If you were to ask most people, fans and media alike, on the state of the Memphis Grizzlies, I don’t know if you would get a general consensus. Most, if not all, of this population would consider Jaren Jackson Jr. to be a legitimate superstar cornerstone for this team. Some are impressed with new-acquired players such as Jonas Valanciunas, Delon Wright, and Bruno Caboclo, and would love to see them back in a rebuild. A majority of media and some fans think that the Grizzlies don’t have a clear plan and don’t know what exactly they’re doing.
These doubts about the Grizzlies’ plan were strong at the trade deadline. Instead of trading Marc Gasol for some bad contracts and potentially a first-round pick, they acquired a 26 year-old Jonas Valanciunas, a 27 year-old Delon Wright, a 30+ year-old CJ Miles, and a 2024 second-round pick.
Instead of trading Garrett Temple and JaMychal Green for a first-round pick while taking on a past contract past this season, they flipped the two expiring contracts for Avery Bradley — while absorbing an $7.6M trade exception.
Instead of flipping Mike Conley at the trade deadline, they held onto him.
With these doubts though, it seems like people are anticipating Robert Pera, Chris Wallace, or someone within the Grizzlies organization to come out and say the team will be rebuild — one that’d require a complete tear-down, bad contracts with assets, and a few years in the basement. Every NBA analyst and writer calls for teams to tank when they don’t see them as a viable playoff contender anymore, which generates this belief that the Grizzlies should do the same.
However, what if they don’t need a traditional rebuild for the Grizzlies to return to playoff prominence? Contrary to popular belief, a traditional rebuild may not be the move for Memphis — they might not be able to afford it.
Again, contrary to popular belief, tanking is not the way to return to the playoffs and build a contender. Sure, it gives you a chance to acquire the best young talent, great. Philadelphia succeeded, awesome.
What about everyone else though? Phoenix hasn’t made the playoffs since 2010, and despite its collection of talent, it doesn’t look like that drought will snap anytime soon. Minnesota has only made the playoffs once since 2004. Sacramento is still going through a 13-year playoff drought right now. New Orleans has made the playoffs twice since trading away Chris Paul in 2011, and an Anthony Davis trade is inevitable this summer.
This season, only 4 of the 16 playoff teams have gone through a traditional rebuild to return to the playoffs. Philadelphia is returning to the playoffs for the second straight season, after missing it for 6 years for the sake of “The Process.” The Orlando Magic is finally making the postseason for the first time since trading Dwight Howard in 2011. Golden State acquired Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green through the draft, but they didn’t need to win 25 games or less to do so. Oklahoma City rebuilt in the draft with a track record that may never be accomplished again, and they made the playoffs for all but one season this decade.
So, yes, 25% of this year’s playoff teams went through a “traditional rebuild.” Meanwhile, plenty of teams have proven that you don’t need to tear it down and undergo years of losing 50-60 games to become a formidable contender. For example, the Los Angeles Clippers and Brooklyn Nets have surprised the league without a plethora of top-5 picks, and in the process, they built an outstanding culture that’ll be enticing in free agency this summer. In addition, the Indiana Pacers and the Utah Jazz built on their success to return to the playoffs and proved that it wasn’t a fluke.
Should the Grizzlies try to emulate the model and success of these non-traditional rebuilt teams?
The Memphis Grizzlies are close to having a similar structure to these organizations. The common denominator with these teams, including the Grizzlies, is the age timeline of the players on the roster.
The Pacers could’ve rode with players in the same timeline as Victor Oladipo, Domantas Sabonis, and Myles Turner. However, they surrounded them with role players in their prime that have been on playoff teams — Bojan Bogdanovic, Darren Collison, Thaddeus Young, and Cory Joseph. In the process, they’ve maintained its position in the Eastern Conference, despite a season-ending injury its best players.
The Brooklyn Nets were supposed to be screwed. After a short-sighted draft-night trade for Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, the Nets were left with no picks and a bleak future. They used available cap space to hoard picks or young players, which turned into D’Angelo Russell, Jarrett Allen, and Caris Levert. In addition, they picked up relatively unknown young players in Joe Harris and Spencer Dinwiddie, allowing them to blossom into two of the most important role players in the game. These 5 players, along with guys like DeMarre Carroll, Jared Dudley, Ed Davis, and Shabazz Napier, don’t have similar timelines. It didn’t matter though, they still developed great chemistry in a phenomenal system to instill one of the most promising futures in basketball.
