Here's a prediction for the most predictable league in American sports, and you can consider this guaranteed: The Golden State Warriors will not face LeBron James in the 2019 NBA Finals. (See if Vegas will give you odds.) With King James now a member of the Los Angeles Lakers, he will have to beat the mighty Warriors in the Western Conference playoffs merely to reach his ninth straight Finals. Is James enough to transform a 35-47 team — a franchise that hasn't reached the postseason since 2013 — into a title contender? Let's put it this way: James is the only
player who might perform such, ahem, magic in L.A.
As the Grizzlies prepare to tip off their 18th season in Memphis (Wednesday night at Indiana), here are five more predictions as 29 NBA teams try to prevent a third-straight Bay Area championship parade.
Mike Conley will make things right for Memphis.
What exactly right
means remains to be determined. But Conley's absence last season significantly compounded the departures of Zach Randolph and Tony Allen. Limited to 12 games by an injury to his left foot that required surgery, Conley watched with the rest of us as Tyreke Evans, JaMychal Green, and longtime running mate Marc Gasol did what they could to make a 22-win season feel competitive. But when a rookie finishes second on your team in minutes played (as Dillon Brooks did last season), playoff basketball is rarely in the conversation. Considering his size, Conley has been remarkably durable over his NBA career, last season being the first of 11 in which he played fewer than 50 games. He turned 31 last week and is now in the third year of that mega-deal he signed in 2016 paying him $30 million annually. Conley won't play 82 games, but he'll play more than 50. It'll be enough to feel like "our Griz" are back.
Jaren Jackson will be more popular than Chandler Parsons.
I like the idea of an athletic four — we once called them "power forwards" — running the floor with Conley, helping Gasol on the defensive end, and flushing offensive rebounds. Memphis chose Jackson with the fourth pick in June's draft for these purposes. Can he become the kind of player who sells tickets, a team "personality" we tend to crave in the Bluff City? Let's give the kid some time. (He's 19 years old, three years younger than Memphis Tiger point guard Jeremiah Martin.) But he'll lap the veteran Parsons in popularity by Christmas while earning a fourth of the salary.
Kyle Anderson and Garrett Temple won't overwhelm anyone. But they won't underwhelm, either.
Anderson started 67 games for the San Antonio Spurs last season. Consider me sold on those credentials alone. Temple averaged 8.4 points and 2.3 rebounds as a part-time starter for Sacramento last season. He's starting his 10th NBA season but has reached the playoffs only three times (with the Spurs and Washington Wizards). These are rotation players for the Grizzlies, "glue guys" in college terms. They won't move the needle when it comes to highlight clips, but they're the kind of players who tend to deliver what's expected. And that's needed at FedExForum.
Marc Gasol will finish the season atop the Grizzlies' leaderboard in games played, points, and rebounds.
With images of a pudgy Gasol learning the game at Lausanne, Big Spain's 11th NBA season
has me dodging AARP flyers. He's already the Grizzlies' career leader in scoring (10,850 points), trails Conley by just two games (716), and needs 126 rebounds to pass Zach Randolph atop the rebounding chart. He's become an active franchise icon, something very few NBA teams can claim. Like Conley, he stuck around when other franchises may have offered clearer paths to a championship. He'll be here at least one more season and will be central to any playoff aspirations in the Memphis locker room.
The Grizzlies will be among the NBA's most improved teams, but will still miss the playoffs.
The Western Conference was stacked before
the century's best player immigrated from the East. And James joined a Laker team that didn't qualify for last year's playoffs. That's at least nine teams competing for eight spots before Memphis enters the conversation. Let's say the Grizzlies improve by 15 games (not ridiculous considering the absence of Conley a year ago and his return this season). Those 37 wins would have been 10 games short
of a playoff berth last season. There are simply too many teams the Grizzlies must catch and pass to rejoin the Western Conference elite. If the Griz improved by 20 wins, where would 42-40 leave them? Lots to hope for in the season ahead — starting with a ban on four-letter words that start with "t" and end with "k" — but within the sobering context of a heavy Western Conference that got heavier over the summer.