The National Basketball Association’s Western Conference high is slightly surprising. Defending NBA champions Golden State Warriors, are well below – we are talking far from play-in. The same goes for the team that many have chosen to be No. 1 in the standings at the end of the season, the Los Angeles Clippers. The Los Angeles Lakersthe Dallas Mavericks…these four teams have two things in common.
- They are expected to climb higher in the rankings than they currently are, according to most experts.
- These large markets are, from now on, looking upwards New Orleans Pelicans, Memphis Grizzliesand Sacramento Kings.
Long live the Cinderella magic of the small market! Three teams having strong season starts in places that lack the lure of free agency buzz and bright lights. Somehow, fans are hoping for a Pelicans/Kings/Grizzlies combo for the Western Conference Finals. And somewhere, a TV executive just got a cold shiver down his spine.
Unfortunately, the clock will probably end up striking midnight on one of these teams. The Phoenix Suns and Denver nuggets, currently top-5 in the West with New Orleans/Memphis/Sacramento, isn’t going anywhere except injury. And as fun as it is to say “welcome to the play-in” to Stephen Curry, or Luka Doncic, or Kawhi Leonard/Paul George, it seems… unlikely. At some point, stars will be stars, the championship pedigree will kick in, and these combinations will topple ANYBODY from the conference elite ranks.
But who will avoid this fate and stay at the top of the rankings? Which “outsider” story should you believe?
There is a good answer. A team whose place among the best in the NBA should not be in question. And even the mighty Warriors should keep an eye on this team as the year prepares to turn.
Not only will the Memphis Grizzlies, who will likely resent being called “outsiders”, not drop in the standings (assuming health improves/holds up for all teams involved), but they should be the favorites to to be the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference entering the playoffs.
Consider the following facts-
Exhibit A – The Memphis Grizzlies, currently 17-9 and seeded No. 2 in the Western Conference, are among the most minutes missed due to injury in the entire NBA. Memphis’ star trio of Ja Morant, Desmond Bane and Jaren Jackson Jr. have yet to play together this season.
Exhibit B – The starting five for the Memphis Grizzlies of Ja Morant, John Konchar (replacing Bane), Dillon Brooks, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Steven Adams is a +22.2 per window cleaning, 93rd percentile, in 230 possessions played. The Memphis Grizzlies starting five of Ja Morant, Desmond Bane, Dillon Brooks, Santi Aldama (replacing Jackson Jr.) and Steven Adams is a +17.2, 87th percentile, in 180 possessions played.
Exhibit C – Brandon Clarke and Tyus Jones, two players who signed multi-year extensions with the Grizzlies last summer, are playing one of the worst basketball games of their careers. Clarke is currently at -11.4 by Cleaning the Glass, and Jones at -20.1. All of their best rosters at this point in the season include at least one rookie — either Jake LaRavia or David Roddy — and their most-used roster bugging them and John Konchar is a disastrous -47.3. They are combined -17.3 in two-man formation. Last season they were at +26.3 and one of the most impactful off-the-bench duos in the entire NBA.
So what can we conclude about the 2022-2023 Memphis Grizzlies two weeks from Christmas?
They are really good. Ja Morant is one of the NBA’s top 10 players, and Grizzlies general manager Zach Kleiman has built a roster that matches both Ja and the team’s plans almost seamlessly. Their development team is perhaps unmatched in the NBA – seriously, John Konchar and Santi Aldama! – and they’ve gotten little production from their best reserve players at this stage of the season.
They will improve. In the 10 games Jaren Jackson Jr. has played since returning, he has blocked shots on an elite clip (5.8% block percentage!) and brought the Grizzlies defense into the top 5 in the whole NBA. Ziaire Williams – seen as a key backup replacement for Memphis departing De’Anthony Melton and Kyle Anderson – has just returned from injury. Desmond Bane should do the same in the coming weeks.
When that happens, the Memphis starting five of Morant/Bane/Brooks/Jackson Jr./Adams will lead to a reserve unit of Jones/Konchar/Williams/Clarke/Aldama. No rookies in the rotation. Just guys who have both been in the system and also got minutes with Morant and other starters.
What happens when pristine vibes meet special athleticism and rim penetration/dribble play, two good to excellent defensive forces, an elite rebounder and a bench unit that finally has real depth?
A championship contender. That’s what happens.
New Orleans Pelicans
The New Orleans Pelicans are also legit – a team that shares Memphis accolades in both dealing with injury issues and also being top 10 in offensive and defensive efficiency for the season. Zion Williamson fills the superstar role well, like Morant, and the plays around Zion match what Williamson does best – especially among perimeter players like CJ McCollum and Brandon Ingram. Perhaps more importantly, the dark clouds that have been gathering over New Orleans for some time appear to have dissipated. The vibes, while perhaps not yet pristine like in Memphis, are vastly improved. Team chemistry is important.
So why choose the Grizzlies over the Pelicans? Memphis has been here before. They were the second seed last season. They had success in the playoffs, winning qualifying tournaments and a playoff series. And while the Pelicans have had their own health issues, Memphis’ problems have been more pronounced. The ceiling of what the Grizzlies can accomplish is unknown at this point in the season. What the Pelicans have done, while impressive, may be lasting, but it’s probably not something that – unless traded – will grow as drastically as what Memphis has to come combining l experience and improvements from proven products like Jones and Clarke, as opposed to younger/smaller sample size contributors for this New Orleans debut like Trey Murphy III and Dyson Daniels.
Pelicans are real – they just aren’t as real as the Grizzlies. Memphis has some real playoff scars they’ve won over the past two seasons. New Orleans — despite being a likely challenger for the Western Conference’s next big team, much like the Grizzlies — have yet to participate in those battles.
While the Grizzlies and Pelicans look set to stay, the Kings, however, look more like a Cinderella whose clock might strike midnight – at least in terms of being a top-5 team in the west. Sacramento is off to one of its best starts in a very long time, and its offense led by De’Aaron Fox is among the best in the league. This aspect of who they are can be maintained. The schemes of Mike Brown and the contributions of Fox, Domantas Sabonis and others make “illuminate the beamfor the Kings likely to happen more often than not.
But while Memphis and New Orleans are currently in the top 10 in offensive and defensive efficiency, Sacramento is 17th on the defensive side of things — with little room for improvement internally. The Kings don’t have the same injury issues as the Pelicans and Grizzlies, and part of the problem with their defensive plan is what allowed them to be so strong offensively. Domantas Sabonis is elite as a scoring and passing centre, but a 0.9% block rate shows he is not a rim protector. Harrison Barnes and Fox have had issues keeping their defensive energy up against offensive expectations. And in addition to the team shooting the ball itself, it has problems defending the three.
That will eventually catch up with them and slow their offensive roll as the Pelicans and Grizzlies keep the momentum going. That doesn’t mean Sacramento will come out of the playoffs – they seem here to stay in that conversation. But it’s about believing in contender status … and the Kings aren’t ready yet.
New Orleans seems to be closer to that level, and maybe trailing in the top 5.
But the Memphis Grizzlies were the 2nd best team in terms of records last season. And despite losing two veteran contributors and missing so many minutes of playing time, key players through injury are still close to that level. They have the biggest yardage indoors and the best combination of experience and ability. They know the joy of playoff victory and the sting of playoff loss. They continue to defy logic when it comes to performance – it’s commonplace now.
Because of this reality, this is their conference to take. And whether or not it’s their “time,” the Memphis Grizzlies look set to make it theirs. Whether you believe it or not.