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Falling hard and fast in Memphis

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Let’s take it a bit slower, shall we?

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Phoenix Suns Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

There is something to be said for young love.

For so long you are in some stage of loneliness. Getting over a breakup, or or getting used to being alone, or perhaps for the first time these new wonderful emotions are entering your system. The fluttering in your stomach, the happiness you feel just from a simple call or text. The acceleration of your heartbeat as you approach a room with them in it can feel like the volume turning up on an AC/DC record.

It is an excitement level that this, finally, could be it. The one you’ve been waiting for has finally arrived. All your waiting paid off. Finally, they’re here. And the next stage of your life can begin.

The Memphis Grizzlies have sent some of their fans in to a similar state of mind. The team has won ten of their last 18 games, looking the part of the overachieving young team that is well ahead of schedule. From Taylor Jenkins’ offensive schemes running on full tilt to the contributions of Solomon Hill, everything is currently coming up Memphis. Ja Morant is electric. Jaren Jackson Jr. is rediscovering his defensive acumen while still lighting it up from beyond the arc. Brandon Clarke was the steal of the 2019 NBA Draft.

Just realizing all that is indeed true is enough to get that pulse up. But sometimes, when you’re in the throes of young love, you say and do things that eventually you might regret. You say the “L” word too early. You have the new girl or boyfriend meet the parents on your third date. You move in with the person just nine months after meeting them, in a city that neither of you have ever been to, much less lived in.

You go too fast. And run the risk of ruining it.

Memphis Grizzlies v Phoenix Suns Photo by Michael Gonzales/NBAE via Getty Images

That’s not to say that you shouldn’t be excited about Ja Morant. You absolutely should - he is a remarkable talent, everything you hoped he would be when he was taken #2 overall in the 2019 NBA Draft and somehow a little bit more. He is must-see television the likes of which Grizzlies fans have never had the opportunity to watch. He doesn’t jump as much as he explodes. He has elite level passing already, and has a better handle than expected. He is a Slam Dunk Contest possibility, a Rookie of the Year front-runner.

But to say that he at this moment is better than Mike Conley ever was, as many did on Grizzlies Twitter recently (and some GBBers agreed with in our Slack channel), is incorrect and a bit disrespectful.

Consider Ja’s current Per-100 possessions stats (which are important to utilize because of the drastic difference in pace between Morant’s Grizzlies and Conley’s), to Mike’s “best” season, the 2016-2017 campaign, according to basketball-reference.com:

MORANT- 27.9 points on 47.7% shooting (40.3% from three), 49.3% on two-point field goals, 80.1% free throw shooting, 10.4 assists, 5 rebounds, 5.2 turnovers, 1.5 steals, 108 offensive rating, 115 defensive rating, -7 net rating.

CONLEY- 32.1 points on 46% shooting (40.8% from three), 49.7% on two-point field goals, 85.9% free throw shooting, 9.8 assists, 5.5 rebounds, 3.5 turnovers, 2.1 steals, 121 offensive rating, 108 defensive rating, +13 net rating.

In advanced numbers? The disparity is ever more noticeable.

MORANT- 17.9 PER (Player Efficiency Rating), 56.5% true shooting, .348 free throw rate, 33.9% assist percentage, 26.8% usage, .077 win shares per 48 minutes, .1 VORP (Value over Replacement Player)

CONLEY- 23.2 PER, 60.4% true shooting, .365 free throw rate, 34.6% assist percentage, 26.3% usage, .209 win shares per 48 minutes, 4.5 VORP

This isn’t even taking in to account the fact that in 2017 Mike Conley went toe to toe with Kawhi Leonard in an epic playoff series, or in 2015 was the best player on the floor in a 2nd round playoff game against Klay Thompson and Steph Curry while having a BROKEN FREAKING FACE. Meanwhile, Ja Morant of late has been bested in 4th quarters by the likes of an aging Chris Paul and the impressive De’Aaron Fox.

Peak Mike Conley is superior to Morant in almost every way...except highlight dunks and cross court passes.

Now, ROOKIE Mike Conley? A different story.

CONLEY’S ROOKIE SEASON- 12.6 PER, 50.2% true shooting, .278 fee throw rate, 25.3% assist percentage, 18.8% usage, .038 win shares per 48 minutes, -.3 VORP

Conley’s offensive rating (103) and net rating (-10) as a rookie were also worse that Morant’s. Ja Morant as a ROOKIE is superior to Mike Conley as a ROOKIE in just about every way. And Morant’s rookie campaign is similar to Conley’s peak in some areas, so it is safe to assume that Ja’s career trajectory is higher- perhaps much higher - than Mike’s. Maybe Ja two years from now - or even Ja next season - is better than Mike ever was or will be.

That’s not what was said, though. Defense and protecting the basketball still matter, despite what viral videos apparently tell you. But as previously stated, falling in love is far too fast can lead to saying things you don’t necessarily mean far too quickly.

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Memphis Grizzlies Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Remember it can also make you make hasty moves, like meeting the parents too soon or moving in together way too early. In the case of the Grizzlies, it could mean allowing for players whose stay in Memphis was supposed to be a brief one to stick around longer than they should.

