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NBA Power Rankings: Warriors still on top

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The NBA season is back, and with it, so are the NBC Sports NBA Power Rankings, which are put together each week throughout the season.

Warriors small icon 1. Warriors (Last season 58-24). If a team is the two-time defending champs and made four straight Finals appearances, they start on top. The only question is how motivated the Warriors are during the regular season — which may be less of an issue this time around, listening to the buzz around the team. Keeping Golden State healthy and not letting it build a bunch of bad habits while waiting for the games to really matter again has to be Steve Kerr’s focus. Don’t expect to see DeMarcus Cousins until after you’ve opened your Christmas presents.

Celtics small icon 2. Celtics (55-27). Don’t read too much into the preseason struggles — that was exactly what coach Brad Stevens needed to get this team’s attention and get them focused on the process. It turns out bringing two superstar players — Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward — back into the fold is not simply a matter of plug-and-play, it’s going to take some work. Plus, Hayward is not all the way back yet. Still, with all this depth, the Celtics should own the East.

Rockets small icon 3. Rockets (65-17). Carmelo Anthony has blended fairly smoothly in the preseason, accepting his role coming off the bench and as more as a shooter working off the ball, now we will see if that continues when opposing defenses start to care. A lot of lineup shuffling in the preseason, which leads to a question: Who will close games for Houston? Chris Paul and James Harden for sure, but after that which two of Anthony, P.J. Tucker, Eric Gordon, James Ennis, and Clint Capela will sit?

Raptors small icon 4. Raptors (59-23). Understandably a lot of the preseason focus has been on Kawhi Leonard, but there is another big question for this team (both early and for the full season): What kind of difference does new coach Nick Nurse make? He’s a rookie coach and he’s doing things like talking about changing the starting five based on opponent, but the hope was he would bring a less predictable offense (especially for the postseason). Nurse said he is going to be “fluid” with rotations — read: experimenting — for the start of the season, but this is a deep team that had the best bench in the NBA last season, and it could be better this year.

Sixers small icon 5. 76ers (52-30). Replacing J.J. Redick with Markelle Fultz in the starting lineup to start the season is an interesting tactic by Brett Brown (the Sixers starting lineup with Redick was +21 points per 100 possessions last season), but it should do one thing for sure: The Sixers’ defense should be better. And it was top five last season. The question becomes floor spacing on the other end: Ben Simmons is not a jump shooter, Joel Embiid can hit threes but needs to be around the basket, and Fultz doesn’t have the jumper of an NBA two-guard yet (he attempted just five shots from three in the preseason). Defenses will pack the paint on Philly. Also, teams that make the China trip in preseason tend to start slowly the next season.

Jazz small icon 6. Jazz (48-34). There are a lot of people on the Jazz bandwagon, some even suggesting they are better than the Rockets. What Utah has going for it is an elite defense (if Rudy Gobert can stay healthy) and continuity from the team that was so good the second half of last season. But after Donovan Mitchell, who is the other shot creator? Ricky Rubio can set guys up, but is he a secondary go-to guy? The Jazz bet big on Dante Exum this summer, he is a guy to watch.

Thunder small icon 7. Thunder (48-34).. Russell Westbrook is banged up to start the season (he had his knee scoped a month ago and will miss at least the opener), and Andre Roberson is out until December — that second part is a bigger blow than some fans realize. The injuries could lead to a slow start for the Thunder, which is dangerous in the very deep West. Can Terrance Ferguson step up on the wing and give them something?

Nuggets small icon 8. Nuggets (46-36).. Everyone is high on the Nikola Jokic/Jamal Murray/Gary Harris starting lineup, and with good reason, especially with Will Barton added to it. The Nuggets will have an elite offense. Two big questions loom for this team: Can their defense (bottom five last season) improve, even up to league average? And, with Isaiah Thomas out who will lead the bench unit? Can Trey Lyles step into that role and thrive?

Lakers small icon 9. Lakers (35-47). The Lakers are going to run this season (they likely will have one of the fastest paces in the league) and that combined with LeBron James distributing from the elbow should lead to an impressive offense, although the lack of true shooters could hold them back a little. The question is at the other end of the court, will the Lakers get enough stops to win? They were sloppy defensively in the preseason. Portland and Houston this week start off a brutal schedule to start the season.

