It is nights like last night that should serve as reminders as to just how ahead of schedule the Memphis Grizzlies are...and how far they still have to come.
The Los Angeles Lakers are the class of the Western Conference at this point in the NBA season. LeBron James and Anthony Davis - two future Hall of Famers, and James arguably being the greatest basketball player ever - are surrounded by mostly veteran talent, players that have had success elsewhere and competed at the highest levels of the NBA. This is very much their time, and the L.A. front office had to mortgage their future to get there and acquire a #2 worthy of the great LeBron in A.D.
The Grizzlies are, quite literally, in the exact opposite place of the Lakers.
Memphis is looking ahead, to a time when LeBron is no longer the threat he is, when the Steph Curry/Klay Thompson Golden State Warriors aren’t quite as scary. When these young Grizzlies come of age, those two squads will be aging out, and paying for the moves they have made to contend for titles right now. There isn’t really a right or wrong in these perspectives - when you have at worst one of the top 5 or so players of all-time choose you in free agency despite being a dumpster fire organization for years (hello Lakers), you do what it takes to compete.
L.A. was supposed to dominate the Grizzlies last night. And for the most part, they did. Long-term visions and rebuilds take time. The loss in Los Angeles Friday night was just another brick in the proverbial rebuild wall.
On to grades.
Ja Morant: 17 points on 5-14 shooting, 7-10 from the free throw line, 5 turnovers, 3 assists, 1 rebound, -6 +/- in 31 minutes
Ja has not had the best start to his post All-Star slate. Even more than his scoring, which will come and go in waves efficiency wise, his assist-to-turnover numbers the last two games are abysmal. 5 assists, 10 turnovers, bad point guard play. Is that all Ja’s fault? Of course not - players have to convert from beyond the arc off of his dribble penetration, and Memphis is still a wing scorer or so away in their rebuild from being a truly above average team for the long haul. That comes later, so nights like tonight are to be expected to an extent. Ja also did a good job attacking the rim and getting to the free throw line, amplifying his scoring.
But the silly mistakes (that all rookies make) not being negated by converted buckets lead to bad showings like this one. Side note - zero threes attempted by Ja against the Lakers. If he isn’t going to be a threat from beyond the arc, teams are going to go under all picks and screens on him and limit his athletic impact off the dribble. He was taking those threes earlier in the year. He needs to get his confidence back.
Brandon Clarke: 14 points on 7-11 shooting, 10 rebounds (8 offensive), 4 assists, 1 steal, 1 block, +8 +/- in 33 minutes played
For a reserve unit that very much led the late charge by Memphis to cut the Lakers lead to just four, Brandon Clarke was the front man. After Jaren Jackson Jr. went down with a knee injury after a scary collision with LeBron James in the second quarter, it was Clarke that was asked to pick up the slack. He did just that, playing his efficient style of basketball even while eating more minutes than he is accustomed to. If Jaren is out for an extended period - which is possible, given the overall cautious (and correct) approach Memphis takes with injuries - Clarke will be the direct beneficiary, and it will be a glimpse in to whether or not he can be a starter in this system.
Brandon is having a tremendous rookie campaign, and has arguably been the most consistent player on the roster this season. One of the best things about the future-centered mindset of the Grizzlies front office is the way that they acquired Clarke in the first place - by trading up in the draft - is that they can do the same thing in almost every draft the next four years, if they so choose and the situation presents itself. Clarke is a strong argument for retaining these assets for that exact purpose.
- Josh Jackson played perhaps his best game as a Grizzly. 20 points on 12 shots off the bench, which is a good sight to see. I’d rather see Josh get the 3 minutes Marko Guduric received in this game moving forward than anything involving Marko, who quite clearly isn’t an NBA player right now. Josh is making a case for his NBA future - he just needs to add to his game impact beyond scoring (three rebounds and no assists/steals/blocks in 23 minutes played.) GRADE: B
- Gorgui Dieng double doubles may be the best double doubles. 6-6 from the floor (1-1 from three), 14 points, 10 rebounds, 2 steals, and a team-best +10 in 21 minutes. While Clarke should be the starter alongside Jonas Valanciunas if Jaren misses extended time, Dieng will also see an increased role. That’s not as crushing as it would’ve been before the trade deadline, when Memphis would have had to turn to a Solomon Hill or Bruno Caboclo to take minutes as a “big”. Between Dieng and Jordan Bell, while Memphis will of course miss Jaren it won’t be the catastrophe it would’ve been just three weeks ago. GRADE: A
- The Dillon Brooks scoreless streak continues. We are regressing back a bit now (3-14 shooting, 1-4 from three) as the issues for Dillon are becoming more of a long-term trend. He should heat up again at some point, but this run of cold shooting should serve as another reminder that Brooks is probably playing outside of his ideal role as a reserve/sixth-man wing on a good team. But on this average Grizzlies team? He’s doing what he has to do, as he has his whole time with Memphis. The Grizzlies will have issues until he heats up, though. GRADE: D
Credit the young Grizzlies - they fought to the end, an example of the culture and competitiveness that Head Coach Taylor Jenkins and his staff is cultivating. Memphis is spending the weekend in L.A., which could be both a great thing for team camaraderie/chemistry and a terrible thing for their next game against the Clippers, since L.A. night life is undefeated. Perhaps the fact that game is on Monday will help - they can have a fun/unimpeded Saturday night. It also helps the best two players for the Grizzlies can’t legally drink because they’re 20 years old.
Another reminder that the best is yet to come.