By: Stephen Patterson
The Memphis Grizzlies are coming off a decade-long roller coaster as they get their 10th season in Memphis underway.
They were a struggling, raw group of players when the team first arrived in Memphis.
Then came the days of Hubie Brown—50 wins—and three trips to the postseason.
And now, the Grizzlies are finally putting on the finishing touches of their rebuilding effort that went into effect after the Grizzlies third straight postseason sweep.
The Grizzlies have completely reinvented their roster. They have built their franchise around SF Rudy Gay, who will look to lead O.J. Mayo, Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph and the rest of the Memphis Grizzlies back to the postseason.
Their are several teams that are almost guaranteed to be playing postseason reservations, but there are always at least three or four playoff spots that are wide open for the taking. This will be a team-by-team look at the Western Conference and whether or not Memphis can beat out the competition to make a return to the playoffs this season.
These teams would have to have some incredibly bad luck to squander their chances to make a trip to the postseason this year:
1. Los Angeles Lakers - The two-time defending NBA champion Lakers will likely tear through the competition in the regular season en route to one of the top two seeds in the West. Only a major injury to one of their core players can derail Los Angeles from home-court advantage in at least the first round of the playoffs.
2. Oklahoma City Thunder - The Thunder barely squeezed into the postseason last year, but they made some noise when they got there. While they didn't push the Lakers all the way in their opening round matchup, they certainly didn't go away quietly. Look for them to improve upon last season by snagging a top playoff seed this year.
3. Dallas Mavericks - The Mavericks are a team that has been a regular face in the playoffs during the past decade, and I wouldn't expect that trend to stop this year. While they likely won't grab one of the top two seeds in the West, they should be in the running for third. Even if they somehow manage to fail to grab home-court in the first round, plan on seeing Dirk Nowitzki the Mavericks in the playoffs.
4. Portland Trail Blazers - Health is a major factor in Portland's ability to lock up a high seed in the postseason, but I think it is something the franchise will overcome this season. It seems like the Blazers always struggle to keep their core players healthy, but if Brandon Roy can stay healthy this season, I would definitely expect Portland to make a trip to the playoffs this season with a fairly high seed.
These teams probably shouldn't make any plans to make the postseason unless they catch fire unexpectedly:
1. Minnesota Timberwolves - The Wolves played things well during the offseason, taking out an advertisement in local papers that let fans know they don't expect to make the postseason this year. It's safe to say, if the franchise has absolutely no expectations of making a trip to the playoffs, fans probably shouldn't place any wagers on that team going anywhere fast.
2. Golden State Warriors - The Warriors are a team that is definitely on the rise. However, they are still a few players away from being legitimate threats in the Western Conference. Playing in a division with the Lakers and Phoenix Suns doesn't do them any favors either. I think Golden State will be fighting for a playoff seed in the 2011-12 season, but not this one.
3. Houston Rockets - The Rockets have one final season to experience the failed Yao Ming experiment before he hits the free agent market, and they have their first real opportunity to completely start over. Considering he is under strict playing time restrictions and the Rockets only have a few proven scoring threats, I'm just not convinced Houston will be competing for a playoff spot late.
4. Sacramento Kings - The Kings are another team that is clearly moving in the right direction. Like the Warriors, they have brought in some very solid pieces in their efforts to rebuild. However, I think they too are at least one more player away from being serious threats to make a trip to the playoffs. DeMarcus Cousins is a big wild card for the Kings.
The Nuggets entire season rides on the decision they face regarding Carmelo Anthony.
If they make a move and deal Anthony away rather than gamble on him leaving free agency, I don't think Denver will have enough to make it to the playoffs. If he sticks around and can maintain his focus late in the season, I think they will sneak into the postseason with a low seed.
The Nuggets other major issue is the health of some of their key players. Kenyon Martin and Chris Anderson are recovering from injuries, and their abilities to come back and play well will be a major factor in Denver's success this season as well.
Will the Grizzlies finish ahead of the Nuggets this season?: Yes. I remain convinced Denver will part with Anthony sometime before the trade deadline, and when his tenure with the Nuggets comes to end, so will their season.
The Clippers have the pieces to make a deep run in the postseason at some point in the near future. The only question is when in the future?
With Blake Griffin playing his first season for the Clippers, they are a legitimate threat to snatch one of the lower playoff seeds this season. He is one of the most energetic players I've seen in the NBA recently, and if he can stay healthy, expect him to be an All-Star for a long time to come.
