The Memphis Grizzlies started the season slow and suffered an embarrassing loss at the hands of the Golden State Warriors. For a moment it looked like that was it for them. The trade for Jeff Green seemed like a bust and Courtney Lee was back to normal after a killer 2014-15 season, while Marc Gasol and Mike Conley weren’t looking like themselves. Dave Joerger’s seat started to get warm as the team sat at 3-6 after nine games.
Of course, this is the Grizzlies we’re talking about. They rallied and won eight of their next 10 despite missing Zach Randolph for five of those. They now have the fourth-best record in the West and despite looking anything but dominant, seem to be gearing up for another playoff appearance as the team no one wants to face. The Grizzlies just refuse to die.
It’s understandable to want to eulogize Memphis as soon as things go sideways. They’re the antithesis of the Beautiful Game, a throwback that refuses to go away to make room for upstart teams. The Grizzlies play at a low, deliberate pace and fire the third-lowest amount of three-pointers per game in the league. Compared to the Warriors, it seems like they’re playing a different sport.
Yet looking at that 10-game stretch shows that the Grizzlies are still very much still relevant.
Unlike previous seasons, Memphis’ defense has been porous. Before this 10-game stretch, they were allowing over 104 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com, a terrible mark by their standards. The losses to the Warriors certainly inflated their defensive rating, but the struggles were real. In the past 10 games, however, they’ve allowed just three fewer points than they did to start the season. They’re slowly improving on that end, just as expected considering their personnel.
Even more encouraging, their offense has performed well above expectations lately. After scoring just 93 points per 100 possessions in the first nine games of the season, the Grizzlies averaged almost 106 in the next 10. In that stretched they scored 110 or more in four nights.
The surge has been directly linked to a return to form for Gasol and Conley. The Grizzlies’ two biggest stars had started the season cold. Conley was averaging 13 points in 35 percent shooting from the floor and 27 percent from beyond the arc. Without his scoring, the Grizzlies become a very predictable team. Gasol, for his part, was shooting just 41 percent from the floor. That’s not good enough on a team that has very little margin of error on offense to begin with.
Now Conley and Gasol are scoring 18 and 17 points on 48 and 49 percent from the floor, respectively. Conley has gone 18-for-39 from outside as well. With the stars producing, everything else fell into place. Jeff Green and Matt Barnes got going, providing a scoring punch from the wing spots, and Mario Chalmers has been doing a fantastic job of getting to the line, an area in which the Grizzlies are now among the elite.
So are the Grizzlies back to being a contender? No, not really. In fact, there’s a case to be made that this is actually a transition year in which contending was never in the cards. Green, Chalmers, Barnes and Lee will become free agents after this season and will probably sign with a different team. Vince Carter will probably be waived to carve out two more million in cap space. Conley will also enter free agency, but it’s hard to see him leave Gasol and Randolph behind.
Memphis is gearing up for an overhaul. They likely won’t land any big-time free agents, but they’ll have the cap room to finally go out there and find some shooting from the wing and the big-man positions as well as two-way players who fit their core. With any luck, they’ll even find an understudy for Randolph to mentor. The Grizzlies might be a step or two below other West contenders right now, but the future is bright.
For now, Memphis will continue to face all those fast-paced teams with their modern offenses and make life hell for them whenever they meet them. They’ll try to keep winning as many games as they can, hoping for a favorable first-round matchup that allows them to advance and gives them the chance to pull off the upset in the second round. It sounds very unlikely for them to make noise in the playoffs, but again, these are the Grizzlies we’re talking about.
They won’t beat themselves, they won’t surrender and they won’t stop grinding. The NBA is lucky they’re still very much alive.