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The emancipation of the Memphis Grizzlies

Freedom!

Memphis Grizzlies Rookie Portraits Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

With the end of September comes the beginning of 30 journeys.

The NBA has awakened from its summer slumber, and the Memphis Grizzlies come back to work looking a hell of a lot different than they did just six months ago.

Out are the general manager from this past spring Chris Wallace, as well as multiple front office members. In are Zachary Kleiman and his merry band of proactive thinkers, a “brain trust” that to this point has made move after move making them worthy of the name.

Also out are J.B. Bickerstaff, who never should have been in the way he was in the first place, and numerous coaching and training staff personnel. Replacing them are Taylor Jenkins, a coach not from the typical “old school” coaching ladder career wise, and others that don’t necessarily fit the “normal way” business is done in the NBA.

Finally, out are some of the best players the Grizzlies have ever known - Mike Conley and Marc Gasol before him - as well as some of the worst (Chandler Parsons). In their place? A random collection of analytically elite prospects and misfit toys that may or may not mesh with the franchise’s two new cornerstones, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Ja Morant. Their presence makes the departure of Gasol and especially Conley easier to stomach...but make no mistake, this training camp will be vastly different from what most Grizzlies fans are used to.

Perhaps most noticeably, the largest absence that will be felt starting today is the space left behind by the expectations that once hung over Memphis, but have left the Grizzlies...at least for now.

2019 NBA Rookie Photo Shoot Photo by Sean Berry/NBAE via Getty Images

There will almost certainly be no questions asked about postseason aspirations this year. Brandon Clarke won’t be put on the hot seat about what will happen if the team misses out on the playoffs. Grayson Allen won’t be quizzed about how the team will compete with the Lakers, or Clippers, or Rockets. Josh Jackson won’t be questioned at all...neither will Andre Iguodala. One (Jackson) will be prepping to be a G League player with the Memphis Hustle to start his NBA career, and the other (Iguodala) is staying away while the Grizzlies front office looks to improve the return on their trade with the Warriors with yet another asset or two.

Imagine if just two years ago, or even last year, two players with the resumes and pedigrees of Jackson and Iguodala hadn’t come to training camp. The front office would be crucified. The coaching staff would be blasted. And the players would be looking at a depleted roster, depending on Gasol and Conley to be more than what they can be for a team reaching for a brass ring that was well out of their reach.

In the place of that pressure this year?

Freedom.

This version of the Memphis Grizzlies lives in a reality where Josh Jackson starting in the G League is absolutely the right decision. Jackson needs to learn how to be a professional, and perhaps how to once again love the game of basketball. There’s no better place to do that than in the G League, where the crowds are sparse and the lights are...not quite as bright. Josh can find his game, and see where his passion for it lies. Once it returns - or gets established in the first place, perhaps - he can then come to the Grizzlies and be a positive contributor.

They acquired him for essentially nothing. It’s low-risk, high-reward. And his place on the roster doesn’t need to be pushed or rushed, because Memphis is free from the weight of playoff possibility.

It’s the same reason they can come to an agreement with an NBA Finals MVP involving him not reporting for work while still getting paid. This Grizzlies roster has enough guards and wings to not need Iguodala - Dillon Brooks, Kyle Anderson, the aforementioned Jackson and Allen, De’Anthony Melton once he returns from injury, Tyus Jones, Marko Guduric...the list of young-but-promising guard/forward types is long and worthy of exploration. Even Jae Crowder, a journeyman who almost certainly will not be on the roster come February 7th once the trade deadline has come and gone, is more worthy of playing time because of his willingness to participate in the process and be a contributor as a veteran teaching young players how to be NBA professionals.

Iggy is in a different place mentally. And because the Grizzlies are as well, compared to where they once were just 12 months ago, that dark cloud is more silver lining than negative story line heading in to camp.

Instead of seed debates and convey conversations, we will be focusing on whether Dillon Brooks can be a starting two guard in the NBA. With playoff proclamations well in the distance, the here and now can be focused on whether or not Josh Jackson, or Allen, have real futures in Memphis. Dreams have been replaced with reality - instead of thinking the Grizzlies can compete, we know that in the here and now they cannot...at least not the way they did just a few short years ago.

That realization may make some long for yesterday...but their perspective is skewed.

It should make us excited for tomorrow, and the journey to that place in time.

2019 NBA Draft Photo by Elizabeth Shrier/NBAE via Getty Images

Ja Morant’s arrival makes the “race to convey”, the most recent beast of blogger and media burden, a thing of the past. If Memphis sends their 1st round pick to Boston this season, great. They would no longer be on the hook for any future selections. If they don’t? That would mean yet ANOTHER high 1st round pick to add to an already impressive collection of young talent, and a team that “in theory” will be improved in 2020-2021 and sending a less valuable selection to the Celtics in 2021 anyway.

This mark on the ledger of Memphis is literally the only red left from the missteps and mistakes of the previous regime - consider the following.

  • Memphis has now added two future 1st rounders, from the Jazz and Warriors, canceling out the one lost to the Celtics.
  • The Grizzlies also have added three 2nd round selections over the next four drafts, making up for the two that Memphis (kind of in hindsight) foolishly sent away for Justin Holiday from the Bulls.
  • Memphis will have multiple contracts coming off the books - Iguodala assuming he isn’t traded, Solomon Hill, Miles Plumlee - that will make for more than enough to make a max contract offer in the summer of 2020 to free agents, or spread the money around to a couple of players.

The future, in just roughly five months of work, has gone from bleak to bright thanks to a stroke of luck and multiple shrewd maneuvers by a front office more worried about the long game than an immediate and mediocre endgame.

So what if the team’s highest paid player won’t play a second for the squad?

Who cares that Jonas Valanciunas will start the year as arguably the best player on the roster?

What difference does it make that for the first time in nearly a decade, the playoffs are a clear and decisive “no” for a franchise that has become used to basketball extending in to late April and May?

At last, the Grizzlies have been freed from the chains of mortgaging their future for the here and now. Now that Memphis is no longer a prisoner of the moment, they can make decisions that are specifically about the future. They can prioritize maximizing the skill sets of Morant and Jackson and not bench their young stars over committing turnovers or fouls or making mistakes. Jenkins can find his footing as an NBA head coach without the weight of playoff hopes holding him down rotation wise and schematically. Kleiman and company can pursue value in trades for Iguodala and Crowder...maybe not value in 2020, but in 2022, or 2024. Picks that can be used for future moves up and down draft boards, or for missing pieces to a Grizzlies contender later on in the new decade that is approaching.

Now it is Memphis in place, through trade exceptions and valuable veterans, to take advantage of teams incorrectly thinking they are contenders...instead of the other way around.

The NBA is back...and the 2019-2020 Memphis Grizzlies have been written off as a team that won’t make much noise this season. In the past, when that has been said unfairly, fans would be up in arms.

Now? With a young team to watch that should learn and grow with every hard-fought win and non-tanking loss, competing night in and night out and letting the chips fall where they may?

The truth should set all of us free.

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