2018 Preview — Memphis Grizzlies

2018-19 Memphis Grizzlies


Projected Record: 40-42 (10th in West)

Over/Under: 34.5

2016: 22-60 (14th in West)


Key Additions:

  • Jaren Jackson Jr. (Pick #4)
  • Jevon Carter (Pick #32)
  • Kyle Anderson (Free Agency)
  • Omri Casspi (Free Agency)
  • Shelvin Mack (Free Agency)
  • Dakari Johnson (Trade)
  • Garrett Temple (Trade)

Key Subtractions:

  • Tyreke Evans
  • Jarell Martin
  • Ben McLemore
  • Deyonta Davis

Summary

Strengths:

  • Healthy Conley and Gasol just win games
  • Elite defensive upside
  • Most balanced offense in recent Memphis history

Weaknesses:

  • Conley cannot miss significant time
  • Don’t play in the Eastern Conference
  • Thin guard rotation

Meet the new Grizzlies, same as the old Grizzlies.

It’s not hard to put your finger on exactly what the Grizzlies set out to accomplish this summer: they want to return to form, the Memphis way. Tony Allen and Zach Randolph might be gone, but the new-look Grizz could feel more familiar than ever; incoming rookies Jaren Jackson Jr. and Jevon Carter and free agent centerpiece Kyle Anderson all figure to fit perfectly within the style of basketball we’ve associated with this franchise for years now: versatile, physical, annoying defense. This team will not finish 24th in defensive rating again.

The offense is staring at its own improvement, as well. The Grizzlies have assembled an interesting ragtag group of deep threats like Wayne Selden, Omri Casspi, Garrett Temple and MarShon Brooks to patrol the wings around the eternal Mike Conley-Marc Gasol two-man game, and this might be the most era-appropriate offensive unit we’ve seen in Memphis in some time. I’m a fan of second-year man Dillon Brooks, who made the most of a bad situation last year. I mean, hey, even Chandler Parsons shot respectably well in his limited minutes. I wouldn’t say the Grizzlies finish as a top-ten offense or anything, but if they pull closer to the middle of the pack, this could be a lethal two-way roster.

Of course, this is the Western Conference we’re talking about. Fresh off the most competitive season of conference basketball the NBA has perhaps ever seen, the West has somehow gotten even tougher, with the King himself, LeBron James, taking up residence in Los Angeles. Even the mighty Spurs find themselves teetering on the edge of the draft lottery for the first time in over two decades. A return to playoff contention for a Grizzlies’ team that lost 60 games last season could be borderline unprecedented.

Everything will depend on Conley’s return from last season’s Achilles injury. When healthy, the dynamic duo of Conley and Marc Gasol has been the magic formula behind Memphis’ success, and last season provided proof that the structure doesn’t hold up without both on the court. Considering Conley’s concerning injury history and Gasol’s advancing age (he’ll be 34 this season), it’s shaky ground to stand on; if either one misses substantial time for one reason or another, there really isn’t enough talent here to overcome it.

Of course, there’s still Jaren Jackson Jr. to consider. The 19-year-old phenom was one of my favorite prospects in this summer’s draft class, and while Jackson is one of the youngest of the NBA’s rookies, a spectacular Summer League showing suggests that he could be primed for immediate NBA success. Armed with a colossal 7’4″ wingspan, he could become one of the NBA’s most versatile defenders in short order, capable of defending the rim, switching across multiple positions and challenging ball-handlers on the perimeter. While he’s likely not going to develop into a top scoring option, he has a polished and disciplined offensive game that should fit very nicely alongside talented facilitators like Conley and Gasol — including the potential to nail 40% of his NBA threes before long. If he can contribute in a meaningful fashion right away, it will relieve some of the pressure on Memphis’ stars.

Ultimately, better health and a nice little offseason should have the Grizzlies in much better shape than they were last year, but I’m not sure it will be quite enough to carry them back into the Western Conference Playoffs. Mike Conley hasn’t managed to play 70 games in a season since 2014, and after last year’s Achilles injury, asking him to do so now might be asking too much. The Grizzlies will be good, and likely play spoiler for a fair few teams jockeying for better playoff position, but actual contention will have to wait for the time being.


Most Valuable Player: Marc Gasol

Marc Gasol is the best player on the Grizzlies roster, but I would argue he’s not the most important. We’ll get to that.

There are a lot of reasons why you could argue Gasol is no longer the most “valuable” player on Memphis’ roster; he’s now 34 years old and showing serious signs of decline, Mike Conley arguably contributes more to the team’s success, Jaren Jackson Jr. is the most important player to their future, and so on. Still, I think the colossal Spaniard holds the crown for one more season, because not only is he important to the Grizzlies winning games — he’s important if they decide to lose them, too.

