The Whiteboard: Are the Memphis Grizzlies for real?

Memphis Grizzlies, The Whiteboard

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If you were to delineate contenders by statistical resumes alone, ignoring the noise of injuries and COVID-related absences, you’d really find just three teams this season, all in the Western Conference. Whatever you think about their chances of carrying the same level of dominance to the playoffs, the Golden State Warriors, Utah Jazz and Phoenix Suns have been head and shoulders above the rest of the league so far this regular season.

They each have a scoring differential better than plus-7.0 points per 100 possessions, with the Jazz and Warriors pushing double-digits. The difference in point differential between the third-ranked Suns and the fourth-ranked Cleveland Cavaliers is roughly the same as the difference between the Cavs and the ninth-ranked Brooklyn Nets.

Once you leave that tier, you find a handful of teams with contending resumes built on presumptions and priors — teams like the Bucks, Heat and Nets who clearly have the talent to win it all but have battled injuries and inconsistency. Teams like the 76ers and Bulls, who have looked the part on many nights but still have a glaring roster question mark or two to answer. And then you have the Memphis Grizzlies.

Memphis is currently fourth in the Western Conference and with a decent edge on the Denver Nuggets to hold onto homecourt advantage. They have the eighth-best point differential in the league, roughly the same as the Nets’, and they’re 3-2 against the Warriors, Suns and Jazz.

Could the Memphis Grizzlies really make noise in the Western Conference playoffs?

On Tuesday night, the Grizzlies narrowly eked out a win over the Cavaliers, another ascendant young team looking to take the leap. Ja Morant was the hero with 26 points, including 10 in the fourth quarter, but it was another reminder of just how deep and versatile this team really is.

Desmond Bane finished the win over the Cavs with 11 points, 7 assists and 5 rebounds and he’s emerged as the electric two-way shooting guard the Grizzlies always seemed to lack in the Marc Gasol-Mike Conley era. In his second season, he’s averaging 17.4 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.0 steals, on 46.6/41.6/90.5 shooting splits and has continued developing into a meaningful secondary creator.

Jaren Jackson Jr. chipped in 22 points in the win over the Cavs and although his shooting numbers have dropped off and his rebounding numbers continue to be anemic, he’s an incredibly important cog. Even with his 3-point shooting hovering in the low 30s, his willingness to launch from distance stretches the defense and he’s been very, very good at attacking closeouts off the dribble. Among players 6-foot-10 or taller, only Giannis, Kevin Durant, Franz Wagner and Karl-Anthony Towns have averaged more drives per game than Jackson this season and his 0.777 points per drive are the third-highest in the league among the 120 players of any height who average at least 5.0 drives per game.

A few weeks ago, while Ja Morant was still out, Ben Ladner broke down how the Grizzlies were thriving in his absence, highlighting the effective ways they were leveraging multiple ball-handlers and creators:

“Tyus Jones, Desmond Bane, De’Anthony Melton, Brandon Clarke and, crucially, Jaren Jackson Jr. have all become more central offensive cogs over the last three weeks, yet none have become overburdened by the responsibility because they can share it with one another. Bane and Jackson aren’t going to consistently break down defenses on their own but can be dangerous scorers when they receive the ball with an advantage, make a decisive move and read the defense to determine the next action. The Grizzlies rely on those sorts of chain reactions, in which everyone is a threat to score or make a play. Most often, it’s been Jackson, Bane or Dillon Brooks on the finishing end of those sequences, but that’s the product of smart interplay between all five players on the floor.”

Two of the names there — Dillon Brooks and De’Anthony Melton — didn’t play against Cleveland as they’re both currently in the health and safety protocols. This is another important data point. Although too much depth can be a problem in its own right, finding minutes and shots enough to keep everyone happy, the Grizzlies have been thriving at far below full strength. Brooks, a two-way wing and career 35.1 shooter from beyond the arc, has played just 19 games this season. Melton, one of the best backup point guards in the league, has missed nine games. Morant has missed 12. Xavier Tillman, a stretch, versatile, two-way big man who found a key role as a rookie last season has missed 10.

And even with all those absences, the Grizzlies have managed to stay league average in defensive efficiency with the seventh-highest offensive efficiency in the league. If they roll into the playoffs with everyone healthy they could be prepared to play well above the regular-season ceiling we’ve seen so far.

Morant is the key for everything the Grizzlies do and how he performs in the playoffs will ultimately determine how far they go. But on paper, and increasingly, in practice, this roster seems to be much deeper and more well-rounded than your “young team that’s just happy to be here.” They have multiple secondary creators, multiple rim protectors, multiple floor spacers and at a variety of positions. They have solid defenders at the wing and at the point of attack and excellent complementary passers up and down the roster.

There is still a lot of regular-season basketball to be played but 538’s prediction model currently gives the Grizzlies a 5 percent chance of making the Finals — better than the Bulls, Mavericks or Hawks. That may be a lofty goal at this point, especially with the Warriors, Suns and Jazz looming. But it seems increasingly plausible that the Grizzlies could emerge as one of the strongest teams in that second tier of contenders.

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