A bold statement, yes. But there’s no reason it can’t be true. Here’s my reasoning:
The Grizzlies have a record of 31-15, good for the 3rd seed in the Western Conference. The two teams ahead of them are the Phoenix Suns (who went on an 18-game win streak earlier this year) and the Golden State Warriors. No one thought the Grizzlies would be here, but with younger players developing much sooner and filling in the roles they needed to, the Grizzlies are a juggernaut. They had won their last 12 games in a row before losing to the Dallas Mavericks, but their performance during that time tells us all we need to know about how good this team is and can be. Plus, they just beat the Zach Lavine-less Bulls by 13 points last night.
One player who’s performing well is Steven Adams, the Grizzlies’ starting center. Adams is used to playing with All-Star, ball-dominant point guards. In Oklahoma City, Adams played alongside Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony. After being traded to the New Orleans Pelicans, he played with Zion Williamson, an All-Star power forward, before being traded to the Grizzlies for Jonas Valanciunas (since the trade, there has been lots of comparisons between the two players). All of these experiences have helped Adams, putting him in the perfect position for this Grizzlies team. With all the experience Adams has, he can be a veteran and mentor to the younger Grizzlies; but he’s only 28. The Grizzlies have a 6’11” center that can bang in the post with the best of them, catch lobs, play the pick and roll game, and mentor the young guys.
“Oh my god, he opens up our offense so much.”Dillon Brooks on Steven Adams
Screen assists are screens for a teammate that directly lead to a made field goal for that teammate. Adams is averaging five screen assists per game, which is the fourth highest average per game in the NBA this year. Plus, he has a total of 206 screen assists this year, one more then Jakob Poetl, the next guy on the list. Adams is also averaging 3.6 box outs per game, the second most in the entire NBA. Right behind him is Rudy Gobert, and right in front of him is Valančiūnas, who is getting to put up bigger stats on a worse team. Adams has become one of the best passing big men in the NBA, averaging a career high 3.0 assists per game.
“He’s a huge body, and he loves to screen. It’s my first time playing with a big man that loves to screen, and he’s good at screening. That’s a guard’s dream.Desmond Bane on Steven Adams
Adams hasn’t been putting up as many points and rebounds as he used to, but there’s two good reasons for why: one, he’s playing less minutes then ever. Two, scoring isn’t in his job description. Adams is there, as said above, to rebound, block shots, catch lobs, and set screens. His stats may be a bit underwhelming, but his advanced stats tell a slightly different story. It’s clear Valančiūnas is the more gifted center of the two, but Adams has a net rating of 7.6, meaning his team is 7.6 points better when he is on the floor. The last year Valančiūnas was on the Grizzlies, his net rating was 3.2, meaning Adams has a much bigger effect on the floor. Players shooting two-point field goals when guarded by Adams shoot 49.6% from the field, but the average percentage of players guarded by everyone else on the team is 53.07%, meaning Adams makes it 4% less likely for an opponent to score a two-point field goal.
Adams’ defense is simply more valuable then the offense Valančiūnas brought, given how good the Grizzlies are at scoring. The spacing may not be nearly as good as when Valančiūnas was on the Grizzlies, but at the very least, Adams will force Jaren Jackson, Jr, to work on his three-point shooting.
Jaren Jackson, Jr, is another reason why the Grizzlies have been so good. As the second option, Jackson, Jr, is doing all the right things, and because he shoots threes, the 6’11” power forward is able to stretch the floor or post up players when he needs to. Jackson, Jr, isn’t having his best statistical season, as in 42 games, he’s averaged nearly identical stats to the last two years: 16.3 points, 5.6 rebounds, but a career high 2.0 blocks per game. He’s also averaging 1.1 steals per game, tying his career high.
The wings of Memphis have been playing great this year, stepping up and filling in wherever they’re needed. Desmond Bane is a candidate for Most Improved Player, and shooting 42% from three. In fact, Bane is one of the best three-point shooters in the entire NBA right now, as he is only the sixth player to ever make 200 or more three-pointers and shoot 40% from three in his first 100 games.
Dillon Brooks is out right now, but when he is playing, he’s averaging 18.4 points per game and has started in every game but one. Kyle Anderson has been a solid contributor off the bench, and Ziaire Williams has shown flashes of potential.
