This past Sunday night, one of the most impressive feats of the lost year that is 2020 came to an epic conclusion. No, the crowning of the Los Angeles Lakers as NBA champions isn’t the accomplishment being referenced. For while that title should indeed have an asterisk by it - for being the most difficult one ever achieved, given all that this godforsaken trip around the Sun has given us - the fact the Larry O’Brien trophy was handed out at all is the act that is worthy of praise.
While the NHL, WNBA, and NWSL all deserve credit for pulling off similarly improbable feats, no league balanced the size and scope of the task of keeping so many healthy and safe during a pandemic, while also balancing the social justice movement that is ongoing in America, like the NBA. Three months, zero positive COVID-19 tests, and meaningful progress in what will surely be a long and winding road to that more perfect union the Constitution promises to pursue. There were many doubters that felt the Bubble structure wouldn’t work. There were times when some players fairly questioned whether or not finishing the season should be pursued, both before and during the NBA’s stay at Walt Disney World in Florida. Yet here stands Adam Silver and his National Basketball Association, a clear success story in a year full of various shortfalls and mishaps.
The Memphis Grizzlies were part of that history the NBA made, albeit for a short amount of time. The Grizzlies departed the Bubble roughly two months ago, and in the time that has passed the team has been relatively quiet. A Rookie of the Year award has been won, First Team All-Rookie accolades have been garnered, and local pursuits like voting registration have been prioritized. As the playoffs played out, there wasn’t much for Memphis to do but watch...and hopefully learn. For the Grizzlies were likely three injured rotation players and a game or so away from being part of the postseason festivities themselves (beyond their play-in loss to Portland), and if the team is to continue to progress beyond their surprising spot in the playoff race they must look to those that finished ahead of them to see what they’re “missing”.
You know, beyond a healthy Jaren Jackson Jr.
What lessons can the Memphis Grizzlies take from the Bubble?
Build from within
The Denver Nuggets took a dramatic step forward in the Bubble, making the Western Conference Finals and looking the part of a true contender for years to come. Jamal Murray came in to his own as an elite scorer. Nikola Jokic went toe to toe with Anthony Davis and made it clear that while AD may be better, the gap between the two is not that drastic. Gary Harris showed his defensive prowess, Michael Porter Jr. displayed an elite offensive skill set that may put the Nuggets over the top, and others such as Torrey Craig and Monte Morris made major contributions to the run Denver went on to get past the Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Clippers.
And they all have this in common - they have never played a second for any team other than the Denver Nuggets.
Of course talents like Jerami Grant - acquired via trade before the season - were massively important as well, and while he was missed in the Bubble Will Barton is another key player they traded for years ago that is not a homegrown Nuggets prospect. But a large chunk of the core of Denver was drafted (or signed after going undrafted like Craig) and has spent their entire careers playing together with the Nuggets. That camaraderie and level of familiarity with one another is extremely important to the success of Denver. They’ve built their “culture” together, something that Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr., Brandon Clarke, and Dillon Brooks can do as well. That’s not to say that those that weren’t drafted to the Grizzlies can’t be long-term fixtures as well. It’s just an acknowledgement that young talent having the chance to learn and grow together is invaluable.
Speaking of “culture”...
From the Heat “culture” to the Grizzlies “standard”
If you watched the NBA Finals, you heard about the “Heat Culture” ad nauseam. That’s not a knock - the idea of what it means to be a member of the Miami Heat organization certainly means something. It led to the arrival of Jimmy Butler and (to a lesser extent than Jimmy) the acquisition of Jae Crowder, Andre Iguodala, and Solomon Hill this season making all the difference in terms of amplifying what exactly that “Culture” is all about. It is about competitiveness. It is about refusing to lose until the last second is played. It’s a mentality...or maybe it’s a lifestyle. Regardless, it was bought in to hook, line, and sinker by the young players on the Heat like Kendrick Nunn, Bam Adebayo, Duncan Robinson, and Tyler Herro. It made them better - and it was heightened ten fold by Butler’s presence as the team pushed the Los Angeles Lakers more than they probably ever should have.
And if you listen to the words spoken by all those players throughout the Bubble, two men get the majority of the credit for that Culture. Neither of their names have been mentioned yet.
Head Coach Erik Spoelstra and 17-year veteran Udonis Haslem.
Of course the Grizzlies probably won’t have access to a Haslem-esque connection (unless perhaps a Core Four member returns...Mike Conley in a year? Marc Gasol?) But with Tony Allen and Zach Randolph taking on roles with the organization in various ways, that line to the mental toughness and philosophy of the greatest era in Grizzlies history isn’t too far off. Yet Zach and Tony’s playing careers are over. Conley is likely beyond his best basketball days. Gasol may well be heading to Spain to finish off his run with the game. So that leaves Taylor Jenkins to establish, alongside young stars Morant and Jackson Jr. plus veterans like Jonas Valanciunas (and perhaps another signed or acquired this offseason) to establish the Grizzlies “standard” that Jenkins consistently raved about over the Bubble. A commitment to unselfish play that prioritizes defense and ball movement, the further establishment of that “standard” will make or break the Grizzlies.
