It sounds like we are getting NBA basketball back sooner than anticipated.
Multiple sources confirmed Thursday night that the NBPA voted on, and tentatively approved, a 72-game season that will begin on December 22nd. Yes, the Memphis Grizzlies will be back for Christmas. But do the math...we’re less than two weeks from the NBA Draft, meaning the trade restriction currently in place must be lifted relatively soon. From there, once the draft concludes on November 18th NBA free agency has to start almost immediately after, as it is believed that training camps will open on or around December 1st.
So less than a month after the Bubble ended (for two teams, in fairness - Memphis has been done with their season for almost three months), with all that is happening with the United States endures the worst part of the COVID-19 pandemic in terms of total cases, with hospitalizations on the rise, pro basketball is about to accelerate through an offseason in the name of maximizing revenue (understandably so) after a near-crippling financial pitfall due to the pandemic.
What could go wrong?
There are still details that need to be finalized - player contract amounts withheld in escrow, for example. But the biggest obstacle to starting the season before Christmas has been removed. Soon we will have the NBA back on our TVs. Which means the Memphis Grizzlies will be returning to our collective consciousness at just the right time, as a year like no other comes to an end (thank goodness).
The best part, from a Memphis perspective? The way things are playing out benefits the Grizzlies, and should lead to a relatively fast start to the 2020-2021 campaign regardless of schedule.
No flexibility, more stability
The trades that brought Gorgui Dieng, Justise Winslow, and Dion Waiters’ waived contract to Memphis hurt the Grizzlies when it came to 2020 free agency. The team is limited to essentially the Mid-Level Exception, and must avoid the luxury tax (which reportedly will stay the same as last season) to utilize that fully (which may or may not come in to play with the De’Anthony Melton contract negotiations). That would be unfortunate in most situations...but for Memphis, it doesn’t matter as much. Because the roster is essentially set - the Grizzlies have 11 players currently under contract (12 if you count Jontay Porter’s team option), not counting Melton and the #40 pick Memphis has in the 2020 NBA Draft in a couple weeks. So if Melton comes back and the Grizzlies do indeed use #40, they’re already one roster spot away from a full squad.
The core of the team is pretty well established. The only real short-term work will be in making sure Jaren Jackson Jr. and Justise Winslow are healthy (Tyus Jones should be good to go for sure) and integrating Winslow in to the schemes of the roster. The latter’s process began in the Bubble, with Winslow prepping to play a pivotal role before he got hurt. That means a lot of that foundation has already been laid. As long as Memphis doesn’t blow anything up or add a full-blown contributor with that MLE (which is possible), and assuming whoever the pick at #40 is viewed as a more long-term investment, it should be a relatively quiet offseason.
Which should mean a relatively strongly connected/high chemistry squad taking the court next month for the Grizzlies.
A rising “standard”
The second year for both Taylor Jenkins and Ja Morant in Memphis should be fascinating to watch unfold. Both men outperformed expectations. In Morant’s case, it is extremely rare for a rookie point guard to post the type of season Ja did. Add on to that the fact that he got the Grizzlies within two wins of the playoffs in his first season as a pro, and the anticipation for Morant’s sophomore season should be sky high. He is a student of the game, and in the time between last season’s suspension and the Bubble we saw how much he had worked on his body and game. He essentially got an offseason within last season, and chances are he used the time away for the actual offseason in a similar way.
Meanwhile, Taylor Jenkins earned the trust of his team on another level in the Bubble. They saw him adapt on the fly to numerous key injuries. They witnessed him deal with adversity and how he would respond. On top of that, he was a vocal supporter of the social justice movement that permeated the Bubble and the United States, displaying a level of empathy and a willingness to learn off the court that should translate on to the court. Especially with a young team, which is what Memphis has, that still matters. Relationships are so key.
So while Jenkins gets a chance to see his schemes grow in year two, the Justises and Jarens and Jas and Brandon Clarkes of Memphis are more invested in Jenkins as a coach and man than they were before the Bubble. And that should shine through in improved communication and execution of assignments on both ends. The Taylor Jenkins/Grizzlies “standard” should only further come to light as both sides get more comfortable with one another.
There are other reasons the Grizzlies should come out of the gate of the season quickly. The health of Jaren Jackson Jr. instantly makes Memphis better than they were when the Bubble concluded. The development of Grayson Allen as a threat in Orlando should make for competition on the wing for playing time, and considering it’s unlikely there are any preseason games (if the NBA is abiding by the NFL model of pandemic play this is probably the way) the “iron sharpens iron” aspect of camp will be massive for setting a rotation. A chunk of the teams will not have played meaningful basketball in nine months by the time the season starts. While most other teams will surely improve from what they were in Orlando, it is the Grizzlies that best combine the potential for growth with the lack of expectations - that should create a wonderful environment for this young Memphis team to improve without the weight of widespread assumptions of a playoff push.
The current state of the franchise makes for what should be a relatively slow news cycle for the Grizzlies, even in an accelerated offseason timeline. But that same present situation should set Memphis up for quite the opportunity to take advantage of all the uncertainty other squads will be combating to compete at a high level early. Will that equate to wins? Maybe not - this has been and will continue to be discussed more in this space, but the Grizzlies could theoretically be better this coming season than they were last year and have a similar or worse record, and/or not make the playoffs. That’d be OK - that doesn’t mean you’re tanking. You’re fighting for every win, with the front office knowing that while year one of the full blown rebuild towards the next great Grizzlies team went better than most expected this is still a team in progress. The organization isn’t experiencing cognitive dissonance - they’re in sync, giving the roster a chance to be relevant now while setting up nicely for the future. With that won’t come selling at a trade deadline, or a waving of a white flag for a better draft pick.
It’ll be another brick in the wall being placed. The building will be back soon...and should start off with a bang.