Over the weekend the final details of the wild upcoming NBA offseason were finally revealed. Some things we already knew would happened indeed came to pass (no All-Star Game, in large part because COVID-19 currently has America reeling and it probably won’t be that much better in March). Others we assumed came in to being (the salary cap and luxury tax remain unchanged from the previous season). The schedule for the offseason was laid out, with the transaction moratorium being lifted at 11 AM CT Monday, November 16th (or today, depending on when you are reading this). And with that, the rumors began coming in hot and heavy.
The Lakers are getting Dennis Schroder!
The Thunder really are beginning their implosion - where is Chris Paul going?
The Houston Rockets have a problem...that isn’t Russell Westbrook???
Russ rumors were floating before things kicked in to high gear - with the departures of Mike D’Antoni and Daryl Morey, and the owner of the Houston Rockets struggling financially, it seemed that Westbrook was likely on his way out - perhaps to the Knicks or even the Hornets! But when James Harden rumors started to swirl - and especially with the idea of the Brooklyn Nets being a desired location for the league’s next “superteam” in addition to the Westbrook ideas floating around, it felt as if this offseason would start with a massive “bang” when the moratorium was lifted.
How are the Memphis Grizzlies involved in this NBA Armageddon for a former title contender? Well...Bobby Marks of ESPN came out with an article articulating several teams that could be potential landing spots for Harden or Westbrook. And there on the list, much to the surprise of many, were the Memphis Grizzlies. Could Zach Kleiman and company really have the assets at their disposal to bring a former MVP to Memphis?
Yes...they could. But that doesn’t mean they should.
The Grizzlies are in a prime position entering this most strange of offseasons. The work to return Memphis to the point of contention to this point has them in a place where they can prey on the desperate and play to their strength at this stage - patience. But with a roster that was surprisingly successful this past season and a new play-in structure making it more likely that Memphis will be in the postseason hunt, what should the team do as phones “officially” start ringing with trade wheelings and dealings?
Here’s a guide for you, dear reader, as we approach the end of the NBA world as we know it.
NUMBER ONE: DO NOT LOSE HARD EARNED FLEXIBILITY TO GET CRUSHED BY STEPH CURRY
This has been written about before, but not through such a specific lens. The Memphis Grizzlies could trade for Russell Westbrook. Gorgui Dieng/Kyle Anderson/Tyus Jones and filler (nothing more than a 2nd rounder or two) may well bring him to the team to be a “mentor” for Ja Morant. James Harden also could be a Grizzly - a Jaren Jackson Jr./multiple future 1sts and whatever contract filler the Rockets wanted not named Ja Morant is arguably a better package than the Nets could offer. But just because you’re able to do something doesn’t mean you do it. And Zach Kleiman and this front office have proven time and again their eyes are not on maximizing wins via transaction in the here and now.
Nor should they be. LeBron James and Anthony Davis rule the Western Conference. Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and the Golden State Warriors likely will be back with a vengeance. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George with the Los Angeles Clippers figure to return to the mix. That would put the Denver Nuggets - the team in the Western Conference Finals this past season - as the 4 seed. The likes of the Dallas Mavericks, Utah Jazz, Portland Trail Blazers would all be in the 5-7 seed race. So that leaves the Grizzlies likely fighting it out with non-tankers like the New Orleans Pelicans, Phoenix Suns, and others for the remaining play-in spots.
The odds aren’t in the favor of the Grizzlies. And that’s OK!
They can be better, and competitive, and still not be good enough this season for the postseason. Even if things break well for them and they are, say, the seven seed in the playoffs (a massive potential success!) you’d be matched up with one of three legitimate championship contenders in the first round, all but guaranteed death by a future Hall of Famer (or two!) This is achievable with a healthy current roster - Justise Winslow, if healthy, can make that kind of impact and is experience worthy of pursuit.
So why, then, would you cash in on the wonderful assets and maneuverability you’ve achieved over the last almost two years to solidify your spot in that “hierarchy”?
Russell Westbrook isn’t getting you above the likes of Denver and Dallas. James Harden is elite, but he’s not making you better than any of the top four teams in the Western Conference. You’d be committing so much of the formative years of your team to getting these square pegs to fit in to round holes that you may never find out what you currently have (more on that in a moment). These are just two names, but this remains true of almost every single player currently in the NBA on close to a max contract (or deemed worthy of one if on a current rookie deal) - the juice right now just is not worth the squeeze for the Grizzlies. The West is owned by California at the moment...but Memphis is well positioned to be “next”. They have time.
That being said...
NUMBER TWO: PRIORITIZE FIGURING OUT IF JA MORANT AND JAREN JACKSON JR. ARE YOUR TWO SUPERSTARS
Conceding that a championship isn’t likely coming to Beale Street anytime soon isn’t “tanking”. On the contrary - it opens up a world of possibility free from the expectations grand dreams of greatness can bring. That maximizes the opportunity for growth and organic chemistry to be developed...and that matters most at the top for the Memphis Grizzlies. For in order for this franchise to truly contend 2-3 years from now, they must have at least two surefire stars - players that are among the top 20 or so in the entire NBA. Look at the aforementioned Lakers/Clippers/Warriors, then add in the Bucks, the Celtics, the Nets...sure, there are exceptions (Miami Heat, for example), but a vast majority of the NBA’s true title chasers have at least two elite players. Memphis may have those guys already - they’re just too young to fully show it just yet.
