Over 16 months ago, the last time the state of the Grizzlies organization was reviewed at the end of our Memphis player reviews, no punches were pulled. The colossal failure of the end of the Chris Wallace Era was fully rebuked, from the massive mistake of hiring J.B. Bickerstaff in the way that they did to numerous roster moves (or non-moves) that put the Grizzlies franchise on the brink of a fate far worse than just failure - fan apathy.
Supporters of the Memphis Grizzlies are some of the smartest basketball fans there are. They understood that when the Grit and Grind Era ended - as all good things do - lean times would be ahead. But the lack of direction put forward by Wallace and that iteration of the Grizzlies organization simply was insufficient to believe in - unworthy of collective faith. Holding on to Grit and Grind was a disaster for reasons both within and outside of their control. The attempted restart of it was a colossal misstep more in execution than in thought.
The void of a plan beyond that led to a lack of hope. And the end of that review of the Wallace Era was more a call to action than it was a concluding paragraph.
Robert Pera, and more specifically Jason Wexler and Zachary Kleiman, have a long way to go to show that the problems of the last season or so are not systemic. That things can, and will get better. Early in their tenure they have made decisions lauded by some, and questioned by others. Time heals...and corrective measures will gain back what has been lost. But make no mistake...a whole new generation of Grizzlies fans now knows the sound of failure all too well. The silence that will follow if it doesn’t stop will be deafening.
All is well that ends well, right?
From that late April in 2019 moment on, Pera Wexler, Kleiman, and the rest of the Memphis Grizzlies organization didn’t just hit personnel and hiring singles. They belted dingers. They brought in a coach in Taylor Jenkins who shared their collective vision for a brain trust of basketball minds in the front office like Rich Cho and others, making a commitment to the greater process of building sustained success in a small market and the forward thinking decisions that would have to come with it. They built a coaching staff that was diverse both in gender/racial diversity as well as ways of helping young talent get better. That mattered with young talent like Jaren Jackson Jr., who at the time was the sole cornerstone of the Grizzlies franchise.
Of course, that changed relatively quickly...and made the whole rebuild task a lot easier to accomplish.
There’s something to be said for being lucky. And make no mistake, that’s exactly what Memphis was when they moved up to #2 in the 2019 NBA Draft. But luck doesn’t help you if you don’t take advantage of its knock upon your door. Just look at the poor Sacramento Kings, who instead of Jaren in 2018, or more inexplicably Luka Doncic, or Trae Young (in fairness with De’Aaron Fox in the fold that pass is more understandable) took Marvin Bagley III. Bagley may still develop in to a top player in that draft class, but for now it certainly seems Sacramento missed quite badly with that #2 overall selection.
RJ Barrett, in theory, could be a member of the Memphis Grizzlies. But he’s not. Ja Morant is.
And just like that, a steady march toward a brighter future turned in to a sprint.
It goes beyond just Ja, of course. The trade of Mike Conley to Utah netted Memphis not one, but two first round picks in addition to a young prospect in Grayson Allen, a respectable journeyman in Jae Crowder, and an expiring contract in Kyle Korver that could fit nicely in another move. That is what happened with the acquisition of De’Anthony Melton and Josh Jackson (plus a couple second round picks) for Jevon Carter and Korver. Memphis also sent Delon Wright to Dallas in a sign and trade (for more future second round picks), re-signed Jonas Valanciunas to a very team friendly deal, and signed Tyus Jones to a similarly structured descending contract. The team used their cap space wisely and took advantage of a desperate Golden State team, securing yet another future first round pick and Andre Iguodala for solely taking on Iggy’s rather large contract. The rebuild blueprint was clear, concise, and a breath of fresh air.
On draft night in particular, beyond the Morant selection they took advantage of the foolishness of 19 other teams and moved up to add Brandon Clarke to their haul, and signed John Konchar to a two-way contract almost immediately after the draft ended. Memphis showed they have a type - hard working, to an extent self-made, intelligent players that had earned everything they had gotten to that point.
Once the season began, the moves came to fruition. Melton made the most of his opportunities and has gotten himself potentially very well paid this coming offseason. Crowder (and Solomon Hill, who came to Memphis in a trade that got the Grizzlies off that nightmarish Chandler Parsons contract) were experienced vets who helped the young Morant and company grow in their time in Memphis. Jones, while starting slow with the Grizzlies, displayed his elite decision making and ability to protect possessions while creating for others. Even the reclamation project that was Jackson rehabilitated himself enough to likely earn another NBA chance, if it isn’t in Memphis. Grayson was a force in the Bubble when Memphis needed him to be, and Hill and Crowder (along with Iguodala) eventually became Justise Winslow and Gorgui Dieng, two players who should help Memphis next season and hopefully beyond in the case of Winslow more than Hill/Iguodala/Crowder ever would.
The draft picks? Well...
The #2 one worked out. And soon, when Brandon Clarke is announced as a fellow member of the All-NBA Rookie 1st Team, it’ll be further evidence that the selection at #21 did as well. Even Konchar showed promise both with the G-League Memphis Hustle and Grizzlies at times.
The Grizzlies front office simply didn’t miss when you consider the long-term goal. The Iguodala trade to Miami made Memphis worse in the short-term, especially once Justise Winslow got injured in the Orlando Bubble and would be unable to play. Crowder and Hill (not Iggy - he wasn’t interested in playing in Memphis) certainly would’ve helped in the seeding games with the Grizzlies pursuit of the playoffs, even if Crowder’s performance in Memphis was far worse than it has been in Miami. But at least they can play currently and were steady hands for a young team that needed more of those. In the case of Winslow, though, it shows that despite the unexpected success this season Kleiman and company showed discipline and kept their eyes on the prize.
This year was already a triumph at the point of moving on from Crowder and Hill, given how much the team had overachieved. The Winslow deal (without giving up anything beyond 2020 free agency flexibility/the opportunity cost of possible similar Golden State contract dump deals) meant that the franchise was more interested in getting Morant and Jackson Jr. talented, younger players that they can grow and develop with in more ways than one. The lessons of a vet can stay with a player their entire career. But playing, and connecting, with a fellow young core member for potentially a decade can mean so much more.
Memphis understands that well. And so does the Grizzlies organization.
Because of that, where there was a silence that can only come from uncertainty and concern there now is a beautiful harmony. There are obstacles ahead - what to do with Melton in the wake of Allen’s Bubble rise, for instance - that could inhibit the Grizzlies from reaching their full potential, or perhaps could help them get there if addressed in a progressive manner. The shades of grey blend together now - with three years left on the rookie deal of Ja Morant before max money surely will be sent his way (after Jaren Jackson Jr. perhaps gets his own max deal the year before) the time to make moves to solidify what the next great Grizzlies roster will look like beyond Ja and Jaren is running shorter by the day.
But that’s OK. Because now, instead of the nerves that come from nothingness there’s a melody reverberating. A coaching staff that is replacing insightful and forward-thinking coaches with more assistants of a similar mindset. An organization that is committed to social change and supports their players beyond the floor, caring for the men that wear the Beale Street Blue and not just their talent, building valuable trust. A Grizzlies franchise that, with a little bit of luck and foresight, is positioned to make the most of the opportunities that are sure to come their way in the months and years ahead.
From an embarrassing fall from grace to a meteoric rise back to playoff possibility in roughly two years time. Be grateful, Memphis. This isn’t the norm. But it is indeed the reality for the Grizzlies.
And you have to love the sound of that.