The Memphis Grizzlies appeared to be trending downward, but few could've predicted what would be a disastrous 2017-18 campaign in which they won just 22 games.
With Mike Conley back healthy, the Grizzlies should be better in 2018-19, but they'll likely struggle to return to the postseason out of the loaded Western Conference. None of last year's eight playoff teams in the West took a big step backward, while the 11th-place Los Angeles Lakers signed LeBron James.
As long as Conley and Marc Gasol are on the roster, Memphis can't pull the trigger on a full-scale rebuild. The Grizzlies instead appear to be stuck in a middle ground where they aren't tanking and have little ceiling beyond a first-round playoff exit.
Perhaps J.B. Bickerstaff can defy expectations in his first full season as head coach.
With Friday's release of the regular-season schedule, here's a breakdown of the Grizzlies' campaign.
Season Opener: Oct. 17 at Indiana Pacers, 7 p.m. ET
Championship Odds: 500-1 (via OddsShark)
Full Schedule: NBA.com
Minnesota Timberwolves: First Home Meeting, Tuesday, Feb. 5 at 8 p.m. ET
Of the eight playoff teams from the West, the Minnesota Timberwolves may be the most vulnerable.
Minnesota finished eighth in the conference, which can partly be chalked up to Jimmy Butler's injury and the fact he missed 23 games over the course of the season. According to NBA.com, the Timberwolves had a minus-4.5 net rating when he was on the bench.
However, the Timberwolves have some cause for concern heading into 2018-19.
For one, Butler is coming off a torn meniscus having already put a lot of mileage on his body due to his aggressive playing style and workload under Tom Thibodeau.
Then there was the report from the Chicago Sun-Times' Joe Cowley outlining internal drama in Minnesota. According to Cowley, Butler had become "frustrated with the nonchalant attitudes of younger teammates," including Karl-Anthony Towns.
Most tangibly, the Timberwolves are a thin squad. Signing Anthony Tolliver and selecting Josh Okogie in the first round of the draft represent their biggest moves of the offseason. Minnesota needs Andrew Wiggins to take a big step forward.
Long story short, the Timberwolves might be the easiest playoff team for the Grizzlies to pick off.
Denver Nuggets: Wednesday, Nov. 7 at 8 p.m. ET in Memphis
Outside of the Lakers, the Denver Nuggets will be Memphis' toughest competition in terms of teams looking to crack the top eight.
The Nuggets finished only a game back of the Timberwolves, losing to Minnesota in overtime in the final game of the regular season.
Paul Millsap was limited to 38 games, which almost makes him a new acquisition ahead of 2018-19. And it speaks a lot to Denver's young core the team could improve by six games despite Millsap missing more than half of the year.
Jamal Murray, in particular, showed big improvement, averaging 16.7 points and 3.4 assists while shooting 37.8 percent from three-point range.
Memphis was 1-3 against Denver in 2017-18, and a similar mark could be troublesome for the Grizzlies as the margins in the West playoff race promise to be razor-thin.
Over the past three seasons, Conley has missed 109 combined games. Even if he stays healthier relative to 2017-18—when he appeared in just 12 games—Grizzlies fans should count on the veteran point guard to be out for stretches here and there.
Not to mention, Memphis' outlook changes drastically if the team trades Gasol. The three-time All-Star can opt out of his deal next summer, and trading him might be the best outcome if 2018-19 is shaping up to be a lost cause.
The Grizzlies made some nice improvements to the roster given their limited flexibility. Garrett Temple is an upgrade over MarShon Brooks and Wayne Selden as the backup 2-guard, while Kyle Anderson's versatile skill set will serve Memphis well.
First-round draft pick Jaren Jackson Jr. should make an immediate impact defensive and on the glass as well while he figures out his offensive game.
The Grizzlies won 42 and 43 games in the previous two seasons before bottoming out a year ago. Something in that range is more than achievable again.
Record Prediction: 41-41