Throughout the first half of the NBA season, the Western Conference standings were an intractable mess, with 14 teams all harboring legitimate hopes of nabbing a playoff spot. Young upstarts like the Mavericks and Kings threatened the balance of power, while established playoff mainstays like the Pelicans, the Jazz, and somehow the Rockets faltered. Something was inevitably going to break—it would be wholly unprecedented for essentially an entire conference’s worth of teams to seriously contend for the playoffs—and it seems the first unfortunate squad to drop out for good is the Memphis Grizzlies.
This was supposed to be a bounceback season for the Grizzlies, and for a while, it was. Marc Gasol and Mike Conley rejoined a team whose 2017–18 prospects were mangled by injuries and Memphis hit the ground running. They started off 12-5, beating some good teams and surrounding their two stars with a mantle of obliging role players. Conley, who has never made an all-star team, finally seemed destined to break that streak, while Jaren Jackson Jr. appeared to be good as hell. They were even in first place for a hot minute!
It has all gone to shit. Memphis has lost six in a row, 12 of their last 13, and 19 of their last 23 (hilariously enough, the bad times started just after Brooksgate.) They’re currently 19-28, which means they’re toast in the Western Conference. How did it get so bad so quickly?
The Grizzlies’ formula since what feels like 1899 has depended on Gasol and Conley to be absolute superstars, anchoring the paint and perimeter respectively. Conley has held up his end of the deal, but Gasol has finally started to falter. He is shooting less than 40 percent since the start of December, and he’s down to 13 or so points per game since the Grizzlies started losing. Ominously, the team has been appreciably worse with him on the floor.
This is the first year with J.B. Bickerstaff at the helm, after Gasol won his power struggle with David Fizdale. This stat about the Grizzlies getting waxed in third quarters paints a drastic picture of Bickerstaff’s early performance.
Moving down the roster, things only look bleaker. Dillon Brooks, the team’s best shooter, is out for the season. Kyle Anderson is hurt too, Shelvin Mack is complete ass, and JaMychal Green is nice and athletic and also a complete plus-minus disaster. Joakim Noah is here too, which is a real bummer. I suppose Garrett Temple and his career-best scoring numbers are nice to have around, though he still doesn’t even give the team 10 points per game in his 3.15 minutes, and his shooting has regressed to league average. The Grizzlies have the league’s second-worst offense on the year, and it’s been comfortably the very worst in the NBA since Dec. 13 (via SBNation).
That stat is not altogether surprising, but since it’s also coincided with the team’s notoriously stingy defense slackening, the Grizzlies have cratered. Yesterday’s horrific 105-85 home loss to the Pelicans was a rather exemplary L, as the team managed only 35 points in the second half while letting Jahlil Okafor style on them in Anthony Davis’s stead.
The Grizzlies are not overcoming the 6.5 games nor the five teams between them and the playoffs, which means it is time to start thinking about next year. Marc Gasol has a hefty player option for next season, and while he won’t ask for a trade, it wouldn’t be surprising if he were shipped out of Memphis for the first time in his career. They could very easily lose him for nothing this offseason if he chooses free agency, which Stein thinks he will, so the timing makes a ton of sense.
Compounding the team’s struggles is the inconvenient fact that the Grizzlies owe a first-rounder to the Celtics (thanks Jeff Green!) at some point in the next three seasons. The pick is top-eight protected this year, top-six protected next year, and unprotected in 2021. The flattened lottery odds hurt the team, as does their hot start—they’re the sixth-worst team in the NBA with no shot at dropping any lower.
Point is, the team is not only bad, their future is handcuffed by their own poor decision making. Conley and Gasol have spent 11 seasons together in Memphis, but it feels like the end is rapidly approaching.
Update, 6:52 p.m. ET: Here we are, three minutes after this blog was posted.