Did you know that the Memphis Grizzlies are above. 500 for the first time all season? As a matter of fact, after this week’s win against the Dallas Mavericks, the Grizzlies are above .500 for the first time since December 29th, 2018. That’s over a year…yikes.
It’s been a tough couple of years as a Grizzlies fan, though now the product of all that distress has the potential to make the last few years of suffering worth it. With a new coach, the likely rookie of the year in Ja Morant, and a solid foundation around he and Jaren Jackson Jr., this team has their eyes on the playoffs; a prospect thought impossible for at least two more seasons. So how did we get here? What was this team like through February of last year? It seems the tides have turned so fast in Memphis that we have forgotten where were just one year ago.
Through February 7th 2019, the Grizzlies were 22-34 and starting to embrace the rebuilding process. The fruits of that labor are seen now in rookie Ja Morant, yet in the midst of the season last year, it was hard to appreciate what was coming. The dynamically incompetent duo of head coach J.B. Bickerstaff and general Manager Chris Wallace were at helm at this point last season, at least publicly in the case of Wallace, and were the two focal points of the downturn the franchise was taking.
Chris Wallace is credited with bringing the “Core Four” together, a squad of Mike Conley, Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph, and Tony Allen, all now Memphis legends. Wallace also claimed credit for the seven straight winning seasons and playoff appearances. Those accomplishments - storied years in Memphis lore now - were what kept Wallace his job long after he deserved to stick around. He also had endless blunders with draft picks and struggled maintaining order with players on the roster (see Tyreke Evans and Chandler Parsons).
Head coach J.B. Bickerstaff was hired without a full coaching search after the interim tag in May 2018. He was supposedly the players’ coach that this team needed to get back on track. Not even a calendar year later, after starting the year off as a competitive team and quickly transitioning to a rebuild, the team would let him go, much to the applause of Grizz fandom.
Today, the man making decisions for player personnel is 31-year-old Zach Kleiman. Kleiman was promoted after the Chris Wallace dismissal. The spark that came from anyone taking over the decision making not named Chris Wallace was bright and noticeable. The Grizzlies drafted Ja Morant 2nd overall, and acquired Brandon Clarke, the 21st overall pick, in a deal with the OKC Thunder (the steal of the draft). Kleiman also orchestrated a trade to send Mike Conley that brought in role players that have contributed to this season and a first round pick.
The deals kept coming over the summer: Mike Conley was traded. Tyus Jones was signed. Solomon Hill (and Miles Plumlee) was brought in, De’Anthony Melton and Josh Jackson were acquired in a trade, Andre Iguodala was also acquired and eventually used as trade bait. Jonas Valanciunas was re-signed. All of those players are role players (aside from Iguodala who was never expected to play) in making this season as successful as it has been.
There are only two players left on the roster today that physicallu played against the Oklahoma City Thunder on February 7th, 2019: Kyle Anderson and Jaren Jackson Jr. Back in those days, Memphis was trotting out Justin Holiday, Joakim Noah, Ivan Rabb, Julian Washburn, and of course Mike Conley. Things look different now...
They look better now.
The roster is much younger, with a foundation that is built to sustain in the ever changing play style of the NBA. Perhaps the most underrated young talent the Grizzlies have invested in is head coach Taylor Jenkins. At just 35 years old, he is one of the NBA’s youngest coaches. Without getting into the nitty gritty of X’s and O’s, its obvious the play style of this year’s team is night and day compared to last year’s. You can look at simple stats like points per game and pace to see the difference.
Last year’s the Grizzlies were last in the league in points per game at 103.5. This year they are 8th at 113.3. Pace, which reflects how many possessions you get a game, was 97.15 last year, last in the league. This year: 6th in the league at 103.36.
The less obvious elements of Coach Jenkins’ coaching that are producing better results are his game awareness and rotations. Bickerstaff lacked the game awareness to call timeouts at the right time, and often looked out of place late in close games. He didn’t have command of the game or the team. Jenkins understands when his team is in need of a timeout, when to let them play, and how to counteract other team’s changes.
Jenkins has also figured out how to maximize his lineups. The roster is young, we’ve established that, yet he has learned which players play well together, and which lineups to avoid. Even fringe NBAers like Grayson Allen have found important roles on this team, when healthy. These inexperienced players ironically have Jenkins, their inexperienced head coach, to thank for finding the best way to use their ability on the floor.
It’s an exciting time for this franchise and its fans. There’s more to come with this team, sitting at 26-25 and lots of season left before the playoffs. For those that can remember the depths this team has come out of in just one year, don’t take this success for granted. Many teams in the league are in year three, four, or five of a rebuild with no fruits of their labor in sight. Here in Memphis, we may have accelerated the timeline of ours.
And it’s been a fun ride so far.