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Saturday, June 15, 2024
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Can the Memphis Grizzlies Salvage Their Season?

The start of the 2023-2024 season for the Memphis Grizzlies could not have gone any worse for a team that was in the championship conversation just seven months ago.

Ja Morant’s suspension, coupled with injuries to both Steven Adams and Brandon Clarke, have contributed to Memphis starting the season with just one win in eight games – the worst record in the NBA today. 

That leaves Memphis with only one question for the final 74 games of the season: Can they salvage their season?

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Looking back at the first eight games tells a story of what the next 17 games might be like for Memphis without Morant.

The team lost five games by single digits including one in overtime. It has been a mixed bag overall, not just a tire fire with the team getting blown out game after game.

Over its last three games Memphis has blown a 10-point lead to the Portland Trail Blazers, turned around and beat them by 12 points two days later and then shrank in the final quarter against the Miami Heat in a six-point loss. 

There are some signs of life for Memphis and some good over the past three games in particular.

In those three games, Memphis has a better offensive rating (107.5), defensive rating (106.2) and net rating (+1.3) than they had in the first five games.

During this three-game stretch, Jaren Jackson Jr. has looked the best he has all season averaging 28.3 points, 7.0 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game.

Desmond Bane has done his best to be the team’s go-to playmaker on the perimeter averaging 26.0 points, 5.0 assists and 7.0 rebounds per game over the last three games as well.

Those two are best served as role players, complimenting and playing off of Morant. Same for Marcus Smart and the rest of the roster, who will fall back to their natural roles orbiting Morant when he is back.

All this group has to do is grit and grind over the next 17 games so that when Morant comes back the uphill climb is more Great Smoky Mountains and less Mount Everest.

The first leg of the climb is those next 17 games. Depending on what happens in those games, Memphis could be on a path to fighting for a play-in tournament seed or in a position to make a push into the playoffs.

If Memphis can keep its head close to the surface over these next 17 games then the team has a fighting chance to salvage this season with Morant.

A major narrative with Memphis over the past two seasons is the team’s record without Morant in the line-up. Collectively over the past two years, the team is 31-15 with Morant out of the line-up in the regular season.

Memphis is also 76-42 with Morant in the line-up, going 36-21 two seasons ago and 40-21 last season.

The team is different this season. The team has injuries this season beyond Morant. The team does not have Tyus Jones as a reliable backup for Morant. However, when a player of Morant’s caliber has a 64.4% winning percentage it means something.

If Morant comes back with 57 games left on the schedule he puts Memphis in a position to win 35-37 games if the 64.4% track record holds up.

In a very, very tough western conference this season that means the team needs to figure out a way to win somewhere between eight to 11 games total without their All-Star point guard. 

Looking at the next 17 games Memphis has seven home games and 10 road games before Morant comes back. There are three back-to-backs peppered in there, all against teams that would be favored against Memphis regardless of rest.

Qualifying those three games as losses gives Memphis 14 games to collect at least seven wins. 

During this stretch they face a few teams multiple times. The Utah Jazz twice (home and away), the Dallas Mavericks twice (home and away), the Phoenix Suns twice (home and away) and the Houston Rockets three times (away, home and away).

Finding wins will not be easy for Memphis without its star player, but the road to playoffs is not one that is drawing dead. At least not yet.

Last season the Sacramento Kings finished as the third seed in the Western Conference after an 0-4 start to the season and the Los Angeles Lakers after a 2-10 start.

That brings up another point that has not really seen much light if any at all: What top seed wants to see Memphis in the first round as a seven or eight seed? Last season the Milwaukee Bucks were humbled in the first round by a play-in team. As was Memphis by the same Los Angeles team that started off 2-10 and entered the playoffs as a seven seed.

What happens if Memphis is a seventh, eighth, ninth or 10th seed in the playoffs at the end of the season with the opportunity to upset or test one of the top two seeds? Potentially even upset them with a healthy Morant, Bane and Jackson Jr. in their primary roles, and a potential trade to enhance the roster?

All of those outcomes are on the table. There are too many variables to write off the season for Memphis like so many seem eager to do after just eight games.

The season is not over for Memphis if the team is 10-15, 9-16, 8-17, 7-18 during the Morant suspension.

Taylor Jenkins is too good of a coach. Morant is too good of a star player. Bane and Jackson Jr. are too good as support stars. The city is too gritty and proud. Memphis is far from what its record indicates it is right now – the worst team in the NBA. 

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Kris Habbas
Kris Habbas
Once writer, then editor of NBA Draft Insider. Did some work for Dime Magazine. Wrote about the NBA and WNBA as a beat writer for Bright Side of the Sun. Mostly basketball. Lots of words.

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