WHERE: FedExForum in Memphis, Tennessee
WHEN: 7:00 PM CT
HOW TO WATCH/LISTEN: Fox Sports Southeast/NBA League Pass/92.9 FM ESPN Memphis
MEMPHIS: Jaren Jackson Jr. (Out, knee), Justise Winslow (Out, hip), Jontay Porter (Out, knee), Killian Tillie (Out, hamstring), Xavier Tillman Sr. (Out, Patella)
SAN ANTONIO: Derrick White (Out, toe), Quinndary Weatherspoon (Out, knee)
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUPS:
MEMPHIS: Ja Morant, Grayson Allen, Dillon Brooks, Kyle Anderson, Jonas Valanciunas
SAN ANTONIO: Dejounte Murray, Lonnie Walker IV, DeMar DeRozan, Rudy Gay, LaMarcus Aldridge
Ironically, as slowly as this miserable year 2020 has gone by up to the last month of the calendar, December feels like it has been in fast forward. In a blink of an eye, free agency and the NBA Draft have come and gone - as has the preseason - and the NBA season is here. Pandemics be damned, the league is invested in playing this season as safely and competitively as possible. And with that, we’re off. The marathon sprint has begun.
And your Memphis Grizzlies are on the hunt for something more - unsure of what exactly that will look like.
The beautiful part of that pursuit is, the team doesn’t have to follow a straight line to that “more”. Zach Kleiman plainly stated the goal of the franchise as championship contention being the “North Star” for the Grizzlies. That chase will certainly have to wait. But in sports, the shortest distance from point A to point B can curve. Unless you have a market where you can attract an all-time great or two (hi Lakers) a team can lose ground to gain ground...and that seems to be the most likely outcome for the Grizzlies this season. Factors outside their control can impact that ultimate 2020-2021 fate (injuries, outside improvements from competitors).
Memphis must maintain their grip on their own gravity. Thankfully, they understand that.
On to previewing tonight’s season opener against an old foe.
Battle of the Bigs
Jonas Valanciunas talked about it with media members on Tuesday afternoon - the definition of a “big man” has changed a lot since he entered the NBA almost a decade ago. Floor spacing, defensive switchability, transition opportunity creation (or even participation) beyond the old outlet pass off a rebound...the inability of some to make the transition from the “old school” to the modern NBA has been noticeable. But tonight, two players with remarkably traditional big man skills who have tried to remain relevant in a positionless NBA will take the floor against one another.
And Jonas is likely excited about it.
LaMarcus Aldridge is one of the most frequent midrange shooters in the NBA. In fact, according to Cleaning the Glass, he was in the 99th percentile in terms of percentage of attempts in the midrange (57%). That’s probably way too high to most in this day and age of basketball, who prefer shots at the rim (Aldridge was in the 15th percentile of shot attempts here) and from beyond the arc (43rd percentile there). As he ages, his dependance on this shot - which in his defense, most NBA defenses nowadays give up happily - only grows. Even if he converts them (79th percentile on accuracy from midrange, more than respectable) it makes him more predictable - never a good thing.
Valanciunas is in a similar boat with regard to his back to the basket low-post game. It’s not what current NBA schemes value offensively, but he’s good at it! 74th percentile and the rim and an impressive 90th percentile in the short midrange says that Jonas can be depended on despite being “inefficient” - much like Aldridge when he has his midrange game going. A key in this game between these two is two-fold - who can best take advantage of their “inefficient” stylings, and who can be better fits for their overall team schemes in terms of spacing from three and ball movement? Both have flaws defensively. Who can maximize their offensive skill set?
Two “old dogs” trying to learn new tricks. Who is best at learning on the fly?
Ja Morant battling big wings
It is no secret that Ja Morant struggles at times with defenders that can be negate (to an extent) his elite athleticism while also being bigger and/or longer than him. The Spurs when healthy have lots of those types of players - Derrick White, for example, is out tonight but fits that bill in terms of size if not natural ability. San Antonio has other options to throw at Ja, however - Dejounte Murray and Devin Vassell, for example, can move well against Morant and both have wingspans (6’10” for both Murray and Vassell, as well as Lonnie Walker IV) that can disrupt passing lanes and force bad angles at the rim for Ja.
Ja played well at times against San Antonio last year, and of course the absence of White benefits Memphis. Derrick White looked special in the Bubble - Murray, Vassell, and Walker IV haven’t been that dominant on both ends of the floor. But as Morant evolves as a player, he must find ways to combat big, solid perimeter defenders. No offense to Minnesota or Atlanta, but they weren’t a test against that. Tonight is a test.
With Memphis being a slight favorite, I would avoid this game if you’re a gambler. The Spurs only need a red-hot Aldridge or DeRozan to pull away from a Memphis team lacking in star power beyond Morant. But White’s absence stings for the Spurs - it disrupts the reserve unit to an extent, and allows for a strength of the Grizzlies to better shine through. If the Grizzlies starters can play close to even with the Spurs starters, the Memphis bench should be able to pull away and make this a good start to the season for the Bears of Beale Street.
Memphis 119, San Antonio 114