By: Rajan Nanavati
There were plenty of people around the NBA who, before the 2018-2019 season started, looked at the roster of this season’s Memphis Grizzlies, and wondered if their projected win total of 34.5 games — as determined by most casino sports books — was actually a bit too generous.
But through their first 16 games this season the Grizzlies have sprinted out to the best record in the Western Conference using a rather obvious formula: it’s very hard for opponents to beat them if they can’t score enough points.
The Grizzlies’ 11-5 record entering Wednesday morning is a throwback to their “grit and grind” days. They’re allowing exactly 100 points per game on average, which is the lowest points allowed per game in the NBA (and by a substantial margin as well). In a season where the scoring numbers have been through the roof, in the Grizzlies’ last two wins of their current four-game winning streak, Memphis actually allowed less than 90 points to their opponent.
In the not-too-distant-past, Memphis was buoyed by a group that included Tony Allen, Zach Randolph, and current holdovers Marc Gasol and Mike Conley Jr. The former two are obviously gone, but replaced with a group of guys who provide this team with an absolutely absurd amount of length.
In fact, the current group of Grizzlies have the wingspan of a family of condors. Gasol has a 7’4″ wingspan; rookie Jaren Jackson Jr. has the same. Kyle Anderson’s is 7’3”. Chandler Parsons, who – rather shockingly – is playing this season, has a wingspan of 6’10”. Even Conley, who stands only 6’1”, has a wingspan of 6’6”. Opponents trying to pass the ball around in a half-court set must feel like they’re throwing the ball through a forest.
But all the length in the world doesn’t mean anything if there’s no actual commitment to using it. With entrenched veterans like Gasol and Conley remaining with the team even as the rest of it was being dismantled, there are guys who can keep the defensive-minded culture in place – and imprint it on the new guys. It makes head coach J. B. Bickerstaff’s life a lot easier when an All-Star veteran like Gasol is publicly talking about the commitment each player should take in playing defense in Memphis, in terms of the communication, effort, and pride needed to do so (and then going out and leading by example).
If Memphis can actually keep up that level of pride and effort, they have the pieces to make things interesting. Again, Gasol and Conley have been to the postseason before. So has Garrett Temple and Shelvin Mack, who’ve been the unsung contributors each team needs. The aforementioned flock of wings possessed by Memphis can present matchup problems for virtually any team that they play against.
And with the Western Conference being as wide open as it’s been in years, there’s plenty of reason to believe that the Grizzlies – who many people had pegged for a bottom-three finish in the Western Conference – should make a return trip to the postseason after their one-year hiatus.