Out of the Blue 

There are lots of reasons you should be excited about this year’s Grizzlies.

The Memphis Grizzlies will catch you, the NBA — and maybe even themselves — off guard in 2018-19. If the team can stay healthy, Marc Gasol and Mike Conley will enjoy a supporting cast that's the best fit for their talents they've ever had — and one that's ideal for the pace-and-space era.

You heard it here first: Assuming the Grizzlies avoid the kinds of extraordinary injury issues that plagued the past two seasons, they will make the playoffs. If the Grizzlies are healthy in the playoffs, this season's iteration of the team will be well-suited to upset any of the NBA's current elite, so yes ... they could win it all.

click to enlarge Mike Conely and Marc Gasol - JOE MURPHY/NBAE
  • Joe Murphy/NBAE
  • Mike Conely and Marc Gasol

Memphis hasn't seen Marc Gasol and Mike Conley play a meaningful stretch of games since Tony Allen and Zach Randolph's departure fundamentally reshaped the landscape of the court by adding spacing and broadening lanes to the rim. Conley was playing the best offensive basketball of his career in the season before last year's injury-wash. Marc Gasol started shooting threes just two seasons ago, and the Grizzlies have not been able to utilize this aspect of his game while paired with Conley at his best for any length of time.  

In his 2017-18 League Pass Watchability rankings, analyst Zach Lowe said, "Gasol and Conley work the most subtly gorgeous two-man game in the league — a bob-and-weave, give-and-go symphony only possible when two genius players compile a half-decade of shared knowledge." Lowe came to this assessment when Conley and Gasol played on a team that routinely offered the league's worst spacing. This unparallelled two-man game will fuel many wins if it's operating on a team that can space the floor, knock down open threes, and widen driving lanes to the rim.

The return of the Conley/Gasol two-man game, and the fate of the "win now" Grizzlies, mainly rests in Conley's hands. His value can't be overstated for Memphis: He's an elite NBA point guard who can carry the team with his scoring and facilitate the offense as a floor general. The Grizzlies have no replacement for what Conley brings to the team, and they will not contend if he can't play or if he's seriously limited. Speaking of which, there's a frightening stat that shows guards under a certain height experience a tremendous statistical drop off after a certain age, and Conley is a candidate to fit that pattern.

On his fantastic Patreon page, writer Matt Hrdlicka calculated a list of guards 6'3" or under, age 29 or older, who were as good as Conley was in 2016-17. The list is only five people long, including Conley, and features Chris Paul, 2016-17 Kyle Lowry, and Chauncey Billups and Steve Nash. The majority of smaller guards not on this list experienced drop-offs in explosiveness and quickness, two things Conley will need in order to get to the rim, set up his teammates, and play at a level where it's still reasonable for the Grizzlies to win.

Conley's time in the league and the energy he's had to expend for the Grizzlies to win stands out on Hrdlicka's list, so the odds — and time — wouldn't appear to be on Conley's side. Which is to say, it may be now or never for these Grizzlies. The hope is that a healthier team, and new ball-handling and play-making personnel, will alleviate Conley's burden and prolong his ability to play in the league. Speaking of new guys ...

click to enlarge Kyle Anderson - JOE MURPHY/NBAE
  • Joe Murphy/NBAE
  • Kyle Anderson

Kyle Anderson may end up being the biggest Grizzlies non-draft acquisition since Zach Randolph. Like Randolph, he's contractually locked in to spend his prime years with Memphis. Anderson likely won't have the same cultural impact as ZBo — nor the potent, ride-that-horse type of scoring, but he will be able to defend multiple positions against the best teams in the NBA, take over some ball-handling and facilitation responsibilities, and stick around for a while.

Anderson probably won't be awarded accolades like Tony Allen got as the league's best one-on-one defender, but he will be a better and more versatile overall team defender. It's a role that's better suited for combatting the pace-and-space Curry-Thompson-Durants and CP3-Harden team-ball that now dominates the league instead.

Plus, unlike Allen, who was often a liability on offense, Anderson can keep the offense running. Also, with Anderson potentially in the starting lineup, Conley won't have to hit the gas as often, and can play off the ball. I can't wait to see how Anderson looks in an expanded role.

click to enlarge Chandler Parsons - JOE MURPHY/NBAE
  • Joe Murphy/NBAE
  • Chandler Parsons

Another development this season that may take many by surprise is Chandler Parsons. Ever since the ill-considered #Chancun Instagram, we've grown accustomed to Parsons maintaining a relatively clean PR presence. He's now sharing Instagram videos of innovative workouts and gym shootarounds. But he kicked things up a notch this year by writing a "letter to Memphis" in the Players' Tribune. Chandler basically tried to bury the hatchet with frustrated Grizzlies fans and detailed the impressive efforts he's made to rehab his body. He says he woke up early and spent most of his days rehabbing and fortifying his body with a litany of exercises. He flew to Germany so doctors could inject his knees with enormous needles, using the same treatment that revived Eric Gordon's career. Parsons certainly makes the case that this year will be different, and if training camp and preseason have been any indication, he might be telling the truth. He's running the court well, knocking down threes, and even played both nights in a pre-season back-to-back.

Parsons wants to prove that he still has it, and he appears to be on track to becoming a reliable wing that can provide scoring and playmaking off the bench. If his health and ability return to near what the Grizzlies signed him to be, the Grizzlies could start either Parsons or Anderson, depending on the defense and shooting necessitated by the opponent. So, Kyle Anderson may be the biggest acquisition since Zbo ... unless it's year-three Chandler Parsons pulling an Eric Gordon. If that's the case, look for Conley and Gasol's efficiency and production to spike in ways not unlike the success seen by other stars around the league who are teaming up in threes and fours.

