After Tuesday night’s 119-112 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves, your Memphis Grizzlies are currently ranked No. 9 in the Western Conference — just a half-game behind the San Antonio Spurs for the No. 8 seed in the NBA Playoffs.
Yes, I said the “P” word, because well, darn it, these young cubs have played themselves into that position. Now sporting a 16-22 record, one could argue that a more experienced Grizzlies team – one that knows how to protect leads and win close games – would have a winning record and be seeded even higher.
And lest we get too carried away: Yes, it’s still only January and early season games don’t matter. Often, when a young team plays well early in a season, it’s easy to be dismissive – to say that Playoff Contender X hasn’t integrated new players just yet, or that Championship Contender Y has been resting players.
But however it’s happened, the Grizzlies are now riding a three-game winning streak with the next five games at FedExForum. Many of the teams they’ll face in January are below .500, so there is a chance the momentum continues.
The elephant NOT in the room
Andre Iguodala has stayed away from the team in hopes of either a buyout or trade to a championship contender. But Memphis wants draft picks and/or young talent back in any deal for Iguodala and his $17.1 million expiring contract – and they have no reason to rush.
I do believe an Iguodala trade will get done, though it might not be to a true contender. Title favorites like the Lakers and Clippers don’t have the young talent and picks Memphis wants. It will likely take a third team, probably a lottery team looking for cap relief, to facilitate a trade that works for Memphis.
Or, they might just stand pat. If no deal materializes, the worst that happens is that Iguodala’s $17 million gives Memphis more cap flexibility in the offseason. Zach Kleiman and the Grizzlies front office have worked magic this season, so there’s no reason to believe they won’t make a solid move, if not a spectacular one.
But it’s the ripple effect I’m more concerned with – namely, team chemistry. Which brings me to Jae Crowder and Solomon Hill.
It’s media-types like me that are talking playoffs. In the Grizzlies locker room, they know better.
“You take it one game at a time, block out all the noise,” Crowder said Tuesday. “I just really feel that’s the message we should preach as leaders – just take it one game at a time.”
Spoken like a veteran. While superstar rookie Ja Morant has electrified the NBA with his drives and dunks, and Jaren Jackson Jr. has rediscovered his stroke from the arc, it’s been veterans like Crowder and Hill that have helped this team mature much faster than initially expected.
“A lot of (what they talk about in games) is learning patience and picking spots… figuring out how to get to your spots better,” Jackson said. “If I’m not being aggressive enough, or if I forced a shot . . . They’re really good at that.”
It certainly helps.
“It’s awesome when you can just take a step back and let (the veterans lead),” Jenkins said after the Minnesota win. “To be able to lean on your vets – sometimes behind closed doors, not even in a game situation – I take that experience and roll with it, because it helps me grow as a coach too.”
At the beginning of the season, the prevailing logic was that Crowder and Hill were not a part of the team’s long term plans. Both on expiring contracts, they were supposed to come in, mentor the youngsters and accept their roles until their inevitable trade for more young assets – until the Grizzlies evolve into a good team.
But lo and behold, the Grizzlies are well on their way to becoming a good team right now. And guess what good teams – ones that make playoff runs – have? They have 2-3 savvy veterans who embrace their roles on the team and just help everything run smoother.
Which is exactly what the Grizzlies have now in Crowder, Hill and Kyle Anderson. In other words, the Grizzlies could trade Crowder or Hill, maybe as soon as this month – but eventually, they would be looking for players to bring just what those guys already do.
In fact, if I’m putting on my general manager hat, one scenario I’m considering is this: Allow Iguodala’s contract to expire this summer and use the cap space to re-sign Crowder and, if possible, Hill.
The trade deadline is Feb. 6, followed by All-Star Weekend and the giddiness of a possible return to playoff contention.
But the Grizzlies aren’t thinking about all that. Like vets, they’re taking it one game at a time.