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The Memphis Grizzlies can (and should) win the Southwest Division

*Injuries notwithstanding

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NBA: Memphis Grizzlies-Media Day Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

When it was announced that the Memphis Grizzlies would be retiring both Zach Randolph and Tony Allen’s jerseys this coming season, there was some pushback against the idea. And when I mean “pushback”, I mean that some of Memphis’ petty Nashville brethren just can’t resist their chance to take shots at the state of Tennessee’s most successful pro sports franchise over the last decade.

To a certain degree, retiring their numbers may seem like a tad much from the outside. For as impactful as Zach Randolph and Tony Allen were, they have almost nothing tangible to show for their time in Memphis — no rings, no t-shirts, no banners of any kind. While Memphians will always revere them, it does seem like the “Grit ‘n’ Grind” era in Memphis will barely register as a footnote in the annals of NBA history.

NBA: Sacramento Kings at Memphis Grizzlies Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

However, while that might be the case, it says something about the “Nxt Gen” Memphis Grizzlies that they have an extremely attainable opportunity to do something that the last era of Grizzlies were never able to accomplish: Win the Southwest Division and have the division banner hang in FedexForum. The prevailing narrative around the current iteration of the Grizzlies is that they have upside through a rising superstar in Ja Morant that the last generation never had. So it’d be quite fitting for them to go ahead before most of the team’s core group has even entered their primes and win something that the franchise never has.

That’s, of course, not to suggest that the 2021-2022 Memphis Grizzlies will be the best team in franchise history. In fact, they’ll probably be a solid ways off from that. In reality, the fact that I think they’ll win the division has much more to do with how weak the division is as compared to recent years than it does with the Grizzlies themselves.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies-Media Day Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

The Houston Rockets in particular will likely end up neck-and-neck with the Orlando Magic to be the worst team in the NBA this season. Beyond the hopeful rising-star addition of Jalen Green, they have plenty of young guys that I like. Christian Wood could be an All-Star if he played on a decent team, and Kevin Porter Jr. is my personal sleeper to win Most Improved Player. I also liked what they did in the draft, as Usman Garuba and Alperen Sengun are unique talents that could be their frontcourt of the future.

But especially with John Wall sitting out and Eric Gordon likely heading to a contender before the deadline, this team will be exceedingly bad. I can’t see them winning more than 25 games. Still, I like what they’re building, even if what they’re building is years away.

NBA: Houston Rockets-Media Day Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Because even if the Rockets are bad, I like them since they appear to have an objective and a clear path toward relevance. I cannot say the same about the San Antonio Spurs, who might be the most irrelevant and boring team in the NBA right now. I don’t really know what their goal is, beyond just remaining marginally competitive for as long as Gregg Popovich continues to coach. They appear to be stuck in the NBA’s competitive hell, drafting just enough skilled young role players to get them into the NBA’s lower-middle class while never being bad enough to totally bottom out and draft a star-level player.

In their current form, the Spurs are no threat for the division crown or even to make the playoffs. They’re far from a lock to even make the play-in, especially without DeMar Derozan, who had solidifed himself as the team’s primary playmaker over the last two years. Per Zach Lowe, they have been involved in conversations for Ben Simmons, which I suppose is the type of “all-NBA” (and I mean that with all sarcasm) talent they need to be targeting. But they just have no star-level players that NBA teams need to place themselves in contention.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs-Media Day Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

To be fair, they have a lot of guys that I like. I think Devin Vassell becomes an impactful role player in year 2. Keldon Johnson may have looked like the worst basketball player in human history against the Grizzlies in the play-in last season, but he’s still a superb straight-line driver to the rim. Dejounte Murray has established himself as a perennial all-defense candidate, and Derrick White is an above-average rotation player that Popovich desperately wants you to think is the future of Team USA for some reason. Yet even with all these pieces, they just lack the offensive firepower to be a legitimate threat.

Now we can get to the real meat of the argument for the division crown, which will ultimately come down to the Memphis Grizzlies, New Orleans Pelicans, and Dallas Mavericks.

I’ll go ahead and say that I don’t even feel great about including the Pelicans in this conversation, as they haven’t done anything to inspire confidence over the last two years. For all of the national media’s love affair with Zion Williamson, there’s a reason why the Vegas win total for the Pelicans is only 39.5.

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans-Media Day Andrew Wevers-USA TODAY Sports

Sure, there are reasons for optimism. As Grizzlies fans already know, Jonas Valanciunas is soundly better than Steven Adams. Zion and Brandon Ingram are fantastic offensive talents. Willie Green is a good young coach who will likely be more detail-oriented than Alvin Gentry and a better people’s person than Stan Van Gundy. Young players like Kira Lewis Jr., Jaxson Hayes, Nickeil Alexander-Walker will continue to grow into their roles.