For this season, if Baron Davis can be the leader he was in Golden State when the Warriors stunned the Dallas Mavericks in the playoffs a few years ago, the Clippers will probably be around in late April.
Will the Grizzlies finish ahead of the Clippers this season?: No. The Clippers have too many solid players not to land in the 5-7 seed range in the playoffs this year if their core players can stay healthy. With Blake Griffin leading the way, I could see the Clippers making a surprise trip to the second round if they can just make it to the big dance.
The Hornets are coming off a very disappointing season, but they will likely be much more competitive this year.
Injuries to Chris Paul derailed them last season, but as long as he can stay on the floor for New Orleans, they will have a chance to reach the postseason. The main question for the Hornets to focus on right now is building the right team around Paul to keep him happy in New Orleans.
If Trevor Ariza can have a monster first season with the Hornets, they have a chance to make a run for one of the lower seeds in the playoffs. The frontcourt will also be a major factor in how well the Hornets do this season.
Will the Grizzlies finish ahead of the Hornets this season?: Yes. New Orleans is likely another season and a couple of trades away from the postseason, but even if they do make it this season, it will be as one of the last two seeds. Don't expect the Hornets to get there this season, but they should be close at the end of the season.
The Suns are playing their first season without Amare Stoudemire, and as you might expect with a team that just lost a superstar in free agency, the results will likely be very mixed.
While they will obviously suffer in several aspects without Stoudemire, especially in the short team, they will also have a chance to see what new faces like Hakim Warrick, Hedo Turkoglu and Josh Childress can do for the franchise since being brought in during the offseason.
With former two-time MVP Steve Nash still leading the way for the Suns, they are still certainly contenders to make it to the playoffs, although title expectations will be much lower this season when compared with ones in the recent past.
Will the Grizzlies finish ahead of the Suns this season?: Yes. While the Suns added several quality players in their efforts to replace Stoudemire, I'm not sure they will mesh well enough to get the Suns a very high seed in the postseason. I would expect them to grab one of the last two spots or possibly fall just short of reaching the playoffs.
The Spurs still have Tim Duncan on the roster, which means two things:
1. They still have to be feared.
2. They are starting to get a little up there in age.
San Antonio's core is starting to age a little, and it clearly showed in the postseason last year. While Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili likely have several more quality seasons left in them, I'm not so sure than Tim Duncan has more than one or two more productive years remaining.
Their younger players will need a big season this year if they want to make any kind of splash in the postseason during one of Tim Duncan's last truly productive seasons.
Will the Grizzlies finish ahead of the Spurs this season?: Yes. If any of the Spurs key players were to go down and miss significant time, it would be crippling to their team. While they have a fairly deep team at most positions, they are also an older team that needs youth and bodies, especially on the back end of back-to-backs.
The Jazz looked like they were in for a drop-off this season when they lost Carlos Boozer in free agency to the Chicago Bulls. However, they landed Al Jefferson in a deal with the Minnesota Timberwolves to fill the void, almost making an even trade in production.
Deron Williams is one of the best point guards in the league, and as long as he is out there on the floor for Jerry Sloan's Jazz, they will definitely be in the playoff picture.
The Jazz will almost certainly make the playoffs; the only question is where will they be seeded.
Will the Grizzlies finish ahead of the Jazz this season?: No. The Jazz have a very seasoned team and an even more seasoned coach. As long as Jefferson can help fill the void left by Boozer's departure, Utah should be contending for home-field advantage in the first round of the postseason with a mid-range seed.
Final Record: 45-37
Playoff Seed: 6-8
The Grizzlies have solid players at every position on the floor, meaning they match up pretty well against most teams. As long as they can rack up wins against the lower half of the league (sub-.500), the Grizzlies should be making their first postseason trip since the 2005-06 season.
Rudy Gay, Marc Gasol and O.J. Mayo should all be joining Zach Randolph in competing for All-Star selections this season. With Gay tasting gold at the World Championships with Team USA and getting a massive extension before that, expect him to be playing the best basketball of his young career this season.
With the additions of Xavier Henry and Greivis Vasquez through the draft, the Grizzlies have even more electric players on their roster than last season. If they can win consistently at home this season, expect them to have a very strong home-court advantage when they play in Memphis late in the season and especially if they make it to the playoffs.