With All-Star Weekend fast approaching, it’s safe to say it’s already been a relatively unpredictable NBA season. Some surprisingly underwhelming squads (Portland Trail Blazers, San Antonio Spurs) have been counterbalanced by pleasant surprises (Dallas Mavericks, Miami Heat, OKC Thunder). A team that certainly falls into the latter category – the Memphis Grizzlies – has particularly pleased those with the foresight to put a financial stake in their success prior to the season.
Grizzlies surging heading into break
DraftKings Sportsbook announced Tuesday that Ja Morant and company had become the first team to exceed their projected in-house win total (25.5) this season. Memphis got to the finish line with a flourish, too. Since the calendar flipped to 2020, coach Taylor Jenkins’ crew is 15-5 straight up. That stretch includes four- and seven-game winning streaks.
Plenty of bettors apparently had expectations of an improved Memphis team this season. DK Sportsbook reports 74 percent of the preseason handle on Grizzlies 2019-20 win totals came on the Over. However, slightly more than half (53 percent) of bets were on the Under.
With 28 wins in 54 games, the Grizz – currently the Western Conference’s eighth seed – are on pace to finish above .500. That would mark their first winning campaign since the 2016-17 season and go a long way toward validating the jettisoning of franchise stalwarts like Mike Conley and Marc Gasol over the last two seasons. Moreover, given the main reasons for ascension this season, it gives plenty of shine to the team’s personnel brain trust.
Franchise breaking through with brick-by-brick approach
Memphis has tapped every potential talent well over the last couple seasons and generated an impressive success rate while doing so.
The draft? Rookie of the Year candidate Morant and 2018 fourth overall pick Jaren Jackson, Jr. are your Exhibits A and B in that regard. Dillon Brooks (2017 second-round pick) and “other” 2019 first-rounder Brandon Clarke have emerged as excellent complementary contributors.
Trades? Jonas Valanciunas has proven one of the best trade-deadline acquisitions in the last several seasons. Following an excellent latter portion of the 2018-19 season after his arrival from Toronto (19.9 points, 10.7 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 1.6 blocks across 19 games), Valanciunas has dispelled any notion of that surge being a fluke. The veteran big man is tallying 14.9 points, 10.5 rebounds, 1.9 assists and 1.2 blocks while shooting a career-best 58.7 percent.
It’s also worth mentioning the since-departed Jae Crowder, who struggled with his shooting but had his moments during his half-season in Memphis, and who served as a solid defensive presence. De’Anthony Melton (8.0 points, 3.6 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 1.3 steals), who arrived by way of the Suns this past summer, looks like a solid role player, at minimum. The 2018 second-round pick has plenty of untapped potential after having played just one year of college ball.
And the team has also been prudent – albeit unspectacular – in free agency. Kyle Anderson, who migrated over from the Spurs two offseasons ago, is a fitting example of a player that’s fit in as a nice complementary piece on both ends of the floor. While his stat line doesn’t jump off the page, he’s an unsung hero that’s quietly and effectively gone about his business during his season-plus with the team.
Coaching, philosophy changes also make impact
The way the 2019-20 version of the Grizzlies differs from past editions has also played an integral part in their success. Under the likes of previous head coaches Dave Joerger, David Fizdale and J.B. Bickerstaff, Memphis was known for a grind-it-out, largely half-court approach.
The arrival of Jenkins and players like Morant and Brooks has resulted in a marked on-court shift in philosophy. Suddenly, Memphis is one of the fastest-paced and most prolific offensive squads in the NBA.
The Grizz are heading into the All-Star layoff averaging right around six more possessions per game compared to last season. That’s helped lead to nearly a 10-point-per-game bump over the 103.5 points per contest they averaged during the 2018-19 campaign.
Granted, there’s also been a corresponding defensive downturn. The Grizzlies are allowing close to nine points per game more than the 106.1 they surrendered last season. But, both the systematic and personnel-related improvements on the offensive end have already helped lead to wins over Western Conference stalwarts such as the Jazz, Spurs, Clippers, Rockets, Nuggets and Mavericks.