Just last year around this time, you’d be reading my (semi) informed prognostications about the Grizzlies, based on their offseason moves and a string of essentially meaningless preseason games.
And now? Now, with the Grizzlies sitting at 5-3 after a 101-99 loss to the Orlando Magic Wednesday night, we are nearly a tenth of the way through this young season. Their early season success comes from a tiny sample size, but it’s enough to begin to see what the ceiling is for your Memphis Grizzlies.
For those of you who feared that Tony Allen took the team’s defensive identity with him to New Orleans, you can exhale. Memphis has been just as thrilling on the defensive end as ever, but it is indeed different.
These days, the Grizz play a harrassing defense, and wing players such as James Ennis III, Andrew Harrison, Tyreke Evans and even Chandler Parsons have both the youth and the length get into the passing lanes and make deflections or steals. Through seven games, Memphis has a defensive rating of 97.6, good for fifth in the league.
Not surprisingly, that defense often leads to easy transition baskets. The team is averaging 18 points per game off turnovers. This helps in a few ways. First of all, it certainly helps Head Coach David Fizdale’s mission to pick up the pace. Secondly, who doesn’t like easy baskets?
Consider any of the “Core Four” seasons, when defenses had time to get set up because Zach Randolph simply didn’t run so fast. It resulted in the team having to scrap and struggle for every single basket. It’s good for the team to get easy baskets whenever they can.
But by far, what has fans buzzing the most is the Grizzlies bench. Fizdale has elected to go with Andrew Harrison in the starting lineup until Wayne Selden Jr. and/or Ben McLemore heal up. And Jarell Martin has acquitted himself well, subbing in for an injured JaMychal Green.
And if you’re wondering why Tyreke or Brandan Wright aren’t starting, it’s because Fizdale wants that second unit to have its own chemistry and rhythm.
When Evans, Wright, Mario Chalmers, Parsons and rookie Dillon Brooks check into the game, they often play better than the starters. The Grizzlies bench hung 67 points on The Houston Rockets in their last meeting, including a breakout 25-point performance from Parsons.
I have said that the Grizz second unit could start on a bad NBA team. That’s no slight to them; just a way of saying that lineup has plenty of veterans who know how to play. If the Grizzlies continue to chalk up wins, you can be assured that the bench will have everything to do with it — especially while Green, McLemore and Selden recover.
It will be interesting to see what happens when those players come back. Someone who’s playing well right now is going to be playing fewer minutes. But in the worst case scenario, having such a rididculously deep team provides some insurance if the injury bug bites.
Once thing that’s both encouraging and a little troubling is that Conley and Gasol have yet to play well on the same night. It’s encouraging because the team has been able to post impressive wins without strong games from its two best players. But it’s troubling because it’s unsustainable — eventually, you’ll need those guys to have great games in order to win.
But that’s nitpicking. A few weeks ago, media (and some fans) were anticipating a lottery team. And while I don’t think the team will spend a lot of time as the top seed in the Western Conference, I can’t say I’ll be surprised if they lock up a top-four seed in the Spring.
But there’s a lot of ball to play before then, and most nights it will be a lot of fun to watch. So settle in, buckle up and . . .