The Memphis Grizzlies have a dream.
After a horrific season defined by injuries and definitely not intentional tanking, the Grizzlies have a dream of bouncing back and returning to the playoffs once more. From Jaren Jackson Jr., to the offseason additions of Kyle Anderson and Garrett iTemple, to the hopeful healthy return of Mike Conley, the Grizzlies believe that they have all the pieces that they need to make that dream a reality.
But if there’s anything that the Grizzlies should have learned last year, it’s how quickly a dream can become a nightmare.
While the Grizzlies did show some promise especially at the beginning of last year, their roster had a fatal flaw that revealed itself once Mike Conley was lost for the season, and it’s the same flaw that has been present with their roster in recent years: They are too top-heavy.
A missing generation of players due to failed draft choices and poor roster decisions has left the Grizzlies entirely dependent on Mike Conley and Marc Gasol. So when Conley went out for the season last year, it shouldn’t have surprised anyone that the Grizzlies completely fell apart.
And make no mistake: While most good NBA teams rely heavily on their stars, most of them are not as dependent on them as the Grizzlies are. If James Harden missed significant time, Chris Paul would keep a balanced Houston Rockets team playing near an elite level. The Boston Celtics lost Gordon Hayward on the first game of the season, and they went on to be the top seed in the East. When Rudy Gobert missed 27 games, the Utah Jazz were able to stay afloat and eventually beat the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round as the fifth seed in the West.
There are several more examples, like DeMarcus Cousins in New Orleans, that can be given, but the point is that the Grizzlies have recently lacked the depth and talent to compete if one of their star players goes down. They have showed that they cannot remain competitive if Mike Conley or Marc Gasol misses any significant time at all.
This will again be the case next season. Although the Grizzlies have made some excellent roster decisions this offseason, they will only succeed if both Conley and Gasol remain relatively healthy. And as painful as it is to admit, the truth is that there’s a better chance than not that this won’t be the case.
Let’s leave Marc Gasol totally out of the question for a minute and focus on Mike Conley. Optimism is certainly high with him and for good reason. After all, since he’s had nearly an entire year to recover, Conley should definitely be ready to go and be the player that was nearly an all-star in 2017.
Allow me to pose a simple question: Why did the Grizzlies sign Shelvin Mack?
When the news broke that the Grizzlies signed Mack, it really didn’t seem to make much sense. They didn’t need another backup point guard with Andrew Harrison, who really came into his own last season, and recently-signed draft pick Jevon Carter already on the roster. Unless something unforeseen happened, Mack would probably not win the backup job from Harrison (who was statistically superior last year), and he would only take developmental minutes away from Carter.
The explanation that the Grizzlies signed Mack because Carter will miss time with a torn ligament in his thumb simply doesn’t fly since they were reportedly in negotiations with him nearly three weeks before.
So again, why did the Grizzlies sign Shelvin Mack?
Unfortunately, the most probable explanation is that Mike Conley is still not healthy, and the team believes that Mack as an older veteran point guard will be a better fit in the starting lineup than Harrison. And before you dismiss this as baseless speculation, it would be wise to remember that Conley was not cleared by the Grizzlies’ medical staff to participate in full-contact drills at the Team USA basketball camp just less than three weeks ago. That is not exactly comforting considering his season-ending surgery took place all the way back in January.
It’s hard to imagine, but this is the nightmare scenario for the Memphis Grizzlies. If I’m right (and I really hope that I’m not) that Conley isn’t healthy, the Grizzlies will be near the bottom of the West once again. There is definitely reason to believe that they can make the playoffs with a healthy Conley and Gasol, even if it’s far from a guarantee.
However, as recent history has shown, the Grizzlies will have no chance of competing without a healthy Conley (and that’s not even taking into account whether Gasol who will turn 34 can remain healthy without regressing any further).
Another nightmare season for the Grizzlies will also only have tough implications beyond this upcoming year. If it all falls apart again, Gasol would likely opt out of the final year of his contract (even with $25 million left on the table) to go join a contender. He has always been a winner and would probably not want to finish his career in a losing situation. The Grizzlies would also likely try to move Conley.
Essentially, a nightmare season for the Grizzlies would almost absolutely end the Conley-Gasol era in Memphis. That is truly depressing to be sure, but that’s why it’s a nightmare scenario.
However, it doesn’t have to go this way.
For better or for worse, the Grizzlies’ roster for next season is once again a well-built house of cards as Zach Lowe once said. The great thing about a house of cards is that it can look fantastic, even magnificent when it holds together. But if one cards falls out of place, then the whole house comes crashing down.
Such is the current state of the Memphis Grizzlies. They are caught between a dream and a nightmare, with the nightmare possibly looking more likely than the dream.
Memphis will just have to dare to dream.