The Grizzlies recent string of good play has them ahead of the pace for their projected wins of roughly 27 games, depending on which sports book you looked at and when. The current Memphis win percentage of 40.5% adds up to roughly a 33-49 basketball team, and if they were to somehow maintain their current pace of 44.4% win percentage of the remaining 45 games they very well could win even 35 or 36 contests this season, which may be good enough for a playoff spot. That’d be a massive achievement for Taylor Jenkins and the young Grizzlies organization.

Do not let their placement in the awful Western Conference beyond the top-7 teams fool you, though. Despite the fact that they are only one game out of the 8 seed in the playoff picture, the Memphis Grizzlies are a bad basketball team. Their 15-22 record says it, as does their defensive rating of 112.5, which has them 24th in the National Basketball Association. Their offense, supposedly so improved, is still over the larger sample size of the season mediocre at best and bad at worst (108.7, 20th in the NBA). They’re 28th in free throws attempted, 24th in turnovers (partly due to their pace of play, but their adjusted per 100 plays turnover percentage is still 24th in the NBA), and have blown multiple big leads.

These are all things that are to be expected when dealing with a young, inexperienced squad. In no way does this make the season a failure. On the contrary, you can easily argue it can be deemed a success already, even when considering a potential cooling off of the Grizzlies from their recent run of great offensive play. They’re scoring better than they have...well, ever. Beating the projected 27-ish win barrier would be a season triumph by any definition, and barring catastrophic injury that should almost certainly happen now.

But the poor play of those around the Grizzlies allowing for you to be in the playoff picture in no way should lead to an organizational shift. There’s no evidence to suggest the Grizzlies front office thinks that way. But fan perceptions are turning...

Jae Crowder is a valuable vet! Did you see how he scorched the Lakers and Clippers!

Solomon Hill has been a sneaky important role player for the Grizzlies! He can’t go now!

Maybe Andre Iguodala needs to realize his best bet at playoff success might already be in Memphis...

That last one is sarcastic...kind of. You can find takes like these across social media, and they’re spreading. “Why blow up a team having success! Let the compete, leave them alone!” Social media isn’t necessarily a reflection of the overall fan base...but things can spread quickly, much like a viral video of a Ja Morant dunk attempt.

10-8 has become success...how far we have fallen. In fairness, the last two seasons have been dark and dreary. The light shining upon the Grizzlies now is blinding some, however.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Phoenix Suns Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

If the Lakers for some reason agree to trade Kyle Kuzma and Avery Bradley to Memphis for Jae Crowder, you do it immediately. If waiving Solomon Hill enables you to do a 2-for-1 trade involving any expiring contract for young players/draft picks, you send in the paperwork as soon as possible. If at the final hour of the trade deadline Andre Iguodala for Courtney Lee and two 2nd round picks from the Dallas Mavericks is the best deal you can get, you make it as if you’re without a second to spare.

Because the Grizzlies are not a playoff team. This is a rebuilding team, out-performing expectations in a conference that beyond the 7 seed is bad to worse with the postseason falling in to their laps. And among those in the “hunt” for the 8 seed are perennial greats like the Spurs and Trail Blazers, who will likely either wake up at some point and play to the level of their talent, make trades to improve their rosters, or both. It’s unlikely the Grizzlies keep pace with both of those teams. You don’t retain veterans because of circumstances. The postseason would be icing on the cake. The future is what matters, and the potential assets/players that could come to Memphis in these deals.

Could the team actually improve with less Jae Crowder and Solomon Hill and more De’Anthony Melton and Kyle Anderson? Absolutely. But it’s also possible the veteran presence lost means more defeats than the current stretch of success has provided. Hill has eaten minutes in the front court, and Crowder has drawn tough defensive assignments others may not be ready for.

Compared to the last two seasons, is this far superior/fun to watch? The energy and excitement are off the charts, and Memphis is becoming a League Pass darling not because they’re so different/”ugly” in a beautiful way as in the past. They could very well be the future of the NBA. That’s within the realm of possibility.

Don’t lose sight of the word “future”. For that matter, don’t lose your connection to the past either. Ja Morant is very good, and will likely be great. But you can argue he’s not the best rookie statistically on his own team, much less the better point guard than Conley at his peak. Brandon Clarke is superior in offensive rating (128), defensive rating (112), net rating (+16, best on the Grizzlies), PER (22.6), win shares per 48 minutes (.178), and VORP (.7). Does that make Ja less special?

No. It makes the perceptions of him far too grandiose. That’s not Ja’s fault. But it might be yours.

The same can be said about the Grizzlies. But young love is like that. And sometimes it works out...the 3rd date parent awkwardness and early move-in in a new city? That was me and my now wife. Two kids and six years of marriage later, things are going better than OK. Diving head first in to the deep end isn’t always a bad thing.

But that hard and fast descent in to maddening love can end in a splat of disappointment. Enjoy the moment, but not at the expense of who once was, and what will be, the Memphis Grizzlies. Stay the course, and delay your gratification. The time is almost certainly coming for Ja to take his place among the greatest Grizzlies stars, and for Memphis to return to true contention. It just hasn’t arrived yet.

Perspective and caution are vital, both in love and basketball.

Follow @sbngrizzlies