The Memphis Grizzlies are getting back to basketball this week at FedExForum, and in that sentence is the feeling of some semblance of normalcy. Of course logically there’s nothing normal about what is going on over at 191 Beale Street - daily COVID testing, gradual returns to full team practices, and limited fans in arenas in some NBA cities and no fans in others are all reminders of just how odd this preseason period really is. There’s no Bubble this time to protect players and coaches. Despite its supposed successes, that was apparently never a possibility for the entire half of the season ahead. This group of Grizzlies is heading in to a season the likes of which we have never seen before...and hopefully never will see again.
But ready or not, here comes basketball. And Memphis is getting ready in the days ahead to try to build upon a season of playoff contention that just about no one saw coming. The roster is relatively set - a report from Chris Herrington of the Daily Memphian confirmed what was predicted at the beginning of this week - Marko Guduric and Mario Hezonja are not longed for this Grizzlies life. So the team heads in to training camp with no full cuts they need to make outside of paperwork - the 18 players (15 on the main roster, two two-way contract signees Killian Tillie and Sean McDermott, and Jahlil Tripp, who signed an Exhibit 10 contract and will be waived but should stick around with the Memphis Hustle G-League team) that will make up the roster and/or be key members of the Hustle are in line for preseason preparations as the longest year of our collective lives concludes.
What should you watch for in the weeks ahead, since this appears to be the team for the Grizzlies barring an unforeseen trade?
Filling in for Justise and Jaren
Two key rotation players - including one potential star in the making - will be missing the start of the season due to injury. Justise Winslow, who injured his hip in practice in the Bubble, figures to be back playing within a month or so. Jaren Jackson Jr. (that potential star) will be out longer than that coming back from meniscus reparation surgery, and Ja Morant and company will miss him especially. Despite Winslow’s lack of playing for Memphis so far, there’s no doubt that Head Coach Taylor Jenkins and company value his talent and potential fit with this roster as a secondary creator offensively and defensive factor. Jaren’s talent and importance with this group is undeniable - he is the best two-way player on the team.
So one does not simply replace a unicorn and a key wing rotation piece. While Justise will be back relatively soon, he will take time getting his feet under him as he becomes acclimated as a player with this group. How Jenkins fills in the gaps as Winslow adapts and Jackson Jr. recovers should be interesting to watch unfold.
At the traditional power forward spot, logic dictates that the next best “big” - Brandon Clarke - should get the nod next to Jonas Valanciunas. Yet when Brandon started last season he appeared to be a different player than he was as a reserve...in a bad way. Perhaps rolling with the likes of Kyle Anderson at the 4 - a combination of much of the good of Jaren and Justise, especially defensively - would be a safer bet to start. Kyle can create as a point forward, allowing for Ja to play off the ball and take on an earlier scoring load. Kyle also showed flashes of improved shooting stroke during the team’s time in Orlando.
Xavier Tillman, the 35th pick in the draft, also figures to see an increased role. Gorgui Dieng and his expiring trade price contract shouldn’t take a single minute from the younger players on the roster - even Jontay Porter.
Kyle filled in for Justise more often than not in the Bubble, so Anderson’s possible minutes at the 4 would open up time on the wing. That’s a good thing - Memphis is arguably as deep there as they’ve ever been. Between De’Anthony Melton, Grayson Allen, John Konchar, and 2020 NBA Draft 1st round pick Desmond Bane there are options there. Dillon Brooks is a bigger wing and can eat minutes at the traditional “3” spot, so any of those four options make sense in the mix if Jenkins opts to go with Anderson at the “4”.
Melton likely has the inside track in that scenario. But don’t be surprised if Jenkins tries lots of different combinations both in practice and preseason games, looking to see what lineups fit best together as the season approaches.
Stability, thy name is Memphis
Dillon Brooks made a terrific point in his media availability on Thursday. He is now the longest tenured Grizzlies player (entering his fourth season - crazy, right?), and for the first time he feels as if the roster is in a stable state.
Dillon says the team developed greater chemistry through the Bubble experience - seeing each other and getting to know one another more. Brooks also fairly points out the stability of this coming season with regard to roster turnover happening for the first time in his career.— Grizzly Bear Blues (@sbnGrizzlies) December 3, 2020
In free agency, the Memphis front office took care of their own. Instead of looking to the outside they re-signed De’Anthony Melton, John Konchar, and Jontay Porter. The only “outsiders” that will be on this team full-time are Bane and Tillman, the team’s draft picks filling the spots left behind by Anthony Tolliver and Josh Jackson. The coaching staff saw some overturn, with some assistants leaving and some newbies arriving, but Taylor Jenkins is the straw that stirs the drink and he of course is still with the team. The team that was in the Bubble, for the most part, returns. Schemes are stable, players know one another’s tendencies, and the trust and emotional investment in one another as teammates has already been established.
That is a very good thing.
The familiarity between all the players will pay dividends during this tough season. They have chemistry and experience that they wouldn’t have had access to if not for their trip to Orlando. Now, once again not expected by most to make playoff noise, the team enters another season free of expectations beyond the improvements a team entering year two of a rebuild should make. While logically there are arguments for such a stance (injuries, youth, etc.) it is possible that the time they spent without Jaren and Justise in the Bubble, plus the fact that the team is essentially running it back from last season, that Memphis could start hotter than many would see coming.
In unstable times, the continuity that exists for these young Grizzlies is a breath of fresh air. Seeing if the group can pick up where they left off in terms of what was going well (Ja as a scorer, Jonas as a passer, etc.) when the team departed Orlando could make the difference between the returning Jackson Jr. and Winslow being the cavalry for a playoff push, or the young talent coming to fill minutes and find fits moving in to next season.
This season has fewer questions than campaigns past. The “stars” are aligned for Memphis - as Morant goes to start, so goes the team. Aside from a starter here and a rotation member there, most players figure to get opportunity to display their talents with Justise and Jaren out. There really isn’t a bad outcome for the Grizzlies this season. If they compete for the playoffs and get in, the team got much better from year to year and it is likely that Ja Morant is a borderline All-Star in year two - a potentially wonderful development. If they miss out (predictions will come later, but the play-in is a realistic goal), that’d be fine too - Memphis owns all their draft selections moving forward, and another Lottery pick in the 2021 NBA Draft would be a tremendous opportunity to add talent to this young core.
The dreaded “t-word” should never be uttered with this group, barring catastrophic injury. Winning is the goal. But chasing that brass ring without having to worry about falling on your face one way or another is a fantastic feeling. That’s where the Grizzlies organization finds themselves as training camp opens - the ability to be safe with players returning from injury thanks to depth, and to push development and opportunity for more valuable high stakes experience without needing to be buyers at a trade deadline and missing out on the draft capital they have earned in prior dealings. Whether they make the playoffs or not, the team is in a prime position to get better as a group of players and coach as well as an overall franchise while looking to an even brighter future.
And at this stage of the rebuild, that steady march toward the light is more than enough as we enter in to the darkest and most volatile training camp for the overall league in NBA history.