The impact of the NBA’s insane offseason hasn’t been extremely apparent a week into the season. In Houston, Chris Paul is injured. In Oklahoma City, the Thunder are still working out the kinks after a year of Russ’s martyrball. In Cleveland, Isaiah Thomas is months away from seeing action and Dwyane Wade is headed to the bench. And in Minnesota, Jimmy Butler has yet to score more than 15 points in a game.
As the league’s new superteams still try to sort themselves out, two Western Conference stalwarts continue to show some fight early in the season, as the Spurs and Grizzlies have both started the season 3–0. That’s right, San Antonio and Memphis, the two teams you quietly grumble about having to watch on national television, are making some noise before Halloween.
Let’s start in San Antonio, where the Spurs’ biggest offseason move was signing... Rudy Gay? Gregg Popovich seems to be giving himself challenges only to keep the regular season interesting at this point. No Kawhi Leonard or Tony Parker to start the season? Starting slow-footed Pau Gasol? Rebuilding LaMarcusAldridge’s credibility? All have been no problem for Pop.
Perhaps the biggest key to San Antonio’s early success has been Aldridge, who has stepped up in a way he failed to do during the playoffs. In Leonard’s absence, and in the wake of a somewhat-maligned contract extension, Aldridge is averaging 24.3 points and 9.3 boards per game after Monday’s win over the Raptors. He’s carrying the team offensively, while playing an anti-Spursian 36 minutes a night. The energy has come back into Aldridge’s game, who looks revitalized after a summer of trade rumors and questions about his fit in San Antonio.
The Spurs’ starting lineup is also hellish defensively. Kyle Anderson is picking up the slack on the perimeter as Leonard sits, and second-year guard Dejounte Murray is making himself an invaluable piece of the rotation. Murray’s emergence is important on two fronts: He’s a capable starter and his athleticism and bounce gives San Antonio something it was missing with Parker for large stretches of last season. His solid play also allows Patty Mills to remain with the second unit, allowing for some sense of continuity and keeping Pop’s substitution patterns in check.
Gay is another player to keep an eye on. He’s bought in defensively, and when Leonard does return, the Spurs can play a few really fun, rangy small-ball lineups. The Spurs have remained stout defensively in most lineups with Aldridge at center, and Gay is a little more consistent than Jonathon Simmons was in similar units last season.
In Memphis, the Grizzlies have quietly defeated both the high-powered Rockets and Warriors in the first week of the season. Memphis underwent wholesale changes this summer, losing 'Grit and Grind' OGs Tony Allen and Zach Randolph in free agency. While the personnel has changed, the identity hasn’t, as the Grizz are still mucking things up and slowing their opponents down to a halt.
The Grizzlies have no interest in playing at your speed. Memphis is 27th in pace entering Tuesday, despite playing two of the league’s premier run-and-gun teams. The Grizz are launching only 25 threes a game so far this season, which is actually less than they attempted last year.
Marc Gasol remains the fulcrum of the offense, directing traffic from the elbow while continuing to build on the three-point range he introduced to his game in 2016. (His slow-looping fake handoffs remain one of the game’s prettiest sights.) And Mike Conley cannot be ignored anywhere on the floor, showing a willingness to go one-on-one or launch outside shots if he’s feeling it.
David Fizdale probably deserves the most credit for putting young players and cast-offs in position to succeed. When he came into the league, James Ennis could hardly dribble from end-to-end. Now he’s a rugged defender who helped hold James Harden to 22 points on 40% shooting. Mario Chalmers(!) is giving the team solid minutes off the bench, and he’s closing games with Tyreke Evans. And rookie Dillon Brooks is playing the fourth-most minutes on the team, looking like another sparkplug on defense, leading the team in steals.
The question for both San Antonio and Memphis is the same for every team that looks good early in the season: Is it sustainable? Eventually, the more talented teams are going to gel, and the Warriors’ talent is still overwhelmingly better than the rest of the league. Still, there are reasons to be optimistic.
Both Pop and Fizdale seem to be getting the most out of their players, and reinforcements could be on the way, particularly in San Antonio. When Leonard returns to the Spurs, he should take everything they do up another level. Meanwhile, Memphis is waiting for the debut of Ben McLemore, another reclamation project who could find a second life under Fizdale. Chandler Parsons is also still slowly working himself back into the rotation, and if he ever returns to full health, he gives Memphis a dimension its offense often lacks—shooting and playmaking from the forward spot.
Will the Grizzlies and Spurs somehow find themselves in the conference finals? Probably not. But both squads have acquitted themselves in the early goings of the regular season. For two teams that decided to sit out the summer’s arms race, Memphis and San Antonio don’t appear to be backing down anytime soon.