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

The Grizzlies are among the West’s best.

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NBA: Playoffs-Golden State Warriors at Memphis Grizzlies Joe Rondone-USA TODAY Sports

The Grizzlies may not end up as the two-seed again but they are certainly better than the bottom seven teams in the West. The top eight teams are where it gets particularly blurry. Each team has a high ceiling, but they also have question marks that make picking a favorite especially difficult. So as Grizzlies fans try to project where Memphis will finish in the Western Conference, it is helpful to look at recent history and how each roster compares.

Playoff Locks

Minnesota Timberwolves Introduce Rudy Gobert Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

Minnesota Timberwolves

After losing in six games to the Grizzlies in the first round, the Timberwolves went all in, trading the farm for Rudy Gobert. Minnesota is certainly better after the trade but that does not mean they should have made the move. The Wolves were the seven-seed last season and lost in the first round. Anthony Edwards, arguably their best player, is 21 and yet to hit his prime. While the trade makes them more competitive in the short term, when Edwards is in his prime in a couple of years, Gobert will be in his mid-30s, and Minnesota has traded away their best assets. However, it could be argued that the deal propelled the Wolves past the Grizzlies in the West’s hierarchy. Edwards is only going to get better and adding an All-Star center, like Gobert, will maximize Karl-Anthony Towns’s abilities.

Ja Morant and the Grizzlies won six straight games against the Wolves, before splitting last year’s regular season series. Minnesota will win a lot of regular season games, but Gobert’s playoffs history suggests the Wolves could be an early exit.

NBA: Playoffs-Dallas Mavericks at Golden State Warriors Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

Dallas Mavericks

After upsetting the Suns in the Western Conference Semifinals, the Mavericks had an interesting offseason. Dallas added Christian Wood via trade but lost Jalen Brunson in free agency. The Mavs drafted Jaden Hardy with the 37th pick and signed Javale McGee, who will reportedly start for Dallas. They came three games away from reaching the NBA Finals and have Luka Dončić, one of the best players in the league. However, they did not make a big move to push them over the hump. Losing Brunson is a real blow, and it appears Jason Kidd’s squad will lean on development to ensure last year’s Western Conference Finals run was not a fluke.

The Mavs have dominated the Grizzlies as of late. Since Morant’s rookie year, Memphis is 3-7 against the Mavericks. Surprisingly, Dončić has not been crushing the Grizz. He has averaged 24.8 points, 8.4 rebounds and 7.4 assists on 46.8 FG% and 27.9% from beyond the arc. That is obviously still a great stat line but, to compare, Dončić has averaged 28.3 points, 8.8 rebounds and 8.7 assists on 46.6 FG% and 34.1% against the rest of the league since 2019. Against Memphis, it has been role players like Tim Hardaway Jr., Dorian Finney-Smith and Dwight Powell who have given Dallas the upper hand.

While Dallas has the best player of the two teams, Memphis matches up evenly with the Mavericks. The Grizzlies have a much better supporting cast around Morant, but Dončić looks to be in the best shape of his career so expect Memphis and Dallas to be neck and neck in the standings.

Phoenix Suns

It has not been a pretty off-season for the Phoenix Suns. After an early playoff exit, the Suns have faced one obstacle after another. Deandre Ayton’s time in Phoenix seemed as if it had come to an end, but Phoenix surprisingly matched the Pacers’ offer sheet for their star center. It appeared Ayton was on his way out, but Phoenix opted to keep its core together and run it back. Unfortunately, Ayton would be the least of the Suns’ off-season problems.

Earlier this month, Suns owner Robert Sarver was suspended and fined $10 million for workplace misconduct. After Adam Silver took heat for defending the NBA’s light sentencing, it was announced that Sarver will start the process of selling the franchise. The cloud of Sarver’s misconduct and the looming sale of the Suns cannot be a good omen. Additionally, Jae Crowder, who has been a valuable veteran for Phoenix, seems to be on the trade block. If the Suns are not able to get a role player back for Crowder, they will rely on Dario Saric and Cameron Johnson to step up.

