Each team enters the season with varying expectations based on the talent on their roster, where they are in their team building cycle, and the delusions of management and fans. Prior to the start of the season I’ll look at what would need to happen for each team to call their regular season a success, and how likely they are to make it happen.
The good news is that the added depth gained from acquiring Vince Carter and the return from injury of Quincy Pondexter, coupled with last season’s acquisition Courtney Lee, should mean that the wing spots are in the best shape they’ve been in during the team’s recent run of success. The three core players – Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph, and Mike Conley – all appear to be in good shape and ready for the start of the season. Now, like each of the past few seasons, the goal is to enter the playoffs with a high seed and a healthy roster.
The bad news is that somehow a team playing its home games in Tennessee has to play in the West.
Injuries undermined the Grizzlies last year, and left them scrounging for a playoff spot over the last few days of the regular season. Gasol’s absence in particular caused problems, with his stout defense and team-friendly offensive game being sorely missed.
Pondexter’s loss may have secretly been even more of an issue. He took on a surprisingly big role in the 2013 playoffs as a floor spacing wing, but only got through 15 games in the following campaign. He’s not as critical this season with Lee in the fold, but if he can unseat Tayshaun Prince (or at least steal a bunch of his minutes) it will be a big boost to the offense.
Prince aside, a wing rotation of Lee, Pondexter, Carter, and Tony Allen is an embarrassment of riches compared to what’s been in the cupboard for the last few years. Add in re-signed combo guard Beno Udrih, and the Griz suddenly have pretty good depth along the perimeter. Up front things aren’t as promising, with Kosta Koufos providing solid backup play at center, but not much else of note in the huge humans department.
The lack of quality bench bigs could be a problem for stretches, but realistically this team isn’t getting anywhere without the health and continued strong play of both Randolph and Gasol. Randolph is due to drop off a bit more as he continues to march into his mid-30s, and Gasol is a free agent after this season.
All that means this season is critical for Memphis. They’re not going to be able to do what they’re doing now for much longer. A two-big system like the one employed by the Grizzlies only works if they’re both playing well. Without peak-ish production from Randolph and Gasol still suiting up for the team they will struggle mightily, and there’s a very good chance that in 2015 neither of those criteria can be met. If they stay relatively healthy they’ll be able to make the playoffs this season, and possibly even push forward to the conference finals.
It may not exactly be contention, but in the West get in the playoffs and anything can happen.
Predicted Finish: 51-31 | 7th in Western Conference