Nobody expected the Memphis Grizzlies to be here.
Even if someone on the planet was able to predict the insanity that has been the year 2020 to this point, even they wouldn’t have expected Memphis to not only be in the NBA playoff mix but solidly in the postseason this season. The hope was conveying a first round pick to Boston - now, the goal posts have been moved...but in a good way. Conveyance was the expectation. Now the act of faith - before the sports world stopped spinning - was securing that first round date with LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and the Los Angeles Lakers. And if you were feeling particularly froggy and were ready to jump, maybe you wished for a win to secure the gentleman’s sweep and add icing on the cake of a very successful first full season under Zach Kleiman, Jason Wexler, Taylor Jenkins, and this next generation of Grizzlies.
Then, COVID-19 shook our very existence. And suddenly, sports didn’t matter quite as much as they once did.
Now, as the NBA finalize plans for their return (as sports seem to matter even less, given the murder of George Floyd and subsequent protests around the country), there are plenty of ideas floating around for the best way to do it. The festivities - likely to Walt Disney World in Florida - seem to be centering around a 20 or 22-team conclusion to the regular season, followed by some sort of play-in tournament, then followed by the actual playoffs. This allows for teams that were within striking distance of the final playoffs spots when the season was suspended to have a chance to catch the likes of Memphis. It also should provide seeding improvement opportunities for squads already solidly in the postseason - further details should be public by the end of the week.
The one certainty, however, is that the Grizzlies will get screwed if they do not have any advantage over other teams once things get rolling in Orlando. A 3.5 game lead isn’t nothing - Memphis should be rewarded for games already played more than punished for games not completed due to the pandemic. The likes of the Pelicans and Trail Blazers deserve a chance to chase, but Memphis should start the resumes race with a lead.
That likely won’t happen though. So Memphis should despair, right? It’s Memphis vs. Errrbody all over again, and this young team doesn’t have the experience to withstand the pressure.
On the contrary - there is another real opportunity ahead of the Grizzlies to shock the world yet again. How?
It starts, in the face of unfair odds, with a little Justise.
Usually after a trade for a perceived core talent - like Justise Winslow seems to be for the Memphis Grizzlies - there are some growing pains. Acclamation to new surroundings, new teammates, and how they play can take time, and that can be difficult to accomplish midseason. On top of that, when Winslow was acquired from Miami he was injured, so he was not able to immediately begin that process on the floor. He could sit in on meetings, watch film, and get to know his fellow Grizzlies, but there is no replacement for live minutes in game.
A training camp would have benefitted Winslow immensely, but before March 11th it was believed that such an opportunity would not come until September or October.
Now, a silver lining in a dark cloud - that moment will be coming sooner, and during this unique season.
Whenever the Grizzlies resume activities as a group in preparation for Orlando, Justise Winslow should be healthier than he has been in some time. He will theoretically arrive in Memphis more like the 2017-2018 and 208-2019 Justise Winslow - the guy that Kleiman and company believe they have acquired - not the one that struggled so mightily in for the Heat this season with back issues.
That Justise Winslow fits like a glove with the current Grizzlies. Consider this - in 134 regular season games played from 2017-2018 through 2018-2019, Winslow posted the following numbers-
- 3.639 total minutes played, good for 27 minutes per contest.
- Nearly 43% shooting from the field, but perhaps more importantly 145 made threes on 385 attempts, good for 37.6% conversion from beyond the arc.
- 5.4 rebounds, 3.2 assists, and almost 1 steal per game to go along with 10.1 points per contest
He showed flashes of this productivity this season as well, before his back literally gave out. The foot quickness, the lateral movement, the handle and vision to be a solid primary facilitator and potentially a near-elite secondary one - it was all there.
There is no denying that Winslow has some concerns with being able to stay on the floor. The two seasons whose statistics are shown above are bookended by years where he has missed a substantial amount of time, including this current one. Miami was willing to part with Winslow and the headache of Dion Waiters (who the Grizzlies promptly waived) because they wanted players they knew they could count on the be on the floor and produce, like Jae Crowder and Solomon Hill, plus take a swing at a player who could possibly help them as title contenders in Andre Iguodala. While Iggy hasn’t worked out so far, Hill and especially Crowder have helped the Heat more than Justise did this season.
But the Grizzlies weren’t worries about 2019-2020 when they got Winslow. They were happy to let him sit out as long as necessary to get him healthy, thinking he could fit nicely alongside their cornerstones of Jaren Jackson Jr. and Ja Morant. Even if they had to wait to see that, and it hurt their playoff probabilities in the short-term to lose Crowder and Hill, it would be worth it in the long run.
