Considering where we last saw the Memphis Grizzlies, this offseason has been a dream.
A winless month of February. Four victories in their last 32 contests. An active attempt (whether they admit it or not) towards the end of the 2017-2018 campaign to put a product out on the floor that would not be able to compete consistently as an NBA team for the purpose of maximizing a draft pick.
In other words, “tanking”.
These are not fallacies or figments of our imaginations. These things really happened for a franchise whose fall from grace was drastic, but not unexpected if you listened to the national media. The end of the greatest era in Grizzlies basketball was predicted (incorrectly) for years until it actually became a reality, and a chorus of “I told you so” chants rained down from the pretentious perches of those without a horse in the race.
Meanwhile, in Memphis, doubt ruled the day...until it didn’t.
As a limited-at-best coaching search ended with a two-time former interim coach with lots to prove in J.B. Bickerstaff and the team approached the NBA Draft, fans were looking far and wide for reasons to be optimistic. Then the draft happened, and Jaren Jackson Jr. joined the Grizzlies (followed by Jevon Carter), and the fan base began to believe that not only was Grit and Grind back, but it was evolving. That development continued through free agency and trades, where the versatile Kyle Anderson became a key piece of the Grizzlies core. Add in a trade for Garrett Temple here, a smart low-risk signing of Omri Casspi there, and some fans in Memphis have convinced themselves that the playoffs, which seemed so far away just six months ago, may once again be within reach.
So after all those good vibes, Grizz Nation may be disappointed to see that the future is still bleak in Memphis in the eyes of those paid to cover the Association at large.
ESPN’s Kevin Pelton, noted Grizzlies doubter, ranked Memphis #26 out of 30 NBA squads in the Mothership’s Future Power Rankings, a projection of not just how teams will do this coming year, but over the next three campaigns. His visions of the Grizzlies yet to come are uninspired, to say the least...
The Grizzlies spent the offseason recommitting to the “Grit ‘n’ Grind” philosophy that fueled their deep playoff runs early this decade. The question is whether it’s too late to build around the core of Mike Conley and Marc Gasol after Conley missed 70 games due to injury last season and with Gasol heading into his age-34 season.
After several years of missed opportunities in the draft, No. 4 overall pick Jaren Jackson Jr. represents a potential building block for Memphis’ long-term future. Alas, the Grizzlies are walking a tightrope with the draft, because they owe a first-round pick to the Boston Celtics that is top-8 protected in 2019, top-6 protected in 2020 and unprotected in 2021. Unless Gasol declines his 2019-20 player option, Memphis won’t have appreciable cap space until the summer of 2020, so internal development is the Grizzlies’ best hope of supporting Conley and Gasol.
So the health and well-being of the now elder statesmen of the roster are the main things that matter still, even after an offseason that most would call a remarkable success for this Grizzlies Front Office? And those factors mean that the immediate and short-term future of the franchise is only better than that of Cleveland, Atlanta, Sacramento, and Charlotte?
Well that, and that darn Jeff Green trade. But the doubt lingers, and for good reason.
Jaren Jackson Jr. may well be the future of the Grizzlies. But in terms of the Grizzlies becoming “his” team, he is likely still multiple years away from that coming to being. While the addition of Anderson is a bold and potentially fun move for a lot of reasons, it is not like Kevin Durant or even Will Barton joined the team to add scoring punch and raw athleticism. Temple will help, but are he and his fellow new bears on Beale really going to move the needle so drastically that the Grizzlies go from almost worst to a playoff contender in less than a calendar year?
Maybe, yeah. But a lot has to go right...just like last year.
And the year before that.
And the year before that one.
Get the picture?
The team, despite all their savvy moves, still depends on Conley, and Gasol, and to a far lesser extent Chandler Parsons, to live up to the contracts they signed. They still are in need of scoring and near-elite play from Dillon Brooks, a 2nd round pick two drafts ago who is a great value for this team but it remains to be seen how he contributes to a team consistently trying to be “good” for a long stretch of time, like a full season. They still must look to Andrew Harrison, JaMychal Green, and others to play large roles from starter (Green) to key back up (Harrison), players that would potentially not have so much thrust upon them on any other team striving to be “good” in this NBA.
Even with all the goodwill generated this past summer, the reality remains the same. This roster is flawed, and aging, and is relying on a series of fortunate, and unlikely, events to unfold in order to achieve at levels they are accustomed to.
So do you punt the season? Ignore the excitement of the approaching training camp, turn away the content of writers and bloggers alike as the team gets ready for the grind of 82 games? Of course not (especially not that last part) - hope springs eternal this time of year, and the Grizzlies are to be commended for taking a tough situation and making themselves better. Barring catastrophic and unprecedented failure, the team will be better and far more competitive than that one that hurt to watch at times last spring.
The rest of the NBA, and especially the West, figures to be better as well, however. And most of them aren’t as reliant on 2nd round and undrafted talent, or looking to a new head coach to lead them for the third time in four seasons, or built around three players with injury and/or aging concerns. That perspective is important to keep - the definition of success for these Grizzlies cannot simply be home court advantage, or even the playoffs. Growth, development, and improvement over the depths of despair from last season should be the focus. While postseason play is possible, the probabilities of it happening remain low - the money tied up, the loss of a pick in the near future, the supporting cast behind those being paid like superstars on a team where no superstars reside...it adds up over time. No one added to the team these past few months can make up that much of a difference.
They can, however, still make a difference.
The Memphis Grizzlies are better than they were in May, and that means something to be sure. The Memphis Grizzlies are also still not likely to build sustained playoff success as presently constructed. Both are truths, and both bring to light the reality of the situation in Memphis -
Improvement is evident, both from hopeful health and roster overturn. But when compared to the other franchises in the NBA, it may still not be enough.