The Grizzlies have to do their best to find out if they’re already in Memphis.
Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. fit the modern NBA very well. Ja has shown plenty of flashes of superstardom, and Jaren could very well be not only the next great two-way big man, but he could also be the first of his kind to create off the dribble and shoot the three for volume as well as he does. But is Ja really a future top-10 player in the NBA? He needs to show growth defensively and as a shot maker from range to stake such a claim. Is Jaren a true elite second in command? He must control his foul issues and show an ability to stay on the floor and make a defensive impact that matches his hype coming out of Michigan State.
They have time...but they also need to maximize the moments in front of them. Because Jaren’s rookie deal will be up before you know it. The year after, Ja’s money will be due. And if you’re paying both of those guys Max contracts, the flexibility the roster currently enjoys will begin to dwindle.
Moves to help this process make a lot of sense. It can be as simple as drafting Jordan Nwora (a special combination of three point shooting and rebounding) out of Louisville at #40 overall in the 2020 NBA Draft, re-signing DeAnthony Melton, and hoping Justise Winslow can be what you acquired him to be - a hand-in-glove schematic fit as a versatile creator and defender. The team as-is allows for Jaren and Ja to explore their games, to grow from the mistakes they will surely make and also find their leadership voices. There’s plenty of reason for optimism on that front - the Bubble showed that for both of these young men. Further investing in that pursuit must be paramount.
But there also may be a way to achieve that second goal without sacrificing the first.
NUMBER THREE: SEIZE OPPORTUNITY WHEN IT PRESENTS ITSELF
No, the Grizzlies should not find themselves involved in a Russell Westbrook trade...that brings Russ to Memphis. But as a third team to help facilitate the exchange of contracts? Hop on the transaction trade either as a third team or on your own and try to bring in players like Charlotte’s Miles Bridges, who has a scoring acumen on the wing and from beyond the arc that may become available as the Hornets remake their roster. His connection to Jaren as a former Michigan State Spartan would help with making Jaren more comfortable, and his NBA experience and skill set make Memphis better both now and down the road.
James Harden shouldn’t come and take shots and possessions from Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. But if the Grizzlies can reach out to, say, the Sacramento Kings and provide cap relief (Gorgui Dieng’s expiring deal), Tyus Jones or Kyle Anderson and an assortment of picks (one 1st or two 2nds) for Buddy Hield? While Hield is signed long-term and is older, he is an elite floor spacer who could make your offense much more dangerous. And the descending nature of Hield’s deal make him more attractive to the Grizzlies - him being overpaid right now is not as big of a deal given the fact three of Memphis’ best players are on rookie deals. Hield may cost more than that...but if he doesn’t? He assists this team find out their ceiling now without losing the future they’ve earned.
Both Hield and Bridges, while perhaps out of the Grizzlies price range depending on the makeup of other trades, are examples of names that are being floated out there that may not be “star players” but can make you better in the here and now while helping you get a better picture of what Ja and Jaren are truly capable of. Kyle Anderson won’t help you see that more clearly. Gorgui Dieng will not assist in that process.
Memphis has acquired multiple draft pick assets, and has the ability to take on contracts through trade exceptions as well that will soon expire. Their only full-blown free agency decision is regarding De’Anthony Melton, and it’s unlikely that he leaves the Grizzlies at all, much less for nothing (sign and trade remain an option if needed). That would only bring in more assets for the team to use.
That’s the beauty of flexibility. They can stay the course and see what they have...or they can find moments to strike for a Hield and/or Bridges type and push the envelope a bit sooner in terms of putting Ja and Jaren in even better positions to shine. They could even use the Mid-Level Exception in free agency if they wanted to bring in another ball handler, wing, or big - there are many names who could fit within the roughly $9 million number the Grizzlies could play with (Harry Giles, Glenn Robinson III, Alec Burks). But regardless of direction, they don’t have to overpay - they can let the chaos come to them. As they’ve done before with terrific success (see Iguodala, Andre and the aforementioned Melton).
The NBA world as it was when the Bubble ended is about to implode. Players will be moving on. Big time teams will be searching for help anywhere it can be found in a pursuit of a championship. The craziest of all the offseasons - the NBA offseason - is upon us. And the Memphis Grizzlies, while unlikely to be completely silent, also have the option to be as quiet or as loud as they want to be. They’ve already proven that they’re willing to wait for whatever may come their way. Now, in their second full lead up to a season, Zach Kleiman and company are about to show the thought process of their collective brain trust. Sustained success is the stated goal - but their definition of the means to chase that end will be clearer in just a few short weeks.
For while the NBA’s world is entering its annual cycle of destruction and rebirth for so many, the Memphis Grizzlies are feeling just fine about their place in the universe. And with no debts to be paid in the draft for the first time in years and a healthy cap sheet, they should be happy with the simple fact that their fate is entirely in their hands.
That’s a good thing - both at the end of one world, and the start of another.