Bucks small icon 10. Bucks (44-38 LW 18). This may be too low a ranking for a team I am high on. While we should take the preseason with a grain of salt, the Bucks looked like a modern offense under Mike Budenholzer, leaning on three pointers and getting to the rim, avoiding midrange jumpers — and they had an impressive offense because of it. Giannis Antetokounmpo was a flat out beast, showing more confidence in his jumper but also finding a lot more room to drive on a team with genuine floor spacing. We’ll see if it carries over, but the Bucks looked more like a threat to the 76ers/Raptors in the preseason.

Pacers small icon 11. Pacers (48-34). Preseason wasn’t kind to the new players who are expected to push this team forward, Tyreke Evans and Doug McDermott, nor did the man with the new contract Myles Turner impress. We’re going to overlook all that for now, this is a team on the tier behind the big three in the East (some think they can push Philly/Toronto) and they should be a tough out every night. Interesting first week game Friday night in Milwaukee.

Pelicans small icon 12. Pelicans (48-34). I am high on this team coming into the season — I predicted Anthony Davis to win MVP — but the preseason defensive performance gave me pause. It’s just preseason, but Elfrid Payton is a turnstile (that’s not new) and they were getting torched in the paint to the tune of 65 points a game. We’ll see if that continues when the games matter, but a tough opener against Houston doesn’t help.

Blazers small icon 13. Trail Blazers (49-33). The entire NBA, and particularly the Blazers community, is mourning the passing of one of the best and classiest owners in the league in Paul Allen. Making the playoffs 23 times in 30 seasons, doing things the right way, he’s a model owner. The road forward will be interesting (the league would not allow this team to be moved, and the lease runs through 2025 anyway). The Trail Blazers open the season on national television Thursday night against LeBron James and the Lakers and can make a statement then.

Spurs small icon 14. Spurs (47-35). Injuries have decimated the guard rotation: Dejounte Murray out for the season with a torn ACL, his backup Derrick White tore his plantar fascia, and Lonnie Walker IV tore the meniscus in his right knee (the latter two are 6-8 weeks, maybe a little more. In a West with little margin for error, is that enough to keep the Spurs out of the playoffs for the first time since 1997? DeMar DeRozan is going to have to be the primary playmaker for this team now.

Wizards small icon 15. Wizards (43-39). Dwight Howard missed all of preseason (with an injured butt, insert your own joke here), but is now practicing with the team and could play in the opener, just in a more limited role. Once again we enter the season saying we like the Wizards players individually — John Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter — but as a team how do they really take a step forward from good to great?

Heat small icon 16. Heat (44-38). The Jimmy Butler trade saga hangs over this team a little (nobody likes hearing their name in trade talks), but this is a solid team and it’s Dwyane Wade’s “One Last Dance” so its worth tuning in to watch him put on a show. Get wins against Orlando and Charlotte the first week of the season and it will be easier to tune out all the trade chatter (which has died down a little of late anyway).

Clippers small icon 17. Clippers (42-40). Their starting five has potential — Patrick Beverley, Avery Bradley, Danilo Gallinari, Tobias Harris, and Marcin Gortat — if they can stay healthy. Off the bench is the Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams, plus Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who impressed at Summer League and through the preseason. Healthy, this could be a playoff team, but the Clippers are littered with players prone to injury and not living up to their potential. Brutal first few weeks of the schedule for Los Angeles, including the Nuggets, Thunder, and Rockets this week.

Grizzlies small icon 18. Grizzlies (22-60). One of a few teams in the West (along with the Clippers and Mavericks) where I can envision a scenario where they make the playoffs, but everything has to go right for them. That means Marc Gasol and Mike Conley stay healthy, Jaren Jackson Jr. plays like a rookie of the year, and Chandler Parsons gives them something (he’s looked passable in the preseason). That’s a lot of “ifs” in a conference with no margin for error.

Pistons small icon 19. Pistons (39-43). They have been penciled in to the final playoff spot in the East by a lot of pundits (myself included) based on the potential of Blake Griffin, Reggie Jackson, and Andre Drummond together (especially with Dwane Casey as coach). It’s also a work in progress that didn’t look very smooth in the preseason. Depth questions also are out there for the Pistons. Still, if they can be solid defensively, they should make the postseason.

