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The Memphis Grizzlies are at the gate

Faster than anyone could have expected.

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NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Portland Trail Blazers Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

I want to wind the clocks back to October 27th, 2016. It was the season-opener of the 2016-2017 season for the Memphis Grizzlies, and they ended up beating the Minnesota Timberwolves in a thrilling 102-98 win for what was only their second opening-night win since the franchise had come to Memphis.

Yet the win itself was not the main story of that night, nor was it the fact that Marc Gasol had suddenly become a three-point shooter. No, the main takeaway was that Wade Baldwin IV, the team’s 17th pick in the 2016 draft, was going to be a star. In his first NBA game, he totaled 3 steals and 3 blocks, which was something that no rookie had ever done in NBA history. In the eyes of Grizzlies fans, he had it all: Explosive athleticism, quality shooting touch, and—above all else—star swagger.

He ended up playing 56 total NBA games over 3 seasons, and he now plays for Baskonia in EuroLeague.

2018 NBA Summer League - Las Vegas - Memphis Grizzlies v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

While it wasn’t necessarily wrong to have high expectations for a player like Baldwin, his short story of an NBA career after that memorable night in 2016 serves as a parable of sorts for us: Whether in sports or life in general, it’s never wise to be a prisoner of the moment. You should never get too high or too low depending on what your present circumstances are.

In the spirit of self-deprecation, I’ll say that I didn’t apply that truth well during the early stretch of this NBA season, as I ended up making unfairly harsh judgments about the state of the Memphis Grizzlies. To a certain degree, it was understandable; they were on average getting blown out every three games, and Jaren Jackson Jr. in particular looked nothing like the player he was supposed to be offensively. Even with the benefit of hindsight, I don’t think it was absurd to wonder whether the team was tuning out Taylor Jenkins or if Jaren wasn’t suited for potential stardom in Memphis. (Site Manager’s note: It was.)

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Portland Trail Blazers Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

However, it’s become exceedingly clear that those judgments were premature. Of course, there are probably some who will accuse me of swinging to the other end of the overreaction pendulum. But 29 games is enough time and data to make a pronouncement on who an NBA team truly is.

The Memphis Grizzlies are contenders.

No, they aren’t favorites to come out of the Western Conference, and I wouldn’t place them as top-tier contenders in the West along with the Golden State Warriors, Phoenix Suns, and Utah Jazz. But I think they can be safely considered to be peripheral, lower-tier contenders that could possibly advance to the NBA Finals if circumstances broke their way—like the Atlanta Hawks last year or even the Grizzlies throughout many of the peak years of the Grit and Grind era. I definitely think the comparison to past great Grizzlies teams in particular is warranted considering that this year’s team is likely to accomplish something that those teams never did—win the Southwest division (which I predicted!).

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Portland Trail Blazers Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

Now let me be clear: I don’t believe all of this just because of how great the Grizzlies have been as they are 9-1 in their 10 games without Ja Morant. Because absolutely none of this incredible run has made much sense. The Grizzlies may be “playing harder”, as Xavier Tillman put it, in the absence of Ja Morant, but that doesn’t really explain some of these comical numbers over the last 10 games.

  • They have a +18.6 net rating, which is significantly greater than that of the 1996 Bulls (+13.4) and the 2017 Warriors (+11.7).
  • They beat the Oklahoma City Thunder by 73 points, the largest margin of victory in the history of North American professional sports.
  • They are first in almost every single statistical category.
  • John Konchar has inexplicably turned into Purdue-Fort Wayne’s version of Ray Allen, shooting 80% from three on his last 20 attempts.

I wouldn’t dare speculate on whether someone in the Grizzlies organization made a deal with the devil after Morant got hurt. I’m just strongly insinuating that it’s a possibility.

Regardless, this sample size of incredible play is fascinating. It’s not large enough to make any sweeping, grandiose claims about how the Grizzlies are actually better without Ja Morant (author’s note: they are not) or have actually been a sleeping giant. But it is significant enough to say that the Grizzlies have figured out their issues from ealier in the season, especially on the defensive end.

NBA: Sacramento Kings at Memphis Grizzlies Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

Of course, the Grizzlies are probably not the best defense in the NBA like they have been over the last 10 games (96.4 defensive rating). But they are clearly trending upward from earlier in the season when they suffered from severely unlucky shooting variance, which included opponents shooting an absurd league-best 42% on contested pull-up threes through their first 20 games. Even now, the Grizzlies are first in the league in steals (10.3) and blocks (6.0) for the season as a whole. They had their issues, but they were more unlucky than anything else, and they are now reaping the blessings of the law of averages.

When it’s all said and done, the Grizzlies will likely rank defensively somewhere between where they did last year (7th) and two years ago (14th). In just the span of 10 games, they have climbed from 30th in defensive efficiency all the way to 16th. And while they won’t continue to defend at this absurd level, they will continue to trend upward the rest of the season toward where they were last year. As defensively challenged as he might be, the return of Ja Morant will not complicate that.

The return of Ja Morant will also help the Grizzlies solidify the nirvana that they have reached on the offensive end of the court. Even in his absence, they have still managed to remain at 5th in offensive efficiency (108.8). While the Grizzlies can’t conceivably play much better than they are currently, adding a potentially All-NBA caliber point guard back into the mix will help solidify their standing.

And where the Memphis Grizzlies ultimately stand is at the door of true title contention. That’s not a ‘prisoner of the moment’ take. Rather it’s what their statistical profile for their entire season to this point—not just their last 10 games—indicates.

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at Memphis Grizzlies Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

This becomes apparent when glancing at the numbers of some other great teams in recent history. The defending champion Milwaukee Bucks ranked 6th in offense but 10th in defense. The 2019-20 Toronto Raptors were 2nd in defense but 14th in offense. The Grizzlies are currently a step below these teams at 5th in offense and 16th in defense, but they aren’t a steep step below them and still have plenty of room to improve, especially on the defensive end. They also more or less have an inversely similar profile to the Grizzlies teams of the Grit and Grind era, who usually finished in the top-5 in defensive efficiency and between 15-20th in offense.

With all of this in mind: I’ll end on a tantalizing question: If the Memphis Grizzlies are already on the brink of contention in year 3 of a rebuild in which winning at the highest level is not the top priority, then what can they accomplish as Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. enter their primes?

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