THE BIG QUESTION: Will the Grizzlies make the Playoffs?

GritGrindGrizz columnist Lee Eric Smith projects the Western Conference.

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Having mourned the passing of Grit-N-Grind as we knew it, we turn our attention to the official start of the NBA season, which tips off here in Memphis next Wednesday against the New Orleans Pelicans. That’s when we’ll begin to solve the riddle of the Memphis Grizzlies.

I have joked among my friends that it wouldn’t shock me if the team won 24 games or 44 games. After the Grizzlies’ preseason opener against the Orlando Magic, even Head Coach David Fizdale commented that he has “no idea what this team can be.”

There are just too many variables — a new style of play, so many injury question marks (Chandler Parsons, Ben McLemore, Tyreke Evans), so many new players (including vets McLemore, Evans), so many inexperienced players (Wade Baldwin, Rade Zagorac, Deyonta Davis, Dillon Brooks, Ivan Rabb). The work ethic seems to be there on defense, but will it translate to the season?

And none of that factors in on-court chemistry. For instance, neither Conley nor Gasol have played with a go-get-me-a-bucket-type player quite like Tyreke Evans. And for the first time in his career, Conley will have free reign to call his own number on offense. Everything is different.

So when my buddies start to ask me if the Grizzlies will make the playoffs, I have to start doing the math — as in, which Western Conference teams are virtual postseason locks; which ones will make the leap into the top eight and which ones will fall out.

So in that context, here’s my projection for the top eight seeds in the Western Conference:

Playoff Locks

1. Golden State Warriors. Until somebody takes the crown — which doesn’t look promising — once again the Dubs are the favorites to win the whole thing. If they weren’t so much fun to watch, I’d be angry and/or bored.

2. San Antonio Spurs. Maybe the only other team that passes the ball as well as Golden State. And nostalgic Grizz fans may smile when they see Rudy Gay waving off Pau Gasol so he can jack up a jumper.

3. Houston Rockets. With Chris Paul in the mix alongside James Harden, they can score with anybody. But can they defend well enough to give Chris Paul a ticket past the second round of the playoffs?

4. Oklahoma City Thunder. Before the Carmelo Anthony trade, I had the Thunder scratching to hold on to a lower seed, even after adding Paul George. But now? They might be the team most equipped to knock off Golden State.

The Next Tier

I’m pretty convinced those are your top four teams. Handicapping the next four is a challenge, so don’t hold me to this order, but . . .

5. Los Angeles Clippers. They still have Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, so that counts for something. But like Memphis, there are a ton of new players here — Danilo Gallinari, Patrick Beverly, etc. Unlike Memphis, the Clips added more veterans so the learning curve should be shorter.

6. Minnesota Timberwolves. Even after adding Jimmy Butler and Taj Gipson to a promising core of Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns, I wasn’t sold. On paper, the Wolves have been good for years now. I want to be sold on them. But I’m not.

7. New Orleans Pelicans. In Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins, the Pels have the most imposing frontcourt in the league. I’m believing they’ve figured out how to play together, and now that they’ve added Rajon Rondo and Tony Allen to the mix, they should have one of the better defenses. But again, they’ve been at the edge of breakthrough for a while now.

8. Memphis Grizzlies. Honestly, Memphis is likely to duke it out with the Pelicans and one of these other teams below for the eighth spot. But I’m counting on Conley and Gasol to prevent too much slippage.

The Outsiders

So with me projecting that the Wolves and Pelicans will make the playoffs this season, two teams took a step back:

9. Utah Jazz. With Gordon Hayward going to Boston, their new best player is Rudy Gobert — a heck of a defensive center. And they added Ricky Rubio. They will still be a very tough defensive team, but I don’t think they’ll score enough to keep up in the West.

10. Portland Trailblazers. They were supposed to be good two seasons ago; missed the playoffs. Were supposed to be bad last season; made the playoffs. They should be in the mix in April, but the West is simply too deep.

Everybody Else

11. Sacramento Kings. Zach Randolph, Vince Carter and George Hill will tutor the kids, but they won’t win a lot of games.

12. Denver Nuggets. They paid a lot of money for Paul Millsap, which likely means a Kenneth Faried trade is inevitable. The pieces don’t seem to fit together on this team.

13. Dallas Mavericks. You’d like to see an all-time great like Dirk Nowitzki play meaningful games at this stage in his career. Not gonna happen.

14. Los Angeles Lakers. Lonzo Ball has impressed in preseason, but his dad’s playoff predictions won’t come true.

15. Phoenix Suns. Man, I miss Steve Nash.

Eastern Conference

As for Eastern Conference projections, they’re pretty simple: The Cleveland Cavaliers are virtual locks to go back to the Finals for a fourth straight year. The team most likely to upset them is Boston and its new Big Three of Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward and Al Horford. I do expect Kyrie to blossom, but its going to take Boston some time to gel.

In the next tier are the sneaky-good Washington Wizards and the Toronto Raptors. Either of them would cause problems for Boston in the playoffs, but I can’t see either beating Cleveland four times in the Spring.

But right now, every team has the same record: 0-0. Let’s get it started! GRIND ON!