20. Timberwolves (47-35, LW 13). Is this too low a ranking, much of it based on the Jimmy Butler trade drama? Maybe. With Butler in the lineup last season the Timberwolves looked like a 3/4 seed kind of squad. On the flip side, chemistry matters in the NBA and good luck finding a team with a worse locker room right now. Also, Butler is going to get booed and it’s going to get ugly Friday night in Minnesota’s first home game (vs. Cleveland). Without Butler in the preseason the Timberwolves defense was a disaster, it’s just preseason but that’s not a good sign.

Hornets small icon 21. Hornets (36-46). What will new coach James Borego bring to the table? If was can read much into the preseason it’s more three point attempts (and less long twos) and better ball movement and tempo. Rookie Miles Bridges showed some preseason promise and could play his way into the starting lineup eventually. Relatively soft schedule the first month of the season, get off to a fast start and it will keep the “will they trade Kemba Walker?” questions at bay.

Mavericks small icon 22. Mavericks (24-58). Fun start to the season Wednesday: Rookie of the Year favorites Luka Doncic and Deandre Ayton face off (although the matchup to watch in that game is how Ayton handles the strength and athleticism of DeAndre Jordan). Doncic and Dennis Smith Jr. started to show some chemistry in the preseason, but lets see what happens when the games matter and the defenses start to care.

Cavaliers small icon 23. Cavaliers (50-32). Kevin Love says he is ready to return to the role of a No. 1 option — and the Cavaliers are certainly paying him like one — but the game has evolved and Love has gotten older since he last time that burden fell on his shoulders. There is still potential on this roster in terms of good shooting, at least until Cavs management starts trading them for young players and picks. After opening in Toronto, pretty soft schedule to start the season.

Bulls small icon 24. Bulls (27-55).. No Lauri Markkanen to start the season (elbow, out at least a few weeks) but there is promise on this roster: Zach LaVine showed some athleticism and looked healthy and efficient in the preseason, and Wendell Carter Jr. continues to impress and is now the starting center for this team (although rough “welcome to the NBA” start in Game 1 against Joel Embiid). How will Jabari Parker look in a Sixth Man role?

Suns small icon 25. Suns (21-61). Firing GM Ryan McDonough nine days before the season started — after letting him make all the off-season moves for the team, including hiring the new coach — is a “the emperor has no clothes” moment for owner Robert Sarver. Deandre Ayton has put up numbers and impressed in the preseason, and Devin Booker will return from hand surgery and be ready for the opener. Jamal Crawford is not a point guard but may end up playing one anyway.

Nets small icon 26. Nets (28-54). Coach Kenny Atkinson has done in Brooklyn what the new coach across the bridge in Manhattan needs to do this season — develop a culture where the players go hard for him within the system. Now the question in Brooklyn is about the talent. How good is D’Angelo Russell really, is he worth a big new contract next summer (he’s a restricted free agent)? Where does Spencer Dinwiddie fit in that mix? Jarrett Allen is expected to make a leap at center, but will he. Where do Caris LeVert and Ronde Hollis-Jefferson fit in? Some potential there, but a lot of questions, too.

Knicks small icon 27. Knicks (29-53, LW 22). For new coach David Fizdale, this is a season about building the culture and getting players who will play his way and play hard. Rookie Kevin Knox needs to be part of that and will be thrown into the deep end to sink or swim for the Knicks. Frank Ntilikina has yet to impress me, but then again Emmanuel Mudiay does not look like the answer at the point guard spot either. Just my guess, we see Kristaps Porzingis return this season for the last dozen games or so, not to make a playoff push (the Knicks won’t be that good) but to hit the ground running for his summer work, and to show free agents he will be ready to go next season.

Magic small icon 28. Magic (25-57). As discussed on the PBT Podcast on teams to watch, I think Orlando will be an interesting team this season — not good, but worth watching. Specifically, when the big and athletic front line of Aaron Gordon, Jonathan Isaac, and rookie Mo Bamba are paired. Can those three play together and make it work (it pushes Gordon to the three when he is better as a four)? The Orlando defense should be pretty good this season, the question is where the points are going to come from?

