Dec. 12, 2016
The Memphis Grizzlies Are 16-8. They Are Also Doomed.
by Fox Doucette
What strange times are these when passing ruffians can go around posting the second-best Defensive Rating in the league while at the same time having a negative point differential and playing five wins above their expected percentage 24 games into a season.
I'm talking, of course, about the Memphis Grizzlies, the same team that, a year ago, got off to a fantastic start in terms of won-lost record and regressed toward the mean so hard that they ended up losing 18 of their last 21 games including playoffs to go from a 39-26 record in March to a 42-40 finish to a 42-44 overall regular-season-and-playoffs combined record.
The more things change, as Memphis is 16-8, posting a minus-0.4 per-game point differential, and allowing (per Basketball Reference, my source for this article) 102.5 points per 100 possessions, second only to Detroit (at 102.2) overall. Memphis is also 25th in Offensive Rating, at 102.1. They are also a patently absurd 10-0 in games decided by five points or fewer, while posting a record of 3-5 in games decided by double digits.
Sure, they don't have the psychotic bad losses they had last year, when the team took a you've-gotta-be-kidding nine losses by 20 points or more on their way to a mind-boggling-for-a-playoff-team minus-2.2 average margin per game. But the underlying mechanic is the same. Take point differential, convert to 82 games if in-season, divide by 30. That's a back-of-the-envelope estimate of how many wins either side of .500 a team should end up on. Keep the number without normalizing to 82 and it still works; if you're 5-5 but have a -3.0 per game differential (or minus 30 points), you should be 4-6, and over the season you should land not at 41-41 but at about 33-49. Go more than 15.3 points either side of zero and you project as either undefeated or winless, but let's not discuss home/road split factor or any other clever metrics that can be applied to the data lest it get too confusing. We'll keep this simple.
With that in mind, 0.4 times 24 is 9.6, good for about a third of a loss over a 12-12 record, so Memphis should be sitting either at 12-12 (which would tie them with Portland for seventh) or 11-13 (which would put them in sole possession of eighth, with the 10-14 Lakers still in the nine spot out West. For a whole season, you're looking at a 40-42 projected record, maybe 39-43, which might just land you in the ass end of the playoffs in the paper-thin Western Conference, a side with three contenders (Golden State, San Antonio, and the Clippers), a couple of frisky mid-table dogs (Houston, Oklahoma City, Utah) and the Grizzlies and Blazers grabbing the remaining two spots more or less by default. (The Lakers, despite their record, are a minus-5.8 differential, projecting at 8-16 so far and 27-55 over the course of a whole season. They are going to get real bad real fast; it's already happening.)
This team makes no goddamn sense. And not just because for the second year in a row, they're Grit N' Grinding their way to a better record than they have any right to be posting. They lost Mike Conley; they haven't lost a game without him. The five-point game, which like one-run games in baseball should be a 50/50 crapshoot, has netted them ten wins; that should be five, and if it were, they'd be 11-13 just like their scoring stats say they should.
So look out, Grizz fans. We've been down this road before, and with an aging and injury-prone team already overachieving, we're going down this road again. Expect, before the end of the season, to see a monumental swoon (if midseason) or collapse (if, like last year, at the end.) Memphis will make the playoffs only because no other West team seems to be qualified to do so, and Golden State or San Antonio will eat their lunch in four or five games.