I appreciate that the Grizzlies kept the gang together this offseason. I don’t believe teams should jump into full-on Tank Mode at the first sign of trouble. That said, if this retooling doesn’t fully pan out, they’ve positioned themselves well for a rebuild, and trading Gasol on what looks to be the final year of his contract could contribute greatly to that process. They’ll get at least a pick for him, somewhere.

If they don’t blow it up, though, it’ll be at least partially because Gasol rebounded closer to his All-Star form of 2016. When healthy (and fully motivated, which he certainly wasn’t last we saw him), he’s simply a handful — a 7’1″ behemoth who anchors the defense, hits nearly 40% of his threes, and facilitates the offense from the elbows. The impeccable positioning that enabled his all-world defense has started to fray around the edges as he’s lost a few steps, but there’s certainly room for him to contribute at something close to an All-Star level. He’ll need to, if this team wants to be playing come May.

X Factor: Mike Conley

There’s no need to take a particularly deep dive here, since I covered it pretty well above, but still: the Grizzlies need Mike Conley on the court. Even last year’s miserable roster had a winning record (7-6) when he was on the court. I factored a fair amount of skepticism into my projected 38-42 record for Memphis this season, but if he misses the vast majority of the season again, they’re going to finish much, much worse than that.

In a lot of ways, Conley is the most well-rounded point guard in the league. He’s an exquisite passer who manages the offense’s tempo well and keeps his teammates involved, a 40% three-point shooter who can handle a high volume of shots, and one of the most tenacious perimeter defenders in the league. Even with all the turnover, the roster is still built around him being able to provide all of these things; after all, who is his backup, exactly? Shelvin Mack?

He just needs to play. Really. That’s it.

Don’t Forget About: Kyle Anderson

I love weird basketball so, so much. Perhaps it’s why I love the New Orleans Pelicans as much as I have the past two seasons, I’m not sure. I am sure it’s why I love Kyle Anderson, though, and I believe it was a coup on Memphis’ part to snag him from the San Antonio Spurs this offseason.

Kyle Anderson is not exactly what you’d call a burner — his “Slow-Mo” nickname has been well-earned. He moves so slowly, you’d be forgiven for thinking he wasn’t even trying. And yet, he’s been an above-average defender for three straight years now, capable of checking multiple positions (an essential skill in today’s NBA, as you’ve no doubt been told countless times) and wreaking havoc in opposing passing lanes — he averaged 3.4 deflections and 2.1 steals per 36 minutes last season. While he’s not an offensive standout, he knows how to find his spots and makes the most of those opportunities — almost 300 of his 438 shots came within 10 feet, and he shot 60% on those looks. He’s also a capable ball-handler and passer, having played point guard at UCLA.

Kyle Anderson isn’t the most exciting player you’ll ever see, but he’s an outstanding role player who will mesh well with similarly smart and deliberate talents like Conley and Gasol. The Spurs arguably shouldn’t have let him go, but Grizzlies fans will no doubt be glad they did.


Second Opinion

Katee Forbis, Motivated AF Podcast (@KateeForbis)

As a self-proclaimed SuperFan of the Memphis Grizzlies, I’ve already had several people ask me what I think will be the fate of my Grizz this season. It continues to be a difficult question to answer. There’s what I hope will happen and what I think will happen.

What I hope will happen:

What do I hope will happen? There really isn’t any mystery in this answer. I hope my team shocks the NBA (and let’s be honest, the entire world) by having a winning season that culminates with a visit to the NBA finals and me somewhere near Beale Street, buzzed and waiting for a parade float to pass by. That’s what I always hope will happen. every single season. The level of delusion this sort of hope requires is always pretty high, but this particular season will require the highest level in nearly a decade.

You may think it should’ve taken that level of delusion last season, but you would be wrong, at least if we were looking at it from a preseason view. The Grizzlies’ 22-60 record in 2017-18 was a three-way tie for the worst regular season the franchise has recorded since arriving in Memphis in 2001. With a record that terrible, it would be understandable if you’ve forgotten that the their preseason hopes last year nowhere near as bleak. After all, they were coming off of a winning record, and even though they lost 4-2 in the first round of the playoffs to the Spurs, it was considered a decent season. Brand new head coach David Fizdale’s “They ain’t gonna rook us!” playoff post-game speech alone was worth the price of admission, and while we lost what I considered to be the heart of the team in Tony Allen and Zach Randolph (with an honorable mention to Vince Carter) that summer, there was some excitement from fans about the potential for this team.

