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The Memphis middle way

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You can’t beat the clock. So let it be.

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Memphis Grizzlies v Boston Celtics Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The last nine games for the Memphis Grizzlies must have fans feeling like they’re on a roller coaster.

First up? The highs of a seven-game winning streak. The intoxicating cheers and images of Grizzlies fans cheer and high-fiving to the tunes of “Whoomp, There it Is” were sights and sounds for sore eyes and ears. The last two seasons have been hard for everyone. After such a long run of success, to believe that it could still happen and a “rebuild” could be more of a “reboot” and then come to the realization that your takes weren’t just chilly, but ice cold? That it really was over, and the next run of “good times” in terms of winning wouldn’t be around for a while? That’s a reality that comes for us all - except San Antonio Spurs fans apparently, although this may finally be the year they fall out of postseason favor themselves.

The seven straight victories brought us back to those happier times. An era where streamers from the ceiling of FedExForum and walking on to Beale Street with a smile on your face and “All I Do is Win” playing in your mind was the expectation, and more often than not your belief was rewarded. The young Grizzlies were playing with the emotion and tenacity of that bygone era, but this somehow appeared to many to be even more fun because of the style of play. If Grit and Grind was rolling in the mud, Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. had the Grizzlies soaring through the sky. It wasn’t a throwback style that was beautiful to just us...it was a level of execution and excitement that everyone, both Memphians and national NBA fans and media, could appreciate.

Then, this week, the bottom fell out. And reality returned to remind you that this is, indeed, still a rebuild.

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at Memphis Grizzlies Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Sometimes you get out-coached. We forget quite easily at times that Taylor Jenkins is, himself, a rookie head coach that was going against two of the smartest minds in the game in Alvin Gentry of the Pelicans and Brad Stevens of the Celtics. Both teams were having success themselves heading in to their recent games with the Grizzlies, and both coaching staffs were able to pick Memphis apart in a variety of ways. From the defense of Jonas Valanciunas on the perimeter to trapping/going under screens against Ja Morant and forcing him to be more shooter than dribble penetrator, the book is beginning to be out on what Jenkins and company want to be schematically.

Combine that with the regression to the mean shooting, and you’ll get blown out. Twice.

But this was all to be expected. Come on, you didn’t really believe they’d keep playing at a similar pace to the Golden State Warriors dynasty years, did you? Did you really think that the team could last producing close to - and in some cases superior to - Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and arguably the greatest regular season team ever? That this young roster that has Jae Crowder 2nd on the team in minutes played would continue to thrive at such an elite level?

Perhaps you did, to an extent. You fall hard and fast sometimes. And that’s to be expected somewhat - the word “fan” is short for “fanatic”, after all. Yet the truth about this team was still the truth, even while all the fun and high-level scoring was being achieved. They’re still young. They’re still fatally flawed in key spots, especially on the wing. Their Rookie of the Year front runner Ja Morant struggles defensively often, turns the ball over too much, and essentially disappeared against Boston (he reportedly has been sick since around the MLK Game with New Orleans). Jaren Jackson Jr. still fouls far too much. That was all to be expected, and it was unlikely at best that those player would become 20 year old MVP candidates, like they were playing at that point. But the come down should remind us that outside of those two players, anyone could be fair game in future trades if they improve the long-term vision of the franchise.

In some cases, the juice won’t be worth the squeeze. Jonas Valanciunas, Brandon Clarke, De’Anthony Melton...while not untouchable, these are some names that it would likely take a Herculean offer to get out of the Grizzlies organization. But others - like older players with expiring contracts - should very much be in play if young players or draft picks can be added to the asset cupboard.

Yet there’s still some that argue that may not be the best course of action due to intangibles they provide to a young team that, while valuable, shouldn’t make them key cogs in the future Grizzlies machine. The most prevalent of these arguments are for Jae Crowder’s “veteran leadership”. Omari Sankofa of The Athletic wrote a terrific piece detailing how much that means to players and coaches. In fairness, the article notes Jae’s “...inconsistencies on the court.” That seems to be a bit of an undersell, however, while he shoots an almost career worst 29.5% from beyond the arc while attempting an almost career high 6.1 threes per game and is posting the worst net rating (-9) and win shares per 48 minutes (.047) of his NBA run.

