As we approach the All-Star break in two weeks, be aware that there’s always a tendency for teams to tune out early.
Because the trade deadline is just four days after the All-Star Game on Feb. 23, there are guys out there who know they’re being shopped, something players handle in vastly different ways. Combine that with the fact some players who aren’t headed to New Orleans for the NBA’s showcase weekend are already picturing themselves on a tropical beach, fruity cocktail in hand, and this can be a dangerous time.
The NBA has seen some strange results this past week with the 76ers getting hot and the Cavs slumping. Golden State lost at Miami. On Sunday, Orlando won at Toronto and Dallas broke a long losing streak in San Antonio, so it’s the silly season as it is. The chaos surrounding the Clippers has predictably tripped them up of late since replacing Chris Paul while working Blake Griffin back figured to require an adjustment period. Since they’re on the road facing a murderer’s row of foes between now and All-Star, they’re on the list of teams to fade.
Who headlines the list of teams to ride? Currently, one team coming together at the right time heads that list.
The Grizzlies entered the week coming off an impressive 102-95 road win at Utah on the second night of a back-to-back. They’ll be wrapping up a six-game road trip, all against conference opponents, that with games against Phoenix, Denver, Oklahoma City and Minnesota. All are winnable. They’ll then cruise into the break playing four of five at home, with the lone road game taking them to Brooklyn, residence of the NBA’s worst team.
The Griz have a shot to go on a run. There’s no one on the move. A veteran group where most guys know and embrace their roles is precisely the type of team you want to get behind this time of year, especially one that is excited to be out there.
After spending most of the season with at least one regular out of the lineup – more often three or more – Memphis finally has everyone available. Because of all the injuries suffered last season and at the beginning of this one, you can expect its players to be enthused at a point where other teams are gassed by the grind.
Big forward/center Brandan Wright will make his season debut following ankle surgery. He’s played just 12 games with Memphis, but is a strong rebounder and capable rim protector who should have an impact if he can stay healthy. Shooter Troy Daniels is back after undergoing knee pain and Chandler Parsons should play after resting on the second night of a back-to-back.
With Zach Randolph coming off a season-high 28-point outburst over the Jazz and Vince Carter still effective despite now being on the other side of 40, a Grizzlies team that was once playing without All-Star Marc Gasol, point guard Mike Conley, Randolph, Parsons, Carter and Wright has a chance to be among the league’s deepest heading into the break.
Since first-year head coach David Fizdale is just getting to know all these players, Parsons is still struggling to find his shot and Wright is just returning, there will definitely be more shuffling ahead. The next four games of this road trip give the Grizzlies opportunities to improve on the West’s fourth-best conference mark, currently an impressive 19-10, but could also produce some spotty play since it’s tough for new pieces to mesh on the road.
At the the same time, the fact that the guys coming back are vets known for facilitating action for teammates, Memphis may avoid those pitfalls.
Re-signing Conley for $153 million over five years was a move that was panned by nearly everyone when Memphis gave its point guard the richest contract in league history, but there was a method to their madness. Keeping him on board allowed them to remain relevant and sign their other free agents, not to mention providing Conley full power holding the reins of the team. Similar to Chris Paul in that regard, it’s his show, and he sets the tone at both ends.
The Grizzlies survived being without him for a few weeks due to a lower back injury and saw Andrew Harrison emerge as a dependable rotation player as a result. With Conley having returned and Harrison excelling in a backup role, Fizdale always has a catalyst making life easier for teammates with their ball pressure or passing. James Ennis has emerged as a reliable piece that can help keep Tony Allen fresh, and the team’s top post players are truly hitting their stride.
Randolph’s 28-point game off the Griz bench is just the latest and best in a fantastic month where he’s proven he can still be a force, averaging 15.9 points and 9.8 rebounds. Over his last three games entering the week he’s shooting nearly 66 percent and averaging 20 and 10. Gasol is averaging 30.4 points over his last five and playing the most efficient offense of his career. He’s the team’s lone All-Star, and the former Defensive Player of the Year is playing like a boss at both ends.
So long as this group stays healthy, the Grizzlies may be the team most worth riding between now and mid-February.