How bad timing, a tough December, and a lighter January may be the difference between the playoffs and the top of the lottery

The Memphis Grizzlies will play tonight for the first time in five days. This is either mildly or crucially significant, depending on your view of the team.

I’m not breaking any ground by telling you that the Grizzlies have been bad this year. They’re third worst record of 12-17 (lowest in the Western Conference) and seventh worst net rating of -3.4 per NBA.com/stats speak for themselves. But just in case you needed visual reinforcement…

I also will not be enlightening you by reminding that the moment the train fell off the tracks was November 27th, when management decided in a shocking move to fire head coach David Fizdale one day after he benched star center Marc Gasol for the fourth quarter of a home loss to the Brooklyn Nets. Not only was that a harmful move as it upended the leadership of the team and proved the front office to be at the very minimum suspect (more likely unhinged) but it also could not have occurred at a worse time in the season.

November had been an easy month as the Grizzlies played just one guaranteed playoff team—Houston twice. Even so, Memphis underperformed in the month, marginally but not unimportantly contributing to Fizdale’s firing. After the coaching change the team played its final game of November at San Antonio before embarking on a truly brutal December schedule.

To start the month it played San Antonio again at home, at Cleveland, Minnesota, at New York, Toronto, Oklahoma City, Miami, and at Washington. It also played Boston and Golden State twice in Oakland and ended the month playing six of seven on the road including a five game West Coast trip.

It played 17 games in 31 days, the most games and most dense month of the season. It played five back to backs (for reference it did not play a single back to back in November and has just one in January). It had more road games than home games, and didn’t have two days off in a row for 18 days. December was, by no uncertain terms, the most difficult stretch of the season.

Which is why Nov. 27 was not an ideal time to rock the boat, not an ideal time to hand the team to a new head coach, one who was not expecting to be a head coach.

Memphis Grizzlies Practice
Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

Since the removal of Fizdale and implementation of J.B. Bickerstaff in his role, the Grizzlies front office has insisted that the team will be playoff bound despite all prevailing evidence to the contrary including a 5-13 record under Bickerstaff.

Why would the front office act so naively? I can think of three possible answers.

First, it is not as naive as it is letting on to be. Better to bluff and try to make your opponents fold (i.e. in trade negotiations) than to fold before the game begins. As we have no evidence of this, I’ll refrain from further speculation. But I do not suspect this to be the case (which is probably exactly where they’d want me to be were they actually bluffing).

Second, it believes Mike Conley is the answer. If it doesn’t believe this, it’s either supremely stupid or, as posited above, a more talented card player than we may have originally thought. Conley may not be the answer, but it’s undeniable he would help this team a good bit.

Third, it believes that the team has had essentially no time to develop chemistry while reintegrating injured players and readjusting to a new coach during the most arduous stretch of the schedule.

San Antonio Spurs v Memphis Grizzlies - Game Six
Photo by Joe Robbins/NBAE via Getty Images

That brings us back to matters of either mild or crucial importance. The Grizzlies are coming off an unprecedented and deserved four days of rest. Eric Hasseltine, the voice of the Grizzlies, said yesterday on his radio show that he cannot remember a time in his 20 years covering the NBA when a team had four consecutive days without a game. It is the only time this season that will happen for the Grizzlies, and it is a precursor for a lighter January schedule on the whole.

The Grizzlies play only one more tried and true playoff team this month, San Antonio, on the 24th at FedExForum. Otherwise they have seven games against teams hovering around the eight spot and three games against lottery teams. Eight of their remaining January matchups are on Beale Street while only three are outside the confines of the Grindhouse, just one of which is not in the Central time zone.

That is to say, things should get easier for the boys in blue as they approach the All-Star break and trade deadline. With the increased time off, the team should be more well rested and have more practice time to come together as a team. Chemistry, as JaMychal Green said on Hasseltine’s show, hasn’t been positive for the Grizzlies, but could get better.

“[We’re] starting to get a feel for one another… That’s one of our Achilles heels, chemistry and our health. We’re still trying to find a way with our chemistry.”

If you are of a mind with general manager Chris Wallace and the front office, these past four days have been much more crucial than others may have realized. It’s been a chance for Bickerstaff finally to have some practice time with his team and for injured players to find their place in the squad without the bright lights shining on them, amplifying their mistakes. It could be just what the doctor ordered, along with a heavy dose of Conley, in terms of making the playoffs.

If, conversely, you believe the season is lost and that the team should tank, then you probably already think the team is too bad for chemistry to improve it. Why you might be mildly concerned is that if the team starts to play decently against this easier schedule, management may decide to bring back Conley which would A) detonate the tank and B) expose him to the possibility of another, worse Achilles injury. It feels unlikely that this would happen, but it’s not out of the question, hence mild concern.

It feels as if this season is washed no matter what Wallace or anyone else says. There’s been nothing to the eye test or in the stats that could convince me to the contrary. But I also cannot see or research what four days off at home might do for this team. So color me skeptically intrigued for tonight’s home showdown with the New Orleans Pelicans.

I’d say that’s better than abjectly hopeless.

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