A lot has been made of the race for the eight seed in the Western Conference as the NBA attempts to restart its season in the weeks ahead. Storylines abound as teams plan to depart for Orlando this week, and that doesn’t even take in to account the overarching national story that is COVID-19 cases spiking across the country. Focusing on solely the basketball - as hard as that may be - there are plenty of questions.
How will the unique resumption of the season impact player health beyond the virus? Will the teams locked in to top seeds like the Lakers and Bucks handle these eight seeding games like they would, say, an end of a meaningless regular season?
It is almost refreshing then when you realize that the more things change, in some ways the more they stay the same. Memphis, to some, remains an underdog despite their 3.5 game lead with 8 to be played for that coveted 8 spot in the west.
ICYMI in my morning article, New Orleans remains favorite to make playoffs per 538's 2019-20 NBA Predictions via RAPTOR forecast. Current odds (March odds @ shutdown):— Oleh Kosel (@OlehKosel) July 3, 2020
Pelicans: 45% (60%)
Grizzlies 37% (15%)
Trail Blazers: 10% (14%)
Kings: 7% (9%)
Spurs: <1% (2%)
Suns: <1% (<1%) pic.twitter.com/YiMQW5Pfs3
To write this off as a simple advancement of the “Zion Williamson is being pushed in to the playoffs by the NBA” would be unfair. The Pelicans had the easiest schedule left when the season was suspended, and that remains true now (as it should). NOLA has beaten the Grizzlies twice this season, and they present match-up issues for Memphis in several areas. Jrue Holiday and Lonzo Ball are two of the guards heading to the bubble best equipped to defend Ja Morant, a tall task for other squads (like, say, the Lakers) and Zion himself, as seen above, looks the part of the real-life superhero so many want him to be.
Then factor in the offensive play of Brandon Ingram, the veteran presence of guys like Derrick Favors and JJ Redick, and the confidence that even role players like Niccolo Melli will have against Memphis given past performances. It all adds up to possible problems for Taylor Jenkins and his Grizzlies.
And that is just one team! The Portland Trail Blazers lose Trevor Ariza due to opting out of the bubble, but they gain Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins and have the biggest star on any of the teams in the eight seed race in Damian Lillard. The Sacramento Kings have the benefit of motivation with even more folks that follow the NBA counting them out than Memphis, a healthy roster for the first time in a long time starring an explosive point guard in De’Aaron Fox who gave Ja Morant fits earlier this season, and two head to head games with the Pelicans to give them a legitimate chase.
The Phoenix Suns and San Antonio Spurs are not seen as threats to catch Memphis, or even the three teams mention above, but Phoenix has Devin Booker and DeAndre Ayton - two young cornerstones - and the San Antonio Spurs have a veteran scorer in DeMar DeRozan and one of the greatest to ever coach in the NBA in Gregg Popovich. A run of success from either team isn’t out of the question, and while it would be improbable that they get in to the play-in conversation it won’t be impossible.
The Grizzlies are the hunted as they head to Orlando. Should they be concerned?
No. They should remember who they are, and why they’re here to begin with.
Sure, the Pelicans have had the Grizzlies number this season. The Kings have beat up on Memphis at times as well. Ja Morant and company are a combined 1-5 against these two teams in particular, with Sacramento racking up three wins over the Grizzlies and NOLA earning two. Head to head, there are issues for the Grizzlies that start with Ja’s struggles in individual match-ups (before his reported 12 pound gain in muscle during quarantine) and rebounding problems beyond Jonas Valanciunas - who struggles defending stretch bigs on the perimeter, which both Sacramento and New Orleans have on their rosters.
But Memphis only sees the Pelicans in the restart - not Sacramento. And the last time NOLA played the Grizzlies, Zion and his team were at essentially full strength whereas the Grizzlies were missing three rotation pieces - Jaren Jackson Jr., Brandon Clarke, and Justise Winslow, who wasn’t even on the team yet. The Grizzlies started Solomon Hill and Jae Crowder in that game, two veterans who should not both be starting for any team hoping to compete for the playoffs.
When Jaren and Ja play together - as they haven’t since Jaren got hurt against the Lakers months ago? Good things happen against good teams more often than when they aren’t together, even at a better clip against good teams than NOLA.
The #Pelicans are 9-27 (25.0%) against the 13 teams over .500. Started the season 2-16 against them.— Fastbreak Breakfast (@fastbreakbreak) July 5, 2020
When Zion Williamson plays, they are 2-7 (22.2%) against the top 13
The Grizzlies schedule is structured in such a way that they can lock themselves in to a play-in spot relatively early in the seeding games, as long as they don’t collapse and go 0-3. Games against the Trail Blazers (talented but who defends Ja?), the Spurs (without Aldridge the Grizzlies front court should be able to limit them offensively in the paint), and the Pelicans (see above) will set the tone for the final five games.