For as Memphis knows, a little cult of personality goes a long way. In a market like Memphis, getting folks to buy in to something bigger than themselves makes it that much sweeter when success is achieved. And it becomes much more likely to happen than, say, two elite players wanting to play for the Grizzlies because of where the city is located more than basketball reasons.
Sorry, Lakers fans. It’s still an impressive win. But it doesn’t hurt to have two of the top five or six guys in the NBA want to live and work in L.A. You work with what you’ve got - Memphis has soul and a spirit unlike anywhere else. It’s on Taylor Jenkins, Zach Kleiman and company to tap in to that as their new “standard” is built.
Stay the course - no matter the immediate result
There is a distinct possibility that the 2020-2021 Memphis Grizzlies could be a better basketball team than the 2019-2020 version and yet be in a worse playoff position.
The Golden State Warriors will be back with a vengeance next season. The Los Angeles Lakers realistically could be BETTER than they were this year, assuming Anthony Davis returns. The Los Angeles Clippers will return stronger more than likely, as will the Utah Jazz, and the Denver Nuggets, and the Dallas Mavericks, and Portland Trail Blazers. The Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder have questions surrounding them entering the offseason with coaching changes and potential rebuilds brewing (especially with the Thunder), so even if you “bet” Houston and OKC fall out and Golden State slides in, that’s one spot available. Surely Memphis is next up, right?
Well...the Phoenix Suns probably will get better...and have the pieces in place to perhaps swing for an upgrade at the point guard position. The New Orleans Pelicans aren’t going away, as much as Grizzlies fans probably would like Zion Williamson and company to do so. The Sacramento Kings expect to remain relevant, and despite having the #1 pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, the Minnesota Timberwolves aren’t looking to rebuild with Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell in the fold. Even the San Antonio Spurs, while aging, shouldn’t be counted out as long as Gregg Popovich is around.
With the incentive to tank being limited by NBA Draft Lottery rule changes, competitiveness among the entire Western Conference shouldn’t be too surprising. And with the talent that the Pelicans possess, and the momentum the Suns take out of the Bubble, and the other teams all battling around the bottom of the bracket (and the lack of avenues for Memphis to drastically improve their team this offseason), that shiver you feel running down your spine is the realization that the losses in the Bubble may go beyond just this year. It’s entirely possible Ja Morant and company doesn’t get to taste postseason basketball again (the play-in counts, sorry) until 2022.
And that’d be OK. Because while it’d be disappointing in the short-term, the long-term vision for the franchise looks bright. Just look at a Boston Celtics team that must be disappointed that it was the Heat pushing the Lakers to six games and not them.
Sure, Boston fell short. But they have a massive soon-to-be expiring contract in Gordon Hayward’s player option and multiple draft picks to potentially improve their roster. They have a young core of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, home grown talents, and were able to add Kemba Walker via free agency because of savvy cap management thanks to the rookie deals of their best players. They may have missed the Finals this year, but they’ll almost certainly be back in that mix for years to come.
Does most of that sound familiar?
The Grizzlies have future first rounders from the Utah Jazz and Golden State Warriors, multiple future 2nd round picks, multiple attractive contracts that could be valuable to teams trying to create cap space in 2021 (Gorgui Dieng’s $17.2 million expiring) and solid role players on mid-level long term deals (Tyus Jones, Kyle Anderson, a descending higher cost deal from Jonas Valanciunas). Memphis is in a place where they can do what Toronto did acquiring Kawhi Leonard via trade, or what Miami did in a sign and trade with Jimmy Butler, or what Boston did signing Kemba. While it’s not likely a big-named star willingly comes to Memphis in those ways, it’s more possible than it has been...perhaps ever. The franchise can quite literally do just about anything in the next few years, depending on their direction.
Which is why, regardless of what happens this coming season, the current path the team is on should continue. The team’s major addition was Justise Winslow last winter, and the cost for that likely means fringe improvements for this season to come. Even if you are not as high on your perception of Winslow, the prospects for Memphis are quite bright. And because of that, there’s likely no move to be made in the next few months that is worth compromising the next few years.
Boston played the long game a long time ago, and the fruits of that labor are coming in to being as they enjoy the sustained success the Grizzlies organization craves. Memphis should learn and follow their lead.
And probably not trade first round picks to them ever again.
The most uncertain offseason in NBA history has begun. We have no idea when next season will begin. The Draft and free agency process will be unlike any we have ever seen. But what Memphis and their Grizzlies witnessed in Orlando, both in and outside the Bubble, should help them feel comfortable with what matters most moving forward. Develop who you are as a franchise. Commit to your young talent. Do not allow for short-term improbable success to dictate long-term decision making. If your team is back in the playoff picture organically when the NBA playoff race resumes, so be it. Do not rush and lose future flexibility to improve when the likes of LeBron James are likely gone in a few years and the window to contend for a title widens. Let the team find their identity with Justise Winslow healthy and in the fold and go from there. Beyond the De’Anthony Melton decision and possible MLE signings (as well as a 2nd round pick at #40), there shouldn’t be too much offseason activity down at 191 Beale Street in Memphis within the walls of FedExForum.
It makes for a quiet late fall and winter. But the groundwork has been laid.
So for now? It’s time to appreciate what the NBA accomplished in Orlando. And think ahead to what Memphis can be, if they take lessons from what they learned in and around the Bubble.