The Memphis Grizzlies are in a playoff race. Folks are overlooking them left and right, prognosticating that teams 3.5 games behind them in the playoff hunt would have a better chance to beat the Los Angeles Lakers in a first round matchup. They’re made up of misfits and castoffs, with lottery talent that even fits that bill to an extent (Ja Morant, Point Guard, Murray State)! Believe Memphis is being worn around the city (on face masks during a pandemic, but still!) and it does indeed feel as if it is Memphis vs. Errrbody once again after two years of poor play and saying goodbye to old friends.
As a fan, this is much better than what that was.
Even with the absence of Justise Winslow - who has yet to play a moment for Memphis and the Grizzlies will not see him until Chrismas-ish at the earliest - there are...dare I say...expectations? It isn’t so much that fans and media foresee an epic run for the ages from this team. On the contrary - making the playoffs and stealing a game from the Lakers would feel like winning a playoff series considering where this team was just 18 months ago. But with the lead Memphis has, and the way the structure of the season’s resumption has been devised, anything short of at least a play-in would indeed be a disappointment at this stage.
The fact this team is even here is a basketball miracle, so saying you expect anything feels like a fool’s errand. But they’ve earned our investment - our attention, our hopes and heartfelt emotional responses to the highs and lows ahead, however irrational they may be. Considering the age and experience of the team, this journey is just beginning.
It sure beats the alternative. Here’s three questions that need to be answered as the season restarts.
Will the pursuit of success in the bubble override long-term franchise goals?
This is the most unique season in NBA history. The Association hasn’t played in over four months - these first year players like Ja Morant and Brandon Clarke essentially just had an offseason to improve their games just to get back in to their rookie campaigns. We have no idea what such a layoff will do for these athletes, for better or worse. Even though the roster is largely the same for Memphis, they will look quite different from what they were this past March.
So, if Ja has a tweaked hamstring after the Pelicans game in a couple weeks, should he fight through the pain and carry on to race for the eight seed in the Western Conference?
The Grizzlies are playing with house money. This season is already a remarkable success, regardless of how the bubble shakes out. Will there be disappointment if the team misses the play-in scenario? Of course - but it shouldn’t be on the players or coaches. Before the season was cut off, Ja Morant was the likely Rookie of the Year. Taylor Jenkins was a Coach of the Year candidate. Brandon Clarke was the steal of the 2019 NBA Draft. Jaren Jackson Jr. had the look of the latest NBA unicorn.
None of those things will all of a sudden be not true because of Memphis going 2-6 or worse in such a strange circumstance. Because of that, eyes must remain on the prize further down the road. The Grizzlies’ time is coming - it just isn’t now. Justise Winslow’s injury serves as a reminder of that truth.
Don’t sacrifice long-term growth for attempted short-term gain.
Who must step up for the Grizzlies to make the playoffs?
Ja, Jaren, Jonas Valanciunas, whoever starts on the wing (probably Kyle Anderson), whoever doesn’t but still will play a huge role (De’Anthony Melton, Tyus Jones, Josh Jackson), bigs like Clarke and Gorgui Dieng...all these players have key jobs for the Grizzlies to hold off the Pelicans, Trail Blazers, Kings, and maybe the Spurs (sorry Suns...just not gonna happen). But it is Dillon Brooks whose numbers so drastically stand out in wins and losses for the Grizzlies.
IN WINS: 45% shooting, 19.1 points per game, 41.3% from beyond the arc, a +/- of +8.5 per 200 possessions per basketball-reference.com, a net rating of +2
IN LOSSES: 34.6% shooting, 12.3 points per game, 31.5% from beyond the arc, a +/- of -10.5 per 200 possessions, a net rating of -31
It really doesn’t matter who eats the minutes of Justise Winslow. Dillon was so bad in February and March that if he doesn’t snap out of those struggles and rise up to be the 4th or 5th best player for Memphis that they need him to be, the Grizzlies stay in the bubble will be shorter than expected. He could be aided by the facilitation of Kyle Anderson, the defensive acumen of De’Anthony Melton, the slashing pace of Josh Jackson...but first and foremost he has to be able to do what earned him that shiny new contract.
