Are the Memphis Grizzlies Legitimate Contenders?


The Memphis Grizzlies have gotten off to one of the hottest starts in the NBA, but are they for real?

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The Memphis Grizzlies (now 7-1) have started out strong and are currently atop the Western Conference. It’s been a running argument for years now, as Memphis has played the “almost-ran” role to perfection, but is this the season where the Grizzlies might actually be contenders for the NBA title?

A closer inspection of their schedule shows that only two of Memphis’ victories (against New Orleans and Phoenix) have been against teams with winning records. Their lone loss was to a unit (Milwaukee) that surprisingly stands at .500. They’ve beaten injury-depleted teams (Indiana and Oklahoma City), perpetual rebuilders (Minnesota and Charlotte) and the Lakers.

Their first “real” test comes Thursday night against the Sacramento Kings, who sits at 5-3 but could lose their next five games and not shock anyone.

So what can we make of the Memphis Grizzlies? Similar to Southwest Division rivals, the San Antonio Spurs, there’s a certain narrative that defines Memphis and they can’t seem to shake it off. While the Spurs have made a living of being perceived as older and, subsequently, written off, the Grizzlies have a stigma of never being quite good enough to make it to the next level.

They’ve been successful during the last four regular seasons and always been viewed as a potential threat in the playoffs, one that’s never been realized for different reasons. In that span, they’ve been eliminated by the Clippers, Thunder (twice) and Spurs; last season, they were a Game 7 suspension of Zach Randolph away from possibly knocking out OKC and going on a deep run. But there’s part of the problem – so many teams seem to be constantly vying for the opportunity to simply escape the West that it’s hard to view any one of them as contenders until they actually, you know, contend.

The Thunder’s window of opportunity seems fast slamming shut but a trip to the 2012 Finals can stave off some criticism. The Spurs have been to the Finals the last two years and took the 2014 title in convincing fashion. Same thing with Dallas (also in the Southwest), who won it all in 2011.

Meanwhile, the Memphis Grizzlies have made a name for themselves on defense, adopting a “grit n’ grind” style of play that doesn’t lead to “titles n’ trophies.”

Despite the relatively weak strength of schedule, there’s hope that this season is the one that can change that.

Their defense is still exceptional. They lead the league in points allowed (a mere 89.4), hounding ball handlers and incorporating a slow place that keep opponents trapped in a low-scoring molasses.

Offensively, they showed signs early in the season that bodes well for this team finally getting over the Western Conference hump. It starts with the man in the middle, Marc Gasol, who opened the season with a 32-point performance over Minnesota. Gasol is the Grizzlies’ best and most complete player and must be used more as the focal point for Memphis to succeed. Through the first four games of the season, Gasol’s usage rate hovered near 30 percent but, after two 8-point performances, it’s dropped to just over 24 percent.

Gasol, perhaps in the best shape of his career, needs the ball in his hands in order for Memphis to be more dangerous.

But the team’s core has been more productive than it has in years. Mike ConleyJr. seems to be hitting his peak at the perfect time. Zach Randolph is still lane-clogging scorer that can create mismatches for opposing bigs. Courtney Lee is averaging over 15 points per game. And Vince Carter, the Grizzlies’ most-significant free agent acquisition, can be a significant boost to the team.

With Dallas last season, Carter’s shooting gave the Spurs fits in the playoffs; the Mavericks were San Antonio’s toughest playoff challenge and Carter was a big part of that. He’s struggled so far this season but, even at 37, he’s still a long-range threat.

And Tony Allen, the team’s enigmatic defender that can’t shoot worth a damn, is suddenly left to do what he does best – wreak havoc on opposing ball handlers.

The team is solid and has been for a while. You can’t overstate how important keeping this team together will be in the postseason. And it’s a big part of why many Memphis fans think that the team might finally catch a break this year. They’ll have to avoid injury (namely to Gasol, who missed 29 games last season) and stupidity but, given that, the Grizzlies are able to restrict any team’s productivity, catching them in an inescapable defensive vortex.

With Gasol at his best and the team’s strongest supporting cast in years, the Memphis Grizzlies have their best chance at finally changing the narrative that surrounds them and proving themselves worthy of being lumped together with other contending teams.

Next: Dwight Howard reveals the real reason why he left the Lakers

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