The Grizzlies are a team mired in transition as they return to action Friday following the All-Star break.
A season that began with promise and playoff aspirations quickly turned into disappointment, as a gritty but flawed roster ran out of the luck they possessed during a 12-5 start. The losses began to mount, and so did questions about the remnants of the Core Four, Marc Gasol and Mike Conley.
After years of putting off a full-scale rebuild, the Grizzlies finally came to the realization they had squeezed every last drop from their franchise cornerstones. As the calendar year turned, the front office waived the white flag and started parsing through available trade partners. No one on the roster was considered untouchable.
MarShon Brooks and Wayne Selden Jr. were the first dominoes to fall, as the two were traded in January to Chicago for Justin Holiday.
Next, the Grizzlies made a flurry of moves at this month’s trade deadline. JaMychal Green and Garrett Temple were traded to the Los Angeles Clippers for Avery Bradley. Shelvin Mack was shipped to the Atlanta Hawks for Tyler Dorsey. And Marc Gasol – a Grizzly since 2008 – was sent to the Toronto Raptors for C.J. Miles, Delon Wright and Jonas Valanciunas, officially marking the end of an era.
Now armed with a bevy of new players, the Grizzlies enter the embryonic stage of a rebuild. Wins and losses won’t tell the entire story, as observers will need to see how the coaching staff and front office react moving forward.
What are the Grizzlies plans? How does the front office view its current roster, including recent acquisitions? Will the team play to convey their 2019 draft pick? Will fans continue to support the organization and show up to games during what expects to be some rough times?
Here are a few things to look during the second half that may answer these questions and more.
J.B. Bickerstaff’s coaching
Head coach J.B. Bickerstaff entered the season hyping a renewed commitment to “Grit N’ Grind” bully ball, featuring a methodical half-court offense and a suffocating defense. The result yielded a solid start, with the Grizzlies winning a lot of closely contested games.
Despite Memphis’ early success, the advanced stats told a different story. Through the first 20 games, the Grizzlies had a top five NBA defense – while also holding an extremely positive turnover differential – but their scoring differential was about even. Each game was a dogfight, coming down to the final five minutes where most of the offensive responsibilities were thrust upon Gasol and Conley to utilize pick and rolls like they were going out of style. The duo was logging a lot of high-stress minutes due to a lack of solid offensive depth. It was easy to see that a lot of things had to continue to bounce the same way if the winning was to continue.
It’s hard to argue with anything Bickerstaff implemented as coach. Having the team play the way they did was the perfect way to maximize the roster’s strengths. Some of his options were born out of necessity, like playing Shelvin Mack more than he should have. But who else was going to seize the secondary ball handler role? Going into the season, Conley was supposed to play off the ball more. Instead, he accumulated a 27 percent usage rate in the season’s first half, the highest of his career.
Bickerstaff later encouraged Kyle Anderson to create more offense for others, something he became more comfortable with before suffering an ankle injury, but he’s not a guy who will pound the ball into the ground and break down a defense – something the Grizzlies sorely need.
With Gasol off the roster, will the team continue to commit to “Grit N’ Grind” basketball? For the season, the Grizzlies are 30th (last) in pace. If the first four games post-Gasol are any indicator, Bickerstaff hasn’t changed philosophies. Memphis is 25th in the league in pace in that small sample size.
Recent rebuilding teams – like the Philadelphia 76ers, Brooklyn Nets and the Atlanta Hawks – have pushed the pace at historic levels. The main reason to do so is to create more possessions per game to create learning opportunities for developmental players, showcasing their skills while boosting their statistics in hopes of making them future assets.
With an assortment of athletic and interchangeable players at their disposal, it would behoove the Grizzlies to up the pace and see what these guys can do in a faster style of play. Guys like Delon Wright, C.J. Miles and Bruno Caboclo would benefit from a change.
Hopefully Bickerstaff and his staff have brainstormed new ideas during the All-Star break.
The future of the Grizzlies 2019 draft pick
“Play to convey” has become a popular mantra for Grizzlies fans.
If the Grizzlies finish the draft lottery with a pick outside of the top eight, that pick would convey to the Boston Celtics as part of the 2015 Jeff Green trade.
So, the question of whether to keep or convey the pick is an important storyline moving forward. If the Grizzlies don’t convey the pick this year, the pick would only be top six protected in 2020. If it doesn’t convey then, the Celtics would outright own the Grizzlies first round pick in 2021.
