Typically, Christmas is a reality checkpoint for NBA Franchises. Teams either decide to go for it in the present or make moves to improve for next season and beyond. That trend is not so clear for the Western Conference this season. Currently, just five games separate first and eleventh place in the West. Eleven of the fifteen teams in the conference are .500 or better. As a result, more teams reasonably feel they can make a playoff run.
A byproduct of more teams remaining competitive is how critical each game becomes. If a team struggles for a few weeks, like Memphis has in December, its season outlook can change drastically. It literally could be the difference between having home court advantage for the playoffs or staying home altogether. Therefore, a flexible but detailed approach to each game becomes critical.
When looking at the Grizzlies schedule over the next month, this becomes especially true for Memphis. The Grizzlies Schedule through January 14th is as follows:
12/19 @ Portland
12/21 @ Sacramento
12/23 @ LA Lakers
12/31 @ Houston
1/5 @ San Antonio
1/7 @ New Orleans
1/9 San Antonio
1/12 @ Miami
1/14 @ Houston
Of these thirteen games, ten come against teams currently with a record of .500 or better. Eight games are on the road, including seven versus current Western Conference playoff teams or division opponents. Not only will Memphis face quality competition, but they will face the best of it away from FedExForum.
As a result of the tough stretch ahead, Memphis must be proactive on several fronts. One example of this was the botched trade this past Friday night. While the end result was obviously a debacle that should be criticized, the timing and target of the move was very logical. Memphis likely needs another offensive piece to truly remain in playoff contention for the rest of this season. As a result, making a move earlier than most gives you the advantage of having an improved roster for a longer portion of the season.
While a trade makes perfect sense in theory, actually adding a player that will truly make a difference this year is much easier said than done. As mentioned above, the playoff picture is currently more crowed than usual. This means more teams will be looking to make moves to remain in contention.
Naturally, that also means that fewer teams are looking to sell. When you have more demand for players but a limited supply of sources, it becomes an advantage for those teams selling the assets. This raises the price of adding a significant piece through a trade. With the Grizzlies having fewer logical trade assets than others, that could price them out of potential deals.
If the trade market proves too costly for the Grizzlies’ preference, then upgrades will have to come internally. Jevon Carter’s inspiring debut could not have come at a better time. With Mike Conley at less than a 100% and Shelvin Mack’s struggles, an effective Carter could deepen the bench and improve perimeter play on both ends. Along with Carter, Dillon Brooks’ return by the end of 2018 could give the Grizzlies a reliable wing option off the bench. Beyond rebounding, the inconsistent play of the Grizzlies’ wings has been Memphis’s biggest weakness.
Of course, for Carter and Brooks to have an impact, J.B. Bickerstaff and the coaching staff have to commit to them. Before his injury, Bickerstaff clearly favored Shelvin Mack and Garrett Temple over Brooks in the rotation. While that was warranted because of each veteran’s hot start to the season, their recent play should validates an increased role for Carter and Brooks.
This perspective extends to the Grizzlies youth as a whole. Simply put, the Grizzlies need to feature their young players over the veterans. Mack, Temple and Jamychal Green should still have significant roles. However, it should not come at the expense of reducing the minutes of Carter, Brooks, Kyle Anderson, and Jaren Jackson Jr.
Not only does the the energy and effective play of the younger players make the team better, it also helps their development. Using each of these players in more critical game scenarios will make them more reliable as the season progresses. Bickerstaff and his coaching staff need to value talent over routine. Recent results show that comes through a higher usage of Anderson and Jackson Jr. as starters, and bigger roles for Brooks and Carter as reserves.
The increased reliance on the improved depth should also hopefully help the Grizzlies maintain good health. Of the 50 players currently averaging the highest minutes per game in the NBA, nine of those players are older than 30. Three of those nine players are Memphis Grizzlies. It is no coincidence that the Grizzlies’ recent struggles have coincided with injuries impacting Marc Gasol and Mike Conley. Along with Temple, managing the minutes of these three must become a priority for them to maintain their effectiveness.
The Grizzlies’ play over the next month will likely determine the outcome of their season. This is especially important over the next three games on the West Coast road trip and the four division games between January 5th and 14th. Each of those seven games directly improves or worsens the playoff chances of Memphis and the fellow Western Conference playoff contender they play.
If the Grizzlies continue to struggle, perhaps trading veterans for future assets comes into focus. However, if they string together a few wins to end 2018, making a trade to improve the team before January 5th makes a lot of sense. Monitoring the buy out activity across the league could also be an avenue to a roster addition.
Regardless of the outcome, the front office and coaching staff must remain in sync. Both units must remain proactive and dynamic to adjust quickly to whatever comes, whether it is expected or not. This includes adjusting the minutes and lineups based on which players give you the best chance to win. This also means making transactions quickly when opportunities present themselves.
Obviously, the performance of the Grizzlies’ players has the biggest impact on how well the team navigate the upcoming schedule. However, the decision making and flexibility of the coaching staff and front office will also play a critical role in how successfully the Grizzlies will transition into 2019.