How you perceived that tantalizing period of success and connected it to a larger vision isn’t the fault of the players. How you possibly overvalue the contributions of Crowder, whose veteran presence matters but shouldn’t be prioritized over production at this stage of the Grizzlies process, isn’t the issue of the front office or ownership. You can control how you choose to take in the current product the Memphis Grizzlies are putting on display.

So have fun, because sports are a form of entertainment. But rational thinking shouldn’t be sacrificed in the process.

The playoffs would be wonderful, and are a worthwhile goal to try to catch. But you do not, under any circumstance, sacrifice the long-term goal of figuring out who can play next to Ja and Jaren on the next good Grizzlies team - which this current one was never supposed to be in the first place. A 2nd round pick and young prospect - Justin Jackson from Dallas, for example - would be good value for Crowder at this stage. Jackson is in line with the timeline of Memphis being “good” again, and Crowder provides that veteran spark off the bench for the Mavericks that could provide valuable against reserves in a playoff series.

NBA: Cleveland Cavaliers at Memphis Grizzlies Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Does that hurt the Grizzlies this season? Potentially, with your opinion likely depending on how much the off the court impact of Jae on the young team matters to you. But who is to say another veteran can’t be signed this summer, perhaps for even less than Crowder will command on the open market? Why is Crowder such an important piece to some, beyond the acknowledged presence he provides as an NBA journeyman? The lessons imparted can stick with the young team while the pursuit of “asset season” can also be continued, as it has been and should be through the trade deadline. Jonas Valanciunas, Kyle Anderson, and Solomon Hill (who also is likely on the block but perhaps isn’t as coveted as Crowder) can take up that mantle more as this particular campaign concludes.

The ironic part of it all is that the Grizzlies, despite the terrible two most recent losses, remain very much ahead of schedule. If Memphis only wins ten more games this season, meaning they’d go 10-28 the rest of the way, they’d finish 30-52...two games better than expected. Nothing of their play over the last 20+ contests, even the small sample size of the Pelicans and Celtics losses, suggests the bottom will fall out quite that much. In fact, Crowder in a lesser role (or gone completely) on the floor may make the Grizzlies even better than they are currently, as was discussed in the previously linked “Falling Hard and Fast in Memphis” piece above (and again here). The good thing about Crowder, to his credit, is unlike Dillon Brooks - who may have an issue with a long-term reserve move after being a starter for so long - Jae could realistically slide to the bench and make way for a new wing starter while not making waves.

That does hold value. It’ll be up to Memphis to decide how much, compared to the market of what may (or may not) be available.

These Grizzlies are still overachieving. They’re still better than most anyone anticipated. They’re still going to have potentially three players in the Rising Stars Game that’s part of All-Star Weekend in Chicago (Ja Morant, Brandon Clarke, Jaren Jackson Jr.). They’re still - barring catastrophe - going to finish with well over 28 wins, which should make this first season of the true new era of Grizzlies basketball a roaring success. And maybe 34 to 36 victories, which probably would be the peak of what is realistically possible for Memphis now, does get you in the playoffs. If it does? Celebrate.

If it doesn’t? That’s OK too. Because that was never the goal in the first place. The living and dying day to day and even week to week with this team is not going to be conducive to long-term success...or fan health.

Find the middle way. When times are good? Don’t get too high - the fall will be drastic and energy-depleting, which makes those times seem worse than they are. When times are bad, like the last two blowout losses? Do not get too low - there will be a bump back up, and that growth will be just as worthy of celebration in a season such as this as the winning streak. It may start this weekend. It may not. In the long run, that eventual reset that is coming will teach a valuable lesson.

And that development, unlike hot shooting, will be able to stick. And will eventually make all the difference.

Stats provided by basketball-reference.com

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