During the 1980s, the “Showtime” Los Angeles Lakers ruled the NBA with a high-octane, dazzling style of basketball that sought to not only beat their opponents, but also embarrass them in such a manner that left the crowd simultaneously speechless and mesmerized. And now in 2020, the “Nxt Gen” Memphis Grizzlies aim to be their successors.
Ironically, the Showtime Los Angeles Lakers of the 1980s were a bit of a slow-burn as they came to existence. Of course, the Lakers did win the 1980 NBA championship in Magic Johnson’s rookie year as he and Kareem Abdul-Jabar became the NBA’s greatest duo since, well, Kareem Abdul-Jabar and Oscar Robertson. But as incredible as they already were, the Lakers weren’t Showtime yet.
Showtime in Los Angeles didn’t truly come to culmination until the Lakers added other iconic players over the following years. They drafted star athletic swingman and future hall-of-famer James Worthy in 1982, and they made a trade with the San Diego Clippers for one of the best players in NBA history to not make the hall of fame in Byron Scott in 1983. They drafted A.C Green in 1985.
To be sure, Magic, Kareem and even Worthy in particular were the engine that truly made Showtime what it was. But it took the efforts of other talented players acquired over several years for them to fully realize the greatness for which they are now remembered.
However, the Memphis Grizzlies’ ascension to Showtime—or in greater respect for their predecessors, Showtime-lite—has been more thematically congruent with the style of play’s ideals. It has just taken them just over six months to acquire all of the talent that they need to both excel and play in such a way that both epitomizes the current pace-and-space era of basketball while also echoing the style of play of the 1980s Lakers. Through a combination of the draft and trades, the Grizzlies acquired three key contributors in Ja Morant, De’Anthony Melton and Brandon Clarke all since last July.
The early returns of Taylor Jenkins’ steadfast determination to bring the Memphis Grizzlies into the modern era of basketball are already well-documented. They are currently 5th in pace, 1st in assists (27.9 APG), 7th in eFG% (53.6) and 8th in TS% (56.8).
But it takes more than just a consistent effort to share the ball and play with pace to merit comparison to one of the greatest dynasties in NBA history. No, it takes highlights like this:
(These three plays happened within 30 minutes of game time of each other).
And unless you’ve been paying no attention at all and spitefully skipped over the clips, there’s obviously been no more significant reason for why the Grizzlies are able to play with such glitz and glamour than Ja Morant.
There are truly no more superlatives to say about Morant that haven’t already been said; he’s a generational and transcendent talent and is one of the very best rookie point guards of the last 20 years. His combination of cerebral playmaking and jaw-dropping (Ja-dropping?) athleticism allows him to break the game in a way that only a select few talents are able to do and even violate generally accepted conventions of what a point guard should do. Coaches teach kids from the church-league level to not jump when making a pass. But when you have such absurdly incredible vision that you can apparently freeze time in mid-air, which Morant does in the second clip above, then it may not matter particularly much.
His vision, passing and playmaking as a whole are already among the league’s elite, with some of his passes being so comically absurd that maybe only Magic Johnson himself can truly appreciate them.
And he does all this while mocking you with such disdainful disrespect and such fantastic language that I can’t even type it without having an angry churchgoer in the comments.
Ja Morant had some words after knocking this three down on Harden pic.twitter.com/4WhhajhYFb— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) January 15, 2020
Yet for as much of a transformational talent that Ja Morant has proven to be, the emergence of Jaren Jackson Jr. as a unicorn among unicorns has been almost equally impactful in making the Grizzlies into a legitimate playoff contender (if you want an exhaustive breakdown of what makes Jaren Jackson Jr. so special, read my piece from a month ago). Depending on what type of box you want to place a nearly unprecedented talent like Jackson in, he’s very quickly proving to be the Shaquille O’Neal to Morant’s Penny Hardaway or the Kevin Durant to Morant’s Russell Westbrook.
