The Memphis Grizzlies season has ended. It’s conclusion came in a similar fashion to what 15 other teams will eventually experience in the NBA’s Orlando Bubble - a loss. But this defeat stings because of how far the team came...how close they were.
And how fast we have fallen for this young, exciting, fearless squad. Yet whenever you don’t dread the challenges ahead too much to avoid making the leap, when you fall down after jumping too far you’re destined to form some scars.
A skinned knee as a kid. A cut finger from a poor choice involving a kitchen knife and any variety of fruit. A permanently bent finger from too many breaks, or a mark from any assortment of ailments. We all carry scars of past mistakes - physical, mental, emotional...they all serve as reminders all the same of what made us what we are.
And provide lessons from what we were.
The roster that took the floor for warmups Saturday afternoon against the Portland Trail Blazers will never play together again. Anthony Tolliver is on a veteran minimum deal and may not be back with Memphis. De’Anthony Melton is a restricted free agent and, while he is probably a priority for the Memphis Grizzlies, could be priced out of the team’s spending range. Marko Guduric tumbled out of the team’s rotation and could be a waiver candidate to sign a Tollver-esque player before next season. Josh Jackson also fell from grace with the Grizzlies coaching staff, and you have to imagine given the team’s depth issues all those Bubble Did Not Play - Coach’s Decision markings mean his time with the organization is over as well.
But look at the names listed. Besides Melton, and to a lesser extent Tolliver, the core of this franchise is in tact. And De’Anthony is more likely to return than not. If Memphis wanted to bring Anthony back, they could in theory - it is doubtful he gets more than that veteran’s minimum this offseason. Aside from Jackson and Guduric, every player that played meaningful minutes against Portland could potentially be back next season...and that’s with adding Tyus Jones, Jaren Jackson Jr., and Justise Winslow from the injury list.
That’s a sign of a team early in a rebuild...and makes what these Grizzlies did even more special. The loss didn’t feel as much as much like an ending as it did a beginning.
The start of something more, led by a 21-year old rookie point guard who almost willed his team to a do or die Sunday showdown with a 2019 Western Conference finalist on national television, with the eyes of the NBA world on him. Ja Morant had 35 points and 8 assists in 42 minutes played, finishing well at the rim and going blow for blow with the Bubble MVP Damian Lillard and his successful partner in the Portland back court CJ McCollum. Dillon Brooks played a good game, but he wasn’t able to be at the level of Ja, Dame, and CJ. That gap serves as a scar, and a reminder of Dillon being outside of his ideal role. Until the team is healthy (hi, Justise), there’s no way to know for sure whether Brooks is the answer at the 2 guard position as a starter. But on the next great Grizzlies team, Dillon could definitely be a sixth man scoring option. That wasn’t enough in that game against elite talent like Lillard and McCollum.
Even after a tremendous performance, Ja himself is taking home some scars from Orlando. Morant had eight turnovers in the game, meaning he gave the high-powered Blazers offense far too many extra possessions to score off of. Often they were passes that were tipped by help defenders, or intercepted by wings or bigs that anticipated Morant’s move before he made it. Ja forced the issue too often against Portland, and it hurt the chances of the Grizzlies. But scars remind us of where we fell short...and can be means of learning far greater than any success.
Ja understands this. He knows he has to get stronger, in better shape...he said as much. Morant is of the mind to take the turnovers, the buckets dropped on him by McCollum late (with a couple of them happening over decent defense...and perhaps a push-off from CJ here and there), the frame frustrations, and grow from them. And beyond the mental scar tissue developed, Ja revealed he had a fractured thumb during the final four games of the slate for Memphis...an injury that surely was a challenge for him to overcome.
Yet there he was...35 points. 8 assists. In the biggest game of his life. When his team needed him most.
That’s someone that you want to lead your organization. His failures won’t define him. They will only make him stronger.
That’s part of the gift that is the youth of the Memphis Grizzlies. There’s a hunger for more. Coach Taylor Jenkins said that while this overachieving season was a success, it still wasn’t good enough. There must be a chase for greater. And it starts with him, using the Bubble as a learning experience and growing as a coach. The team’s game plan against Portland was sound, but it just wasn’t enough given the health of the roster. It extends to Brandon Clarke, who displayed a layer of his game (multiple made threes) against Portland that needs to grow and expand. It isn’t just rookies - Jonas Valanciunas (six assists) showed an advancement of skill that hasn’t been on display as much throughout his career in the last two games. The evolution of this group of players in the Bubble was a sight to behold, and while it did not result in the victories the team wanted it did allow for invaluable training in meaningful practices and key games.
The next time these opportunities arise, the lessons learned from the losses will allow for them to rise to another level as a group.
The Justise Winslow trade, and subsequent acquisition of Gorgui Dieng, essentially ended free agency before is started for Memphis in 2020. Aside from another trade (which is unlikely, but possible), the core of this team is set for next season - assuming Melton is back. The Grizzlies have a 97.6% chance of sending their first round pick to Boston in the NBA Draft this fall, finally clearing their picks owed ledger, and have a 2nd rounder to add even more young talent to this team. But beyond that, the main players that endured the most unique experience in NBA history, bubble and all, as one of the youngest squads in the Association, get to play another day. Waiting to see what Memphis can be with Winslow is worth sitting out a weak free agency class.
And when that day comes, they will have the scars from this season with them to show. But alongside those permanent markings will be the memories of the fun they had together...the relationships they formed. That vaunted “chemistry” that developed in the pursuit of Coach Jenkins’ new “Grizzlies Standard”. It will remain, and only get stronger. For they know that this wasn’t good enough. They want to improve - and get back to work as soon as possible. They want to be in the fight as a unit...in the race for more as one. They know the journey is just starting.
The end of this season, while painful, will at the end of this new era of Grizzlies basketball only be a scar...a remembrance of what had to be before greatness could be achieved.