That guy hasn’t been around in almost six months. Hopefully he is in Orlando and shows up July 31st.
Who should Memphis fans “fear” most in the bubble?
Aside from the typical “no one” answer, which is true of course. The Grizzlies must focus on themselves first and foremost. But there are three threats in particular to Memphis - beyond themselves - and their goal of the playoffs.
3. Portland Trail Blazers
Yes, the team that the Lakers apparently fear most is the 4th most likely to actually make the playoffs. Why is that? For one, their schedule is tough - no real “rest” games, like the Grizzlies may enjoy towards the end of their schedule with the Bucks in particular. For another, while Portland gets Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins back they lose Trevor Ariza and don’t have anyone to defend Ja Morant. De’Anthony Melton, Kyle Anderson, Josh Jackson, and Dillon Brooks can be tossed at Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum throughout the game on the 31st and in any play-in situation. Who will the Trail Blazers respond with - Carmelo Anthony? Gary Trent Jr.? Mario Hezonja? Anfernee Simons? Nassir Little?
You get the picture. Portland is big. But they’re limited on the perimeter - and if the Grizzlies can get a stalemate in the front court (possible) Memphis should win outside the paint with depth.
2. New Orleans Pelicans
How does the team with the easiest schedule remaining in the NBA and the prodigal son Zion Williamson not get the #1 spot? Zion’s departure from the bubble does limit them potentially, but even with Williamson the Pelicans were only 10-9. A lot of the New Orleans hype is what the could be, not what they have been. Make no mistake, they’re a nightmare matchup for the Grizzlies - Brandon Ingram is a remarkably talented wing, Lonzo Ball and Jrue Holiday will give Ja headaches, and J.J. Redick and Derrick Favors provide a steadying veteran presence. There’s a reason they beat the brakes off Memphis twice - they’re better top to bottom than the Grizzlies are right now.
As they were supposed to be. But there is one team that plays NOLA twice that has also given the Grizzlies trouble this year...and happens to be in this playoff race as well. They have offensive firepower to match what the Pelicans can do, and they have a chip on their shoulder much like Memphis (and unlike the Pelicans).
1. Sacramento Kings
Maybe it’s the imagery of De’Aaron Fox repeatedly beating Ja Morant head to head. Perhaps it’s Kent Bazemore, Harry Giles III, and Harrison Barnes out-hustling the bench, or Buddy Hield and Bogdan Bogdanovic raining down perimeter shots. Whatever the case, even though Memphis at least has beaten Sacramento once this season the Kings stick out as a team that folks should be talking about more in terms of the play-in. Sacramento, as mentioned before, gets the Pelicans twice and can knock them out of the play-in scenario entirely. From there, games with the Brooklyn Nets, Orlando Magic, San Antonio Spurs, and Los Angeles Lakers (in the final seeding contest where the Lakers may be resting LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and other key players) have the Kings going 6-2 not entirely out of the question.
Say the Kings go 6-2, the Pelicans and Grizzlies go 4-4, and the Trail Blazers go 3-5. That would set up a Sacramento and Memphis play-in, with the Kings having to knock off the Grizzlies twice in a row to knock them out of the playoffs. All the Kings have heard is Memphis cannot be caught, that Portland and New Orleans are the threats...
Motivation can make all the difference. If anyone knows that, it is the Grizzlies.
Actual basketball is back! How fun is this! No more “will the pick convey?” conversations, no more sad posts reflecting on what once was. Now we look to the future and what might be, both in the short and long term. There are legitimate threats to the Grizzlies and their postseason dreams, but the way to the playoffs lies within. Internal improvement and awareness will carry Memphis through and beyond the NBA’s Orlando bubble.
Regardless of how the next month or so plays out, rest easy knowing the future of this franchise is bright. And everything that follows in Disney World is icing on the cake.