The Memphis Grizzlies have now played 33 games, almost half their season schedule. They have a winning record, are right in the thick of the Western Conference playoff picture, and boast a roster that from top to bottom may be the very best in the entire NBA. These are all things that should not be collectively the case for a team technically in the third year of their rebuild from the Grit and Grind Era, but Ja Morant and company have overachieved almost constantly since 2019. That process has continued so far, and even with fair concerns about regression/non-linear progress due to moving on from key players like Grayson Allen and especially Jonas Valanciunas, the team appears to continue to march onward and upward.
That doesn’t mean it has been completely smooth sailing. The Grizzlies at one point were considered one of the worst, if not the worst, defense in the entire NBA. Memphis has seen growing pains in minutes from the 10th pick in the 2021 NBA Draft Ziaire Williams. Injuries have derailed the chemistry development of various rotations that are important to the prospects of the Grizzlies both in the here and now as well as the future. Despite these bumps in the road, the journey has been a largely successful one for Memphis so far.
As the holidays come calling, this is a wonderful time to reflect on what exactly we can say is undeniably true about the Grizzlies at this point of the season. The overall sample size is large enough now - Christmas time is here. Who are the Memphis Grizzlies?
Three truths have become apparent. Number one.
This is not a mirage
The Memphis Grizzlies are very much in the mix to be one of the top-6 teams in the Western Conference playoffs, and arguably should be the favorites to win the Southwest division (which would be their first in franchise history). That standing should not change moving forward, barring some unforeseen circumstance like illness or injury. The Grizzlies will only continue to find their footing together, with Ja Morant and Dillon Brooks in particular finding more time to fit together than they have had so far this season. Remember - Dillon began the season on the sideline due to a hand injury (which appears to be a major reason for the abysmal defensive start). Then, once Brooks returned to the lineup he and Morant only played six full games together before Ja hurt his knee and was on the shelf himself.
Brooks and Morant were two of the five or so best players on the floor in the playoff series between the Grizzlies and Utah Jazz last spring. So logically, it stands to reason that as the games pile up with these two alongside each other that rhythm should not just return, but be built upon. Add in empowered play from Desmond Bane and Jaren Jackson Jr. with more offensive opportunity, and the Memphis starters will only get better offensively in particular. This also allows a reserve unit led by Tyus Jones, De’Anthony Melton, and Kyle Anderson to gain some traction and get to enjoy the ability to mix and match with a full compliment of starting-caliber players.
The 9th and 10th man in the rotation? Perhaps that is where questions lie and things are less settled. But you can certainly do worse than the five starters (Morant/Bane/Brooks/Jackson Jr./Adams) and the trio of Jones/Melton/Anderson as your key rotation pieces. Assuming health and opportunity to earn valuable time together on the floor (and no major trades, in that same thought process), the current 5-ish game advantage in terms of wins over losses will be built upon. The Grizzlies have too much talent to not be in that spot. Falling out of the top-8 at this point would be a big disappointment, even with the current jumbling of teams from 4-8.
Memphis is that good.
Taylor Jenkins is a hell of a basketball coach
How many basketball players have to develop and improve their games under his tutelage for more people, both locally and nationally, to give this man his flowers? The Memphis Grizzlies front office is purposely not pursuing direct ways to improve this team in terms of acquiring ready-to-win talent. They traded Patrick Beverley, a functional/OK to good NBA player, essentially for Jarrett Culver, whose greatest value as a basketball player to this franchise moving forward may be as an expiring contract to be traded. He replaced a good offensive weapon in Grayson Allen with a gifted scorer (with a lower cap hit) in Desmond Bane. He took Steven Adams (and Jaren Jackson Jr. and Kyle Anderson and others) and negated much of what was lost from the Jonas Valanciunas departure.
The team continues to evolve, and learn, and grow under his leadership. And yet when the best coaches in the NBA are mentioned, his name rarely comes up.
No, the Grizzlies are not NBA Finals contenders. And no, Memphis is not the big city with the flashiest lights. Yet here Memphis stands at Christmas, in front of both L.A. teams, the Mavericks, the Nuggets, and the Trail Blazers in the standings in the Western Conference. That’s with his team’s best player - an All-Star caliber guard who when at his peak is All-NBA worthy - missing almost a third of the team’s games.
Again...why is he not given the credit he deserves?
