Rebuild? What’s that? Grizzlies bring in veterans, dream of playoffs

Associated Press
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This is the latest of NBC’s NBA season preview stories, and we will post at least one a day on these pages until Oct. 16, when the NBA season kicks off. We will look at teams and topics around the NBA throughout the series, with today the focus on Grizzlies.

When the NBA zigged, the Memphis Grizzlies… zigged.

The biggest factor in the Grizzlies offseason direction came last April when primary owner Robert Pera bought out two minority owners of the franchise, keeping control of the team. At the time there was a lot of buzz around the league about this being the right spot for Memphis to rebuild — trade 33-year-old Marc Gasol, trade 31-year-old Mike Conley, explore the trade market for the other veterans, and since they were already tanking to end last season have that draft pick (which turned out to be Jaren Jackson Jr.) as the first step along rebuild road.

Pera didn’t want a rebuild. End of story.

Instead, Pera had the team re-load and aim for the playoffs — and making it is not out of the question, if a lot of things go right. We’ll get back to that.

With ownership having set a direction, Memphis’ front office had a quality summer, prying Kyle Anderson out of San Antonio as a restricted free agent, plus adding solid veterans who can help like Garrett Temple, Omri Casspi, and Shelvin Mack. Last season, when the injury bug hit the Grizzlies hard — Conley only played 12 games — the lack of quality depth they could trust became the team’s downfall. This season, they have veterans who coach J.B. Bickerstaff can trust in a pinch.

In trying to predict this season’s Grizzlies, you learn little from last year’s team — they were 7-5 when both Conley and Gasol played, but that’s such a small sample size it’s near meaningless. However, the record in those dozen games fits with the previous 43-win season where Conley and Gasol played 63 games together. This season, 43 wins is not going to be enough to make the postseason in the West, but with a better bench they believe they will beat that number. Pera said there is no reason this can’t be a 50-win team.

Um… the rest of us see those reasons. But the Grizzlies can make the playoffs…

• If Conley and Gasol are both healthy and can play at least 65 games together, ideally more. They did that in 2014-15 (70 games) but in the three years since have averaged 40.3 together per season. While the talent around them is better, these are still the two best players on the team and they need both of them together to be a threat in the deep West.

• If they get some depth and help out of Chandler Parsons, who played 36 games last season, and that was better than the one before. Parsons wasn’t bad when he was on the court last season, he could contribute in the rotation, but he has to be healthy enough to do that.

• If the Grizzlies can get back to being an above average defensive team. The era of Gasol as Defensive Player of the Year is long gone but he can still be — and needs to be — a quality presence in the paint (with Jackson blocking shots). Mike Conley needs to return to form as one of the better defensive point guards in the NBA. With Gasol, Jackson, Anderson, and JaMychal Green the Grizzlies have the length inside to be a problem. The pieces are there to be good, but can this group execute in the halfcourt?

• If rookie Jaren Jackson can contribute, particularly defensively, starting this season. Jackson was one of the best players I saw at Summer League this year (particularly in Salt Lake City, by the time he got to Vegas and had played five games in seven days he was looking a little tired). He can be a defensive/shot blocking force right away, and his offensive game shows promise.

• If Kyle Anderson can work as a secondary shot creator. The question isn’t “can Anderson make some plays” because we know he can, we saw him as a good ball handler in San Antonio, a guy who averaged 1.01 points per possession as the pick-and-roll ball handler once you include passes (stat via Synergy Sports). While he has a nice enough spot-up jumper, he needs the ball in his hands, playing his slo-mo game, to be effective. Bickerstaff has to fit that into the offense.

• If Dillon Brooks can take a step forward and rookie Jevon Carter can bring the defense off the bench (once he gets healthy from his thumb injury, he could see some early season time in the G-League).

That’s a lot of “ifs.”

Probably too many “ifs” to make the playoffs in the deep and brutal West. Too many things need to go right. And if things start to go wrong… will they regret not going the rebuild direction?

Doesn’t matter now, the call has been made. Memphis is making another run at it.