Hey, look at us.
Who would’ve thought, right?
Not me...not anyone, really.
No meme, no GIF, no TikTok, or any other method of wasting time online can properly express the true surprise the fan base of the Memphis Grizzlies and the NBA at large when it comes back from the All-Star Break and sees the standings in the Western Conference. There they are, the young Grizzlies - a team that many believed would be one of the worst in the entire NBA - actually boasts the 14th best record in the entire Association as play resumes later this week. They’re above .500 at 28-26, multiple games better than the current seven and eight seeds in the Eastern Conference (the Brooklyn Nets and Orlando Magic) and ranked well above the surprisingly disappointing Portland Trail Blazers and San Antonio Spurs out west.
A lot has been made of the Grizzlies post-All-Star schedule, and that is fair. It’s hell, and it starts with a four-game road-trip to Sacramento, L.A. (to face both the Lakers and Clippers over the span of a long weekend), and Houston. It’s certainly possible that Memphis gets caught by a Portland, a San Antonio, or even a New Orleans - the sexy choice to snag the final spot in the Western Conference. But the fact is that the Grizzlies as of this writing are the leaders in the race - five games up in the loss column, with 28 to go.
With that in mind, here are three big questions for Memphis as the postseason push picks up speed.
Has Ja Morant broken down the “rookie wall”?
Morant has been the catalyst for much of the success the Grizzlies have enjoyed this season. If Ja was not the 4th quarter scorer and overall producer that he is at such a young age, bucking the trend for most rookie point guards, Memphis would almost certainly be making lottery night plans instead of prepping for postseason play. Any sustained cooling off period would hurt the Grizzlies a good bit, even with their improved depth at the point position. Tyus Jones has been terrific, and there are other facilitators that could help in a pinch like Kyle Anderson and De’Anthony Melton. But it is Ja that sparks Memphis offensively...and the rookie wall is very much a thing to be concerned with as he plays more basketball at a high level than he ever has before.
The good news? The wall may have already happened...and Morant may have crashed through it.
Prior to his two most recent performances - the triple-double in Washington and his 20 points, 9 assists, and 5 rebounds against the Trail Blazers - Ja played arguably his worst basketball of the year 2020. For four games from January 31st to February 7th, while Ja shot well from the field overall (26-45) he posted three of his worst 20 game scores according to basketball-reference.com of the season, as well as two of the ten worst in-game +/- numbers of his young career - at New Orleans (-25), and at Philadelphia (-12). The competition stepping up for the Grizzlies is reason to be nervous...but Morant succeeding leading in to the All-Star Break is reason for optimism.
The first four games of the post-break slate will be telling. At Sacramento, at L.A. for a long weekend with the Lakers and Clippers, and then a trip to the Houston Rockets will expose Ja to big time point guard battles overall (De’Aaron Fox and Russell Westbrook) and in terms of experience/defensive acumen (Rajon Rondo, LeBron James in certain Lakers lineups, Patrick Beverley). Six of Ja’s ten worst Game Score showings have been on the road. We will find out early on if Morant can overcome some adversity and fight through whatever rookie wall there may be...if he hasn’t already done so.
How does Justise Winslow’s process impact the Grizzlies rotation?
Gorgui Dieng in limited minutes appears to have shown his worth as the 4th big for the Grizzlies moving forward. Jordan Bell, while probably on the outside looking in on minutes for now, could be used instead of Dieng in certain match-ups (like against the ultra-small Houston Rockets). Dion Waiters was salary fodder to make the deadline deal with the Miami Heat work - he has already been bought out by Memphis.
That leaves us with the centerpiece of that trade...Justise Winslow.
Winslow probably won’t play during the upcoming four game road trip. The Grizzlies have made it clear, however, that they expect Winslow to play this season. Justise figures to be a key piece of the Memphis core for at least the next two years (the rest of this one and next year at minimum, and beyond if things go well). A player with his playmaking skill, athleticism, and size/defensive versatility in theory fits perfectly in a starting lineup including Morant/Dillon Brooks/Jaren Jackson Jr./Jonas Valanciunas. But moving Winslow in there immediately once he is ready would mean moving Kyle Anderson to a reserve role...and would also mean someone drops out of the rotation entirely.
