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Welcome to 2021 - the biggest year for the Memphis Grizzlies (yet)

2021 can define the Grizzlies’ future aspirations

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San Antonio Spurs v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

2020 was a brutal year. It was certainly a weird time investing in sports, given there was a global pandemic, social injustice, and a crazy election. But hey, we made it out, and we’re in 2021.

Even though 2020 was rough, the Memphis Grizzlies brought some positivity to our world. Ja Morant burst on the scene as a potential superstar, winning the Rookie of the Year award. Brandon Clarke joined him on the All-Rookie team. Though he spent a lot of 2020 hurt, Jaren Jackson Jr. flashed the unicorn upside many raved about in the pre-draft process. After plenty of debates regarding his value, De’Anthony Melton is back on a team-friendly deal. The front office continued to make great moves — turning the Andre Iguodala fiasco into Justise Winslow, and making draft-night moves for Desmond Bane and Xavier Tillman.

Overall, a strong year 1 for the Memphis Grizzlies rebuild.

Now, we enter the most pivotal year in the Memphis Grizzlies “process”.

Am I saying this because I think the Memphis Grizzlies are going to be in the title hunt? No, but there are so many factors into this year that could dictate how soon they enter the conversation.

Memphis Grizzlies v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Internal Development

Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. are the focal points of the rebuild. One is a transcendent point guard that has the best traits of all your favorite NBA point guards, while the other is a 7-footer who is the prototypical modern big man with his 3-point shooting prowess and his defensive switch-ability.

Obviously, first and foremost, a strong recovery for their injuries and a clean health bill in 2021 are the most crucial elements of success going forward for these players. Anything and everything the Grizzlies can do start with the availability of their two best players. On the court though, what’s going to be interesting is how both players look with higher volumes for a larger sample size, as we’ve seen the small dosages from the first 2 games of the season for Ja and the 3 bubble games from Jaren. In addition, what happens to their games if Ja’s jumper is consistent and Jaren cuts down on fouling will be fascinating developments as well.

In this regard though, it’s going to be important to see which players on this roster can develop into complementary players alongside these two cornerstones when the time comes to contend.

Brandon Clarke is the most talked about player here, with his upside to become an elite role player in the vein of Pascal Siakam, Montrezl Harrell, or Paul Millsap. Can he continue making incremental improvements as a shot-maker and playmaker, while maintaining efficiency in the same realm of his remarkable rookie campaign? Dillon Brooks is a polarizing player, whose shot selection draws criticism, and his 3-level scoring has filled a need that’s existed since Rudy Gay’s departure. He may fit as a 6th man, and it’ll be interesting to see what happens to his ceiling if his focus as a playmaker is legitimate.

I’m also going to throw Justise Winslow and Kyle Anderson together, because they accomplish the same things. Everything with Winslow is in theory — his playmaking, positional versatility, and his scoring upside — as long as he’s out. So obviously the thing with Winslow comes down to availability, and what he can show when he steps on the floor. Anderson’s been the biggest surprise of the season, with his emerging jumper, stellar rebounding, and willingness to go out and attack. With Anderson, it comes down to what happens when everyone is healthy. Does he move back down to the 3 without cramping spacing, or does Coach Jenkins relegate him to the bench so he can stay at the 4?

Two other players to monitor here are De’Anthony Melton and Desmond Bane. You could make a very strong argument that either one of those players (in Melton’s case, when healthy) should be the starting 2-guard for the time being. Why they aren’t is probably because they don’t want to break up the uber-efficient trio of Jones-Melton-Clarke, and they also want to ease Bane into NBA life. However, Melton is already, analytically, one of the most productive bench players in basketball. Does he enter the same stratosphere as Marcus Smart if he acquires a volume jumper — even in the “32-35 percent” ballpark? Bane’s 3-point shooting is an ideal fit next to Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. As he adjusts to the NBA game, you should see his value as a playmaker and multi-positional defender rise.

What the cornerstones show when they return to the court obviously draws the most attention, but keep an eye on who can emerge as a potential complementary guy next to them on the next great Grizzlies team.

Assets, Assets, Assets

The assets at disposal for the Memphis Grizzlies will be as strong as it’ll probably ever get in the 2021 offseason.

We’ll start with everyone’s favorite asset accumulation tool: the NBA draft. After conveying the 14th pick to Boston in the 2020 draft, the Grizzlies own their 2021 first-round pick. Once Morant joined Jackson and Winslow on the injury report, 80% of Grizzlies fans probably went to then watched highlights of the top 2021 draft prospects.

The dreams would be Cade Cunningham, Jalen Suggs, and Evan Mobley. All 3 of those players have stood out among the loaded draft class, and the addition of any of those 3 would make the Grizzlies a dangerous contender down the road for years to come. I don’t foresee a scenario they land in the top 3, unless the injuries timeline exceeds that 3-5 week stretch, or with some lucky bounces in the lottery.

I’m expecting them to land around that 7-15 spot, as they may take lumps without Morant and Jackson, but could make a run for a play-in spot when they return. Another pick in the 6-14 range could be added if something happens to the Utah Jazz, as the Grizzlies have one more pick from the Mike Conley trade (though likely to convey in 2022 when protected 1-8).

There’s a deep pool of players that would make awesome fits next to Ja and Jaren. The G-League Ignite prospects (Jalen Green and Jonathan Kuminga) will get shine in the Grizzlies fanbase — particularly Green because of his Memphis Tiger ties — but I worry about the whole Ignite experience. There will be local clamor too regarding Tennesee’s Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer, and both are intriguing combo guards with a nice blend of athleticism and playmaking/scoring upside. If they want Ja’s backup sidekick in that range, UConn’s James Bouknight and Arkansas’ Moses Moody are great scoring options. If they want a big two-way wing, look towards Stanford’s Zhaire Williams or Duke’s Jalen Johnson. Kentucky’s BJ Boston and Terrence Clarke are losing steam, but there’s time to regain it. Three of my favorite wings to keep an eye on are Josh Christopher and Marcus Bagley of Arizona State, and Gonzaga’s Corey Kispert.