The Grizzlies also appear to be on the verge of starting their best shooting guard since Courtney Lee. Garrett Temple, the likely starter, is a reliable veteran and a classic 3-and-D player. He will also help the Grizzlies reclaim their strong defensive identity.

Don't sleep on Wayne Selden, though. He's another player that could catch people off guard this season. Analysts pinned him for a potential big breakout season at the beginning of last year, but he was sidelined due to the same quad-injury that plagued Kawhi Leonard. Selden's sample size from when he was healthy with the Grizzlies is tiny, but he shot very well from three and packed a lot of athleticism and rim-attacking ability into the two spot. It's another small sample size, but Selden thrived when he was given the opportunity in a preseason game against the Pacers, scoring 16 points and dishing nine assists in 27 minutes of play. Selden could provide more of a scoring punch in the starting lineup, or serve as a backup point guard behind Conley.

Having options for backup point guard is another overlooked development that will make this team more successful than most have predicted this season. The Marc & Mike Grizzlies have frequently suffered from not having a backup primary ball-handler that can facilitate the offense. By adding a veteran backup point guard like Shelvin Mack, and ball-handlers like Kyle Anderson, Conley won't have to shoulder the floor general burden alone.

JaMychal Green is another player who could surprise people with his effort and production this season. It'll be a contract year for the power forward, and he should see better looks more often from deep with the makeup and health of this year's roster. Green's steady ability to defend the four and space the floor gives rookie Jaren Jackson Jr. plenty of time to adapt to the NBA, which is nice, because overextended young big men tend to get injured.

click to enlarge Jaren Jackson Jr. - JOE MURPHY/NBAE
  • Joe Murphy/NBAE
  • Jaren Jackson Jr.

Speaking of Jaren Jackson Jr., I think it's possible he may go down as the best player to ever wear a Grizzlies uniform. His youth, size, quickness, ability to guard the perimeter, block rate, 3-point percentage, and FT percentage made Jackson's ceiling — and unicorn potential — stand out in the recent draft class. The Commercial Appeal's Peter Edmiston, one of my favorite number-crunching analysts covering the Grizzlies, had Luka Doncic and Jaren Jackson Jr. on a tier far above everyone else, and I think he'll end up being right in his assessment.

Jackson can defend the perimeter, protect the rim, space the floor, hit threes, and sink free throws. Many big men aren't able to remain on the court late in games due to poor free throw shooting and difficulty guarding the perimeter. Jackson will have no such issues. But Grizzlies fans will need to be patient with Jackson, as foul problems should be expected for a 19-year-old rookie big man. If Jackson had one serious knock on his NBA potential going into the draft, it was his ability to score in the paint and the post, but that aspect of his game has steadily improved with each game he's played. Don't forget to thank the tanking gods for Triple-J.

One of the most difficult reads an NBA team's front office and head coach have to make is whether their team should try to win now or rebuild for the future. How much of your future are you willing to compromise to try to win at this moment? Should the rotation lean on its stars and veterans if mid-level playoff success is not a forgone conclusion? How do you walk the line between winning games and developing players further down the bench so your team becomes deeper and ultimately better equipped to compete in the playoffs?

The call was easy to make last season. With Conley going down early, Parsons not healthy for most of the season, and Gasol being the only star besides Tyreke Evans on a team with no consistency or identity, it was clear that the season was a wash.

To anti-tankers: I say Jaren Jackson Jr. is better than losing in the first round of the playoffs and getting some broke-ass project like Michael Porter Jr.

Injuries have kept the Grizzlies from finding and refining their next identity. Memphis has been wandering in the wilderness, to an extent, ever since Grit 'n Grind reached the true end of its road in a four-game sweep by the Spurs in the 2013 Western Conference Finals.

The Grizzlies finally moved on from that anachronistic blueprint in 2017, when they shipped off ZBo and TA, but the team had barely scratched the surface of its new identity last year (beating the Warriors and Rockets in the first couple weeks of the season) before Conley went down.

The Grizzlies were lauded for having some of the best locker-room chemistry in the league before falling on hard times. And in that nadir season, what was the worst thing that happened? Marc Gasol got fussy? That pales in comparison to the days of punching teammates in the face over gambling debts while on the team plane, or the well-documented feuds that have plagued other teams in the league. Another bonus from last year's disastrous tank-a-thon season was Dillon Brooks, who grew into a solid rotation player and gives the team yet another weapon.

The Grizzlies have a mature locker room that isn't driven by ego, and additions such as Garrett Temple and Anderson can only fortify the status quo. The Grizzlies team chemistry up and down the roster should prove to be an advantage as new players gel and find their roles.

On the Grizzlies' Media Day, Conley said he and Gasol had signed their recent contracts with the intention of retiring as Grizzlies. When pressed about his plans in the year before his player option, Gasol was less forthcoming, saying that it was hard for him to make guarantees when he didn't know what the future would look like.

It would've been nice if he'd given a more comforting response, but I think Gasol appreciates better than most how much the unknown governs the game — and players' careers. The Grizzlies could get bitten by the injury bug again, and Gasol might find himself wanting to join another team to contend for a title while he still has gas left in the tank.

In a worst-case scenario, this could be Conley and Gasol's last season playing together in Memphis. But it could also be a beginning that brings a return of high-level playoff action to FedExForum. I think most of the litany of unknowns going into the season will reveal themselves as unexpected positives. And I believe that you should be more excited for NBA basketball in Memphis than ever before.

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