Perhaps that part of the question isn’t the difficult one. There is a wing currently getting minutes that has spent most of their season with the Memphis Hustle - Josh Jackson - who may well not be a long-term member of the Grizzlies organization. Josh has shown flashes, but hasn’t been a dominant force that must keep playing moving forward. He would be the easiest player to take out of a bench unit that currently features De’Anthony Melton, Tyus Jones, Brandon Clarke, and Gorgui Dieng - four guys whose roles among the reserves feel fairly locked in. But the plan for Memphis with Justise bears watching. They won’t throw him to the wolves right away in terms of minutes, and it’s highly doubtful Winslow ever plays in a back to back this season. The trade with Miami was more about the seasons after this one than the current campaign.
The integration of Winslow will be both gradual and key in terms of structure. Chemistry matters, and Justise will have to play to gain it with his teammates. That usually wouldn’t be a problem...but considering the strength of schedule and the playoff race, perhaps Memphis will be even more cautious with Winslow. Make no mistake, a healthy Justise makes the Grizzlies that much better immediately. He can be the final piece of a true playoff contender this season, and most certainly can make up an important part of this core moving forward.
How he fits in the short-term will be yet another window in to how the Grizzlies view this “ahead of schedule” season. All indications are that Zach Klieman and company remain committed to the long haul vision...but this will be the first test of it on the court. If Winslow struggles coming back, do they slow his progression down in favor of an Anderson or Jackson, who have been in the fold in one way or another all season long but are inferior players to Justise long-term?
Something to keep an eye on.
Does Brandon Clarke crash the Jonas Valanciunas party?
Are there two more under-appreciated bigs in the NBA Jonas Valanciunas and Brandon Clarke?
How hilarious is it that they’re both on the same team?
In the case of Valanciunas, all he does is produce. He’s having his best season ever in terms of true shooting percentage (63.1%) according to basketball-reference.com, is tied for his best campaign in total rebound percentage (21.4% on a team that desperately needs it), and his Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) is a career best 1.6. He’s an underrated defender (career defensive rating of 105, currently at 107 which is tied for best on the Grizzlies with noted exquisite defender De’Anthony Melton) and has already set a career high for total assists (96, 15 better than the previous best of 81 in 77 games played in 2017-2018 for Toronto). He labors a bit in the pick and roll, but we already knew that would happen. He’s been everything Memphis could ask and then some, and a legitimate argument could be made for him being a top-10 center in the NBA.
You can also make a legitimate argument that he should be the best sixth man big in the NBA.
How? Brandon Clarke, the Happy Gilmore to Jonas Valanciunas’ Shooter McGavin.
True shooting percentage? Clarke is better (67.4%, a team best number). While Valanciunas is better in terms of rebounding (13.9% total rebounding rate is much lower than Jonas’) and his VORP is higher as well (1.6 to Clarke’s 1.2), Brandon actually bests in a number of other areas.
- Win Shares per 48 Minutes- Clarke .190, Valanciunas .173
- Offensive Rating- Clarke 128, Valanciunas 119
- Net Rating- Clarke +18, Valanciunas +10
- Effective Field Goal Percentage- Clarke 65%, Valanciunas 61.2%
Of course there are other areas that Valanciunas outperforms Clarke, and vice versa. There are also areas, like Player Efficiency Rating, where they’re essentially in a dead heat. But the bottom line is both, while extremely productive, provide different areas where they are near elite. Jonas is more of a traditional big, someone who - when the offense breaks down - can be a featured option and his combination of skill and size can create mismatch issues. Brandon is the modern version, a rim-runner who finishes off on the pick and roll at a remarkable rate but can switch on to guards and forwards on the perimeter defensively...which Jonas cannot.
It’s the reason more and more you are seeing Clarke close games and not Valanciunas...but how long until that applies to times beyond just the final two minutes? Jonas played 26 minutes per game, and Brandon plays 21.8. Long-term, that likely shifts the other way, with Jonas being the bruising bench big and Clarke becoming the starter alongside Jaren Jackson Jr. But that might also be dependent on what Memphis does beyond the next two months, when the Grizzlies perhaps make a play for a starting shooting guard with more offensive versatility/consistency than Dillon Brooks. Right now, the offensive skill set of Jonas, as well as his terrific rebounding, abilities are needed for when the starters get in a rut. That may not always be the case as Winslow (a very good rebounding wing) gets in to the mix and the roster turns. A world where Jonas Valanciunas and Dillon Brooks dominate reserve units like Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell could be right around the corner.
That will almost surely come later. The pace of that transition, alongside the development of Ja Morant as a superstar and the implementation of Justise Winslow, will be fun to watch as the season progresses.