In the midst of a rebuild, it’s important for the Grizzlies to hit on their first round picks. In a year where questions surround the depth of the 2019 draft outside the top four prospects, it may be wise to try and win as many games as possible.
If the season ended today, Memphis’ lottery odds would have them squarely in the top eight (currently the sixth worst record in the league). And while that sounds like a cozy position, the Grizzlies are four games ahead of the 5th worst team (Atlanta) and among seven teams clustered with 23-27 wins. A random 3-1 week could potentially put them completely out of the lottery’s top ten.
Are the Grizzlies bad enough to gamble on the possibility of drafting a Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett, Cam Reddish or Ja Morant?
Landing one of those guys would be a huge boon for the Grizzlies, the alternative, however, could be another failed first round pick in an extreme top-heavy draft.
The player rotation for the rest of the season
In the four games following Gasol’s trade to Toronto, the Grizzlies utilized 83 different five-man lineups, according to NBA.com. A lineup featuring Conley, Bradley, Holiday, Rabb and Jackson Jr. lead the way with a measly 14 minutes played.
As those numbers indicate, we can expect a lot more tinkering from Bickerstaff and company before the season is finished.
But what do the fans want to see?
I’m not too sure they want to see someone like Holiday taking minutes from guys like Anderson, Brooks, Miles, Wright and Bruno Caboclo – you know, players that make sense to have on next season’s roster or hold actual trade value.
It will be interesting to see how Valanciunas is integrated into the lineup. A bruising center that accumulates points and rebounds in bunches sounds good on the surface, but he has been exposed when burdened with starters’ minutes in today’s pace and space era. His last few seasons in Toronto Valanciunas saw his playing time dwindle, as he became more of a match up play when opponents played big. Many believe Jackson Jr.’s future lies at the center position, so hopefully the burly Lithuanian doesn’t take too many opportunities at that position. In the end, Valanciunas – like his newly acquired teammates (Miles and Bradley) – holds most of his value by being an expiring contract after the 2020 season.
The team will be bad, but hopefully not boring. It would be nice to see Bickerstaff lower Conley’s playing time to keep him healthy for an offseason trade while playing the guys that can help the Grizzlies extract the most future value.
The continued maturation of Jaren Jackson Jr.
Jaren Jackson Jr. is the single ray of light piercing through at the end of the Grizzlies arduous rebuilding tunnel.
The 2018 fourth overall draft pick has been better than advertised, showcasing elite rim protection (holding opposing players within six feet of the rim to a 50.4 defended field goal percentage, 3rd in the league among all players with 40 or more games played), quick hands and feet, a solid post game on either block and a developing three-point shot.
Despite everything Jackson Jr. has already displayed, it would be nice to see him receive even more responsibility in the second half of the season. Give him more shots, run more plays for him and see if he can improve his passing/playmaking.
The next step for the rookie would be to see him put the ball on the floor more often when opposing defenders run out to contest him on the three-point line. He’s shown he can do it, as evidenced by his early season blow-by against Anthony Davis in an early season match-up against the Pelicans.
Look at Toronto’s Pascal Siakam for example. He has begun to attack closeouts and it has opened up his game to another level. Now, on those drives, Siakam either gets to the basket or breaks down the defense and finds open teammates.
For Jackson Jr. to get to the next level offensively, it would be nice to see him make similar strides with the dribble drive game.
Dark times, we’ve been here before
Memphis has always been a city that will come out and support a winning product, whether it be the Tigers or the Grizzlies. But for the sake of the Grizzlies, things simply can’t return to where things were a decade ago.
Robert Pera has come out multiple times and said he has no plans to move the Grizzlies, which is nice. But we know how the media works. Over time, as fans continue to dwindle and losses continue to mount, people will continually bring up the Grizzlies as a team that would look better in Seattle or Las Vegas.
On Sunday’s Bill Simmons podcast, Simmons and Ryen Russillo mentioned Memphis and New Orleans as two teams they feel are ripe for an upcoming move. Obviously, it’s all just conjecture, but hopefully the Grizzlies have built something that lasts, and the fans continue to support the team during the upcoming dark period.
At the same time, it’s a two-way street. The front office is in a position where they need to show Grizzlies supporters that they have a plan moving forward. As Joe Mullinax wrote about in January, apathy can grow if long-term losing comes without direction toward something better.
It will be interesting to see how that direction shakes out for the remainder of the season and in to this summer.