MEMPHIS – As the NBA contemplated ways to resume the season, the Grizzlies deserved to be assured of at least two things in any proposal.
First, was a format that recognized the work they put in through 65 games behind first-year coach Taylor Jenkins and rookie sensation Ja Morant to earn a top-eight spot in the West.
And secondly, if the league didn’t proceed directly to the playoffs, the Grizzlies needed a return-to-play system that respected the sizeable lead they held on teams below them in the standings still battling for the conference’s final playoff spot.
We feel like the plan acknowledged the success of our team through the first 65 games and roughly 80 percent of the season. We feel, given all the competing interests and things the league had to factor in, we’re good with where they came out. We’re ready to go play basketball.
Both boxes appear to be checked off as part of a working plan the NBA’s Board of Governors approved Thursday to restart the 2019-2020 season July 31 with 22 teams in Orlando. The Grizzlies (32-33) were eighth in the West standings and held a 3 ½-games lead for that position when the NBA season was suspended March 11 amid the global Coronavirus outbreak.
And that’s essentially where Memphis will pick up with a schedule that reduces what were 17 remaining regular-season games to just eight contests apiece for the 22 teams that will convene in Orlando to determine playoff seeding. Those teams are comprised of the top eight as currently positioned in the Eastern and Western Conference standings, in addition to another six teams that were within strongest contention of the final playoff spot in each conference.
“Everybody’s happy to have a concrete target date and plan to move forward with,” Grizzlies president Jason Wexler told Grind City Media after Thursday’s Board of Governors vote. “We feel like the plan acknowledged the success of our team through the first 65 games and roughly 80 percent of the season. We feel, given all the competing interests and things the league had to factor in, we’re good with where they came out. We’re ready to go play basketball.”
The Grizzlies should be anxious to resume an encouraging season in which Morant has emerged as the frontrunner for NBA Rookie of the Year honors. And Jenkins was named Western Conference Coach of the Month for guiding the league’s youngest playing rotation to an 11-4 record in January that propelled Memphis firmly into the playoff mix.
Memphis was on the verge of facing the NBA’s toughest closing schedule when games were halted just after the team arrived in Portland to start a three-game trip. Although the league hasn’t released the revised schedule, the Grizzlies are expected to face many of the same teams that are chasing them in pursuit of the West’s final playoff spot.
The Trail Blazers, Pelicans and Kings are tied for ninth place in the West at 3 ½-games behind the Grizzlies, and the Spurs are a half-game back of that bunch. The Suns round out the group and trail Memphis by six games in the standings, which warranted their invite to Orlando.
The West makes up 13 of the 22 teams that will resume the season at Disney’s Wide World of Sports complex. The Wizards are the lone team outside the top eight in the East that was invited because they are within six games of that conference’s final playoff spot. The Disney resort and theme park will house the NBA through the completion of the NBA Finals in October.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver said the league continues to work through planning to prioritize safety, health and testing to prevent and combat the threat of COVID-19 as the season restarts.
“The Board’s approval of the restart format is a necessary step toward resuming the NBA season,” Silver said in a statement released by the league Thursday. “While the COVID-19 pandemic presents formidable challenges, we are hopeful of finishing the season in a safe and responsible manner based on strict protocols now being finalized with public health officials and medical experts.”
Silver’s statement goes on to acknowledge and address the racial unrest that has sparked protests across the nation in the aftermath of police killings of black Americans. Most NBA teams released statements condemning racism and police brutality in recent days, and several prominent NBA players and team officials have participated in protests and marches.
The NBA will be returning to Orlando in full-scale fashion for the first time since the 2012 NBA All-Star Weekend. It was also that weekend in an Orlando suburb where 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was profiled and killed by a neighborhood watchman. That case sparked the recent surge of social activism among players in professional sports, with NBA stars leading the way.
“We also recognize that as we prepare to resume play, our society is reeling from tragedies of racial violence and injustice,” Silver’s statement continued. “And we will continue to work closely with our teams and players to use our collective resources and influence to address these issues in very real and concrete ways.”
While the COVID-19 pandemic presents formidable challenges, we are hopeful of finishing the season in a safe and responsible manner based on strict protocols now being finalized with public health officials and medical experts.
The Grizzlies remain committed to being part of the solutions both on and off the court. Many players have spoken out about racial unrest and have called for peace in recent turbulent days as protests intensified nationally. Team officials and players have also contributed to community initiatives to help Memphis and the region grapple with COVID-19 challenges.