Now? It can help a bit sooner than expected. Adding Winslow to the rotation puts another player that has displayed shooting ability along with facilitation skills on the floor, replacing Kyle Anderson who only has the playmaking part offensively going for him. When Ja Morant dishes out to the corner now, it won’t be for a slow loading pump fake from Kyle - it’ll be for a three from Winslow, a more willing shot taker who also has the ball handling and athleticism to take players off the dribble. While Kyle may be a better defender than Justise (for now), Winslow’s upside and offensive versatility cancels that advantage out and then some.
With Winslow’s “arrival” will come a reshuffling of the rotation. Here are how the minutes were divided up the last time both Jaren Jackson Jr. and Brandon Clarke played full games, a 129-125 loss to the Sacramento Kings.
For the sake of this exercise, let’s say Justise Winslow is a starter and Kyle Anderson returns to the bench. It is possible they bring Winslow in as a reserve, but the restart in the season is a prime opportunity to start Justise as the starting “3”. After all, we should assume he will be in that role next season alongside Ja Morant, Dillon Brooks, Jaren Jackson Jr., and Jonas Valanciunas. Let’s also assume that coach Taylor Jenkins goes to a 10-man rotation, because it’s the race to the playoffs and you want more minutes for your best players. 240 available minutes, 10 players.
Ja Morant- 32 minutes
Dillon Brooks- 28 minutes
Justise Winslow- 28 minutes
Jaren Jackson Jr.- 32 minutes
Jonas Valanciunas- 28 minutes
Brandon Clarke- 24 minutes
De’Antony Melton- 20 minutes
Kyle Anderson OR Josh Jackson- 18 minutes
Tyus Jones- 16 minutes
Gorgui Dieng- 14 minutes
Of course this is a rough estimate, and not exactly earth shattering - it largely lines up with how things worked out against the Kings. But here are some takeaways.
- Winslow makes everyone better. The Justise/Jonas pick and roll. The Justise/Jaren pick and pops with backdoor cuts/alley oops to Ja, while Dillon sits in the opposite corner. If Winslow is able to be what he showed the previous two seasons, he amplifies the strengths of his teammates. Dillon Brooks isn’t a ball handler and facilitator - let Justise do it. Ja Morant needs a scoring threat to make him more viable as an off-ball offensive force. Let Justise do it. Kyle Anderson isn’t the problem, but he is limited. The limits become less existent with Winslow.
- The same can be said of the reserves. A Jones/Melton/Winslow/Jackson/Anderson lineup has a lot of potential in terms of offensive and defensive versatility. A Winslow (he has point guard experience)/Brooks/Jackson/Anderson/Clarke lineup would cause chaos with no player on the floor shorter than 6’6”. Switchability reigns supreme - even if three point shooting does not. The nice thing about Winslow’s game - surely why Kleiman, Tayshaun Prince, and the rest of the front office valued him - is he can mold and conform to his basketball surroundings. He is defensively and offensively malleable.
- Competition sharpens iron...or wings. An 11-man rotation is more possible than ever before with Winslow in the mix...but you want the very best you can get on the floor for as long as they can be effective. Some teams go with a 9, or even 8-man rotation in the playoffs. Considering Jenkins has been cautious with minutes all season, this unique restart probably won’t lead to him wanting to go away from that too much. A 10-man rotation is most likely at this stage.
So that will mean there will be an odd man out - Kyle Anderson, or Josh Jackson. When Jae Crowder and Solomon Hill were in Memphis Anderson couldn’t see the floor, despite being a better basketball player in almost every way. Jenkins needed spacing, though, and Anderson doesn’t provide that offensively. Now, with the emergence of Jackson before the suspension, two wings who may not be with the Grizzlies beyond this season will be competing for their short - and perhaps long - term futures in Memphis.
Ja Morant is the superstar. Jaren Jackson Jr. is the willing 1B to Ja’s 1A. Jonas Valanciunas and Dillon Brooks lead a cavalcade of role players that have all had a hand in making this season for the Memphis Grizzlies an unexpected success. But if Memphis is to have a chance to shock the NBA world - be it taking two or even three games from the Lakers, or knocking off a team like the Toronto Raptors in a 1-16 seeding set-up, it will have to start at the hands of Justise Winslow. The resumption of the season requiring a training camp is a minor positive in a year full of negatives. Justise will build chemistry with his teammates in a way he wouldn’t have been able to if the season had been played normally, and because of that the Grizzlies are adding a starting-level talent on the wing whose game thrives when able to play off of the strengths of those around him.
That, if his health will allow it, will have quite the effect on the Memphis Grizzlies both now and beyond.