After going through one of the worst losing skids in team history earlier this season, losing 11 in a row and 9 of 21, the Memphis Grizzlies appear to have found something close to stable footing. They’ve won 6 of their last 10, including a three-game winning streak and a win over the Sixers with Joel Embiid in the lineup.
The Grizzlies were never as bad as their record when they were losing, but their recent winning streak is owed as much to the competition as it is their improved play. Still, during the losing streak, even those games were far from sure things. The Grizzlies actually being able to win the games they should was still a massive improvement from December’s misery.
The fact that Grizzlies have become lukewarm rather than Antarctic cold shouldn’t make you feel better, though. If anything, it should make you feel worse.
The Grizzlies’ season at this point is lost. Even after Monday’s win, the Grizzlies would need to outplay the 8th place Nuggets by 6.5 games over the last 36 games just to earn the honor of a first round dismissal at the hands of the Warriors.
I get it; keeping the playoff streak alive means something. But at this point, the long-term future of the Grizzlies is more important, and with the playoffs now a basic improbability, if not quite an impossibility, the Grizzlies best chance for improving their future is a high draft pick.
This isn’t to say that a high draft pick drastically alters the outlook for next season in the event that the Grizzlies run it back. Rookies are generally bad. Rookie point guards are usually worse, and any front court player the Grizzlies draft would be stuck behind the logjam that is Marc Gasol/JaMychal Green/Deyonta Davis/Ivan Rabb/Jarell Martin, assuming most of those guys aren’t sent packing in a trade or let go in the offseason.
But the drafting of an elite prospect is the best case for Memphis’ long-term future.
Recent injury reports make it seem as if the Grizzlies have begun creeping closer to the tank even while the front office trumpets that they’re still holding the window open. To be clear: there’s no chance that this organization comes out and openly acknowledges anything that even rhymes with “tank.” Marc Gasol is too proud to condone public admission of losing on purpose; it goes completely against Gasol’s “Playing the Right Way” ethos. This isn’t an insult; it’s just the way it is.
That’s perfectly fine. But even without any explicit mention of a Process, the Grizzlies must make two moves: rid themselves of every expiring contract that they can in exchange for future assets; and commit to playing their young players. While that still won’t ensure you reach the level of the Kings, Hawks, and Magic, it should at least keep you from dropping any lower while simultaneously getting your young players experience.
In a life after the playoffs, the Grizzlies’ worst case scenario is winding up in Purgatory, appeasing Gasol (again) at the risk of playing themselves out of the draft’s best talent and into either: another bust, or someone whose ceiling is a rotation player. Given the front office’s track record (and assuming they’re retained), it’s plausible they miss even with a top-five pick. That chance increases the further back you get.
I understand the plight of many fans—particularly those who spend their hard-earned money on tickets—who don’t want to cheer for losing. Cheering for losing isn’t fun. But the draft prospect carrot dangling out in front of you does at least take a bit of the sting out of those losses. Getting to see flashes from players that should hopefully be part of the Next Great Grizzlies Team—Selden, Brooks, Rabb, Davis, et al—also helps dull that pain.
The truth of the matter is that the Grizzlies, with where they’ve been, what they’ve accomplished, don’t often get shots at franchise changing talent. And while a Sixers-style tank may never be on the table, they can’t mortgage their chance at a top pick if the best case scenario is tenth in the West and a draft pick in the teens.