I think it's time to have a little chat about the Grizzlies, this season, and expectations. There are four possible outcomes for this season for Grizzlies—four potential ways for the season to end. I'd like to take you through them and then talk about what we're watching and what we're likely to see when it's all said and done for 2013-14.
Outcome #1: The Grizzlies have home court in the playoffs, return to the Western Conference Finals.
To my mind, this is the expectation of most Grizzlies fans going into training camp and preseason, even given the change from Lionel Hollins to Dave Joerger as head coach and the
shuffling of deck chairs small roster moves made in the offseason. The Grizzlies seemed like a team that was one or two shooters and a less-tired Gasol/Randolph tandem away from making a serious run at an NBA title.
If I'm honest, though, I'm not sure this is ever a reasonable expectation. The Western Conference is even tougher this year than it was last year. There are 15 teams in the Eastern Conference and 15 teams in the West. As of right now, the West has 12 teams at or above .500 (and one more, Minnesota, at .474) and the East has 3. Yes, three. Rudy Gay's Toronto Raptors are currently leading the Atlantic Division, and they have a 6-10 record.
My point is this: when the whole Western Conference is as good as it is, and all of these teams are competing at this high level, every single game counts. Rightly or wrongly—and believe me, I do not want to get into that debate here, regardless of how I feel about it, because it's a done deal—the Grizzlies were coming into this season with a new head coach, and with a new head coach, it's reasonable to expect an adjustment period. "Adjustment period" is a euphemism for "losing games." Losing games means a worse seed, and in this year's West, matching last year's 56-win total was going to be a hard challenge even without changes at the top.
Regardless of whether this was a reasonable expectation or not—and, I want to make clear that I do think it was a reasonable expectation, even though it's not one I necessarily agreed with going into the season—I think we can safely say, now that the Grizzlies have gotten of to an 8-8 start and Marc Gasol is out "indefinitely" (but maybe 4 weeks, maybe 6), that this outcome is not the most likely one.
Is it possible for the Grizzlies to rally, play out the rest of the year going 48-18, lock up the third or the fourth seed, and make it back to the Western Conference Finals? Yes. It's absolutely possible. Does it feel like this Grizzlies team is going to do that? If I'm being honest with myself—and thus with you, reader—no. Not to me.
Outcome #2: The Grizzlies make the playoffs, but they're seeded somewhere from 5th to 8th.
The NBA season is almost exactly 20% of the way over, and we're roughly 4-5 weeks into it. The Grizzlies are .500, with 8 wins and 8 losses. They played exceedingly badly at first, and then started to get it going on the road (which is where they've played all of their good games this year... so maybe we should go on and preemptively have someone cleanse the evil spirits that apparently came with Fly Lounge), but then Marc Gasol went down. If Marc Gasol only misses 4 weeks with his injury, and if (and it seems to be the best-case scenario) the Grizzlies go .500 while he's out, the Grizzlies will be .500 40% of the way through the season, which would put them somewhere around 16-16.
In the West this year, I think 48-50 wins could potentially be the threshold for making the playoffs. Certainly no lower than 45. Let's split the difference and say they finish 47-35. That would require the Grizzlies, who are theoretically 16-16 when Marc Gasol returns, to play the rest of the season out 31-19.
I think that's probably reasonable. And that's probably a 7th or 8th seed. To me, this is the most likely outcome for this year at this point, barring any further injuries or any earth-shaking personnel moves. I think the Grizzlies have too good of a roster no to play at a high level when everyone is on the same page—as we saw on their 4-0 West Coast road trip, where the competition may not have been great but the Grizzlies played their style of basketball and put together a nice string of wins to solidify themselves as a team.
Going into the season, I don't think most Grizzlies fans would have said this was an acceptable outcome; I think the fanbase was mostly set on contending for a title this year again before the window theoretically closes on the Z-Bo/Tony Allen era in Memphis. I don't think a low playoff seed this year necessarily means the end of that era—I just think it means the Grizzlies had a new coach and had injuries to deal with.
But there are two more possible outcomes of this season.
Outcome #3: The Grizzlies barely miss the playoffs and end up in the late lottery.
This is probably the (1) least interesting and (2) least helpful way for the season to end for the Grizzlies. If for some reason the Grizzlies can't manage to stay at .500 with Marc Gasol out, or for some reason they can't manage to do better than .500 with Gasol after he returns from his injury, this is probably what the Grizzlies will be looking at, though. It's probably unfair that simply finishing .500 looks like it'll be enough to guarantee home court advantage in the Eastern Conference and miss the playoffs in the Western Conference, but it is what it is. I don't anticipate many of the teams above the Grizzlies to drop off dramatically—Dallas, maybe, and it does seem unusual for Portland to be in first place—and if they do, there are going to be more teams than just the Grizzlies waiting around to take advantage of it. The Lakers, Pelicans, and Suns may have their eyes on the future, but they all have good records right now (better than the Grizzlies) and the Timberwolves were picked to make the playoffs, too.
