Before this season began, many people, including yours truly, questioned whether the Memphis Grizzlies could be a playoff team once again. After all, how could they? Every single spark of hope seemed to be extinguished by a variety of troubling questions.
After a lost season due to injury, would Mike Conley be close to the same captivating player that he was?
Could Marc Gasol rebound from a disappointing year and prove that his prime is not completely over just yet?
Would Jaren Jackson Jr. be able to contribute at a high level immediately?
With a hodgepodge combination of old and questionable new faces, could the Grizzlies still compete with the NBA’s elite?
Yet for the most part through 13 games, each of these questions have been answered emphatically by the excellent play of the Grizzlies from across the board. Much like the Sharknado movie franchise, the Memphis Grizzlies just won’t go away no matter how much everyone nationally wants it to happen.
And while many were skeptical of the rebrand back over the summer, their success can still largely be tied by their adherence to “Grit ‘N’ Grind.” Their defense remains as stingy as ever, ranking third in the league in defensive rating (104.8). Of course, they still play at a snail’s pace as they are currently last in the league in that category (at this point, the Grizzlies could play John Wall, De’Aaron Fox and Usain Bolt together, and I’m convinced they’d still somehow finish in the bottom ten of the league in pace).
However, like the great Grizzlies teams of the last decade, playing at a slower pace allows them to impose their will on games against faster, more talented teams. As a result, they currently sit at 8-5 with remarkable wins over playoff contenders in the Milwaukee Bucks, Utah Jazz (twice), and the Denver Nuggets.
Considering the circumstances entering this season, it’s certainly hard to imagine a much better start for the Grizzlies. But even with Memphis once again seeming primed for playoff contention, it’s still a fair question to ask whether this start can be maintained. After all, the Grizzlies did start 5-1 last year before flaming out with the second worst record in the NBA.
While there are still some concerns, this level of play is indeed sustainable, and there are several reasons for it.
First and most importantly, the foundation of the Grizzlies’ success will always come on the defensive end. Memphis may or may not remain in the top three in defense for most of the year, but they should hover around the top 5. Since 2011, they have only finished outside of the top eight in defense once, not counting the Great Tank of 2018. With the additions of Jaren Jackson, Kyle Anderson and Garrett Temple, they have length and versatility that they’ve never really had before. J.B. Bickerstaff also deserves credit as one of the best defensive minds in the NBA today.
All things considered, they should continue to be excellent defensively. And you can compete with the best teams in the NBA with a great defense.
On the other end of the court, it has been a mixed bag and will likely continue to be so. From a negative perspective, the Grizzlies are currently 21st in offensive rating, and the offense typically goes through periods of stagnation every game. On the other hand, they can actually shoot! They are currently 12th in the league in three point percentage (36). Yet they are also just 22nd in threes made (10). Their game against the Bucks was a good example of how a greater emphasis on three-point shooting, especially through Marc Gasol, could increase their offensive explosiveness.
However, there is reason to believe that the Grizzlies’ offense may just improve on its own without any major scheme changes. Mike Conley has managed to score the ball relatively well (19.2 points per game) while shooting a meager 39% from the field and 31% from three. As he continues to get his legs under him, he will continue to shoot better as he has recently. Also, Marc Gasol’s current scoring average of 15.9 PPG would be his lowest in the last five seasons. He won’t score 29 points every night like he did Milwaukee, but that number will likely begin to trend upward.
Of course, it could all still very easily fall apart for the Grizzlies. Although this Grizzlies team has considerable depth, one significant injury to Conley or Gasol will cause the entire house of cards to fall into a spectacular mess. And with both of their checkered injury histories, it is unfortunately a very possible outcome. The team could also just simply falter down the stretch to superior competition.
Make no mistake: There is still a long season ahead, and it’s not quite time to flip season predictions just yet.
However, this is a moment of reflection for people like me who have followed the Grizzlies for as long as they can remember.
Maybe I underestimated the underrated brilliance of the Mike Conley-Marc Gasol tandem and the impact that they can have on an NBA franchise. Maybe I underestimated the culture that they both helped to create that allows replacement-level role players like Garrett Temple and Shelvin Mack to thrive.
Maybe the Memphis Grizzlies are just simply a good playoff basketball team.
Perhaps so. But there are still a lot of games to be played as the NBA season grinds along.