The NBA (and Memphis Grizzlies) announced the first half of their 2020-2021 schedule Friday afternoon, after multiple strategic leaks throughout the week. The opening night games and Christmas slate have been known, but now the whole slate through early March is live. The league is announcing the schedule in halves this year to account for any games that must be made up/rescheduled due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
There are some reasons for optimism and causes for concern throughout the first half of the 72-game slate.
A fast start
The Grizzlies open the season at home on December 23rd against the San Antonio Spurs, and then play their next game after the Christmas holiday against the Atlanta Hawks, once again in the friendly confines of FedExForum. Beyond those two opening contests, the team has the following all within their first month of the season -
- Two three-game road trips (Brooklyn/Boston/Charlotte from Dec. 28th-Jan. 1st and Cleveland/two games in Minnesota from January 11th-15th).
- A season long four game home stand (2 against the Lakers, their first back to back of the season against the Cavaliers and the Nets)
- A tough close to the first month against Philadelphia and Phoenix at home (this year’s Martin Luther King Jr. game on TNT) followed by two games in Portland against the Trail Blazers.
16 games in 30 days. And within the first 10 games two dates with both LeBron James/Anthony Davis and Kevin Durant/Kyrie Irving. That is going to be a lot of basketball - but thankfully this team has legitimate depth and should be in a place to hit the ground running. In fact, of their first 16 games half are against 2019-2020 playoff teams, and among those are the pandemic-season mini-series (Lakers and Trail Blazers) that don’t involve travel. The first two games, a mini-series in Minnesota, and two games in four days with Cleveland all lend themselves to a strong start to the season for Memphis given their continuity, even without Jaren Jackson Jr. and Justise Winslow in the fold for the start of the campaign.
8-8 is realistic. Without two key players. That’s a win for Memphis schedule wise.
8 days, 5 games to gain ground
After that stretch to start the season, assuming Justise and Jaren are back with the team and part of the rotation by this point, opportunity for separation from the play-in pack presents itself. Between January 24th and February 1st, the Grizzlies play the following-
- Sacramento (home mini-series back to back nights)
- Chicago (at home)
- San Antonio (mini-series in San Antonio)
Those are five winnable games in a row for a team that will need to take advantage of such stretches wherever possible if they hope to hang in the playoff picture out west. There will be challenges (De’Aaron Fox decisively won his matchups with Ja Morant last season for the Kings) but this 8 day stretch provides chances for the team to hit their stride (hopefully with health on their side) and get hot and in a groove. 4-1 would be fantastic. Because...
Things get rough at the end
Multiple games against New Orleans and the Clippers. Showdowns with the Bucks, Lakers, Mavericks, Raptors, and Pacers. Only one mini-series (with the Clippers at home) and lots of travel (12 cities, 16 games, 32 days). There are moments to catch your breath (in theory) against the likes of Detroit, Charlotte, and two games against a Houston team that may be without James Harden via trade by the time the two squads get together (February 4th and 28th) could be possible wins. But the first half schedule ends in the following fashion-
- vs. Phoenix, @ Dallas, vs. Clippers x2 (mini-series back to back), @ Houston, @ Washington, Milwaukee.
Could get ugly, with games against teams that all (as of this writing - again, Harden may be gone by the second Houston game) plan on factoring in the playoff picture in a major way. Laugh at the Suns and Wizards at your own peril. Both teams got major upgrades at the point guard positions this offseason, and both teams want to compete for the postseason. They will be far from easy games heading in to the halfway mark of the season, finishing with the reigning league MVP and his Bucks team out hunting for a title. Escaping that seven game murderer’s row with a 2-5 record would potentially be a success.
Starting the season strong and taking advantage of that five game stretch against the Kings/Bulls/Spurs is key to this Grizzlies team having a chance at the play-in. And perhaps that is for the best - with the trade deadline coming around March 25th, the team should have a very good idea of who they are and where they fit in this strange season by then. If they’re in the 8-10 seed spot, as many hope/expect them to be, they stay the course or make a trade to improve in a specific roster spot without blowing their cap flexibility/draft capital (unless a star/high level starter becomes available that Memphis has to pursue). If they fall out of the picture entirely for whatever reason? Trading veterans like Jonas Valanciunas for young players and/or draft picks becomes more of a possibility. The murky picture currently in front of everyone will be in clearer view, for better or worse, and Zach Kleiman and the Grizzlies front office has the pieces in place to act accordingly.
Training camp has just begun. But with the NBA’s schedule being officially released, the possibilities ahead can be batted around and debates in the days and weeks leading in to opening night. That’s especially true for the young Grizzlies, who free from the weight of expectation can attack the season as best they can and let the proverbial chips fall where they may.