Last year was Phoenix’s best shot at a championship. Chris Paul is 37 and has a lot of miles on him and unless he is able to maintain his excellence, it is hard to see Phoenix having the regular season success they had last year. The Grizzlies won two of their three meetings against Phoenix last year. The GrzNxtGen are 6-4 against the Suns, and Grizzlies fans will not forget when Memphis’s reserves beat Phoenix’s starters last season.

Paul and Devin Booker and Morant and Desmond Bane are two of the best backcourts in the league. Jackson versus Ayton is an intriguing matchup, because the talented big men were drafted three picks from each other in 2018. The mirroring of the two rosters does not stop there; both sides have talented two-way forwards. Ziaire Williams and Brooks will match up with Mikal Bridges and Johnson. Each side is loaded with talent and either team could make a run in the playoffs, so expect some close regular season matchups between the two squads.

2022 NBA Playoffs - Golden State Warriors v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

Memphis Grizzlies

While it is reasonable to think that the Grizzlies took a step back this offseason, there are plenty of reasons for optimism. The Grizzlies did not make a big signing or trade but another year of development for Memphis’s core is an addition in itself. Morant, Bane and Jackson are all still under 25 and yet to hit their prime. Williams will be better with a year under his belt and the Grizzlies resigned Tyus Jones to head their bench unit. The Grizz have exciting rookies and still have the assets to make a big trade when the next disgruntled star becomes available. Losing De’Anthony Melton and Kyle Anderson hurts but Memphis’s front office operates with unwavering confidence and they felt it was time to move on.

The Grizzlies were 36-16 against the Western Conference last season and 8-7 against the Mavericks, Pelicans, Timberwolves and Suns. If Memphis hopes to compete for a championship, it will need to have a similar record against Western Conference contenders.

Memphis is neck and neck with the rest of the teams in this tier. The Timberwolves, Pelicans, Mavericks, Suns and Grizzlies all possess championship-upside but they also have question marks. Whether it is injuries, roster fits or off-the-court problems, each team in this tier has obstacles that could prevent them from reaching their potential.

If Everyone is Healthy...

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans-Media Day Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

New Orleans Pelicans

With Zion Williamson healthy, New Orleans can field what might be the best starting lineup in the NBA: CJ McCollum, Herbert Jones, Brandon Ingram, Williamson and Jonas Valančiūnas. The Pelicans showed how talented they are when they took the one-seed Phoenix Suns to six games last season. New Orleans has a fantastic bench unit composed of players like Jose Alvarado, Jaxson Hayes, Dyson Daniels, EJ Liddell, Trey Murphy III, Larry Nance Jr. and Kira Lewis Jr.

Valančiūnas, a beloved former Grizzly, was dominant in New Orleans last season, averaging 17.8 points and 11.4 rebounds. Ingram, the Most Improved Player in 2020, had a dip in three-point percentage last year but is still a lethal scorer from midrange. He has given Memphis trouble in the past but with a healthy Dillon Brooks, the Grizzlies should be able to slow down BI. Jaren Jackson Jr. will be vital to Memphis’s matchups against New Orleans. With Valančiūnas and Williamson in the paint, the Grizz will need one of the league’s best shot blockers to hold down the interior.

Since 2019, the Grizzlies are 4-6 against the Pelicans. However, Memphis has won the last three games by an average of 20 points. The recent history between these two teams should create some fascinating matchups in 2022, and if New Orleans is fully healthy, the Grizzlies will have their hands full.

Dallas Mavericks v Denver Nuggets Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

Denver Nuggets

After making an incredible run to the Western Conference Finals in 2020, the Nuggets have been plagued by injuries. Jamal Murray tore his ACL in April 2021 and missed the entire 2021-2022 season rehabbing the injury. Michael Porter Jr. broke out in the NBA bubble and continued his rise in 2021. He averaged 19 points on 62.8 FG% and 44.5% from beyond the arc. His improvements were rewarded with a five-year/ $207M max contract extension. The contract was divisive. Giving so much money after such a small sample size to a player with an injury history, like Porter, seemed risky. Critics’ concerns were realized when Porter only played nine games last season after being shut down with a back injury.

