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A championship in Memphis starts with the starters

If they can ever play together...

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NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Memphis Grizzlies Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

At this point, it’s fair to wonder if there’s some type of malevolent presence that desires to keep the Memphis Grizzlies starting lineup from playing together. It’s not just the fact that they haven’t played a single game together this year; it’s the circumstances behind why they can’t play together.

Jaren Jackson Jr. suffers a stress fracture in his foot and has to miss the first month of the season? Okay, that’s terrible, but it’s understandable. Dillon Brooks misses the first six games of the season due to a thigh issue? Sure, nothing crazy there. But Desmond Bane then suffers apparently the worst toe injury in NBA history two days before Jaren is to make his season debut? That’s just comical. Come on, I’ve seen Hocus Pocus; I know a hex when I see one.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Detroit Pistons Allison Farrand-USA TODAY Sports

Of course, this hasn’t just been an issue this season. Injuries meant that the normal Grizzlies starting lineup of Ja Morant-Desmond Bane-Dillon Brooks-Jaren Jackson Jr.-Steven Adams only played 108 minutes together last season, which was less than half the amount of their most frequently-used starting lineup, which included Ziaire Williams in place of Brooks.

Over the last few years, the Grizzlies have consistently demonstrated that they are one of the deepest teams in the league, with the latest example being a win over the Miami Heat with seven (!!) rotation players missing. Their record without Ja Morant last year (20-5) was a stunning testament to the organization’s culture and emphasis on player development.

However, there’s only so much that depth in and of itself can empower a team to achieve. Depth is a regular season luxury, not a postseason necessity. All the pundits and fans claiming that the Grizzlies may be better without Ja Morant last year suddenly got very quiet when the team was unable to consistently score in the half-court against Golden State in their Game 4 and Game 6 losses. Stars matter, and having your stars available matters just as much. That’s not a revolutionary statement, but it’s worth repeating all the same.

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Memphis Grizzlies Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

Because of their depth, the Grizzlies can survive a few injuries, even in the postseason like they did last year. But if they are going to make—and win—their first NBA Finals appearance this season, they will need their full starting five to be available. Since 2010, every single NBA champion had their entire normal starting lineup available for every single game of the Finals. That should come as no surprise; the margin for error, or injury in this case, becomes much smaller at the highest level of basketball. The 2019 Warriors, the 2015 Cavaliers, and the 2010 Celtics learned this the hard way and are left to always wonder “what if” as a result.

To be sure, the starting lineup of the Memphis Grizzlies is good enough to win an NBA championship. Over the first two seasons of the Taylor Jenkins/Ja Morant era, the Grizzlies had enough depth down the roster to overachieve but not enough punch at the top of the roster to contend. That changed entirely last year, as the Grizzlies maintained their impressive depth while Morant became a bonafide superstar, Jaren turned into a true two-way virtuoso, and Bane emerged as a third star.

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Memphis Grizzlies Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

The numbers are staggering. Over 232 possessions in 108 minutes, the Morant-Bane-Brooks-Jackson-Adams lineup had a +25.1 net rating, which ranked in the 99th percentile among five-man lineups. For context, no NBA champion’s most commonly used lineup has had such a high net rating going as far back as 2010.

Here are the net ratings of the most frequently-used lineups of every recent NBA champion:

  • 2009-10 Los Angeles Lakers (Derek Fisher-Kobe Bryant-Metta World Peace-Pau Gasol-Andrew Bynum): +12.7
  • 2010-11 Dallas Mavericks: (J.J Barea, Jason Terry, Shawn Marion, Dirk Nowitzki, Tyson Chandler): +16.4
  • 2011-12 Miami Heat: (Mario Chalmers, Dwayne Wade, LeBron James, Joel Anthony, Chris Bosh): +10.3
  • 2012-13 Miami Heat: (Mario Chalmers, Dwayne Wade, LeBron James, Udonis Haslem, Chris Bosh): +12.1
  • 2013-14 San Antonio Spurs: (Tony Parker, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Tim Duncan, Tiago Splitter): +14.2
  • 2014-15 Golden State Warriors: (Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, Draymond Green, Andrew Bogut): +19.5
  • 2015-16 Cleveland Cavaliers: (Kyrie Irving, J.R. Smith, LeBron James, Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson): +13.2
  • 2016-17 Golden State Warriors: (Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green): +23.7
  • 2017-18 Golden State Warriors: (Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green): +9.2
  • 2018-19 Toronto Raptors: (Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Pascal Siakam, Serge Ibaka): +10.7
  • 2019-20 Los Angeles Lakers: (Avery Bradley, Danny Green, LeBron James, Anthony Davis, JaVale McGee): +12.2
  • 2020-21 Milwaukee Bucks: (Jrue Holliday, Donte DiVencenzo, Khris Middleton, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Brook Lopez): +8.2
  • 2021-22 Golden State Warriors: (Stephen Curry, Jordan Poole, Andrew Wiggins, Draymond Green, Kevon Looney): +7.2

Granted, this isn’t a perfect methodology. Memphis’ normal starting lineup would have probably experienced some minor regression if they had been able to play most of the season together last year; I’m not quite ready to say the Grizzlies will be able to employ the best five-man lineup in recent NBA history when they’re fully healthy.

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Memphis Grizzlies Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

Still, the sample size is significant enough to come to a clear conclusion: The Memphis Grizzlies aren’t just good; they’re elite. They’re not just deep; they pack a nasty punch from the top down. They may be young, but their time is now. And if they can overcome their health woes, they may hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy in June.

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