The last decade has been a fortuitous one for long-suffering NBA teams, with four franchises ending lengthy championship droughts.
On Wednesday night, the Memphis Grizzlies will open a run toward a possible first championship in team history against the visiting New York Knicks, who have, perhaps, the NBA’s most infamous title drought of all.
The Grizzlies tied their franchise record for wins last season, when they went 56-26 and earned the second seed in the Western Conference playoffs before falling to the eventual NBA champion Golden State Warriors in the second round.
The Knicks, who reached the playoffs for the first time in seven seasons in 2020-21, struggled to build on that momentum last season and finished 37-45. They were six games out of 10th place in the Eastern Conference and the final spot in the play-in tournament.
With an exciting core of home-grown players, the Grizzlies open the season as a popular pick to advance deep into the playoffs next spring. Memphis, led by All-Star point guard Ja Morant, averaged 115.6 points per game last season, second-most in the NBA.
Morant has loads of optimism after he missed 25 games during the regular season due to various injuries before he missed the final three games of the playoff series against the Warriors due to a bone bruise in his right knee.
An All-Star for the first time last season, Morant said his goal is to not only lead the Grizzlies to the NBA Finals for the first time since the franchise was founded in Vancouver in 1995 but to win it all. The Warriors, Cleveland Cavaliers, Milwaukee Bucks and Toronto Raptors all ended decades-long title droughts since the spring of 2015.
“It’s no pressure for us,” Morant said. “We didn’t win the championship. So for us, it’s pretty much going to the next level, continuing to improve and go win a championship.”
The Grizzlies solidified their core Sunday by signing Brandon Clarke to a four-year extension. Morant signed a five-year extension in July while power forward Jaren Jackson Jr., who will be sidelined until at least December following right foot surgery, is signed through the 2025-26 season.
The Knicks stumbled in their attempt to take the next step last season, when Julius Randle slumped following a career-best performance in 2020-21 and additions Evan Fournier and Kemba Walker each struggled to establish themselves.
But New York found a building block in third-year guard/forward RJ Barrett, who averaged 20 points a game and signed a four-year extension in September. The lone new starter is point guard Jalen Brunson, who signed as a free agent in July with the expectation he’ll be the distributor who can help improve an offense that averaged just 106.5 points per game last season, fifth-lowest in the NBA.
When Brunson was signed in July, many expected he’d eventually play a secondary role to Donovan Mitchell, the New York state native who was placed on the trade block over the summer by the rebuilding Utah Jazz.
But the Jazz sent Mitchell to the Cleveland Cavaliers on Sept. 1, leaving the Knicks behind the elite teams in the East. New York hasn’t won the NBA title since 1973, which is an eternity in the hoops-mad Big Apple.
“I don’t think we have to lower our expectations,” Brunson said this month. “I think that starts with us in the locker room. How do we want to take that information? Deep down, we know people are doubting us. How can we prove to ourselves we’re the type of team we want to be?”
–Field Level Media