Last year, led by the league MVP, Nikola Jokic, the Nuggets finished as the sixth seed. Without two of their three best players. Jokic did not have much help, so come playoff time, Denver was no match for the Warriors, who they lost to in five games. After winning MVP in 2021, the Joker only got better. He averaged 27.1 points, 13.8 rebounds and 7.9 assists. If Jokic got Denver to 48 wins with Aaron Gordon, Will Barton and Monte Morris as his best teammates, the Nuggets’ upside with Murray and Porter back is tremendous.

Over the offseason, Denver traded Barton and Morris for Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Ish Smith. In free agency, they added Bruce Brown and Deandre Jordan, and they drafted Christian Braun with the 21st pick. Brown, KCP and Braun are all additions that should thrive playing off of Jokic.

It is hard to measure how Denver and Memphis will match up this season. The last time the Grizzlies faced a healthy Nuggets squad was March 12, 2021. Murray shot 1-14 but Denver won 103-102 thanks to a 28/15/7 performance from Jokic. The Grizzlies went 0-3 against Denver in 2021 but played starting lineups consisting of Grayson Allen and Xavier Tillman. Last year, Memphis went 3-1 against the Nuggets, including a game where Morant scored 38 points with 6 assists and 6 rebounds.

Memphis and Denver will play each other three times this season, with the first game scheduled for December 20. All signs are pointing to Jackson being back from injury by then and Denver should have their big three healthy. Memphis and Denver will be very close in the standings but if Murray and Porter are back to their old selves, the Nuggets could win their first NBA championship.

NBA: Los Angeles Clippers-Media Day Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Los Angeles Clippers

It is now year four of the Kawhi Leonard-Paul George experience in LA and the Clippers are yet to make the NBA Finals. The Clippers went all in in 2019, when they traded Danilo Gallinari, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and five first round picks to pair the All-NBA forwards. In the three seasons since, the two have only played 80 games together.

In 2020, NBA fans were clamoring for the battle of LA between the Lakers and the Clippers. However, before the teams could meet in the playoffs, the Clippers blew a 3-1 lead to the Nuggets in the Western Conference Semifinals. It was an embarrassing loss, but the collapse could be pinned on the mental and physical toll the NBA Bubble had on players.

In 2021, Tyronn Lue replaced Doc Rivers as the head coach and the Clippers finished as the fourth seed in the West. They went down 2-0 to the Mavericks but climbed back to win the series in seven games. In the second round, the Clippers went down 2-0 gainst the one-seed Jazz. Again, Los Angeles came back, taking the next four games, despite losing Leonard to injury in the closing minutes of Game 4. Leonard’s injury turned out to be a partial ACL. The injury kept him out of the rest of the 2021 playoffs and for the entire 2021-2022 season. Paul George averaged 29.6 points, 11 rebounds and 5.6 assists in eight games without Kawhi Leonard in the playoffs but ultimately LA came up short against Phoenix, losing in six games.

Last season, the Clippers remained competitive without Leonard but once George injured his elbow in December of last year. The Clippers missed the playoffs after going 0-2 in the Play-in Tournament. Now, with a full offseason of rest, the Clippers will start the 2022 season with a healthy Leonard and George. The Clippers lost Isaiah Hartenstein in free agency but picked up John Wall. LA has a plethora of talent at guard and forward but will have to play small, as Ivica Zubac is the only center on the roster.

Leonard is 18-4 against Memphis in his career but many of those wins came as a member of the Spurs. Since coming to LA, he is 2-2 against Memphis. Morant is 5-4 against the Clippers and the Grizzlies have won the last four meetings between the two teams. Morant has averaged 22.4 points and 6.1 assists against the Clippers and JJJ has averaged 20 points, 7.2 rebounds and 2.7 blocks.

The Clippers are the biggest “What if…?” team in the league. When LA signed Leonard and traded for George, they had the intent of winning titles. If they are healthy come playoff time, the Clippers will be one of the Grizzlies’ toughest opponents.

