I used a Buddhist term in the title of this piece, so I’ve accomplished my quota of inter-faith dialogue for today. Now, I’m going to stay on-brand and briefly talk about the Bible!
In Philippians 3, Paul makes his audience immediately aware that he’s not someone who has it all together; he hasn’t yet become all that he wants to be. He writes, “I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it [his goal]. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead. I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”
You may or may not believe in the truth of this passage, and its truthfulness is a subject for a much different kind of piece on a different website. But no matter what worldview or faith you have, I think there’s something universally resonant about Paul’s words.
We all have a goal and vision of who we want to be, and we spend our lives trying to accomplish that vision. We mess up, we fail, but there’s always grace in our failures. It’s through that grace that we learn, grow, and slowly become more and more like we’re supposed to be. And when we finally start to see tangible progress even through our pains and failures, man, is it joyfully rewarding.
Even this early into the 2021-2022 NBA season, the progress that the Memphis Grizzlies have made toward reaching their idealized vision of themselves is plain to see. It has only taken three games to understand how much of a harvest that three years of work has reaped.
Gone are the days of old-fashioned, grit ‘n’ grind basketball where games were won almost purely in the mud. Those Grizzlies teams had their memorable moments for sure, but those moments always had a fixed ceiling for how memorable they could be. The new generation of Grizzlies are not only embracing the offensive revolution that has been characteristic of every NBA champion since 2014, they are — at least for the moment — leading it.
While the Grizzlies are (probably) still a ways off from legitimate title contention, they have for all intents and purposes attained the offensive identity that they’ve always wanted. In an admittedly small sample size, they are currently first in the NBA in offensive efficiency, almost perfectly exemplifying the pace-and-space approach that every team in the league desires.
There are several reasons for this, but none are are more significant than Ja Morant. There is no debate; he is the greatest talent the franchise has ever had. It’s a seismic boost to what the Grizzlies are trying to do that not only does Morant look like he’ll be a first time All-Star, but he also looks like he’ll possibly be in the thick of the MVP race as the season goes along.
He will inevitably have some “off” games, but the difference that’ll exist between those games this season and those from the last two years is that he’ll only have them because of himself, not really because of anything that other teams will be doing to slow him down anymore. There’s no scheme or coverage that can consistently slow down Morant’s incredible combination of electric athleticism, superb ball-handling, preternatural court vision, and now a possibly good jumper to boot.
However, Morant’s ascension, while hugely impactful, is still just a piece of the puzzle for why the Grizzlies’ offense is exploding. He may be the table-setter, but those who sit at the table are making life much easier for the table-setter—and vice versa. It’s much harder to put more bodies in the paint and bring more help on Morant drives when elite shooters like Desmond Bane, De’Anthony Melton, and Jaren Jackson Jr. are spotting up on the perimeter. Likewise, it’s also difficult to close out on shooters when there’s a generationally athletic playmaker like Morant looking to relentlessly attack the basket.
And the result of all of this is an offense that, again, ranks 1st in offensive efficiency, 2nd in effective field goal percentage (56), 1st in paint points (60.0), 6th in three-pointers made (14.0), and 5th in three-point percentage (40.4). Yes, it’s still early, but there’s plenty of reason to think that it’s sustainable. Morant probably won’t continue to average 35 PPG on 58-44-81 shooting splits (if he does, build the statue at FedexForum immediately) and Melton isn’t going to keep shooting 58% from three, but Bane — who shot 43% from three last year — is only shooting 32% so far, and Jaren has yet to take on his promised greater offensive role. Once these things happen, they will likely serve as an equalizer to some degree.
Still, even as the Grizzlies strain toward their version of offensive nirvana, there are still several key flaws for the team as a whole to address. Two of them, bench scoring (29th in the league) and defense (dead last in efficiency) are concerning, although the return of Dillon Brooks will somewhat address them. Even the offense in the starting lineup isn’t perfect, as they are still figuring out how to properly maximize Jaren Jackson Jr.
With all of that in mind, it is obvious Memphis Grizzlies have not yet reached their goal of becoming everything that they desire to be. There have been plenty of growing pains over the last three years, and there will continue to be more.
But in the meantime, the Grizzlies are leaving behind the failures of their old identity and straining toward a greatness that only their new identity centered around their first true superstar can provide them.
What a day in Memphis it will be once they attain it.