The stretch without Morant proved beyond a shadow of a doubt what was already probably true. Taylor Jenkins is the right man for this job. He has castoffs (De’Anthony Melton helped the Phoenix Suns salary dump Josh Jackson) and late 1st/early 2nd round picks helping a supposedly rebuilding team lead the pack in the second tier of the Western Conference. His two most important players to the team’s success in terms of ceiling both now and moving forward are 22 years old. All he’s done is get these guys to buy in to a culture of play - one they helped build, which helps with that buy-in - and compete a level above their weight class the entire time he’s been at the helm of the on-the-court product.
He isn’t perfect. Rotations continue to evolve and solidify. But some folks really need to stop trying to fire Taylor Jenkins. Extend him before everyone else figures out what we already know. The man can coach.
This team should buy at the deadline...and not sell for the sake of selling.
When you think about rebuilding teams, usually veterans on expiring deals are prime trade-now candidates. Contenders need these types of contributors to get them over the precipice of greatness - and at times they’re willing to pay a premium price to acquire their short-term services. The likes of Kyle Anderson and Tyus Jones, then, should be undoubtedly be on the trading block. Both contracts are highly moveable given their low money numbers, relatively speaking. Both can impact winning now, whether it be as versatile front court defenders and facilitators (Anderson) or as elite assist to turnover ratio machines (Jones). So what kinds of deals can the Grizzlies expect to negotiate for their dep...
Wait...Memphis should be keeping them now?
Yes. Because they’re already important cogs to a playoff rotation. And that should not be disrupted unless a home run deal for a Ben Simmons or Jaylen Brown arises (spoiler alert - they won’t), even for a Grizzlies franchise that is technically still “rebuilding”.
Instead, eyes should turn to the 9th/10th spots in the rotation mentioned earlier. Beyond Jones/Anderson/De’Anthony Melton, things get shaky. Both Xavier Tillman Sr. and Brandon Clarke have shown good and bad moments this season for Memphis, and with Clarke’s current injury concerns there is not as much “4th big” certainty as perhaps you’d hope for. Beyond that, who is the 10th man for the Grizzlies - John Konchar? Ziaire Williams? Konchar has limitations (although he has proven to be productive at times) physically, and Williams is inexperienced, was one of the worst NBA rotation players before he sprained his ankle, and has missed a decent amount of time with that ankle injury.
Questions abound beyond the key 8. And if you want to believe that Tillman or Clarke will work out, that leaves at least one spot open. Do you really want to enter a 4-5 series against the Lakers, Clippers, Nuggets, or Mavericks without better depth for at least this season? When you’re expected to win that series for the first time in the #GrzNxtGen era?
The time will come for who could be that kind of player (early favorites - Justin Holiday (ironically), Terrence Ross, Kenrich Williams, Oshae Brissett) or perhaps something more if Memphis wanted to part with one of, or both, of Jones and Anderson (Eric Gordon, Jerami Grant, etc.) But the Gordon/Grant pieces seem to be too big of fish for what it’ll cost for the Grizzlies to be “buyers” when they really aren’t buying. Some combination of Culver, Sam Merrill’s expiring deal, two future second round picks, or even the Jazz 1st rounder in 2022 (likely to be in the 25-30 range) should be able to net you a 10th man than makes you better without costing you chemistry or any of your best assets.
That remains the goal - even as the goal posts shift some with rising expectations.
So this is Christmas...it’s not as merry as the world wanted it to be. But it is pretty jolly for the Memphis Grizzlies in terms of NBA basketball. They’re right in the thick of a playoff race, boasting one of top records in the league while being in position to host a 1st round playoff series. While the franchise retires the number of the great Zach Randolph and hangs #50 at the top of FedExForum, the team he once led is in a prime place to do something he and the Core Four never accomplished - win a divisional title, and add a banner for that to the rafters of 191 Beale Street.
It’s all there for these young Memphis Grizzlies to take if they want. But first, at this special time of year, a moment to look back on what has already come to be. This audaciously talented squad is for real when it comes to competing for playoff home court advantage in the first round as the #4 seed. Their head coach is leading the charge toward a higher level of competition. And for the first time under Zach Kleiman, Memphis should be “buying” as the trade deadline approaches.
Let the truth set you free, Memphis. Merry Christmas. Your Grizzlies have taken another step toward their ultimate goal.
Their journey is not over. In fact, it’s only beginning.