The NBA’s step Thursday set the framework and potential timeline to bring back the sport. According to the proposed plan, team training camps would start June 30 in home markets before the league converges on Orlando July 7 for additional training and testing ahead of the July 31 resumption of regular-season games.
Wexler believes the Grizzlies are ready to take the next step in the return process.
“Our entire organization has worked to stay on top of things, keep in shape, keep informed and push forward to find ways to improve, given the restrictive circumstances,” Wexler said of the team enduring a nearly three-month hiatus. “Our coaching staff, front office, performance team and players are ready to take us to the next level.”
Most of the players are already back in Memphis, with many participating in individual, voluntary workouts under strict league guidelines.
Grizzlies center Jonas Valanciunas compared the extended time off to a normal NBA offseason. He said the team’s combination of youth and rapid progress will help ease the transition back.
“We’re really motivated. We don’t need to find extra motivation,” Valanciunas recently told Grind City Media. “We’re young. We want to establish our names and build as a unit. Usually, when you start a training camp, you’re dealing with trying to learn new players. We already know each other, and now we know what we’re capable of. So just continue what we’ve been doing and go on.”
The Grizzlies will likely return with an additional roster boost. Three key forwards who were on the verge of returning from injuries back in March – Jaren Jackson Jr., Brandon Clarke and Justise Winslow – have also said they’re healthy and would be ready to go when play resumed.
Now, the focus shifts to regaining that competitive spark that pushed the Grizzlies well ahead of schedule and expectations this season.
We’re young. We want to establish our names and build as a unit. Usually, when you start a training camp, you’re dealing with trying to learn new players. We already know each other, and now we know what we’re capable of. So just continue what we’ve been doing and go on.
“That’s what I’m all for – I want to finish the season,” said Winslow, who was acquired at the February trade deadline and was set to make his Grizzlies debut before the season was halted. “I really want to earn that eighth seed and really go from there. We’re not running from nothing. We want to make the playoffs, and that’s the main thing.”
Now that the format is in place, the process to pick up where they left off begins. Should the Grizzlies hold at least a four-game lead for the eighth spot over the ninth-placed team once those first eight games in Orlando are complete, Memphis heads to the playoffs.
But if the Grizzlies’ cushion is fewer than four games after those eight games are done, then they would land in a weighted play-in tournament for the West’s last playoff spot. The ninth-place team would then need to beat the eighth-place team in consecutive games to supplant it.
I really want to earn that eighth seed and really go from there. We’re not running from nothing. We want to make the playoffs, and that’s the main thing.
In other words, the Grizzlies postseason destiny is in their own hands. Just like it was March 11.
“I’ve got the utmost faith in our team no matter what’s thrown in our direction,” Jenkins said last month about resuming the season. “Regular season games, playoffs, play-in tournament… we’ve built a 3 ½-games lead and we’ve been in that eighth seed for a good portion. That speaks volumes of this group. They’ve earned the opportunity to be in that playoff hunt. We’re going to be in a great position. We know we’re going to have to fight for it. But it’s a great first step. The second step, whatever the NBA decides, we’ll be ready for it.”
The Grizzlies won’t be able to play in front of their fans at FedExForum as the season resumes at a single site in a closed Disney arena. But Wexler assures the team will feel their love and support from afar, with plans taking shape to safely experience Grizzlies games in fun ways.
Regular season games, playoffs, play-in tournament… we’ve built a 3 ½-games lead and we’ve been in that eighth seed for a good portion. That speaks volumes of this group. They’ve earned the opportunity to be in that playoff hunt. We’re going to be in a great position. We know we’re going to have to fight for it. But it’s a great first step. The second step, whatever the NBA decides, we’ll be ready for it.
“We’re all going to figure this out together,” Wexler said. “It’s a unique experience for everyone. There will be an excitement about something atypical and unusual and different. As a fanbase, we can get our arms around that excitement and adapt to being die-hard Grizz fans in a unique environment. It’s different. But different can be cool and compelling in a unique way.”
These Grizzlies haven’t been given anything this season. They’ve earned it.
It’s only right the NBA’s return plan didn’t take away the advantage they’ve built.
The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Memphis Grizzlies. All opinions expressed by Michael Wallace are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Memphis Grizzlies or its Basketball Operations staff, owners, parent companies, partners or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Memphis Grizzlies and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.