In the book of Proverbs found in the Bible, it is written: “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to counsel.” To put that verse in more simple terms, it essentially means that wise people are open to the advice of others. And they will even change their minds once new information becomes available to them.
Over a week ago, I was barely giving any thought to the idea that the Memphis Grizzlies may be able to make the playoffs. I did, of course, believe they could possibly sneak into the play-in, especially with the addition of a healthy Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr., and Justise Winslow. Yet this is supposed to be the final year free of the burden of expectations, a season in which the Grizzlies should continue to grow and compete without the expectation of a playoff appearance. To be sure, a 2-6 start to the season along with a painful injury for Ja Morant only reinforced that notion while also teasing the tantalizing possibility of Cade Cunningham or Jalen Green in a Grizzlies uniform
However, despite my previous doubts, the Memphis Grizzlies are going to make the playoffs. As in, they will be one of the top eight teams in the West at season’s end, barring significant injury. Making the play-in as one of the West’s top-10 teams is all but a given at this point, with the same qualifier in mind.
I’m all in. The Grizzlies are making the playoffs. Let’s ride.— Nathan Chester (@NathanChester24) January 19, 2021
What has led me to this conclusion is not necessarily the mere fact that the Grizzlies have won five games in a row, although that definitely helps the case that they are in fact better than expected. Despite what my detractors may say, I am not a prisoner of the moment. Even after Jaren Jackson Jr. and Justise Winslow are added to the lineup—which will certainly make the team better in the long-term—the Grizzlies aren’t going to just become an overnight juggernaut and might even struggle in the adjustment period. But even if they do, that doesn't change the fact that the Grizzlies very much have the statistical profile of a playoff team.
That encouraging early resume is based almost entirely on the Grizzlies’ newfound elite defense. By the numbers, the Grizzlies are on pace to not only have one of the best defenses in the NBA, but also one of the best defenses in franchise history, which is definitely no easy feat considering the last decade of Grizzlies basketball. They currently rank 3rd in defensive efficiency (103.8), 9th in opponent three-point percentage (35.8), and 1st in steals (10.4).
Now here’s where it get fun: There is not an NBA team in ESPN’s database over the last 20 years that has averaged 10.4 steals per game, and there have only been two other ones to ever average 10 steals. The Grizzlies probably won’t maintain that pace, but it puts into perspective just how tenacious they have been defensively. Even if they don’t continue to wreak havoc to that degree, their overall success defensively is very sustainable, especially since two above-average defenders in Jaren Jackson Jr. and Winslow will soon be in the lineup.
And this is where the Grizzlies defense goes from fun to eye-opening. There has not been a single team in recent NBA history that ranked 10th or better in defensive efficiency and didn’t make the playoffs. The old adage is that defense wins championships, but as a witness of the last era of Grizzlies basketball, I can assure you that it definitely wins games as well. Elite defense can also keep teams in games that they really have no business winning (i.e. the Grizzlies’ two-game home stand against the Lakers a few weeks ago).
So no matter what happens with the rest of the Western Conference, history is clear: If the Grizzlies continue to be elite defensively, they will make the playoffs. And there’s just no reason to believe that they won't continue to be so. Even if there’s some level of regression due to unsustainable shooting from their opponents, I can’t see them slipping past the 6-8 range in defensive efficiency. To be this elite defensively over a 13-game sample size with a short-handed roster is more than enough evidence to know that it’s sustainable success.
Now I’ll address the most significant counter-argument that exists because of the unfortunate reality that is context.
While the Grizzlies are now 7-6 and are elite defensively, they haven’t exactly been lighting the world on fire offensively. They currently rank 26th in offensive efficiency (103.1) and are 25th in effective field goal percentage (50.7). Over the last decade, the 2013-14 Chicago Bulls are the only team to be 26th or worse in offensive efficiency and make the playoffs. So in this regard, history would not seem to be favorable to the Grizzlies playoff chances.
But the fact of the matter is that the Grizzlies will soon start to progress to the mean offensively. They are more effective on that end than they have shown so far, evidenced by the fact they finished 20th in offensive efficiency last year. With a year of internal development, they are a deeper, more balanced offensive team than they were last season. And again, the additions of a generational shooter in Jaren Jackson Jr. and a versatile playmaker in Justise Winslow will help cover a multitude of sins on both ends of the court.
The Grizzlies almost made the playoffs last season with a below-average offense and a mediocre defense that ranked 14th in defensive efficiency. They will make the playoffs this season with at least a marginally-improved offense and a superb defense, even if they have to go through an improved Western Conference to do it.
It’s time to take an old proverb to heart. And it’s time to believe in Memphis once again.