This outcome is the "nothing broke our way" outcome for the Grizzlies. If they suffer another major injury—if (and I can't believe I'm even saying this out loud) Mike Conley tweaks his ankle and misses a week here, Z-Bo tweaks his ankle (again) and misses two weeks there—it's not out of the realm of possibility that outcome #3 will be where the Grizzlies end up.
For some reason, the Grizzlies, under the previous management regime, managed not to trade their 2014 first round pick—though the 2nd rounder apparently got traded to the Cavaliers with Jeremy Pargo in return for D.J. Kennedy. The 2014 Draft is loaded, but is it loaded at the 10-15 spots, which is where the Grizzlies would be picking if they just barely miss the playoffs? I'm not enough of a draft expert to say. But, given the NBA's race to the bottom this season to tank for Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, and all of these other great college players that are supposedly coming in the 2014 draft class, if the Grizzlies get to the All Star break (or the trade deadline) and they're dramatically below .500 for some reason, with no expectations of getting any better (or, especially, "better" enough to make the playoffs), there's and outside chance for the fourth and final outcome...
Outcome #4: Blow the whole thing up and tank like crazy to get a good draft pick to add to the Marc Gasol/Mike Conley core.
If you'd told me in August that this would even be leaving my fingers and appearing on a computer screen in the first week of December, I'd ask if I'd somehow started writing for Liberty Ballers about the 76ers. But hear me out before you start cussing me out on Twitter and in the comments.
Obviously Zach Randolph's contract situation is still Zach Randolph's contract situation. With Marc Gasol out, Randolph's importance to the Grizzlies' ability to play well—or even keep up with the rest of the West while Gasol is on the mend—has increased substantially, and that has put a bit of a damper on the talk about "the Grizzlies might get rid of Z-Bo so he doesn't pick up his player option." But make no mistake: there are ways to make the numbers work, financially, to keep Zach Randolph in a Grizzlies uniform going forward, and there are certainly sound basketball reasons to keep Randolph in a Grizzlies uniform going forward, but that is by no means a done deal yet.
If the Grizzlies are, you know, ten games out of the 8th playoff spot and it's close to the trade deadline, I wouldn't be surpised to see all sorts of shakeups going on with the Grizzlies' roster, whether that's a move involving Randolph, flipping a young asset like Ed Davis (provided he can play well enough to become more of a trade asset) for another promising young player, or something else nuts that we haven't even thought of yet, like the Grizzlies being the third or fourth team in some crazy deal by a tanking team looking to shed a good player who doesn't help them get worse and/or younger in the short term (looking at you, Thad Young).
Right now this is crazy talk—this is all hypothetical—but do not kid yourself and say that there's no way this fourth outcome could happen. There's no guarantee that the Grizzlies are going to make the playoffs, especially before we know (1) exactly when Marc Gasol will return and (2) how long it's going to take him to return to top form once he comes back. He wasn't exactly playing at 100% Marc Gasol level before he injured his knee, remember? His conditioning was tenuous at best, "the paella and sangria on the beach diet" at worst.
It's the crazy question that's been nagging at the back of my head for a while now, a question that I asked Chris Herrington via Twitter message while watching the Grizzlies/Lakers game a while back:
What if this is who the Grizzlies are this year—a team that has to grind it out and fight with everything they've got to beat a mediocre Lakers team?
If that nagging voice is right, and things do go south in a hurry for the Grizzlies this year, outcome #4 is out there for the taking.
What do I think is most likely to happen with the Grizzlies season right now, 20% of the way through it? Outcome #2. Play .500 ball until Gasol returns, get everything together, scrap it out, end up a sixth or seventh seed.
What do I want for Memphis, my city, who loves this team like a little brother looks up to the big brother who beats everyone who picks on us to a pulp? I want an NBA title banner hanging in FedExForum. This year, and every year. I want to see "Randolph #50" and "Allen #9" and "Gasol #33" and "Conley #11" hanging from the rafters after a Spurs-like run of four titles in eight years.
But, Memphis, I just don't see that outcome, no matter how hard I try to wish it into existence. I don't think this year's team is that team. And I don't think last year's team was that team, either, if I'm honest. Last year's team might have been our '96 Sonics or our '98 Jazz or our 2010 Suns, a great team that just didn't make it to the promised land. Those teams live forever, too, but not in the way that Memphis wants this Grizzlies team to. But I think we might be up against it a little bit here.
This is gut-check time for Grizzlies fans. What are you here for? If the Tigers get good again, which it looks like they might, are you still going to be at those Tuesday night games against crappy East teams with your Growl Towel, or will you hold off until April and buy your playoff tickets? Is Outcome #2 going to scare you away? What about Outcome #3? What about Outcome #4? These questions need to be asked and answered.
No matter which of these four things happens, there is one certain fact: there's a lot of basketball left to play, and it's going to be life-or-death some nights for the Grizzlies, and they'd better play like it.