Can Ja Morant and the young cubs in Memphis make the leap into the NBA Playoffs?
That’s the ultimate question of the season right?
Just a few months ago, the Grizzlies narrowly missed the playoffs in the Orlando bubble, first by going just 2-6 (and not locking up the No. 8 seed) and then by losing a close 122-126 game to Portland in the play-in. Oh, and by the way, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Justise Winslow were both out of that game and Morant only went for 35 points – while playing with a fractured hand.
Despite their performance in the bubble, the trajectory for the Grizzlies never veered from its upward climb. There’s no reason to believe these Grizzlies won’t be a better team than last year – and their 3-1 record in the preseason helps make that case.
But will it be enough to break through in the ever tough Western Conference?
Or finally, let’s get back to the elephant in the room: COVID-19.
Just as I was formulating this column, the Grizzlies announced that there would be no fans at FedExForum until further notice. It’s the right call, given the deadly surge in infections. Despite the NBA’s impressive handling of the bubble, there are many ways that COVID could derail this season – not just for the Grizzlies, but the whole league.
So there will be no shortage of storylines for the Grizzlies this season. Here are some of the ones I’ll be watching:
Morant, Year 2: Last season, we saw the rookie Morant play with the poise of a young veteran – along the way, winning Rookie of the Year, averaging nearly 18 points and seven assists a game. He also immediately established himself as a go-to scorer in the fourth quarter.
It’s not really a question of whether Morant will improve this season; it’s how much. More fundamentally: Morant surpassed our expectations, established new and even bolder ones for himself and the team this season. Can he blow those expectations out of the water … again? How many more Ja-dropping moments will we see this season?
The signs are promising, of course. Morant has added bulk to his wiry frame, for those forays to the basket. And he’s found even more finishers so far in the preseason, averaging nearly 10 assists. The additional strength should help on the defensive end as well, where he could otherwise get overpowered by bigger guards.
The closest thing to a knock on Morant’s game would be his three-point shooting, just 28 percent last season. If he can push that closer to 37 percent, teams would HAVE to respect his shot – and if that happens, Ja Morant becomes even more unguardable, which is tantalizing to imagine. Given his work ethic, there’s no reason he can’t do that, maybe even this season.
Last season, Morant was a rookie who played like a young veteran. This year, we expect him to be the sophomore who plays like a superstar – and likely receives his first All-Star bid.
Strong start?: On one hand, the Grizzlies start the season without Jackson and Winslow, two guys expected to start when they are healthy. On the other hand? Those two guys (mostly) weren’t available in Orlando either. Winslow was ruled out just before the bubble, and Jackson was injured three games in.
Translation: Not to say that Jackson and Winslow aren’t missed, but a look down the roster reveals that only rookie Desmond Bane was absent from the bubble roster. In other words, this team has already gotten used to playing without Jackson and Winslow. On the other other hand, this rotation was in the driver’s seat for a playoff spot and went 2-6 in the bubble, so . . .
Anyway, continuity counts for something, and my bet is that the Grizz can hit the ground running, and hopefully build some early season momentum. They will need it.
Too deep?: Another new normal for NBA teams: 15-man active rosters. This is intended to help ensure there are enough bodies to play games in the event COVID ravages a team’s roster. And the Grizzlies have some really, really good depth on the depth chart, particularly in the wing positions.
Once Winslow returns, Jenkins will need to divide minutes up between him, Grayson Allen, DeAnthony Melton, Kyle Anderson, Dillon Brooks, Jon Konchar and Desmond Bane. I expect injury, illness or rest to help resolve some of the rotation crunch. But it’s the kind of problem a coach wants to have when the play of guys like Konchar and Bane demands attention.
Instant playoff intensity: With 10 games lopped off of the usual 82-game schedule, the stakes of all of these games just got higher, statistically speaking. Fewer games mean each regular-season game becomes MUCH more valuable in playoff standings. They carry more weight.
Consequently, I expect every team to try to storm out of the gate, playing with a near playoff intensity – because stumbling to a 3-9 start could sink your playoff hopes even before the MLK Game on Jan. 18. Similarly, the jockeying for playoff positioning will start almost immediately for the conference elite. That’s one reason why a strong start for Memphis is so important.
The New Back-to-Back: Another COVID-induced twist for this season: To reduce travel, many teams will play in two-game series, much as we saw in the preseason. The first such series will bring the NBA Champion L.A. Lakers to Memphis for two games just after New Year’s.
This will be an interesting experiment, with lots of variables. For instance, when the Grizzlies play the Blazers in Portland on Jan. 20, the winner will have a chance to clinch a potential tie-breaker with a playoff rival in the Jan. 22 game. See what I mean by playoff intensity?
Much like the playoffs, coaches and teams will be able to adapt for those second games, adding another wrinkle. Less travel should mean more rest, which should mean better basketball all season. Conversely, what if these “micro-series” happen to fall during a key player illness or injury? I expect this to be an under-the-radar hit with players and fans.
Ah. There are so many more potential narratives. Will Winslow be the difference-maker he’s expected to be? Will he ever be healthy enough for us to find out? Will Kyle Anderson continue to shine? Other than Gorgui Dieng’s mammoth contract, who would be trade bait for the March 25 deadline – and for what return?
And none of that factors in the sheer depth of the West. Here at the start of the season, the playoffs only seem out of reach for three teams: The recently blown-up OKC Thunder, the Sacramento Kings and the Minnesota Timberwolves. This is one of those years that at least two really good Western Conference teams won’t make the playoffs while a sub-.500 team squeaks into the Eastern Conference bracket.
Will the Grizzlies be one of the chosen few? Or will they be a good-but-not-good-enough onlooker? One way or another, we’re about to find out . . .
GRIND ON, GRZNXTGEN!