|New-look Grizzlies face playoff-hungry Pelicans|
One team with a recent run of postseason appearances and another without begin jockeying for playoff position in the stacked Western Conference when the Grizzlies and New Orleans Pelicans tip off the season Wednesday night in Memphis.
The Grizzlies (43-39) placed seventh and Pelicans (34-48) 10th in the West last season, and expectations are for similar results this year despite Memphis losing two longtime contributors while New Orleans added firepower.
Memphis once again is led by one of the NBA's top inside/outside combinations in point guard Mike Conley and center Marc Gasol.
But unlike the past seven seasons, the duo won't be complemented by veterans Tony Allen and Zach Randolph, who now play for the Pelicans and the Sacramento Kings, respectively.
Hoping impressive rookie Dillon Brooks and perennially injured veterans Tyreke Evans, Mario Chalmers, Brandan Wright and Chandler Parsons can pick up the slack, the Grizzlies believe they open the season with some momentum, having clicked on all cylinders in a preseason-closing, 142-101 thrashing of the same Pelicans last Friday.
"I think we all have just a hidden confidence," Conley said. "We're just being reserved at the moment because we're kind of feeling like, 'Man, we saw what we could do the last preseason game.' We're capable of doing some good things. I think everybody, when we got in the locker room over the last few games was like, 'You know, we're going to be really good.'"
The Grizzlies have been plenty good the last seven years, making the playoffs every season. However, after three straight 50-win campaigns in the middle of the run, they slipped a bit to 42 and 43 wins the past two seasons, with last year being their first under coach David Fizdale.
And now, without the defensive-minded Allen and plodding Randolph, the Grizzlies are being asked to change gears. Fizdale has a goal of finishing among the league's top 10 in pace of play this season.
The Pelicans used to be that type of team, but the dynamics of the club changed last February when they acquired DeMarcus Cousins from the Kings.
Everything now revolves around big men Cousins and Anthony Davis.
"There are going to be a lot of open shots available, and we have to knock down open shots," New Orleans coach Alvin Gentry said of his club's offensive approach. "I think (Cousins and Davis) are going to be playing against a lot of double teams, and when you a lot of double teams, in order to be effective, the ball's got to be swung and you've got to knock down shots.
"I think that's going to be a key for all the perimeter guys."
That group eventually will include veteran point guard Rajon Rondo, but the offseason addition is out indefinitely following surgery on a core muscle.
Forward Solomon Hill, another guy expected to play a key complementary role this season, also starts the season on the shelf with a torn hamstring.
Ian Clark, a reserve who benefited from Golden State's highly successful, ball-sharing offense last season, was imported to aid in the perimeter attack.
The Pelicans haven't made the playoffs since 2015, when they won 45 games. They plummeted to 30-52 in their first season under Gentry in 2015-16, then improved slightly to 34 wins last season.
They went 11-14 after trading for Cousins last season.