Prior to 2018 the fans of the Memphis Grizzlies were not used to having their late Aprils and early Mays so boring. For seven consecutive springs, from 2011 to 2017, the Memphis Grizzlies had made the playoffs. Even the 2015-2016 campaign that saw the Grizzlies set the record for the number of players who were on a NBA roster finished with a trip to the playoffs. Then it happened.
Fueled by the input of then head coach David Fizdale, in the summer of 2017 the Grizzlies parted ways with longtime Grizzlies, and fan favorites Zach Randolph and Tony Allen. The grit from the grit-grind era were gone. This was all to generate a more free flow style that was more in line with the way the NBA game was played today. No more walking the ball up the court, tossing it into the post and finding a wing player for an open mid-range jumper. According to analytics that was inefficient. Only 1.8 points per possession, where a corner three would result in 2.1.
So the Grizzlies tried to change their style. Change a culture that had started back in 2002 under Hubie Brown. Go away from tough hard nosed defense and an emphasis on playing smart, tactical offense and focus on spreading the floor with more threes and less hook shots. The results were disastrous, and with the team at 7-12 and on an 8 game losing streak the Grizzlies parted ways with the controversial coach on November 27, 2017. The final straw may have been the benching of All-Star center Mark Gasol the night before during a 10 point home loss to the New Jersey Nets. The Grizzlies would never recover and would go on to post a 22-60 record, the 2nd worst in the league.
The streak was over, but the leadership of the team was still brimming with optimism. Owner Robert Pera stated he believed the Grizzlies could be back in the playoffs in 2019. So with a mix of veterans and young players the Grizzlies will enter the 2018-2019 campaign with arguably the most interesting roster they’ve had in years.
Let’s start with who is gone: Brendan Wright, Mario Chalmers, James Ennis, Deyonta Davis, Jarrel Martin, Ben McLemore and Tyreke Evans are all gone. Also gone are two way players Myke Henry, Kobi Simmons and Vince Hunter
New Grizzlies are: Jaren Jackson Jr (4th overall pick), Kyle Anderson, Shelvin Mack, Garret Temple, Omar Casspi, Jevon Carter. Also joining are two way players Yuta Watanabe and former Memphis Tiger DJ Stephens.
Of course the most important new Grizzly is the one returning. Mike Conley returns after missing almost the entire 2017-2018 season. Conley’s return will be the most critical addition for this Grizzly’s team. Not only is Conley the longest tenured Grizzly player, but along with Marc Gasol, he is one of the leaders of he franchise. Any success the Grizzlies have this season will depend on Conley to successfully return to his pre-2016 form.
So what are these Grizzlies? Are they rebuilding? Not really, you’ll probably be closing games with 3 players over the age of 30. Are you trying to win now? No, because you’ll be giving big minutes to one guy who still can’t legally drink a beer, and one guy who thinks the Weezer version of Africa is the original. The Grizzlies are, I guess, somewhere in between. Which is a bad place to be in any league.
Now I could put on my teal glasses and tell you that “Everything is going to be fine. Get ready for a good season and a return to the playoffs.” I’m not going to do that, because in reality that is not the likely scenario. The Grizzly’s October schedule isn’t so bad, but the November schedule quickly devolves into reality with trips to Golden State, Milwaukee and Denver along with visits from Philadelphia and Utah.
So how does this end? Well that’s tricky because it depends on the health of the veterans on the roster. If Conley, Gasol, Parsons, Temple, Casspi and the other veterans can all stay relatively healthy, this team COULD win 40 games. Unfortunately, as I’ve mentioned in previous columns, that’s unlikely. In fact, it is much more likely Jevon Carter and Jaren Jackson play big minutes, than all of the veterans playing 60 plus games. While the addition of Casspi, Temple, Mack, and Anderson probably raise the projected win total a bit, they don’t move the needle significantly.
Any realistic assessment of the Grizzlies should also include a glaring lack of athleticism on the roster as well. There are no Westbrook’s, Giannis’, or Anthony Davis’ on the team. Guys who can just overwhelm you with their physical gifts. This team has to be crafty, smart, and tough. Win with defense and limiting mistakes. Which means things have to go right, and there is little room for error.
All this basically adds up to somewhere between 28 and 35 wins. Which is tough because the Grizzlies owe the Celtics a first round pick from the Jeff Green deal (I know). If the Grizzlies pick outside of the top 8, the Celtics get the pick. So in reality it’s in the best interest of the Grizzlies to be closer to 28 than 35. This goes back to earlier, are you rebuilding or trying to win now, because doing both is basically impossible.
Happy Grizzmas everyone. It all starts tonight. By April I predict we’ll be in a full rebuild mode. I just have to believe the smart people in our front office will realize that you have to be committed to a single course of action. Still, I’m excited to see Jaren Jackson develop, to see Gasol and Conley together again, and to watch Coach Bickerstaff bring these guys along. Let the games begin.