Heading into this NBA season, it was hard to find two trendier dark horse picks to make a deep playoff run than the Memphis Grizzlies and New Orleans Pelicans. Both southern squads are young, deep, and athletic, with the right mix of youthful stars (Ja Morant, Zion Williamson), first-rate second bananas (Desmond Bane, Brandon Ingram), elite defenders (Jaren Jackson Jr., Herb Jones) and battle-tested veterans (Steven Adams, CJ McCollum).
Coming out of the All-Star break, Memphis and New Orleans receive passing grades when measured against mobile sportsbooks’ preseason expectations. According to Kevin Lawler, PointsBet’s U.S. head of trading, Memphis was assigned 14/1 odds to win the NBA title before the regular season, while New Orleans was at 40/1. Those odds have fattened a bit to 20/1 and 60/1, respectively, but that’s somewhat understandable in light of key injuries to the likes of Williamson, Bane, Ingram, and Adams.
With New Orleans sitting pretty at 23-13, Williamson went down with a hamstring injury on Jan. 2. Now, having lost six of its last 10 games and with Williamson suffering a rehab setback that’s pushed his timetable for return to “uncertain,” New Orleans is 30-29 and clinging to the seventh seed in the Western Conference, where PointsBet has the team priced at -190 to make the playoffs (and +155 to come up short).
“I always feel that when a team won’t get into specifics on when their player is coming back, it’s rarely a good sign,” Lawler said of New Orleans’ situation. “Even if he does get back at the end of March, that puts the Pelicans in a lot of trouble. They’re currently sitting seventh and I think they’re going to be under pressure from a couple teams behind them.”
As for the Grizzlies, they’re 35-22, good enough for second in the West. But they, too, had their struggles heading into the break, also losing six of their last 10 games with Adams sidelined. And a well-publicized dustup with Shannon Sharpe and his garish sweater seemed to throw the confident Memphis squad off its rhythm.
Memphis Grizzlies this season:
Before Shannon Sharpe incident —
— 7th in ORTG
— 1st in DRTG
— 2nd in NETRTG
— 3rd in record
Since Shannon Sharpe incident —
— 25th in ORTG
— 8th in DRTG
— 23rd in NETRTG
— 25th in record ￼ pic.twitter.com/ARaqr9GzSq
— StatMuse (@statmuse) February 21, 2023
“The Grizzlies are a genuine title contender,” said Lawler. “I don’t love them personally, but they’re still serious contenders. The biggest thing they need to do is get Steven Adams back. His numbers aren’t incredible, but he can get you 15 rebounds a game and he’s just such a huge presence. He’s probably the toughest guy in the league. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that with Adams out, their record has been pretty poor.”
Pelicans trio dominant when healthy
When New Orleans, which visits Toronto on Thursday as a 6-point underdog, acquired McCollum from Portland at last year’s deadline, he has shared the floor with fellow offensive linchpins Williamson and Ingram in a grand total of 10 games.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that, while it’s a supremely small sample size, lineups featuring that trio have absolutely overwhelmed opponents, scoring 120.9 points per 100 possessions while giving up just 104.4.
It would stand to reason, then, that New Orleans’ fortunes hinge on those three players being healthy heading into the postseason. But in light of the hole the team has dug itself, success in the playoffs will be a tall order.
“If we consider Zion coming back and the Pelicans are the eighth seed, how many road series are they going to have to win?” wondered Lawler. “I think it’s hugely unlikely. If it plays out the way I see it, I just think it’s a lot to ask. When those three big players on the Pelicans did play together this season, they were plus-60 in those minutes. But that’s been their problem — they just can’t get those three guys healthy on the court. I wouldn’t have much interest in betting the Pelicans this season.”
Conversely, Memphis would really have to slip down the stretch to fall out of the second seed. Maintaining its current positioning, said Lawler, would help Memphis in a potential playoff matchup against a team like Phoenix, where the Grizzlies — 4-point underdogs at Philadelphia on Thursday — would be very likely to have home court advantage. But Lawler would have liked to see Memphis do more than merely acquire a serviceable rotation player in Luke Kennard at the trade deadline.
“If I’m a Grizzlies fan, I’m not getting worked up about Kennard moving from Los Angeles,” said Lawler. “There was some talk of trading for Mikal Bridges and O.G. Anunoby. Had they gotten Bridges or Anunoby, you’d be seeing a significantly shorter price” than 7/1 to win the conference.
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