The NBA has been gone over a week now. In a lot of ways, it feels like a year has passed. Our world has changed very rapidly, and we are looking at a very uncertain future. Perhaps it’s trivial to think about basketball when so much is swirling around us as a new (for now) normal sets in. This is a Memphis Grizzlies blog, though, and maybe for a little while it’s OK to let your mind wander in to what should have been...what eventually will be once again.
By now Justise Winslow would have made his Grizzlies debut. Jaren Jackson Jr. would have returned to the lineup for Memphis at this stage as well, and maybe even Brandon Clarke would have been back active as well for what was supposed to be a game in Milwaukee Thursday night against Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks. Regardless of wins and losses the rest of what was a successful season, the way Head Coach Taylor Jenkins would have used all these returning players alongside the already established Grizzlies as well as those that found in the absence of Jackson Jr./Clarke/Winslow like Josh Johnson and John Konchar.
So what would a theoretical lineup look like if the Grizzlies were taking the floor at full strength? Let’s dive in, with the roster as it is today and understanding that John Konchar (who should be a full roster member by next season at the latest) is currently a two-way player and is close to using up all of his available days with the Grizzlies. That likely could change...but for now, for the sake of ease, keep it that way.
240 minutes to give out. Let’s go.
Ja Morant: The young star of the Memphis Grizzlies will be the one player in this “perfect” rotation that plays above 30 minutes a game. He’s the face of the franchise moving forward. Give him the ball, and let him run with it. Put him in situations with the game on the line. Let him succeed, and let him fail. This season always was - especially now - about development, not the playoffs. Make Morant the centerpiece and figure out how to build around him. MINUTES: 32
Dillon Brooks: Despite the ice cold shooting of late, the threat of offense that Dillon brings keeps him in the starting lineup (for now) instead of “Mr. Do Something” DeAnthony Melton. Memphis simply needs his confidence in the first group for when the set schemes of Jenkins get stuck in the mud. Brooks isos are not ideal, but he’s ready and willing to fire. That’s great for a sixth man (which he hopefully will eventually be) but will do for now as a starter.
Justise Winslow: While it made total sense for Winslow to begin his Grizzlies tenure as a reserve, especially with Memphis in the middle of a playoff chase. Now that this suspension of play has happened, when (if?) the season resumes Justise should be a starter. His facilitation ability, his defensive versatility, his athleticism and overall skill set on both ends of the floor as a creator for others and of chaos in passing lanes and on the ball make him a better Kyle Anderson. If he’s part of the core in the future, let him be it from the start.
JAREN JACKSON JR.: Jaren is the 1B to Ja’s 1A, and perhaps really may be the Marc Gasol to Ja’s Mike Conley...but better in the long run. Morant is more than willing to be the man of the moment on the floor, and Jaren’s personality is so malleable and light that his approach to the game won’t be negatively impacted by that reality. The team has missed his size and unique blend of shot blocking and three point shooting - according to basketbal-reference.com, Jaren is one of 12 players in NBA history to block at least 87 shots and make 135 threes. At age 20 he’s the youngest on the list, with Dirk Nowtizki (22), Karl-Anthony Towns (23), Shawn Marion (24) and Kevin Durant (24) rounding out the five youngest to ever do it. Good company to keep. Injury concerns keep him below 30 minutes per game. That won’t always be the norm.
JONAS VALANCIUNAS: Thank whatever gods may be for Jonas. He has been the safety blanket of the Grizzlies during the tough times before the NBA hit pause. Whenever the offense struggled, it was often Valanciunas that the team depended on. With two key bigs in Jaren and Brandon Clarke out, he has carried the weight of rebounding and rim protection almost entirely on his own. He is one of the best value players in the NBA, and he will be either a key cog in this team the next couple of seasons or an important asset in a future trade for a star. Time will tell...but for now? He helps get these theoretical Grizzlies in the postseason.
BRANDON CLARKE: Before his injury, Clarke was in the midst of one of the most efficient rookie campaigns in NBA history. Aside from Mitchell Robinson of the New York Knicks a couple seasons ago, no rookie has played as much as Brandon and posted a true shooting percentage of 67% while also having a 21.8 Player Efficiency Rating and .192 win shares per 48 minutes. He’s special in his own right, and anchors the “perfect” second unit. This will mean less minutes for other bigs, but Clarke is essentially a starter at this stage in terms of time on the floor, especially defensively at the end of games in for Valanciunas when switching on to perimeter players is necessary.
TYUS JONES AND DEANTHONY MELTON: Why do both Melton and Jones get the same amount of minutes? Because they both make similar impact, just in different ways. For Tyus, he is back to being a truly elite assist-to-turnover player. Jones hasn’t committed more than two turnovers in a game since January 7th, and since that time in 27 games Jones has 104 assists and only 15 turnovers. Do the math - that’s a 6.93 to 1 assist to turnover ratio. That has tremendous value, both in place of Ja Morant as a backup and alongside Ja in lineups where Morant can be a slasher and scorer, taking advantage of Tyus’ passing.
With Melton? What DOESN’T he do? He can defend both guard positions, be a sound secondary facilitator, slash at the rim and crash the class as a backcourt player for a roster that sorely needs that level of contribution. DeAnthony can be whatever the coaching staff needs him to be, and that Swiss army knife ability makes him a key part of the Grizzlies core moving forward.
KYLE ANDERSON AND GORGUI DIENG: Pairing Dieng and Anderson together isn’t an accident either. Both players hold value for these Grizzlies, but both are flawed. Dieng hasn’t shot well for Memphis (22.7% from three) and can only play the center position, making him the 3rd best option behind Valanciunas and Jackson Jr. in that spot with Clarke potentially being better depending on the matchup. Anderson, meanwhile, is a solid defender with positional flexibility but he, too, struggles as a shooter and isn’t as adept to the style of up-tempo play that Taylor Jenkins and crew wants to deploy as Melton or Jones.
Both have a role in the perfect Grizzlies rotation. It’s just smaller with the team totally healthy.
JOSH JACKSON: It’s remarkable that we’re here, to be honest. From trade afterthought to G-League All-Star to now a player that you’re finding minutes for. You’re not only cutting minutes from unskilled players here, either - the major cuts are coming from players that combined make over $25 million. Anderson (kind of but not really) and Dieng (definitely) are perhaps overpaid, the the fact remains that Memphis would be looking to get minutes for Josh to help the team on both ends of the floor in the midst of a playoff pursuit if the season were still going on. Because Jackson can only be offered a 1 year $8.9 million contract, it’s probable he is gone when free agency hits.
So why still play him? Because Anderson and/or Dieng may be gone as well. Trades, buyouts in the case of Dieng...the bottom three players in the rotation may not be here come opening night next season as the core of the young Grizzlies finalizes in the year or so ahead. Defensively Jackson makes plays. Offensively he makes plays. He’s not perfect, but he’s done enough to earn minutes moving forward.
If Jackson cools off, sit him. Play the hot hand, add minutes to reserves or Brooks/Winslow. You don’t need an 11-man rotation. While Coach Jenkins played one at times before to his detriment (no more Marko Guduric minutes, please), now it is warranted. As long as you have all 11 men contributing, spread the minutes wealth and keep legs fresh while rewarding a competitive nature as you build a winning culture that will last for years to come.
Well, of course, once the building resumes.
Basketball is still gone for now. And it probably will not be back anytime soon. But take solace in knowing that the Memphis Grizzlies have built a roster that is both ready to compete now and only get better from within and perhaps from the outside in the future.