It’s not Christmas quite yet...but 11 days away from the holiday, I am calling it.
The Memphis Grizzlies...the good, competitive basketball team, the team that I and so many of you fell in love with over the past eight years, are back.
Sure, it is December 14th and the Grizzlies are about to enter a pretty tough stretch of their schedule, starting tonight with the rare home and home back to back against the Miami Heat and Houston Rockets. And yes, Memphis is only one game away from being out of the NBA Playoffs in a Western Conference where literally 14 of the 15 squads are fighting for their postseason lives, at least for now.
None of that is new for the Grizzlies and their fans, though.
We’re used to playoff races and close games, holding our breath on final possessions and collectively cheering, or sobbing, as a fan base. The night-to-night ups and downs, the debate over who should be playing, starting, or closing games, the mix of celebratory tweets with pepto-whiskey talk and a chaser of being in “the mud”. This is familiar territory...in a way, it feels like home.
What a lot of us weren’t used to? The failure of last season.
This time last year, the Memphis Grizzlies were 8-20 and had already fired their head coach in a season that was free-falling in to the abyss. The team looked awful, had very few prospects to get excited about, and the future felt as dark as ever before. Mike Conley’s health was uncertain, and Marc Gasol seemed very disenfranchised as the squad struggled through the last four months of the campaign.
What a difference a calendar year makes.
Now? Memphis leads the Southwest division and has Mike Conley back near full strength, performing close to his production of two seasons ago. Marc Gasol, while having struggled offensively in recent days, is anchoring a defense that has propelled the Grizzlies back in to the playoff picture and the top of the Association in defensive rating (5th at 105.8 points per 100 possessions). The additions made this offseason have paid dividends - Garrett Temple, Shelvin Mack, Kyle Anderson, Omri Casspi, and draft pick Jaren Jackson Jr. all have contributed more than they were expected to at this stage.
Jaren’s play, in particular, has brightened a once murky future. Now, when a post-Gasol and Conley world is thought of, there isn’t as much fear about who, or what, is next.
Jaren is next...and is also now.
There are still flaws - the Memphis offense is not consistent and ranks near the bottom of the NBA in offensive rating (26th, 106.6) that perhaps can be addressed via trade. Chandler Parsons’ knees have almost certainly ended another season of wishful thinking when it comes to contributions anywhere near what his contract is paying him. The team is outperforming expected win-loss records based off of their offensive and defensive ratings, and any significant injury to Gasol or Conley would surely doom the squad back to the depths of the NBA Lottery.
All the above have essentially been true of these Grizzlies for some time now. But when Gasol and Conley are healthy, with the right pieces around them, the Memphis Grizzlies are tough as hell and hard to get past for opposing teams.
Unless the Grizzlies go 0-6 these next six games before the holiday (knocks on wood multiple times) the team will be above .500 at Christmas time. Even if they go, say, 2-4 over these next six, 18-15 would be their record at Christmas. Here is their record at Christmas the last five seasons, last season excluded...all season the team made the postseason-
- 2016: 20-12
- 2015: 16-15
- 2014: 21-7
- 2013: 12-15
- 2012: 18-7
That averages out to a record of...17-11. Which is what the Grizzlies, if they beat the Heat tonight, will be.
So this season will be the exception to the rule. I am calling it early. It isn’t quite Christmas yet, but Memphis has already received its present from their NBA team.
The Grizzlies are good once again.
Stats provided by basketball-reference.com.