Of course, those comparisons are not either particularly accurate or fair. But when you are tasked with trying to come up with some comparison for a seven-foot big man that is a) an elite rim-protector that can also excel at defending the perimeter, b) already one of the most prolific shooters among players of his size in NBA history (among those that qualify, there is not a single player in NBA history of Jackson’s 6’11 height or taller that has ever averaged more 3PM in a season than he has this year), or c) an effective playmaker and driver of the basketball, you do the best with what you can.
Beyond Jackson and Morant, the Grizzlies’s other talented youngsters have also helped them surpass every expectation for this season.
Although the voters will probably think otherwise, Brandon Clarke should be second behind only Morant in rookie of the year voting as he continues to have one of the most efficient rookie seasons in NBA history. Among rookies in all of NBA history who have played at least the amount of minutes that he has to this point (744), Clarke ranks in the top 5 in FG% (63), 3P% (40), eFG% (65), and TS% (68).
De’Anthony Melton in particular very well might be the most pleasant surprise for the Grizzlies this season. He has legitimately been one of the best bench players in the league since he became a regular part of the rotation in December, providing a tantalizing combination of scoring and facilitating while also being one of the most tenacious defenders in the league (3rd in the league in deflections (4.8) per 36 minutes).
However, perhaps what’s most intriguing about Melton is how he compares to other guards in NBA history who fit his archetype as a two-way guard.
*Stats per 100 possessions*
- Melton (2nd season, age 21): 21.4 points, 10.5 rebounds, 8.5 assists, 3.3 steals, PER: 18.2
- Player B (2nd season, age 20) 20.7 points, 6.0 rebounds, 9.6 assists, 2.2 steals, PER: 15.4
- Player C (2nd season, age 23) 15.1 points, 5.8 rebounds, 10.0 assists, 2.9 steals, PER: 13.1
- Player D (2nd season age 22) 18.1 points, 3.3 rebounds, 6.9 assists, 1.6 steals, PER: 11.9
The other three players consist of two hall-of-famers and an all-star. Player B is Jrue Holiday, Player C is Gary Payton and Player D is Joe Dumars. While it may be somewhat unlikely that Melton ever reaches the caliber of players like them, it’s still extremely encouraging to see how favorably he compares to some truly phenomenal players at his age.
Player comparisons are also very kind to Dillon Brooks, who has truly been the Grizzlies’ best three-level wing scorer since Rudy Gay and even their best two-way wing period since...forever? (Shane Battier is probably the only competition there).
- Brooks (3rd season, age 24) 25.2 points, 5.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.6 steals, 3.5 3P
- Player B (3rd season, age 24) 31.2 points, 4.6 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 1.7 steals, 2.3 3P
- Player C (3rd season, age 23) 27.5 points, 6.8 rebounds, 5.7 assists, 1.7 steals, 2.4 3P
- Player D (3rd season, age 20) 27.5 points, 7.3 rebounds, 5.2 assists, 2.0 steals, 0.7 3P
The other three players in this exercise consist of two hall-of-famers and one future hall-of-famer. Player B is Reggie Miller, Player C is Ray Allen and Player D is *takes a deep breath and hopes for the best* Kobe Bryant.
Now to be fair, there are obvious differences across eras that cause disparities in certain statistical categories, especially in three-point shooting. But again, it’s still astounding that players like Dillon Brooks and De’Anthony Melton can compare to such incredible talent at this stage of their careers. It speaks to both their individual talent and the possible upside that they have in the future.
So when you add all of the individually talented pieces that the Memphis Grizzlies currently have together, what do you have as whole? To put it simply, you have everything you could have ever wanted and a little bit more.
The Memphis Grizzlies can only dream of having the degree of success that Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabar led the Los Angeles Lakers to in the 1980s. But with a hopefully transcendent point guard-big man duo of their own as well as a superbly and uniquely talented supporting cast, they will certainly give it their best shot over the course of the 2020s.
For years to come, the Grizzlies alone will be worth the price of admission for NBA League Pass. And with every mesmerizing Ja Morant pass, every ridiculous Jaren Jackson Jr. three and every exhilarating Brandon Clarke dunk, the people of Memphis and the NBA as a whole will be even more unable to look away from the NBA’s now most entertaining show.
Welcome to Showtime, Memphis.