Kings small icon 29. Kings (27-55). Harry Giles impressed in both Summer League and preseason and could be a sneaky candidate to make All-Rookie teams at the end of the season. Marvin Bagley III showed the potential to go get buckets during the preseason, and I like using Buddy Hield more as a floor-spacing three (at least on offense, nothing worked for the Kings on defense). Rough way to start the season: Jazz, Pelicans, Thunder.

Hawks small icon 30. Hawks (24-58). It’s going to be all Trae Young all the time in Atlanta as they let him be the man and take all the shots — and that worked for a game winner against the Spurs in the preseason. It’s also going to mean some growing pains when the real games begin. Rough to have John Collins and Dewayne Dedmon out to start the season with injuries.

David Fizdale focused on foundation, not wins this season for Knicks

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This is the first of NBC’s NBA preview stories, with at least one a day appearing 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, starting with the Knicks.

Phil Jackson was once in this exact same spot, saying almost the exact same things.

When he was hired, the Zen Master talked about changing the culture of the New York Knicks. He talked about defense, about building slowly and laying a foundation that would last long beyond his tenure in New York. He promised sustained success.

Then he decided to shortcut all of that and go get Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, and Courtney Lee and try to win now with what was left of Carmelo Anthony’s career. (He did a lot of other things wrong, too, in the name of the triangle.) When that inevitably failed, the Knicks were back to square one and stuck with contracts that are still an anchor on the franchise today. If there has been one consistent thing from the Knicks for more than a decade now, it has been taking the quick fix.

For the Knicks, the 2018-19 season is about getting back to foundation building. This time patiently. No shortcuts. No skipping steps.

“Culture and accountability. I’ll be putting those words on walls in a lot of places” new coach David Fizdale said at his introductory press conference. “They’re very cliché in a lot of ways, but I’ve really learned through my experience that I’ve gotten to live a lot of these words and fail through these words and achieve great things with these words and I hope I’d be able to communicate that and share that with these group of men. It takes so much to win in this league and if one person is off in one way it crumbles.”

Fizdale — with Steve Mills and Scott Perry running the front office — have talked about culture, accountability, building slowly, laying a foundation that will last through Kristaps Porzingis’ tenure and beyond.

Those need to be more than words this season — which starts with patience and buy-in from owner James Dolan. Not a man exactly known for those things. Dolan is the reason for the constantly shifting tides and sense of paranoia that seems to pervade the organization. Fizdale, Mills, and Perry all said they had a commitment from Dolan to do this the right way this time. No step skipping. Dolan needs to stick with that, and those three need to manage their owner when he starts to read tabloid headlines about his team and gets an itch.

With this being Fizdale’s first season, those three should have room to operate for a while, which makes the 2018-19 Knicks season about Fizdale building a foundation — not about wins or making the playoffs this season. (It’s not impossible that happens in an East that gets a little shaky around those final few playoff slots, but decisions can’t be made with that as the goal.) It’s about not “skipping steps,” a phrase that came up repeatedly (almost to the point of annoyance) when Fizdale was introduced as the Knicks’ coach.

The first step? When asked at that press conference what the first thing he needed to establish, Fizdale didn’t hesitate: “Player relationships.” Weeks later, he backed that up by getting on a plane and flying to Latvia and meeting with Porzingis in Europe. A meeting that reportedly went well. Fizdale challenged him.

“The best way to describe him is he’s the future of the NBA,” Fizdale said. “Look around who’s playing (deep in the postseason). They all got guys super long, super athletic, super skilled, super tough-minded. He fits all of the qualities of a megastar and a guy who can really propel a franchise forward to high places.”

All true, but it will not help the Knicks on the court in the short term, Porzingis remains out following a torn ACL and his return date uncertain (my guess is we see him later in the season, but he could miss it all). In the short term, Fizdale needs to develop other players, starting with building the game of rookie Kevin Knox, who showed a lot of potential at Summer League.

Then Fizdale needs to work with and decide how good Frank Ntilikina really is (he did not impress in Las Vegas this summer). Is a change of scenery and a new coach what Mario Hezonja needed to get closer to his potential? Where does the talented but raw rookie Mitchell Robinson fit in?

