What needs to go right: Quite simply, we need the team to click, particularly the new pieces. Getting a healthy Quincy Pondexter is crucial, as his second-unit defense and shooting is a necessity for making a run towards home-court in the first round. As I pointed out in my mid-season review, Gasol, Conley and Randolph have another gear that has to be tapped for this team to realize its potential. Hopefully this week off has allowed everyone to recharge and regroup and the team comes out with a fire in their eyes.
What could go wrong: Obviously a serious injury would be devastating. While we have created solid depth through trades the last six weeks, we simply cannot sustain an injury to our core. If Conley, Gasol, Randolph or TA were to miss significant time, this team can quickly fall apart. The other possibility is psychological. To the fans, the team should be able to psychologically rally around the adversity it has faced and use the underdog status to its advantage. However, you have to wonder how many times you can tap that well before it just stops being effective. Coach Hollins has his work cut out for him, trying to milk another gritty and focused run out of a team that has been put through a lot.
Toughest stretch: March 12 – 16. We play back-to-back @ Portland and @ Clippers, followed by 1 day of rest and another back-to-back @ Denver and @ Utah. Playing 4-in-5 is tough enough as it is. Playing 4-in-5 on the West Coast in arenas that have not historically been kind is brutal. It is not unlikely that we catch an 0-4 during that stretch.
Easiest stretch: March 3 – 9. The easiest stretch comes directly before the hardest, which makes it easy but critical. We play @ Orlando, home versus Portland, @ Cleveland and then home against the Hornets. We have to go 3-1 if not 4-0 in order to maintain our positioning in the Western Conference standings and keep hope alive for home-court in the first round.
Best case scenario: If the team jells quickly out of the break, it is certainly conceivable that we win enough games to overtake the Clippers for the 3rd seed in the Western Conference. I don’t see any way we catch the Spurs or Thunder, unless they suffer catastrophic injury.
Worst case scenario: I don’t envision a worst-case scenario that leaves the Grizzlies out of the playoffs. I don’t think we will find ourselves worrying about how the 9th place team is playing late in the season, unless it is for matchup purposes. Our likely worst-case scenario would be to falter out of the gate, blow opportunities for easy wins in early March and slip down into the 6th or 7th seed, creating a first-round matchup with the Thunder, Spurs or Clippers. While some of us would love another shot at the Clippers, that team is dangerous and deep and I would prefer that matchup in the second round or the Western Conference Finals.
Projected finish: (22-9) with losses @ Brooklyn; @ Miami; @ Portland; @ Clippers; @ Denver; @ Utah; @ Knicks; @ Portland and @ Houston. That’s right – you did not misread that. I do not project another home loss this season. Obviously, there are going to be some fluke games here-and-there, and we may end up losing one at home while winning one of the road games I’ve just described. Either way, you work your way down this schedule and it is difficult to find more than 9 or 10 losses, unless you think (a) we fold against the league’s best at home or (b) we choke against a lower-level team when our focus drops. Either way – I am going to give the team the respect it has earned in projecting their performance over the final 31 games and stick to my (22-9) expectation.
Projected final record: (55-27) which will be good enough for second-place in the Southwest Division and 4th in the Western Conference.
There are undoubtedly a lot of ways for this season to play out, and the theme that resonates years from now about the 2012-2013 Memphis Grizzlies is likely yet unknown. A second-half collapse will forever make this season about the trade of Rudy Gay. A strong second-half and meaningful playoff run will forever make this season about the legacy of Zach, Marc and Mike and reinforce a long held belief that this team was better when Rudy Gay was out.
Whatever the narrative ends up being, it starts tonight in Detroit.
Grind on, Memphis.