The coronavirus pandemic halted the NBA season four months ago, the equivalent of an entire offseason. It is easy to forget where everyone left off, let alone what has changed since we last saw NBA basketball. In order to get you up to speed before Thursday’s season re-opening slate at Walt Disney World in Orlando, we will be reviewing and previewing each of the 22 teams scheduled to participate.
[More NBA restart previews: Boston Celtics • Brooklyn Nets • Dallas Mavericks • Denver Nuggets • Houston Rockets • Indiana Pacers • Los Angeles Clippers • Los Angeles Lakers • Miami Heat • Milwaukee Bucks • New Orleans Pelicans • Oklahoma City Thunder • Orlando Magic • Philadelphia 76ers • Phoenix Suns • Portland Trail Blazers • Sacramento Kings • San Antonio Spurs • Toronto Raptors • Utah Jazz • Washington Wizards]
Where were the Memphis Grizzlies?
Place: Eighth in the West
The Memphis Grizzlies were expected to finish toward the bottom of the lottery, and yet coach Taylor Jenkins’ charges played inspired basketball. It helps to have Ja Morant, the Rookie of the Year favorite who plays with joyous and reckless abandon. Fellow rookie Brandon Clarke is also on the short list of ROY runners-up, and second-year big man Jaren Jackson Jr. built on his own rookie success to cement himself as a rising star. Together they form a core that could restore Memphis to its Grit ‘n’ Grind glory.
The trade deadline threatened to derail their playoff hopes, as a treacherous schedule loomed and rotational contributors Jae Crowder and Solomon Hill were dealt along with Andre Iguodala to the Miami Heat for the future prospects of the injured Justise Winslow. The 24-year-old Winslow was thought to be recovered from a longterm back injury when a hip injury in the Orlando bubble ended his season. The rules regarding a potential play-in series between the eighth- and ninth-place teams, which all but erased Memphis’ 3 1/2-game head start on the rest of the playoff pack, has done the Grizzlies no favors, either.
Who’s in and who’s out?
Out: Justise Winslow (hip)
Winslow has yet to play for the Grizzlies, but while his injury may not feel like a loss to those who have spent little time thinking about Memphis during the hiatus, it is significant. Theoretically, he is the exact type of do-everything forward who would fit seamlessly alongside the Grizzlies’ young core. He is a 6-foot-6, 225-pound rock-solid athlete who was skilled enough to play point guard in some Miami lineups and strong enough to defend multiple positions. His outside shot has improved considerably in recent years, and he has enjoyed sustained stretches of the brand of basketball that made him a lottery prospect.
The Grizzlies did re-sign veteran Anthony Tolliver, whose 10-day contract ended when the season was suspended. Tolliver gives Memphis big man depth and another stretch option in the frontcourt rotation of Jackson, Clarke and Jonas Valanciunas. There are plenty of playoff teams who could have used Tolliver.
NBA Finals odds: +30000
Championship odds: +50000
The Grizzlies are a team on the rise. How quickly they rise will depend on the development of Morant, Jackson and Clarke, all of whom just had the equivalent of an offseason to improve their games. Do not be surprised if any of them emerge a serious playoff problem for opponents, especially Morant and Jackson, either of whom will be competing for All-Star roster spots in the near future. A bigger X-factor, though, is the play of Josh Jackson, a lottery pick who the Phoenix Suns gave up on after two seasons.
Memphis features a ton of talented players who have been effective in the roles Jenkins has carved out for them, including Dillon Brooks and De’Anthony Melton, but Jackson has a real chance of expanding his role beyond uber-athlete and defensive specialist. He played 18 games for the Grizzlies after being called up from the G League and increasingly earned the coaching staff’s trust. In the five games before the break, Jackson averaged 16.6 points (including 38.2 percent shooting on 6.8 3-point attempts a night), 2.8 assists, two rebounds and 2.4 combined blocks and steals in just 20.9 minutes per game.
There is a version of Jackson who seizes this opportunity, slides into an expanded role in the absences of Crowder, Hill and Winslow, and proves himself as a real difference-maker in a playoff push — one more prospect to expedite a rebuild that only began with the trades of Marc Gasol and Mike Conley in 2019.
(All times Eastern)
July 31: Portland Trail Blazers, 4 p.m. (NBATV)
Aug. 2: San Antonio Spurs, 4 p.m.
Aug. 3: New Orleans Pelicans, 6:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Aug. 5: Utah Jazz, 2:30 p.m.
Aug. 7: Oklahoma City Thunder, 4 p.m. (NBATV)
Aug. 9: Toronto Raptors, 2 p.m.
Aug. 11: Boston Celtics, 6:30 p.m. (TNT)
Aug. 13: Milwaukee Bucks, TBD
The absolute best-case scenario would be to survive a brutal seeding schedule more than four games ahead of the field, avoiding a play-in series for the eighth seed. The last thing the Grizzlies want is a playoff-experienced Damian Lillard or playoff-hungry Zion Williamson staring back at them. Losing two straight to any of the potential ninth-place teams would not only eliminate Memphis from the playoff field, but also improve draft positioning for the Boston Celtics, who own the Grizzlies’ top-six protected pick.
Memphis’ best hope in a first-round series against the top-seeded Los Angeles Lakers is young legs. There is no telling how helpful that will be during a condensed schedule following a long layoff, but it probably falls short of helping the Grizzlies become the first team to eliminate LeBron James in the first round.
Yahoo Sports NBA prediction
Place: Eighth in the West
Finish: Play-in series loss
Check out the NBA Disney World bubble in augmented reality:
More from our NBA restart series:
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