None of those players mentioned above have even turned 24 yet — player development is going to be crucial for the Knicks. Not just this season, either, but critical if the Knicks are going to draw a big free agent next summer (big names will want to know the Knicks core is ready to take the next steps).

Next on the agenda, Fizdale has to make the defense respectable — and make playing hard on defense part of that new team culture. The last time the Knicks had a defense in the top half of the league it was 2012, and you were still listening to “Gangnam Style” and “Call Me Maybe.”

“I want to get up and down the court. I want to share the basketball. I want to attack the paint. But none of that will start without us being a great defensive team,” Fizdale said. “You know, we’re going to be a team that really plays a pressure, physical style of basketball. Get a lot of deflections, try to get a lot of steals, get into the open court, earn the right to go play a more free-flowing, attacking style of offense.”

That attacking offense will be more modern and positionless if Fizdale has his way.

“You hear him talk a lot about positionless basketball, not being afraid to try different combinations,” Mills said. “With where the game is going today, that’s a really appealing quality that he brings.”

Last season, the Knicks shot selection sucked — they were third worst in the league in percentage of shots either at the rim or from three. Expect that to change. Fizdale’s problems with Marc Gasol and the Grizzlies became trying to drag a veteran team into the modern age against its will (and not handling those relationships well enough), but with the Knicks he will not meet that resistance.

Does that mean what Knicks fans have begged for — more Porzingis at the five?

“Why limit it? Why put a ceiling on it?” Fizdale said. “I just see so many different ways to use him. Obviously, if you play him at some 5, it’s like that super-lineup you’re always seeing from different teams—I don’t even know how you match up with him. He can play some 4. If you have another speed guy at the 4, you might even be able to play positionless.”

It all sounds good, but getting that foundation in place this season will be a bumpy ride. Mistakes will come and players will have to learn from them. Wins will not be easy to come by, losses will pile up. This is New York, the pressure will come with those losses. Fizdale and the Knicks have to focus past all that on the long term — it’s not about this season. It’s about the foundation, it’s about the culture.

Install that right, get Porzingis back, land a free agent next summer, then the focus changes. But to get there, the Knicks have to learn the lessons of Phil Jackson — and so many before him — and can’t start skipping steps. That is the most significant culture change needed at Madison Square Garden.

Grizzlies doing fairly well for team in self-imposed holding pattern

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NBCSports.com’s Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

As I’ve written repeatedly: The Grizzlies’ insistence in trying to win immediately with Marc Gasol and Mike Conley is likely to yield unfulfilling results in the present and leave Memphis less prepared for the future. This Western Conference is so unforgiving, the Grizzlies are are longshots just to make the playoffs, let alone advance. But they should also be good enough to miss out on a high drat pick in what appears to be a top-heavy draft. An expensive roster and unwillingness to pay the luxury tax leave little flexibility.

But in that context, Memphis added plenty of short- and long-term talent this offseason.

The Grizzlies used every mechanism available – draft, free agency and trade. The haul: Jaren Jackson Jr., Kyle Anderson, Garrett Temple, Omri Casspi, Jevon Carter.

Memphis did well to pick Jackson No. 3 despite his initial reluctance and unclear fit with Gasol. Jackson came around on the Grizzlies, and he was too talented to pass up. Though he’ll probably play center in the long run, he might begin his career at power forward due to strength concerns.

Carter provided solid value high in the second round. Unfortunately, Memphis could sign him to just a two-year deal, limiting upside on the value he’ll provide.

Anderson, signed to a mid-level offer sheet the Spurs didn’t match, is darned productive. His lack of athleticism will limit him in some matchups, but he should provide value on this deal.

Even after a lost year with the Warriors, Casspi is not far removed from productiveness. A minimum contract is worth finding out whether he can return to form.

The second-rounder surrendered to get Temple is not insignificant, but the Grizzlies cleared a roster crunch by dealing Ben McLemore and Deyonta Davis – both of whom seemed to run their course in Memphis – to the Kings. Temple should help the Grizzlies on the wing.

It wasn’t all gains for Memphis. The Grizzlies lost Tyreke Evans (to the Pacers), but that was less about this offseason and more the predictable outcome of last year’s failed trade deadline. Evans was so good in Memphis last season. He’ll be missed if this team is still trying to compete.

