The Memphis Grizzlies are entrenched as one of the four best teams in the Western Conference. Even before the Lakers acquired Dwight Howard, the Grizzlies were a potential 50-win basketball team with a puncher's chance at the No. 3 seed. Howard's arrival to Los Angeles doesn't change that.
The Grizzlies finished last season tied for the same record with the Lakers and a few games behind the Thunder and Spurs. The Lakers are significantly better on paper this year, but there is no reason to believe Memphis will finish worse than the No. 4 seed they were last season.
Memphis has a tough frontcourt duo in Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. If those two stay healthy, the Grizzlies will bully teams every night on the boards and give smaller teams fits. The team will also benefit from the return of promising young big man Darrell Arthur. It might not have the flash of a Dwight Howard/Pau Gasol combo or Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins, but it's still a formidable group.
The team also has two young rising stars in small forward Rudy Gay and point guard Mike Conley Jr. Both have shown signs of progress over the last couple of years, but they aren't quite in that upper echelon at their positions. Gay has the skill set to be excellent, but he needs to stay healthy. As for Conley, he needs to continue the momentum from his solid play in last year's playoffs.
The biggest issue for Memphis is depth. With O.J. Mayo now in Dallas, the team lacks a proven entity off the bench. Journeyman Jerryd Bayless will attempt to pick up some of the slack, as will Josh Selby. Arthur's return is a plus, but he's going to be rusty coming off a Achilles injury.
The Grizzlies still have what it takes to be Southwest Division champions. They are younger and more athletic than the Spurs and can match San Antonio's physicality in the paint. If Gay and Conley Jr. take the next step, the Grizzlies will win the division and lock down the No. 3 seed.
The Western Conference is pretty much a two-team race between the Thunder and Lakers over who gets to the Finals. Both teams have too much star power and depth for any other team to stand a chance of dethroning them as the conference's two best teams.
Grizzlies fans shouldn't be disheartened by that fact. Memphis is still a very good team that can give OKC or LA a solid fight in the playoffs. The focus for this season should be less about competing with the Lakers and Thunder and more about overthrowing the Spurs. They have the talent to do just that.
In the monthly breakdown of the team's schedule, I predicted the Grizzlies to finish 51-31. That's a very realistic goal provided the core stays healthy and guys like Gay and Conley continue to develop. They aren't good enough to topple the West's two heavy hitters, but there is no reason to think they'll slide down the ranks anytime soon.