But, if we’re being honest, the one player that makes Memphis the best team in the league is Ja Morant. I simply can’t say enough good things about Morant. He’s averaging 24.4 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 6.8 assists on the best shooting splits of his entire career. The injury he had earlier in the season hasn’t slowed him down, and if he isn’t an All-Star starter for the Western Conference, there will be a riot in Memphis. His 44-inch vertical is unreal, and helps him to do things previously thought to be impossible. He’s answering the question basketball fans have asked for so long: what would happen if Derrick Rose was never injured? Morant’s a team player, he’s a leader, and if the season ended today, I would vote for him as MVP of the entire NBA.
Look at Zion Williamson, a player with generational talent coming into the 2019 NBA Draft. After trading Marc Gasol to the Raptors in exchange for Valančiūnas, both the Grizzlies and Pelicans were in roughly the same position. In that time, the Pelicans were able to acquire Brandon Ingram (who became an All-Star level player), Lonzo Ball, Devonte’ Graham, Josh Hart, Steven Adams, and Jaxson Hayes. The Grizzlies have acquired nowhere near as much talent to surround Morant, but what’s happening right now? When the Pelicans have Zion they are slightly above a .500 win team, and without him, we’ve seen how disastrous it’s been. With Morant, the Grizzlies are a top five team in the entire NBA, and we saw that the supporting cast Memphis built of less regarded players can support themselves while Morant’s gone, seeing as how the Grizzlies took part in the biggest blowout in NBA history against the Oklahoma City Thunder (in all fairness, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Josh Giddey both weren’t playing).
I will admit, this team is far from perfect. As great as their defense is, Morant himself needs to work on his defense a little bit more. Without Morant, this team won’t be able to contend (even if they can survive the rigors of the regular season). It’s never good when your star player can’t play great defense, and if that is the case, then you need great defensive players around him to compensate. Personally, I would love to see Matisse Thybulle traded to the Grizzlies; I think he’d be a great fit and help solidify the defense.
There is hope that Morant’s defense is improving, as in his rookie year, his defensive box plus/minus was -1.2. In his second year, it was -1.6, but this year, it’s 0.0. Meanwhile his offensive box plus/minus jumped up to 5.8 from 1.3, where it was last year. Morant’s PER is 24.82, marking him as the 11th most efficient player in the entire NBA (ironically, his teammate Brandon Clarke is ahead of him at 10). With the speed, finesse, and shooting stroke, Morant practically has it all.
So, do the Grizzlies have what it takes to win a championship this year? Let’s take a look at some factors that help a team win a championship:
- A star player who is in contention for MVP
- A great second option who is also an All-Star
- Other teams missing star players
- Being able to win against the league’s best teams
- Having great chemistry and gelling as a team
- A veteran who can scream in the team’s face when they aren’t doing well enough, motivate guys, and play good defense
Ok, number six is a nice to have, not a necessity; but let’s look at some of these other qualities. Memphis just concluded their 12 game-winning streak against the Dallas Mavericks and Luka Doncic, but they are the only team to beat both the Warriors and Suns this season. This is no easy feat, considering the Warriors are back up to full strength with Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green (who fills the role of number six). The Suns have barely lost anyone while the rest of the league was decimated with COVID, and Chris Paul still is doing his thing while Devin Booker is providing solid scoring. The Grizzlies have proved that the Big Three of LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and Russell Westbrook means nothing to them. They can beat any team on any given night.
Morant fits the role of number one, the star player who is in contention for MVP. Jackson, Jr, would fit the role of number two, but he’s not an All-Star caliber player; not just yet. Other teams are missing star players, and the Grizzlies are overall young, and they don’t have pressure on them to win now. Because the Grizzlies are young and aren’t expected to win, they don’t have to worry about the media coming into practice every day and writing about how the young core should be broken up, unlike other teams (*cough Lakers and Celtics cough*). All the Grizzlies need is a few lucky breaks in order to win the championship, and given their recent performance, I do think they’re the best team in the entire NBA.
What do you think about the Grizzlies? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below, don’t forget to follow the NBA Blog, and as always, have an awesome day!