The Utah Jazz and Oklahoma City Thunder will be playing seeding Tetris, trying to find their health and fit in terms of first round opponents. The Jazz in particular are without Bojan Bogdanovic, an extremely important scorer, meaning they’re theoretically weaker than they were before the restart whereas Memphis should be stronger. The final three games pit the Grizzlies against some of the best in the Eastern Conference in Toronto, Boston, and Milwaukee...who may well be resting players by the end of this seeding sprint and not interested in fully competing with Memphis.
A 3-5 or 4-4 mark for the Grizzlies essentially guarantees the play-in scenario as the 8 seed. Anything better and depending on what the Spurs/Kings/Pelicans/Trail Blazers do, Memphis could lock in the final playoff spot. Then there’d be no need for extra play with a Sacramento or New Orleans team they don’t match up as well with or a Portland or San Antonio team with star power and experienced coaches.
But the Grizzlies cannot worry about what those chasing them are doing. For their biggest foe entering this grand Disney bubble experiment is themselves.
Memphis cannot control what the media sees in the Pelicans, or what has happened in the past when NOLA took on the Grizzlies. But they can control their response - motivation for the race ahead as Ja Morant said recently, or adjustments to scheme and rotation to make sure players like Valanciunas are maximized. The Grizzlies cannot help that the Kings could leap frog the Pelicans thanks to their two games with them and Sacramento has had Memphis’ number even more than NOLA.
What they can do, though, is integrate Justise Winslow in to the roster - as our Parker Fleming discussed with Taylor Jenkins on Sunday - as best they can and add layers to their offensive and defensive gameplans that they haven’t been able to tap in to until now.
A lot of content on @sbngrizzlies over the shutdown regarding Justise Winslow (@IAmJustise), his fit w/ Memphis, and his versatility.— Parker Fleming (@PAKA_FLOCKA) July 6, 2020
Today, I asked Coach Jenkins about how positional versatility helps unlock the best version of Winslow pic.twitter.com/9CeiBqu0IN
Memphis cannot magically become more experienced. Overnight they will not gain the wisdom of a Popovich, or the scoring acumen of a Booker, or the killer instinct (and stare downs to prove it) of a Lillard. But they can take solace in knowing that the body of work they did over the 65 games before the suspension was honored, and if they fall out of the playoffs completely the team at fault for that will be Memphis themselves.
Respect is necessary in sports, but it is a two-way street. So often the fact that the Grizzlies would need to go 2-6 or worse to realistically fall out of the 8 seed is overlooked. That’s what the Grizzlies have earned, since that is the lead the team had when the season stopped. The talent and depth of Memphis gets glanced over - the true statement that De’Anthony Melton did not become a key contributor until December 1st and the Grizzlies are 26-20 since that switch was made. Melton figures to be a factor for Memphis in Orlando, as will Jaren Jackson Jr., Justise Winslow, and Brandon Clarke - three additional key cogs to the Grizzlies future that were not all present during the 4-7 stretch Memphis was enduring when the NBA stopped play.
If anyone overlooks the Grizzlies thinking that they are not a threat, they will regret it. But if Memphis looks too far beyond their own operation, that would be a larger mistake.
For more than anything, Memphis has nothing to lose. Outside of health (the Grizzlies should not risk the future for this unique restart - if Ja has a sore Achilles, sit him until it’s not sore, don’t push it) the Grizzlies are playing with house money. They were supposed to be one of the “Delete Eight” teams, fighting to simply convey a first round draft pick and play for the future. Now the youngest team in the NBA and the youngest head coach going to the Orlando restart get this opportunity, after what essentially amounts to an off-season, to get back together and gain valuable playoff-esque reps.
Zion got bigger. But so did Ja and Jaren.
Marvin Bagley III and Nurkic got healthier. But so did Clarke and Winslow.
There is legitimate competition for the eight seed in the Western Conference. But they have to go through the Grizzlies to get there - most likely via the play-in, where they’ll have to beat Memphis twice in a row unless the Grizzlies fail and fall apart from within.
For that to not happen, the focus must remain inward. Tune out the noise and get Justise acclimated. Get a suddenly deeper rotation set and prepare for the intense schedule ahead. Set up team bonding events and make life in the “bubble” as normal as possible for the team and staff. All that matters beyond the prognosticators and distractions is that Memphis traveling party, leaving this week for the most uncertain sporting event in scope and size perhaps in American sports history. The Grizzlies deserve to be here - they’ve earned where they sit at the playoff race table.
There’s plenty to respect, but nothing to fear. Just live and compete together as best they can, and the scoreboard should take care of itself.