The Grizzlies also missed an opportunity to conduct an open coaching search, keeping interim J.B. Bickerstaff. I’m not as down on retaining him as I am the process behind it.

Ultimately, I’m just not sure where all these additions get Memphis. At least Jackson and Anderson will be around for years. They might finally provide a roadmap to a post-Gasol-Conley future while still helping in the interim.

But it’ll still be a while for that vision to come to fruition, if the Grizzlies ever execute a next step.

Offseason grade: B-

Mike Conley: ‘Frustrating’ Grizzlies aren’t premier destination in free agency

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Nearly anytime we post a story with the general premise of “Team A is targeting in Star X,” it elicits a reaction like: “Of course, Team A is targeting Star X. Every team is targeting Star X.”

But not every team is committed to chasing stars. Sure, all teams want stars. But several teams believe they play in markets that can’t attract stars and therefore don’t waste their resources bothering.

Like the Grizzlies.

Mike Conley, via Tim Bontemps of the Washington Post:

“Yeah, it definitely can be frustrating,” Conley said. “Being in Memphis, being part of a smaller market, you have a tough time in free agency, and you have to build through the draft. With all the things teams have been able to accomplish through free agency, and through all the player movement, you kind of miss out on that.”

The Grizzlies’ biggest outside free agent signing – Chandler Parsons to a max contract in 2016 – flopped amid his injury issues (which contributed to reduced competition for him). But the Trail Blazers also reportedly offered Parsons a max contract, and Memphis got him.

But otherwise, the Grizzlies haven’t been heavy hitters in free agency. That they’ve often lacked major cap space mostly speaks to Conley’s point. They haven’t tried to open cap space, because it tends to be more meaningful in other markets.

So, Memphis is at a disadvantage. But that doesn’t make it hopeless. Smart drafting (like picking Conley) and trading (like acquiring Marc Gasol) can help.

And destination markets can change. We’re not far removed from the Warriors being an undesirable team. Everyone used to want to play for the Knicks. The Lakers have gone up and down in their ability to attract stars. I’m certainly not predicting stars will flock to Memphis, but if the Grizzlies win enough, they’ll change their reputation.

Of course, that’s harder to do in the first place without the aid of major free agents.

Mike Conley says it will be ‘awkward year’ in Memphis

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When the Westgate Sports Book came out with its NBA under/over win projections for the coming season, one of my first thoughts was “34.5 seems low for Memphis.” Which was quickly followed by “if they can stay healthy, that is.”

The Grizzlies added a potential new face of the franchise this summer in Jaren Jackson, and they upgraded parts of their bench, and they still have Marc Gasol in the paint. Most importantly, however, they get Mike Conley back from injury, a borderline All-Star level point guard who changes the way this team plays on the court.

But even Conley sees this season as different from Grizzlies campaigns in the past, as he told Mark Giannotto of the Memphis Commercial-Appeal.

“It’s different for me because for the last eight years, I came into every season thinking we have a chance to win at a high level,” the point guard said last week in Las Vegas at USA Basketball’s mini-camp. “This season, expectations are still try to be that playoff team, that team that comes out and really makes it tough on everybody. But it is an awkward year with so many teams getting so much better [with] different acquisitions they made in the offseason.”

Conley wasn’t so much playing down the Grizzlies as admitting the reality ahead of them. The West is going to be a Battle Royal this season. Golden State and Houston will make the playoffs, they both have a depth of talent that gives them a lot of margin for error. After that, nobody is entirely safe. There are teams we tend to trust more than others — Utah because of their defense, Oklahoma City because of its two stars, the Lakers because of LeBron James — but after those first two in the West pretty much anything can happen. Seeds three through 12 will likely be separated by just a handful of games (less than 10 wins).

Memphis could grab one of those bottom playoff spots if Conley can stay healthy and things go their way. The challenge is we can say the same thing about the Clippers and Dallas and San Antonio and New Orleans and… you get the idea. Do you trust the Grizzlies in that setting?

The question in Memphis is if things do not go right the first part of the season, do they accept that it’s time to rebuild and start shopping players such as Conley, who would have trade value? That’s not the case right now, but know that teams are watching for just that.