We are officially in the All-Star Break across the NBA. The league’s premier regular season event, NBA All-Star Weekend is upon us. And the Memphis Grizzlies will be well-represented in the festivities, with both Desmond Bane (Rising Stars and Three-Point Contest) and Ja Morant (starter in the All-Star Game) showing out each night of the NBA’s weekend-long celebration of professional basketball at its highest level. It is fitting that the Grizzlies are going to have a hand in the outcome every night in some way, shape, or form - Memphis is currently near the top of the NBA mountain, boasting a franchise-best record at the All-Star Break of 41-19. That record ties the 2014-2015 Grizzlies (arguably the peak of the Grit and Grind Era) for best winning percentage in Memphis franchise history.
Rarified air, to be sure. For the third straight season, the Grizzlies have done better than just about everyone expected them to. Even the most optimistic observer of Memphis basketball surely did not have THIS in mind for the upcoming campaign when preview think pieces were written up months ago.
For proof, let’s revisit my preview for the season going back to this past November. Was I right? Wrong? Somewhere inbetween?
We begin with the best-case scenario from that piece, which you can read in its totality here...
The Grizzlies find themselves outside of the Play-In Tournament for the first time in the Ja Morant Era - as a solid top-6 team in the Western Conference. Morant is an All-Star, Jaren Jackson Jr. is a legitimate Most Improved Player candidate, and the key role players around the team continue their internal improvement while new players like Steven Adams and Ziaire Williams contribute at a high level. The future remains bright.
Unsurprisingly to those reading this, we are very much living in the best-case scenario. Ja Morant is not only an All-Star, he is an MVP candidate. Jaren isn’t perhaps a MIP frontrunner (that seems to be Desmond Bane), but he likely is one for the Defensive Player of the Year Award. And Taylor Jenkins should be on everyone’s short-list for Coach of the Year. Mentioning Steven Adams (or AquaMane, what a great nickname) and Ziaire Williams is the icing on the cake - these two have done quite well of late as starters alongside Ja/Desmond/Jaren. So much so, in fact, that there is a growing call to make Dillon Brooks the sixth man for this team upon his return in a few weeks from his ankle injury.
There will be more time for that conversation, though. On to the worst-case scenario.
The Grizzlies find themselves outside of the Play-In Tournament for the first time in the Ja Morant Era - An 11 or worse seed due to injury and regression. Ja Morant does not take the leap, Jaren Jackson Jr. is unable to stay on the floor, key future rotation players like Desmond Bane do not get better, and the coaching staff struggles without last season’s offensive security blanket Jonas Valanciunas. The future, for the first time in years, is bleak.
Thankfully literally none of this has happened. The team is thriving, in part taking advantage of the void left behind offensively by Jonas Valanciunas’ skilled (but limiting of offensive ceiling for others on the roster) play and growing in to improved offensive production. Memphis is not perfect - three point and foul shooting must improve, as well as half court offense. But the Grizzlies could lose every game the rest of the way and finish .500. Safe to say, the playoffs are probably a lock at this stage, much less the play-in.
Now, for my most likely scenario prediction.
The Grizzlies find themselves inside of the Play-In Tournament for the third time in the Ja Morant Era - in the mix for any range of postseason seeding from 7-10. Morant remains on the periphery of the All-Star conversation but remains outside due to the old guard of NBA guards still around. Jaren Jackson Jr. does indeed make the leap, and other players continue to improve, but the team misses the regular season stability of play that Jonas Valanciunas provided. The franchise progresses - but progress in the NBA is not always linear.
This was the wide held belief of a majority of folks that covered the Grizzlies both locally and nationally. Some were a bit sunnier than I, predicting a 6 seed avoidance of the play-in. But logic dictated that the team would miss Jonas Valanciunas, and perhaps even Grayson Allen, as they were two players that started a lot of basketball games for the Grizzlies in the 2020-2021 season. The Memphis defense struggled early more than anything, but that has fully turned around (from worst in the NBA to 7th in defensive efficiency is impressive) and not the Grizzlies boast both a top-10 offensive (5th, to be precise) and defensive rating in the NBA. That is NBA Finals-level play.
