The Memphis Grizzlies Are the NBA's Most Intriguing Team

It's impossible to say if Memphis is headed to the playoffs or the lottery. Nothing should surprise you about this team, except everything it does.
Photo by Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Even with so many new faces in different places across the NBA, identifying a general ceiling and floor for every team in the league isn't that difficult. And then there are the Memphis Grizzlies. At once pitiable and respected, no organization's fortune is harder to pin down heading into the 2018-19 season.

Maybe, on their way to winning 50 games, the Grizzlies will churn through the regular season as a competent pain in the ass that turns FedEx Forum into a fog bank opponents can't help but stumble through. Or maybe they're a rickshaw racing Cadillacs; a sprained ankle away from hollowing out their roster, acknowledging reality, and trading the remnants of cornerstone-talent for an ostensibly brighter tomorrow.


Loser of more games than every team except the Phoenix Suns last season—including one against the Charlotte Hornets by 61 freaking points—Memphis launched mixed signals over the summer. The team elevated a lukewarm J.B. Bickerstaff to head coach, drafted a presumably invigorating Jaren Jackson Jr., traded for Garrett Temple, pried Kyle Anderson from the San Antonio Spurs, and (hope they) packed depth at a brittle point guard position by adding Shelvin Mack. Individually, aside from Jackson, the moves are colorless. Collectively, they're a low-risk cue to their fan base and the rest of the league that last year's pitiful record was unacceptable. (It's not clear if they have more talent now than in August 2017, but, at the very least, they're decidedly more mature.)

A year ago, the Grizzlies tallied a third of their season win total (a 7-4 start!) before Nov. 8. They beat the Golden State Warriors, Portland Trail Blazers, and Houston Rockets, twice. Not bad! Their inevitable disintegration can either be excused by Mike Conley's season-ending surgery—and the general malaise/suddenly enthusiastic shift toward the lottery that followed—or seen as the harsh dawn of a new day. Grit n' Grind is deceased, Marc Gasol is 33, Conley turns 31 in October, and Memphis was outscored by 6.2 points per 100 possessions when those two shared the floor. (Five years ago that number was +11.2, and since then it’s never dropped below +1.0.)


Those two are headed in the wrong direction, but probably still exist in a realm where institutional familiarity—competing against rosters that just met—can triumph over their own deteriorating bodies for at least a couple more years. If not, they're finished as a formidable duo, and Memphis will need to pivot into a different era faster than it presumably wants to. How the Grizzlies fare when Conley and Gasol share the floor will be a bellwether for the entire franchise; in a loaded western conference that only has eight spots for at least ten other teams that expect to make the playoffs (the Warriors, Rockets, Oklahoma City Thunder, Los Angeles Lakers, San Antonio Spurs, Denver Nuggets, Portland Trail Blazers, New Orleans Pelicans, Utah Jazz, and Minnesota Timberwolves), the fact that their sturdiest quality has turned into an unknown variable makes it possible to argue for and against Memphis's inclusion in that conversation.

The new rook, Jaren Jackson Jr. Photo by Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

My guess is they'll be quietly brilliant moving/taking care of the ball and pride themselves on dominating overlooked fundamentals (like, say, rebounding). But they'll also lack the methodical flow and individual prowess that's required to score efficiently. More weapons are needed to overcome this roster's unconvincing athleticism. JaMychal Green is not 32-year-old Zach Randolph, Dillon Brooks does not possess the twitchy intangibles that made Tony Allen a bobcat, and Jackson Jr. is a total and complete mystery so far as who he can and can't play with, or how his growing body will respond to NBA competition.


But what if Anderson improves his individual skill set and slides in as the intelligent, reliable wing Memphis didn't have last season (someone who can set up Gasol and Conley instead of the other way around), while Chandler Parsons appears in 75 games as a dramatically overpaid Sixth Man candidate? What if Jackson Jr.—who turns 19 in September—starts at the four and can moonlight as a dependable backup five (aka avoid foul trouble)? If these elements shift in their favor, the Grizzlies can momentarily reignite the embers of resilience that carried them through the earlier parts of this decade.

Either way, it's going to be so damn interesting to see what everything looks like. How they play—be it fast, modern, big, etc.—what style they'll adopt or philosophies they'll deploy. How will they stand out, aesthetically?

Beyond that, it's hard to even know what qualifies as a best-case scenario for Memphis over these next six months. Its first-round pick belongs to the Boston Celtics if it lands outside the top eight. (If not, it's top-six protected in 2020 and then unprotected in 2021). For a team that wants to rebuild on the fly and bridge this year to whenever Jackson is mature enough to serve as the face of their franchise, is a playoff appearance worth the loss of a valuable draft pick? Financially, the Grizzlies are lean enough, with Parsons and Gasol both set to expire after next season (Gasol has a $25.6 million player option) while Conley's massive deal comes off the books one year later. But Memphis is unwise to count on free agency as a means to sustain the plucky zeal it used to cultivate; the organization is staring at a long-term conundrum.

In the meantime, before their front office is able to mold the next life cycle into whatever it may be, basketball in Memphis will be as unpredictable, for better or worse, as it gets. Nothing should surprise you about this team, except everything it does.