Regardless, the Grizzlies are going to be in a territory where they can land an impact player that can grow with its young core.

2020-2021 Memphis Grizzlies Content Day Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

The Grizzlies also have more flexibility with its asset collection with the contract situations.

For starters, they’ll have $49,368,131 in expiring contracts for the 2021-22 season between Kyle Anderson, Jonas Valanciunas, Tyus Jones, Grayson Allen, and Justise Winslow (if opted in). They could let the money just come off the books in the 2022 offseason, but it could also be used in buy-or-sell situations. If a situation arises where they want to open up their cap space a bit, or add an impact player with more years on their deal, they have the flexibility to do so.

The 2021 free agency class isn’t as loaded or intriguing as before, since Giannis Antetokounmpo and Paul George (the biggest flight-risks among the stars) inked 5-year extensions. The Grizzlies lost some potential targets to extensions, more notably OG Anunoby, Luke Kennard, and Derrick White. However, the Grizzlies could make noise in free agency if they want to. Here’s the salary cap breakdown:

Grizzlies Salary Cap Scenarios

Situation Total Salary Cap Space Luxury Cap Space
Situation Total Salary Cap Space Luxury Cap Space
Renounce Dieng's bird rights, opt into Winslow's TO $99.6M $12.8M $37M
Renounce Dieng's bird rights, opt out Winslow's TO but not renounce bird rights $86.6M $6.3M $50M
Renounce Dieng's bird rights, opt out Winslow's TO and renounce bird rights $86.6M $25.8M $50M
Projected Salary Cap: $112.8M Cleaning the Glass salary tool

I accounted the situation where Gorgui Dieng’s bird rights are renounced, because I don’t see him in the fold next season. Winslow’s situation is interesting, because it’s hard to lock down a clear idea of whether or not they opt into his team option. If he doesn’t look healthy, it’s tough to imagine a scenario they try one more year. If Winslow’s healthy though and they decline the option, they have a cap hold of $19.5M.

If the latter option is in play, and they open up over $25M in cap space, that puts them in a spot they can grab a great free agent. Duncan Robinson would be the ideal target in that range, and (using the Cleaning the Glass salary tool) they could try a 4-year, $84.4M offer sheet — descending from 24M-22M-20.5M-19M. It’s a good offer value offer given what he brings to the table, and that can make the Heat sweat on matching — and I also think they could be in play for Kawhi Leonard, who tried to recruit Jimmy Butler in the 2019 summer.

There are also some other young quality role players that could fit into cap space or into a mid-level exception — Josh Hart, Norman Powell, Alex Caruso, or Talen Horton-Tucker fit the mold there. Or they could try to acquire another veteran that can play a big role in the playoffs like Evan Fournier, Will Barton, JJ Redick, or DeMar DeRozan.

If the opportunity arises, they should strike. With Jaren Jackson Jr. and Ja Morant in line for max extensions, it could be one of the last offseasons they have to (attempt to) make a free agency splash.

Which leads me to...

2020-2021 Memphis Grizzlies Content Day Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

The biggest move of the year

The biggest decision, barring a top-5 draft pick, will be Jaren Jackson Jr. extension before the 2021-22 season. Things will have to go really south for them not to offer an extension. So the question isn’t’s how much.

Jaren Jackson Jr.’s skillset and upside fits max-level criteria. He’s already one of the most unique big men in the NBA when it comes to size, 3-point efficiency, ball-handling, and defensive upside. The production isn’t at max-level yet, and his injury history thus far could get him out of that range too.

However, he can erase any of that doubt with a huge “All-Star” level leap where he’s averaging 22-6-2 with 2 blocks a game with shooting splits of 48/40/75. If he shows what he did in the bubble at an extended stretch, he can see a max contract. For him, that’d be something like 5 years, $167.5M ($28.9, 31.2M, 33.5M, 35.8M, 38.1M) per Cleaning the Glass.

Another question would be, if not the max then what is the deal. I’d look to see what John Collins makes this offseason as a frame of reference. If you look at similar archetypes (young two-way centers without an All-Star bid yet, but with potential for one), Myles Turner could be a case, as he signed a 4-year, $80M extension that kicked in the 2019-20 season. If he falls below a max, I’d expect something with an annual average between $20-25M over 4-5 years.

Regardless, a Jaren Jackson Jr. extension would be the first sign in committing to winning with this core. It’ll also be the realization that the time for contending could be sooner rather than later.

Memphis Grizzlies v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

2021 can be the most formative year for the Memphis Grizzlies in quite some time. It’ll lay a huge foundation into what this team can be when Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. enter their primes — both with their individual development, and the growth from complementary players,

Then, this is the best asset state they’ll have, unless they let that nearly $50M in expiring contracts run into free agency in 2022. Their draft pick will be the highest it’ll be in the next 5-10 years, and it’s loaded with talent that actually fit next to Ja and Jaren. Offseason 2022 is likely going to be the one where the Grizzlies will be living with oodles of cap space, but they have the flexibility to strike in 2021 free agency, if needed.

In 2021, the Memphis Grizzlies will commit even harder to its young core, allow them to grow, and add another young prospect alongside them — all while still potentially competing for a playoff spot. It’s going to be important to not see any mishaps, both on and off the court.

2021 can be the foundation that brings a championship parade down Beale Street down the road, and the biggest indication of how soon (or if) that dream could come.

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