I’ve limited my writing this season for a number of reasons. First, I try to save my “best material” for Saturday mornings on 3 Shades of Blue Radio. Second, I’m fortunate to work with a great group of writers who touch on many of the topics about which I have considered writing. Third, I’ve started about 10 pieces and lost momentum after 1,000 words before deciding to scrap it all together. Lastly, I just haven’t had the time to do it.
That said, as we embark on the final 30 games of the season, I want to take a look at what has to happen for the Grizzlies to keep playing basketball beyond April 16. In order to provide some structure to this let me tell you what we’re going to do here. First, a quick postmortem on the first 52 games. Next a look at where we stand as we emerge from the All-Star break. Finally, my 7 rules the Memphis Grizzlies must follow to make the playoffs (and some fun with colored fonts).
How did we get here:
The first 52 games of the season were mired in equal parts by things we can control and things we cannot. Obviously, there is very little control to be exercised to prevent Marc Gasol from spraining his MCL, or Quincy Pondexter from suffering a tarsal navicular stress fracture, or Mike Conley from spraining his ankle. In the NBA – and in any sport – injuries happen and players, coaches and front office executives have to adapt on the fly to mitigate the harm caused by the injury. You’ll have a hard time finding any team in the league that hasn’t suffered a significant injury this season, or that feels any sympathy for Memphis. Still, it is undeniable that injuries have left a huge mark on the season, and the Grizzlies 29-23 record is littered with losses that can reasonably be explained by the absence of one or more key player.
The problem is, there are more than a handful of losses in that group of 23 that are inexplicable, unacceptable and that cannot be excused by injury. For example, regardless of Marc Gasol’s absence, you cannot lose at home to Brooklyn (without Paul Pierce and Deron Williams, mind you). You cannot lose at home to a Chicago team that had won only 3 of its previous 11 games. You cannot lose three times to New Orleans, the weakest team in your own division, including twice at home (one of which was before Gasol’s injury). You cannot lose at home to a (then) awful Toronto team. You cannot lose at home to a (still) awful Lakers team. You cannot lose to a massively under-performing Cleveland team.
Injuries or not, at least 8 of the team’s 23 losses should have landed in the other column. In a vacuum, each of the losses has a story that helps rationalize the outcome, and every 82-game season is going to have a handful of head scratchers. The point of rehashing these frustrating nights is to emphasize their effect on our “margin for error” going forward.
Where we stand:
- The Grizzlies are 29-23, and have 30 games remaining.
- The Grizzlies are in 9th place in the Western Conference.
- Entering play tonight (February 18, 2014) the Grizzlies are 1.5 games behind Golden State (8th) and Phoenix (7th), and 2 games back of Dallas (6th).
- 13 of the games will be played in the Grindhouse, while the remaining 17 are on the road.
- 17 of the remaining games are against Western Conference opponents, while 13 will be against teams from the East.
- 8 of the 17 games against Western Conference opponents will pit the Grizzlies against teams currently ahead of us in the playoff standings.
Path to the playoffs:
The $64,000 question right now is how many of the Grizzlies 30 remaining games must they win to comfortably make the playoffs. There is no easy answer, unfortunately. Here is what it took to get the 8th seed in the Western Conference the last 5 seasons: 45, 36 (strike shortened), 46, 50, 50.
Lets look at it like the former US Government threat assessment scale and assign some colors:
- 45-47 wins = “Red” – need a lot of help.
- 48-49 wins = “Yellow” -probably in, but you aren’t quite comfortable.
- 50+ wins = “Green” – should be in.
As you can see, I think that 49 wins will likely be enough to get it done, but lets go ahead and set 50 as the target. To get to 50 wins, the team has to finish the season 21-9. So how do we do it?
When you look at the way the schedule breaks down, you have to start by taking care of business against lesser opponents. As mentioned above, you only face Western Conference playoff teams (as defined by teams currently in the top-8 spots in the Western Conference) a total of 8 times in the next two months. This is a blessing and a curse. From a strength-of-schedule perspective, you like that 22 of your 30 games are against non-playoff or Eastern Conference teams. The flip side of that is that the fewer games we have against Phoenix, Dallas, Golden State and Portland, the fewer head-to-head opportunities we have to help ourselves. This means more scoreboard watching than we may like come late March. Toss in a home game against Indiana plus a home-and-home against Miami, and that means that “on paper” 11 of your final 30 games are against high-level opponents.
Say you beat the “bad” teams and lose to the “good” teams; that leaves you at 48-34, squarely in the yellow-zone. Obviously, it is unlikely to be that simple. We probably beat some “good” teams and lose to some “bad” teams along the way. The question is whether that happens at a 1:1 ratio, and if not, does the ratio break in your favor, or against you?
This also reinforces why the “terrible, horrible, no-good very-bad losses” earlier in the season are potentially so devastating. The reality is that in order to find ourselves in the green-zone – confidently working on a post about why you should hate the Clippers (or Thunder/Spurs/Blazers/Rockets) – we not only have to take care of business against lesser opponents, but have to also win a handful of games against some of the NBA’s best.
To help keep things simple, I’ve devised a set of rules that #GrizzNation can use to keep track of whether we are “taking care of business” over these last 30 games. The rules are broken into two sets. The first set are absolute rules about beating “lesser” opponents. The second set hedge to offer the best way to “split” games against our tougher opponents.
Set one – 4 absolute rules about beating lesser opponents:
- RULE 1 - Beat non-playoff Western Conference teams at home: 4
- RULE 2 - Beat all Eastern Conference teams at home: 6
- RULE 3 - Beat sub-.500 Eastern Conference teams on the road: 4
- RULE 4 - Beat sub-.500 Western Conference teams on the road: 5
That is 19 wins and puts you at forty-eight (48) wins for the season with your toughest games yet to be counted/played.
Set two – 3 rules suggesting how we have to “split” games against tougher opponents:
- RULE 5 - Win 1-out-of-3 road games against above-.500 Eastern Conference teams (TOR, CHI, MIA): 1
- RULE 6 - Win 2-out-of-5 road games against Western Conference playoff teams: 2
- RULE 7 - Win 2-out-of-3 home games against Western Conference playoff teams: 2
That would result in 53 wins – a massive achievement for this team considering how poorly the first 7 weeks went and the injuries they’ve had to overcome. You can see that every time one of the first 4 rules is violated, we have to find an extra win in the 6 “allotted losses” from the second set. That’s easier said than done.
What good is any of this if I don’t put some skin in the game by going on record though, right? After combing over the schedule for the remaining 30 games, I expect the Grizzlies to go 21-9 to finish with 50 wins and make the playoffs.
There you have it, #GrizzNation. A mid-season postmortem and a road map to the playoffs. Lets track the rules I’ve laid out and see if the Grizzlies can do what it takes to bring playoff basketball back to the Bluff City.
Grind on, Memphis.