That all changed with Mike Conley’s early injury and the loss of coach Fizdale after an 8 game losing streak, the reasoning behind which looking all the more ridiculous as the season progressed. As fast as the Grizzlies front office went into spin mode after it got out that Fizdale and Marc Gasol had been at odds for some time, they were never able to convince most of the fans that Gasol wasn’t the deciding factor in the firing, and in my opinion, Marc had not done enough as of late to warrant that kind of power. The explanation behind Fizdale’s firing is, quite frankly, still completely bullshit to me, and a month later, that losing streak was already looking like “the good ol’ days.”

My theory? Marc Gasol will always need a sidekick, or at least, he will always need to be someone else’s sidekick. Even at his best, I believe he plays like a sidekick more than a leader. First, was Z-Bo’s sidekick, then he was Conley’s. Marc Gasol’s leadership skills and his ability to carry a team (or even a game) were greatly tested this past season with both of those two out of the picture. In my opinion, he failed that test. If you are going to be the kind of player that gets “fire the coach” power, then you sure as hell better be good enough to answer the call when you’re needed.

Anyway, what was I saying before that rant? Oh yeah, I was basically saying last season was a dumpster fire, but none of us knew any of that this time last year. So I will summon the most hope I’ve had in years for my favorite team. I don’t really think you can truly call yourself a SuperFan of a team if you don’t hold on to the hope at the beginning of a season that anything can happen.

What I think will happen:

What do I think will happen? Well, that’s a very different answer than the one given above. I may be a SuperFan, but I am not a complete moron — despite what some folks may say about me on Twitter! I think the Grizzlies will do just okay. Their two draft picks, fourth overall pick Jaren Jackson Jr. and 32nd pick Jevon Carter, are both getting a lot of positive press and good vibes from fans in Memphis, though, of course, a lot of draft picks have this kind of goodwill around them before they play a regular season game in their new team’s colors.

What happens from that point on is where we find out how everyone really feels, and if those preseason props were warranted or not. Personally, of the two, I am mainly looking forward to seeing what the Grizzlies can do with Jevon Carter. For such a late pick, I see a lot of potential, and I hope it plays out that way this season. Although Carter did well both offensively and defensively at West Virginia, winning the Naismith Defensive Player of the Year during his final season, most expect the Grizzlies to use him primarily a defensive player. I will admit that as a huge fan of Tony Allen — come on, Grizzlies, just re-sign him already! — the reputation Carter is already getting as a player with a hustle mindset and defensive skill set is what is most intriguing to me. I think he could quickly become a fan favorite this season in Memphis. After all, Jevon’s biggest fan is from Memphis, too.

Other than Marc Gasol getting his ass in gear, I think the biggest factor going into this season’s outcome is the health of our floor general, Mike Conley. Although I was not on board at first with the high price of Mike Conley’s latest contract, I have since bought in. I am a SuperFan, but my passion sometimes translates into me being pretty hard on our players, and even I have to say that the amount of shit that Conley has had to deal with while playing for the Grizzlies is, in my opinion, pretty damn remarkable. If he can get back to the Conley of a few seasons ago, I believe the Grizzlies could have a decent season. But while the news of his health over the summer has been good, Grizzlies fans will be anxiously watching every game this October to see what the All-Star (of our hearts) can do to convince us that he is fully back in the game.

There are plenty of other factors, both positive and negative, that I could mention. One is the now-official head coach J.B. Bickerstaff. While I think the Grizzlies should’ve spent more time interviewing potential new head coaches for this season instead of sticking with a guy that wasn’t hired to be a head coach in the first place, I am open to seeing what he can do with a healthy roster (knock on wood!) and the fresh start of a full season. I am also looking forward to what I hope will be a great season for Dillon Brooks. There’s also Chandler Parsons… yeah, I’m not even going there. If I did, I would only be doing what Parsons has been doing for years. I would be wasting everyone’s time.

That being said, I could go on and on about this team I love so dearly, but I was only asked to write a few paragraphs, and I don’t want to risk overstaying my welcome that’s more of a Chandler Parsons thing. Okay, okay, I’m done with the Parsons jokes, I swear. So, in summary, what do I think will happen? With a healthy roster and decent team chemistry, I believe the Grizzlies probably fall somewhere around seventh or eighth in the Western Conference by the end of the season. If Conley and Gasol return to their old rhythm and the Grizzlies find a few unexpected ringers on their current roster, I could see them surprising a lot of people and rising to fifth or sixth. If none of those things happen, they could fall as low as the 11th spot, but I think I speak for all Grizz fans when I say: I sure hope some of them do.


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