If you look at the national projections for next season’s Memphis Grizzlies, you get a mixed bag of results. People don't have them being 22-60 bad, but many don’t have the Grizzlies in the playoff picture. Others peg them as next season’s bounce-back team and a playoff squad.
Neither case is bad or wrong, but one argument you may hear from both sides is: “Marc Gasol and Mike Conley can lead any team to the playoffs.”
Yes, it’s a valid argument, especially given the success of the “Core 4” and the brilliance on display at the beginning of last season. How long is this the case though? Is any team with Marc Gasol and Mike Conley as the best players a guaranteed playoff team like years past I’m obviously not saying that the Grizzlies are a lottery-bound team now; it’d be foolish to say so, because they’re not one. To proclaim that they’re a guaranteed playoff team, though, is not a forgone conclusion.
Given the ridiculous depth of the Western Conference and Conley and Gasol’s age, the Grizzlies will endure their toughest path to the playoffs in franchise history. What other factors play a part in this partially guaranteed statement? Could the Grizzlies overcome these hinderances to reach the playoffs?
The Western Conference though ...
Let’s be completely real, if the NBA and geography had a working relationship, the Memphis Grizzlies would be an Eastern Conference team — which would make this article essentially useless.
In case you’ve been living under a rock for the past year, the Western Conference is an absolute monster — the James P. Sullivan of basketball conferences. LeBron James has finally made his way over to the Western Conference, as he’s set to lead the Lakers’ bunch of promising young studs and questionable miscasts back to relevance. All of last year’s playoff teams have prime stars or rising All-Stars, suggesting that they won’t be falling off anytime soon.
The Denver Nuggets, a team that missed the playoffs despite winning 46 games last season, will have a healthy Paul Millsap and a motivated Isaiah Thomas — further complicating the Western Conference playoff picture. Adding Luka Doncic and DeAndre Jordan shoots Dallas out of the “bottom-feeder” tier, right?
Yes, the Memphis Grizzlies have a returning Mike Conley, alongside a promising young big man (Jaren Jackson Jr.) and a slew of role players (Kyle Anderson, Dillon Brooks, JaMychal Green, Chandler Parsons and Garrett Temple). Will it be enough though?
Every team in the Western Conference from the 4-13 range will need quite a bit of luck to reach the playoffs, and the Grizzlies are no exception.
The 3rd Fiddle Conundrum
If you’re good friends with me and talk basketball with me, you know “Fleming’s Law of the Third Power”:
Every team has at least two current or future All-Star caliber players. The 3rd best player though determines the quality of the team.
Granted, there are some underlying factors that affect this as well. Your two best players could be absolute studs (i.e. last year’s Cavs teams), or your team is loaded from 3-7 (i.e. the Utah Jazz). Youth could be a factor (i.e. this year’s Mavericks team). Think about it though. Golden State, Draymond Green. Houston, Clint Capela. Boston, Jayson Tatum. Oklahoma City, Steven Adams. Atlanta, Taurean Prince. Sacramento, Buddy Hield.
It’s no coincidence.
It’s a case we saw with the Grizzlies last season. When Tyreke Evans was bound to be the team’s third best player, the team looked legit. However, when Conley went down, second-round rookie Dillon Brooks became the third best player, and you know the rest.
The Grizzlies are running into a scenario where they don’t really know who the third best player will be. They paid Chandler Parsons max-level money to become one, but his body has failed him, giving little-to-no hope that he’ll become the ideal third fiddle. After getting thrusted into a bigger role last season, Dillon Brooks may be ready for it. Kyle Anderson may rise to the occasion as the ideal secondary playmaker. Ideally, Jaren Jackson Jr. becomes a frontrunner for the Rookie of the Year award and the team’s third fiddle, but the team seems to be patient with him.
No one really knows who’s going to rise to become that third fiddle for the Grizzlies, but the West is too deep and talented for Gasol and Conley to do it alone. Someone will have to step up.
It’s something you’re going to hear what often, but Mike Conley and Marc Gasol aren't getting any younger. By the time the playoffs roll around, Gasol will be 34, and Conley will be 31. It’s certainly less than ideal, especially considering most of the Western Conference playoff teams have talent either in their prime or approaching it — and a young lottery team adding the best player ever.
Not to mention, both players have their fair share of injury history. Mike Conley missed all last season with a heel injury that was plaguing him for a few years. In addition, Marc Gasol broke his foot a few years back, and it’s certainly something to monitor given his age and workload.
Sure, they may be able to overcome it this season to lead the Grizzlies to their eighth playoff appearance in nine years. How long is it the case though? Is it a forgone conclusion?
Before you go to the comments and rip me for negativity, let me leave you with this: It may no longer be a forgone conclusion that Mike Conley and Marc Gasol can lead any team to the playoffs, but it can still very well happen.
Before Mike Conley went down, the Grizzlies were among the hottest teams in the league. Sure, the team is different now, but Conley and Gasol are still top-10 players in their position.
Not to mention, last season, the 3-9 teams in the West were separated by 3(!!!) games. A healthy Grizzlies team would’ve been in the mix. If nothing is different this season, we all could be back to waving our growl towels in the Grindhouse come April.
The narrative of Conley and Gasol taking any team to the playoffs may be dying, but watching the journey will definitely be a riveting storyline next season.