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Examining the Grizzlies’ place in the Western Conference: Part One

Even the bottom of the Western Conference has loads of talent.

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2022-23 Memphis Grizzlies Media Day Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

After spending the 2010s as a second-tier contender in the Western Conference, the Memphis Grizzlies emerged as one of the best in the West in 2022. For much of the 2010s, the Spurs, Warriors, Thunder, and Rockets were the West’s top contenders, and while the Trailblazers, Grizzlies, and Clippers were perennial playoff teams, they were usually considered a tier below the others.

Years later, the landscape of the league looks much different. Once lopsided, the NBA’s surge in talent has balanced the conferences. The East, which once lacked depth and was annually dominated by LeBron James, is as stacked as ever. The West, like its eastern counterpart, is loaded and the path to the Finals is wide open. The list of title contenders from the West alone runs seven or eight teams deep.

With players like Kawhi Leonard, Zion Williamson and Jamal Murray returning from injury, it is hard to see Memphis landing the two-seed again. However, the Grizzlies are still in the mix to contend. The bottom of the conference is clear but it quickly becomes difficult to predict how the rest will shake out. Memphis’s ascent last season was unexpected. Expectations are high. In a conference full of volatile teams, where do the Grizz fit in?

Victor Wembanyama Season

San Antonio Spurs, Utah Jazz, Oklahoma City Thunder

The tank is on for Victor Wembanyama. The 18-year-old Frenchman stands at 7’5” with an eight-foot wingspan. Wembanyama has the size of an elite big man, while possessing the shooting skills and ball handling of a wing. The Spurs, Jazz and Thunder are in a three-team race for one of the league’s best prospects in recent memory. While there are weak teams in the East, no teams have prepared to lose like these three.

The Spurs have already traded All-Star point guard Dejounte Murray this offseason and there are rumors the team is shopping Jakob Poeltl. The Spurs declined an offer from Atlanta that would have sent John Collins to San Antonio in exchange for Murray. Ultimately, they accepted an offer including draft compensation and Danilo Gallinari, who they waived soon after. San Antonio’s transactions seem to suggest they do not intend to win games in 2022.

San Antonio is not the only team that has traded away All-Stars to prepare for next year’s draft. The Jazz blew it up this offseason trading Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert. They also traded away Royce O’Neale and Bojan Bogdanovic, two starters from last year’s playoff team. It appears they are also fielding offers for Mike Conley and Jordan Clarkson. Danny Ainge, Utah’s general manager, has accumulated a mountain of first-round picks and the Jazz seem ready for a total rebuild.

For the third straight season, it appears the Thunder will look toward the draft. Chet Holmgren, the second overall pick, is out for the entire season after suffering a foot injury at a pro-am. The game was August 20 and Holmgren was ruled out for the season five days later. That means the Thunder expect his recovery to at least take eight months. OKC is clearly being very cautious with this injury and is already looking ahead to the 2023 draft. With a core of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Josh Giddey, and Holmgren, it seemed Oklahoma City was ready to compete for the play-in tournament, but with Chet gone for the year and SGA set to miss the start of training camp, the Thunder are likely headed for another bottom five finish.

Houston Rockets v Sacramento Kings Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

Potential Play-in Teams

Houston Rockets, Portland Trailblazers, Sacramento Kings

The implementation of the play-in tournament has undoubtedly increased competition toward the bottom of each conference. The Rockets, Trailblazers and Kings are three teams that could find themselves in the mix for the nine or 10 seed. What makes this tier of Western Conference teams so interesting is how differently constructed each squad is.

Houston is full of young talent that could propel them into play-in contention immediately. Jalen Green and Jabari Smith, both of whom are top-three picks from the past two drafts, will star for the Rockets. With Kevin Porter Jr., Alperen Şengün, Tari Eason, and other young studs rounding out its roster, Houston could be one of the NBA’s biggest surprises in 2022.

The Portland Trailblazers and Damian Lillard will be back in the playoff picture in 2022. After a lost season with Lillard on the sidelines last year, the ‘Blazers added Jerami Grant and Gary Payton II in the offseason. Lillard, Anfernee Simons, Payton, Grant, and Jusuf Nurkic are a formidable lineup that will certainly be in the playoff picture, if healthy.

For years, Sacramento has been desperate to compete, and even reaching the play-in tournament would be an achievement for the Kings. After the Kings traded for Sabonis at the trade deadline, De’Aaron Fox played the best basketball of his career. From February 16 to the end of the season, Fox averaged 29.6 points on 50.5 FG% and 37% from beyond the arc. He also averaged 7.7 assists and 4.4 rebounds. Sabonis was an All-Star in 2020 and 2021 and averaged 18.9 points and 12.3 rebounds after joining the Kings. Sacramento added Keegan Murray, Kevin Huerter, and Malik Monk in the offseason. With these roster additions, the Kings promise to be competitive in 2022.

NBA: Los Angeles Lakers-Media Day Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The LeBron James Tier

Los Angeles Lakers

It is unlikely the Lakers are going to be a good basketball team in 2022, but their potential alone makes it worth putting them in a different tier than the Kings, Rockets and Trailblazers. There may be very little to like about LA’s roster but at the end of the day, they have LeBron James and Anthony Davis. They have struggled to stay healthy since winning the Finals in 2020 but it is hard to deny that the Lakers still have one of the league’s best tandems. What will happen with Russell Westbrook remains unclear, but if James and Davis manage to stay on the court, the Lakers are certainly a playoff contender.

Grizzlies fans can rest easy knowing Memphis will not be in the Wembanyama sweepstakes, nor will they have to worry about making the Play-in tournament. The Grizzlies are considerably better than the West’s bottom seven teams and while adding Wembanyama to Memphis’s core would be nice, the Grizz are ready to win now. How Memphis matches up with the rest of the Western Conference, a collection of well-rounded, star-led teams, is the real question Grizzlies fans should be asking. Each team in the top eight presents different challenges for the Grizzlies, and Memphis will have to exceed expectations once again if they want to remain competitive in the Western Conference.

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