they were a year ago, but without a competent supporting cast around them, the season could fall apart fast.

Memphis loses considerable depth for a roster that already was lacking in that area. The Thunder and Timberwolves may have also lost depth, but they’ve added bonafide superstars. The Clippers’ bench has actually really improved thanks to the Chris Paul trade. In any other year, standing pat would be commended and could hold you over if you were already a playoff team. In this arms race, standing pat is moving 2 steps back.

NBA: Chicago Bulls at Indiana Pacers Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

We knew the Grizzlies couldn’t get another superstar this summer. The bright lights of Memphis isn’t luring any star free agents, and the organization doesn’t have the cap flexibility or assets for a trade. The best assets Memphis have are Mike Conley and Marc Gasol. If we traded one of them for another star player, we’re just spinning in circles. And despite the low prices for trading superstars this summer, Memphis still doesn’t really have enough to compose a compelling package to other front offices, unless Billy King gets another gig soon.

So prepare yourself for a bumpy ride in 2017-18. The Grizzlies’ roster as of now will not get significantly better and it already was shaky in 2016-17. With a giant talent influx to the Western Conference, it will be much harder night in and night out for Memphis. With their experience and style of play, this team could still be competitive in a playoff series against anyone outside of Golden State, but the problem will be making it to the playoffs. Minnesota and Denver are both gearing up to take a playoff spot from an incumbent, and Memphis’ spot might be the most vulnerable.

Jimmy Butler and Paul George have shaken up the middle-class of the Western Conference. The elite teams are still extremely good, and the middle-class teams are stronger as well. With very few assets and an extremely tight cap situation, Memphis is on the sidelines of this weapons race, and they’re a lot worse off for it.

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