The Los Angeles Clippers weren’t supposed to be good. After trading away Blake Griffin and Chris Paul, and letting DeAndre Jordan walk, they were supposed to rebuild. Instead, they’re in the best spot in basketball. No, the timelines of Danilo Gallinari, Lou Williams, or Patrick Beverley don’t match the ones of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Landry Shamet, and Montrezl Harrell. However, it still works, and they’re reaping the benefits of it.
The Utah Jazz were supposed to be bleh once Gordon Hayward walked. They built a brilliant two-way system. The emergence of Donovan Mitchell helps. However, what would be the difference between him and Devin Booker if it wasn’t for guys like Joe Ingles, Rudy Gobert, Derrick Favors, Jae Crowder, and Ricky Rubio?
Why don’t the Memphis Grizzlies go for the same thing? Jaren Jackson Jr. is the bright shiny diamond for this organization. Get him used to winning, and hang on to older role players in their prime like Jonas Valanciunas, Kyle Anderson, and Delon Wright for a few years. You can already see a culture shift within this team since the trade deadline, and that’s an important component to this path. Keeping building on that and see what it could look like next season.
Maybe, the Grizzlies achieve something similar to Indiana or Los Angeles and find a package for Mike Conley that expedites a “rebuild” process. Or, they keep their pick this year — or even next year — and the player quickly blossoms into one of the best young player in the class and a cornerstone next to Jackson. With $50M in expiring contracts next season, they could do what Brooklyn did and use cap space and expiring contracts to hoard bad contracts and picks to offset a potential lost pick within the next three years.
These routes are all acceptable in building the next good Memphis Grizzlies team.
The bottom line is, no matter how much people beg and plead for a rebuild, this city and organization can't survive another rebuild.
Though it only lasted 4 years, the last playoff drought wasn’t pretty. For the first three seasons of that rebuild, the Grizzlies didn’t win more than 25 games. The team was so bad, people debated about whether or not the Memphis Tigers could beat them. FedExForum was basically empty for Grizzlies games.
Yes, fans may want this “trust the process” kind of rebuilds, but really think about it. Will fans actually show up for “trust the process” kind of basketball?
With conspiracy theory relocation concerns or expansions on the horizon in the 2020’s, and with an unpredictable owner that isn’t a Memphis native, does Memphis really want to see a tear down and dwell in the league’s basement for half a decade?
Lastly, think about Jaren Jackson Jr., the team’s most valuable young player probably ever. Do you want to miss out on what he could be here in his prime just to suck for a few years? He can’t be another Anthony Davis in the sense where he does everything possible to win but his team still falls short. People discredit Devin Booker and Karl-Anthony Towns’ brilliant production, because their teams don't win. You don’t want that to happen to Jaren Jackson Jr.
I recognize a non-traditional rebuild isn’t glamorous. They could end up like the Detroit Pistons or the Charlotte Hornets, where they’re too bad for the playoffs and too good for a top-5 pick. However, we’ve seen the teams break through mediocrity and rise to top of the league — the Milwaukee Bucks, Golden State Warriors, and Denver Nuggets. It’s a lot easier to get to 40-50 wins when you’re already at 30-40.
The Philadelphia 76ers and the Atlanta Hawks have become the model of the tanking rebuild, but you could still fall down the path of the Sacramento Kings, Minnesota Timberwolves, Phoenix Suns, or Orlando Magic.
The Grizzlies have a similar structure to these teams that have retooled and launched themselves into playoff contention, while also maintaining the flexibility to do so. With a young star at the helm, battle-tested young veterans behind him, and cap flexibility on the way, why not strike for that kind of rebuild? It’s surely way more fun than watching a season where the team wins no more than 20-25 games.
The “Trust the Process” type of rebuild does sound appealing to the common eye, but any mishap in that plan could be the “hammer, nail, coffin” to the Memphis Grizzlies as we know it.