However, they really haven’t addressed their defensive issues from the last two years, in which they finished 21st (111.5) and 23rd (113.7) in defensive efficiency. Valanciunas is a marked if not significant defensive downgrade from Adams. They let go of Lonzo Ball, one of the better off-ball defenders among guards in the league, in a sign-and-trade to bring in Devonte Graham and Tomas Satoransky, who are inferior players on both ends of the court. Zion in particular has generally been bad defensively since coming into the league, and it’d be foolish to expect him to be any better since he’s been out for most of the offseason with a foot injury.

For the Pelicans to be a serious contender for the division crown, there will have to be significant internal improvement, especially since David Griffin just hasn’t improved the roster in any undeniable way. And he better hope that there is, because the clock is ticking on Zion’s time in New Orleans.

Yet even if Zion leaves, there will still likely be at least one other generational talent in the Southwest Division for years to come in Luka Doncic. Which brings me to the Dallas Mavericks!

What a mess.

NBA: Dallas Mavericks-Media Day Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s start with the elephant in the room. Without even getting into Jason Kidd’s issues in his personal life, there’s little reason to believe that he will be a better coach for the Mavericks than Rick Carlisle, who is generally considered one of the best coaches in the league. Kidd made the playoffs just two out of four times in Milwaukee, and the year after he was fired, the Bucks went from 44 wins to 60 wins and an Eastern Conference Finals appearance with little roster turnover. He tried to make Giannis Antetokounmpo into a true point guard, he caused Larry Sanders to quit basketball, and he criminally underacheived with the group he had.

He’s bad.

Even looking past Kidd’s poor coaching, his...shall we say... abrasive attitude in general doesn’t inspire confidence that he will connect well with Luka. It came out last year that Luka and Carlisle didn’t get along, which isn’t surprising in hindsight. Carlisle is a demanding, domineering personality, and Luka is an entitled, bratty phenom who also rightfully knows that he’s the face of the franchise and maybe even the face of the league itself in time. Now maybe Luka will have more regard for Kidd, who is a future Hall-of-Famer in his own right. But considering Kidd’s past interpersonal issues, it’s hard to imagine them getting along.

NBA: Dallas Mavericks-Media Day Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Beyond their coaching downgrade, the Mavericks only made lateral moves at best this offseason. They allowed Josh Richardson to walk in free agency and brought in two shooters in Reggie Bullock and Sterling Brown. I’m more bullish on Richardson than most Mavs fans were last year, as he’s still a superb defensive wing who can create off the bounce even if he only shot 33% from three last year. Yet the Mavericks put more of a priority in continuing to surround Luka with shooters, which I’ll concede makes sense when you have a generational playmaker.

But the main problem for me is not necessarily what the Mavericks did, but rather what they didn’t do. Bullock and Sterling are solid, but the Mavs didn’t have a problem with putting shooters around Luka last year — they were 8th in the league in 3PM. What they need is a reliable secondary playmaker who can take pressure off of Luka; it’s why they ultimately fell apart in the playoffs. And I don’t think that 35-year-old Goran Dragic with constant lower body issues is the answer to their problem.

So when you take Jason Kidd, stagnant roster moves, and a reliance on the health/confidence of Kristaps Porzingis all into account, I think the Mavericks will take at least a minor step back from their 42-30 (48-win pace in a normal season) record from a year ago.

If they do so, then the door is wide open for the Memphis Grizzlies to take the division crown.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies-Media Day Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

The Grizzlies just have fewer question marks than the other teams in their division. Jaren Jackson Jr. is obviously the biggest one — especially since he’ll be asked to take on a more significant offensive role in the absence of Jonas Valanciunas — but I’m willing to bet that he takes a significant leap after having his first fully healthy offseason since before his rookie year. Ja Morant proved himself as a bonafide star at the end of last season, and he seems destined for his first All-Star appearance. De’Anthony Melton and Desmond Bane among others figure to take leaps from extremely productive seasons as well. Kyle Anderson and Dillon Brooks will continue to be superb two-way players.

Without having Jaren Jackson Jr. for most of the season, the Grizzlies went 38-34 last season, which was a 44-win pace in a normal season. With having an improved, healthy Jaren in the fold as well as expected internal improvement from key young players, it won’t at all be surprising if the Grizzlies win somewhere between 47-50 games and win their first division title in franchise history. In fact, I’d go so far to say it should be expected.

And if it happens, maybe it’ll placate some annoying Nashville sportswriters when the Grizzlies want to retire Ja Morant’s jersey in 20 years.

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