The Champs

NBA: Golden State Warriors-Media Day Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

Golden State Warriors

After two years of missing the playoffs, the Warriors returned to the mountaintop last season. Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green won their fourth NBA championship, after taking down the Boston Celtics in the Finals. Curry was magnificent, not just in the Finals but all postseason. Curry averaged 27.4 points, 5.9 assists and 5.2 rebounds in the playoffs. In the Finals, against the best defense in the league, he averaged 31.2 points, six rebounds and five assists, and he won his first Finals MVP.

It was not just Golden State’s holy trinity that led them to their seventh NBA title. The Warriors received meaningful contributions from Jordan Poole, Andrew Wiggins, Gary Payton II and Kevon Looney. Wiggins stepped up big in the Finals, averaging 18.3 points, 8.8 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 1.5 steals and 1.5 blocks. Poole had a breakout year last season – he averaged 18.5 points and four assists while increasing his shooting percentages, despite taking more shots. In the playoffs, he continued his excellence, shooting 50.8% from the field and 39.1% from beyond the arc.

Payton emerged as a valuable 3-and-D guy for Golden State. Newly-signed Donte DiVincenzo will have to fill that void, now that Payton is in Portland. While the Warriors still have their veteran stars, they are also full of young talent. Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody improved as the season went on and are both going into their second season. James Wiseman has fully recovered from his torn meniscus and played in the NBA Summer League in July.

Curry is going into his 14th season. Thompson is entering his 12th. Green will be 33 come playoff time. The trio did not show signs of their age last season and it feels like Curry’s game is aging like a fine wine. While Steve Kerr’s core is a year older, the team has evolved and is deeper than ever. The Warriors are ready to run it back.

Memphis and Golden State is the NBA’s newest rivalry, and it may already be the most intense. These teams do not like each other. They can talk about how they respect each other, but that does not mean they are buddy-buddy. Morant and Green’s Twitter beef went so far that the NBA decided the Warriors and Grizzlies should settle it on Christmas. The teams’ recent matchups have been so good that the NBA put all four of this year’s games on national television. Since Morant’s rookie year, the Grizzlies are 6-4 against Golden State in the regular season. Last season, Memphis took three of the four matchups and Morant averaged 26.7 points, 6.3 assists and five rebounds against the Warriors. Bane averaged 16 points a game and shot 50% from three-point against the Warriors last year.

At the heart of this new rivalry is Morant vs. Curry. In the 2021 Play-in Tournament, Morant hit a dagger floater to send the Warriors home. Last year, it was Golden State’s turn to eliminate Memphis. Curry scored 27 points while tallying 7 rebounds and 5 assists in Golden State’s Game 6 win. The duels between the star point guards have been electric. Each with unique styles of play, Curry and Morant are two of the biggest attractions in the league. Before getting hurt in Game 3, Morant was averaging 38.3 points (on 50.6 FG% and 43.3% from beyond the arc), 8.3 assists and 6.7 rebounds against the warriors. The Grizzlies believe that had Morant not gotten hurt they would have defeated the Warriors and advanced to the Western Conference Finals. Agree or disagree, Christmas cannot come soon enough.

The depth of the Western Conference is unlike anything NBA fans have seen before. While injuries are sure to happen, and not every team will reach its full potential, the West has an abundance of worthy contenders. With at least eight playoff-worthy teams, the postseason scenarios are endless. It is possible there are so many good teams, no squad in the West will win over 55 games. It might be the final week of the regular season until seeding becomes clear. At least two teams of the eight I described as playoff locks or better will have to participate in the Play-in tournament, and it might be the Grizzlies.

The expected dropoff from last year has been exaggerated by some Grizzlies fans. Memphis is a playoff team and if things break right they might find themselves in the Western Conference Finals. It is all a matter of seeding and where teams finish in the standings. Whatever the playoff matchups end up being, it would not be surprising if there were first-round upsets, as teams with older players like the Clippers or Warriors might take the regular season lightly and finish with a lower seed. At the very least, basketball fans will enjoy ridiculously competitive playoff series and while the Grizzlies will have their work cut out for them, do not expect Ja Morant and company to back down.

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