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Best Case, Worst Case: Memphis Grizzlies

The no. 20 team in The Ringer’s preseason rankings could be much better than anyone expects. But it will face stark, franchise-defining consequences if it isn’t.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Break out your Ben Simmons hand trackers — the NBA is back. We’re counting down the days until the 2018–19 season tips off on October 16 by taking a hard look at the floor and ceiling of every team in the league. This year, each Best Case, Worst Case capsule is also accompanied by The Ringer’s preseason ranking, our staff’s best guess about where that team will finish this season. We look forward to your emotionless, considered responses.

Ringer Preseason Ranking: 20

Last Season: 22–60

Notable Additions: Jaren Jackson Jr. (draft), Kyle Anderson (free agency), Garrett Temple (trade)

Notable Subtractions: Tyreke Evans (free agency), Ben McLemore (trade)

Vegas Over/Under: 34.5

Team MVP: Marc Gasol

Best-Case Scenario: Jackson’s immediate success helps rejuvenate the tried-and-true core duo of Marc Gasol and Mike Conley Jr., and the Grizzlies as a whole sneak into the playoffs as a result of their surprising cohesion.

Seven consecutive postseason appearances, a style of play that would transform into an ethos (and citywide rallying cry), and a team perpetually on the cusp of something more. It’s illuminating how all of that can be erased with one dispiriting 22-win season. One of the biggest quagmires of the Grit ’n’ Grind era has been finding a suitable backup point guard. Conley was limited to only 12 games last season, after injuring his Achilles not a month into the season, and then was shut down entirely after left heel surgery in January. The result: 12 different Grizzlies logged minutes at point guard last season, according to Basketball-Reference’s position estimates. A significant amount of them played out of position and/or came from the G League.

Memphis has historically thrived on continuity; without a steady playmaker at the point of attack, there simply wasn’t enough talent on the roster to overcome all the mistakes they were making. The Grizzlies had the third-worst turnover percentage in the league last season, only behind the Hawks (who were the least talented team in the league, by far) and the Sixers (a precocious team with pie-in-the-sky audacity). Cleaning up their act was obviously a big priority: The Grizzlies acquired restricted free agent Kyle Anderson to add playmaking and Spursy savvy at the forward positions (and perhaps to serve as a replacement for what Chandler Parsons’s exorbitantly expensive skill set might be able to do if it weren’t attached to a corpse). Boom-bust projects like Deyonta Davis and McLemore were traded for Temple, a low-maintenance two-way player who had the best season of his career in Sacramento last season. These are the types of incremental moves that a playoff contender makes; it’s clear that Memphis sees its 22-win season as an aberration, not the new normal.

Simply having a healthy Conley back in the fold changes Memphis’s outlook entirely. A friendly reminder: We’re less than a year and a half removed from Conley putting together the greatest individual performance of his career, scoring 35 points (a franchise postseason record) in an epic duel against Kawhi Leonard and the Spurs in Game 4 of their 2017 first-round series.

Without his setup man, Gasol was aimless, posting the worst field goal percentage of his career (42 percent). Gasol will turn 34 during the season, and while he is one of the most skilled two-way big men of his generation, he can’t reasonably be asked to anchor an elite defense all by himself anymore. Enter Jackson, who fell into the Grizzlies’ lap on draft night with the no. 4 pick. The Michigan State product, standing 6-foot-11 with a mammoth 7-foot-5 wingspan, has all the requisite skills to complement an aging Gasol on both ends: long-range accuracy, and remarkable lateral mobility for his size. Over the years, coaches like Dave Joerger and David Fizdale have made talking points out of updating the Grizzlies’ core philosophy, but neither had the right personnel to advance those notions beyond preseason wish-list fodder. Jackson’s presence alone is a catalyst. He is as modern a big man as we’ve seen: players with his tracking instincts on defense and his elite 3-point shooting percentages have rarely, if ever, come along in the NBA. Head coach J.B. Bickerstaff, who had his interim tag removed in May, would be wise to get Jackson on the floor as soon as possible.

Worst-Case Scenario: Conley’s body betrays him once again, and the Grizzlies plumb the depths of both their bench and the West. Their draft pick lands outside of the top eight and is sent to the Boston Celtics. With all signs pointing to the end of an era, Gasol makes the impossible decision at the end of the season to opt out of the remaining $25.6 million on his contract to join a contender for the final major contract of his career, officially turning off the lights in Memphis.

That’s a dramatic swing from their best-case scenario, but it’s a reality worth monitoring. Conley, who signed a five-year, $152.6 million deal in 2016, has played in only 55.7 percent of the team’s regular-season games over the past three seasons. The Grizzlies’ backup point guard this season is Shelvin Mack, Orlando’s best facilitator last season, according to the Orlando Magic’s social media department. That isn’t as reassuring as it may sound.

All of Memphis’s acquisitions this season have the potential to be disappointing nonfactors next season: Neither Temple nor Anderson has ever averaged double figures in scoring, and while both offer mistake-free versatility, neither player has the skill set or temperament to step into a starring role should emergency call. Jackson, for as NBA-ready as his skills dictate, only recently turned 19, and there’s a steep learning curve ahead of him. The Grizzlies have constructed a team that could surprise the league if everything goes according to plan, but so little has for the franchise in recent years.

Perhaps the worst case for the Grizzlies is Gasol’s percentages regressing back to All-Star form and the team still not being capable of making a credible postseason push. Gasol has a player option in 2019, and while $25.6 million is an absurd amount of money to decline at his age, Gasol’s commitment to winning could supersede everything else. If Memphis falls short of the playoffs, it would still have something to play for: the security of its 2019 first-round draft pick. It is protected one through eight, which doesn’t necessarily mean the Grizzlies would have to bottom out the way they did in 2017–18, given the flattened lottery odds for the upcoming season. It couldn’t hurt, though.

TL;DR: The Grizzlies appear to be a fringe playoff contender with a low ceiling and an even lower floor. The first 20 games of the season will present a much clearer image of where the Grizzlies stand.

This piece was updated to correct a reference to the Grizzlies’ top-eight-protected 2019 NBA draft pick.