With Sunday's decisive victory over the defending NBA champion Miami Heat in the rear-view and a home national TV match-up with the undefeated New York Knicks looming next, this is shaping up to be one of the most compelling regular-season weeks in franchise history.
Both the Grizzlies and Thunder are among the current Top 10 in offense, defense, and rebounding and each sits one game behind the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference standings. But look a little deeper into their respective resumes and the Grizzlies' start looks a little more impressive.
The Thunder are 6-2, but those six wins have come against teams with a combined 11-28 (they've played 0-8 Detroit twice). The Grizzlies are 5-1, with those five wins coming against teams with a combined 20-16 record.
Yet, despite playing a tougher schedule (the Grizzlies lost to the 5-2 Clippers, the Thunder to the 6-1 Spurs and 3-3 Hawks), the Grizzlies not only have a slightly better record but also a slightly higher point differential (+9.0 to OKC's +7.1).
So that means the Grizzlies are winning this one, right? Probably not. A little shine might be off the Thunder since the Harden deal, but they're still an elite team and are still playing at home.
Three thoughts in advance of tonight's game:
1. Depth Advantage: With the Grizzlies' so-far successful bench rebuild and the Thunder's dawn-of-the-season deal of reigning Sixth Man of the Year James Harden and a couple of young vets (Daequan Cook and Cole Aldrich) for a lesser variation (Kevin Martin) and so-far-unused rookie (Jeremy Lamb), it can be argued that the Grizzlies now actually boast a better top-to-bottom rotation than the Thunder.
To get a better sense of that, let's look at how the 18 rotation players from both teams stack up so far based on John Hollinger's Player Efficiency Rating:
1. Kevin Durant, Thunder 21.7
2. Kevin Martin, Thunder 21.6
3. Russell Westbrook, Thunder 19.4
4. Mike Conley, Grizzlies 19.2
5. Wayne Ellington, Grizzlies 19.2
6. Marc Gasol, Grizzlies 18.8
7. Jerryd Bayless, Grizzlies 18.2
8. Zach Randolph, Grizzlies 17.0
9. Serge Ibaka, Thunder 16.7
10. Rudy Gay, Grizzlies 15.5
11. Marreese Speights, Grizzlies 12.9
12. Quincy Pondexter, Grizzlies 12.7
13. Eric Maynor, Thunder 10.8
14. Hasheem Thabeet, Thunder 10.6
15. Thabo Sefolosha, Thunder 9.3
16. Kendrick Perkins, Thunder 9.0
17. Tony Allen, Grizzlies 8.9
18. Nick Collison, Thunder 8.0
Like any “total” stat, PER is imperfect. It doesn't reflect defense in a truly significant way, which means the bottom four players on this list are all undervalued to one degree or another, while good offensive players who are poor defenders (Martin, particularly) are overvalued. And small sample size means some players' ratings are, for the moment, unduly influenced by unreasonably good (Ellington) or poor (Gay) shooting performances.
But, even with those caveats, this gives a pretty good indication of the depth differential that suddenly exists between these two teams. The Thunder have the top three players on this list with their two superstars and hot-shooting sixth man. But the Grizzlies have eight of the next nine players on the list. More than half of the Thunder's nine rotation players currently have PERs below 12 (15 constitutes league average), while only one Grizzlies rotation player falls under that threshold — and he just happens to be arguably the best perimeter defender in the league.
2. Defending Russell Westbrook: Two questions here: Which Russell Westbrook shows up? And can Mike Conley handle the good one?
With the ever-present spotlight a little bit brighter following the Harden deal, the Thunder's dynamic lead guard is off to an erratic start. He shot 11-39 in the team's two losses, but has even put up a couple of stinkers (7-22 and 3-10) in wins. But he's averaged 30 points over the team's past two games.
As for Conley, his great early start is getting an awful lot of attention, but mostly for his offense. His defense has also been pretty good, with opposing starting point guards shooting only 40% against the Grizzlies so far. In this stretch, spot-up shooters (Steph Curry, Mo Williams) have had more scoring success than off-the-dribble operators (Chris Paul, Brandon Jennings, Jeremy Lin).
Conley's added muscle seems to be making a difference on the defensive end, but Westbrook, if he's at all on, will be the toughest test yet.
3. Getting Off to a Good Start: As well as the Grizzlies have been playing, they've had some slow starts, and this is not the game to do that again. The Thunder are vulnerable early, when their starting lineup is on the floor and bench rotations haven't begun to bring about better lineups.
Thunder starting center Kendrick Perkins has, by far, the worst on-court/off-court numbers among the Thunder's rotation players and the Thunder have trailed in seven of eight games at the moment Perkins first leaves the game. If that trend holds, the Grizzlies might have a chance to jump on them early.