That also wasn’t the most likely outcome when the season began. But here we are...and it is a great thing to be wrong about.
Next up in the season preview was what I was most excited about. I am proud to say, I nailed this one as well.
Ja Morant is extremely fun. The Memphis Grizzlies are quite clearly his team, and they continue to take on his mentality as an explosively competitive and unapologetically audacious group of young players trying to crash the NBA hierarchy’s postseason party years before they’re supposed to. But for that to continue, Morant must keep getting better - especially as a shooter and defender. He is almost certainly up to the challenge.
The best part of being right here is that Morant has done exactly what I hoped he would. He is a much bigger threat from beyond the arc - 33% from three is about the same as his rookie season, but he is doing it on a larger volume of 4.5 attempts per game now. He also is a more opportunistic defender, posting career highs in steals and blocks per 100 possessions. He won’t be mistaken for Steph Curry as a shooter, or Jrue Holiday as a defender. But he is improved in those areas, while still being able to get to the basket at will off the dribble and facilitate offense in the process.
He’s not just extremely fun. He is the most fun player in the NBA right now. For the entire NBA world to witness that Sunday night is something to be excited about.
End of Season Win-Loss Prediction and Seeding - Start of season
42-40, 8th seed in the Western Conference
They are a win away from 42 at the All-Star Break! My biggest underestimation (and yet, I still took the over of 41.5 before the season, so technically I was still right). The team gelled far faster and more efficiently than anyone could have predicted. Desmond Bane legitimately looks like the “third man” so many (myself included) hypothesized was needed for this group to take such a leap. Everyone that has played for the Grizzlies this season has stepped up their game.
It is time for an adjustment.
I have the Grizzlies going 13-9 over their final 22 games, giving them a record of 54-28. That will be good enough to narrowly beat out the Golden State Warriors, who I have going 11-12 to finish out their season, making them 53-29. Memphis will be the 2 seed in the Western Conference.
One Final Bet
The DraftKings Sportsbook currently has the Memphis Grizzlies at +1100 to win the Western Conference and make the NBA Finals. That’s fascinating, considering that since Christmas no one has won at the level Memphis has in the NBA except the Phoenix Suns. While Phoenix has earned the right to be the prohibitive favorite to make the NBA Finals again, beyond the Suns who in the Western Conference has a better claim to being a favorite to get to the Finals than the Grizzlies? Golden State is banged up and Memphis has beaten them this season. Same goes for the Jazz, the Nuggets, the LA teams, the Mavericks (who were intimidating until they traded away their 7’3” equalizer that game Memphis just a hard time in Kristaps Porzingis)...there are no clear cut favorites outside of Phoenix.
The Memphis Grizzlies can’t make the NBA Finals?
All in all, not a bad set of predictions. This does serve as a reminder to appreciate what fans of the Memphis Grizzlies have, however. Outside of a year or two of wandering aimlessly while not trading Tyreke Evans and trying to talk ourselves in to Jevon Carter, the franchise has avoided the long rebuild that usually accompanies the end of an extremely successful era. The Memphis Grizzlies, before last season’s play-in win, last made the playoffs in 2017. After just three years away, Memphis returned to the party. This year, the plan appears to be to crash the whole dang thing.
Ja Morant being a perfect fit for the Grizzlies franchise is a stroke of luck. But beyond the lottery night for the ages, Memphis has built this roster from the ground up. Smart personnel move after smart personnel move, developmental decision with the interest of the “long view” in minds after developmental decision, GM Zach Kleiman and company have this team in one of the most enviable positions in all of sports.
Win? Get to the NBA Finals? You’re the best team in Grizzlies history while simultaneously being the second youngest.
Lose? You see what you need to take that next step, and have the assets and flexibility to get those transactions done.
It all leads to the realization that things are indeed going that well for the Memphis Grizzlies. And with three years of overachieving on their resume, perhaps that trend will indeed continue in to May and June. A precedent has been set that while the future looks beautiful, we must be sure to enjoy the view now as well.
For those greater days we felt we ahead of us may be arriving sooner than we all thought.
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