Over the course of their franchise history, the Memphis Grizzlies have had some...problems to say the least when it comes to talent evaluation and accumulation. Back nearly a year ago, they extended Dillon Brooks with a three-year, $35 million deal. Before that, the last player that the Grizzlies drafted and kept past their initial rookie contract was...Mike Conley, who was drafted back in 2007.
This dysfunction came for two different but related reasons: First, they simply couldn't evaluate talent and generally drafted bad players as a result (see: Wade Baldwin, Jarell Martin, HASHEEM THABEET, Tony Wroten, etc.). Second, on the few occasions when they did draft good players, they often gave up on them before they became good (see: DeMarre Carroll, Greivis Vasquez).
And as a result of this organizational dysfunction, the Grizzlies had what I’ve always referred to as a “missing generation” of players near the end of this last decade. That’s how you end up in a situation where your best player under the age of 25 going into the 2017-18 season was thought to be freaking Deyonta Davis, whose heart for the game of basketball would make the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz say that he’s too apathetic.
Fortunately for those of us who now live in the present, the Grizzlies under the leadership of Zachary Kleiman in the front office have set a standard of excellence in almost every decision/transaction that they’ve made since the spring of 2019. As the kids say, they don’t miss. I’ll spare you all the details, but here’s a list of every player that the Grizzlies have acquired in that time that is currently on the roster:
- Ja Morant
- Grayson Allen
- De’Anthony Melton
- Brandon Clarke
- Xavier Tillman
- Desmond Bane
- Gorgui Dieng
- Tyus Jones
- Justise Winslow
- John Konchar
- Sean McDermott
- Jontay Porter
- Killian Tillie
Of course, the jury is still out on whether the so-called hidden gems in players like Konchar, McDermott, Porter, and Tillie can ever become anything more than peripheral rotation players. But for the most part, every player that the Grizzlies have acquired, whether through the draft or trade, has been a net-positive asset for the team both now and going forward. Their drafting in particular has obviously been a master-class in talent evaluation, with players like Clarke, Bane, and Tillman all vastly out-performing their draft-night position.
However, excellence can breed problems of its own. Because the Grizzlies have done such a phenomenal job of evaluating and accumulating talent, they can honestly claim the title of the NBA’s deepest team, as they have 14-15 players who can soak up legitimate rotation minutes. Yet the inevitable problem that’s created by that level of depth is finding the requisite opportunities for younger players in order to better figure out what you have with them. It can be difficult to establish a clear-cut pecking order when no one among the team’s younger talent is really standing head-and-shoulders above the rest.
While this is admittedly a great problem to have, it rears its ugly head the most when it comes to the Grizzlies’ shooting guard situation. Over the last two years, Taylor Jenkins has demonstrated a willingness, if not an outright preference for using an 11-man rotation. But over the last month or so, he has mostly reduced it to 10, with John Konchar being the player consistently out of the rotation. And after Justise Winslow entered the rotation on February 20th, an unfortunate reality presented itself. Since that game, the Grizzlies have only had all of their available wings and guards once, but when they did against the Clippers on February 26th, De’Anthony Melton was now also the odd man out, playing just three minutes in garbage time.
Let me put it simply: No matter how deep the Grizzlies’ rotation or how great their embarrassment of riches is, De’Anthony Melton has to get consistent minutes. He just has to be on the basketball court. For the second year in a row, he leads the Grizzlies in box plus/minus (3.8) and makes the team better in almost every category when he’s on the court. His per-36 production compares favorably at this stage of his career to Jrue Holliday, Fred Van Fleet, and even Hall-of-Famer Joe Dumars. Even his greatest weakness has become a strength, as he’s shooting career-highs 48% from field and 43% from three on 3.8 attempts.
if I had a 22 year old doing this while shooting 40% from 3, I too would use him sparingly https://t.co/4hN2BQpzIM— Fastbreak Breakfast (@fastbreakbreak) March 11, 2021
In the short-term, fixing this issue is simple. Grayson Allen should be back tonight, and the Grizzlies will have their full rotation of guards and wings, so Taylor Jenkins should simply expand the rotation back to 11 so that Melton can at the very least get 13-15 minutes.
In the long-term, however, it becomes tricky. Without having a strong opinion about his health one way or the other, I will say that the Jaren Jackson Jr. situation shows that not even the Grizzlies front office, which appears to have the Midas touch, is without its faults. I will take them at their word that they expect him to play this year, so if/when he does, that will make the Grizzlies rotation even more complicated.
If you want to keep Melton—or whomever could potentially be on the chopping block among the Grizzlies’ young shooting guards—in the rotation, then there’s only three solutions that I can envision.
The first is trading Kyle Anderson before the deadline to free up more minutes, which I don’t want to happen. To a certain degree, it’s not improbable. He’s a hold-over from the previous regime and hasn't always seemed like an ideal fit for the way that Taylor Jenkins wants to play. But his improvements as a shooter and increased confidence on offense legitimately made him the Grizzlies’ MVP during the first half, and I honestly just think the optics of trading another starting wing/front-court player in the midst of another potential playoff run for the second year in a row would be really bad, no matter what the organizational objectives are. I would not be shocked if this happened in the summer, but I don’t see it happening before the deadline.
On this same line of thought, the second solution could be to reduce Tyus Jones’ minutes and start phasing him out so that Melton can have an increased role as both the backup one and two. They could even trade him before the deadline. Like with Anderson, I think this is highly unlikely to happen, but I'm more open to this possibility. Tyus is a phenomenal floor general and is about to lead the NBA in assist-to-turnover ratio for roughly the 100th year in a row, but he’s also very limited as a scorer, shooter (down to just 29% from three), and defender.
There’s also the argument that prioritizing Melton’s development is more important than whatever value Tyus brings to the team now. I already think Tyus’ time with the Grizzlies will come to an end in the next year or two regardless; there are situations where he can potentially start, and frankly, I think the Grizzlies need to let go of their dependence on him at some point so that Ja Morant can be fully unleashed (go ahead and name a few prominent back-up point guards that played behind an all-star point guard for several years in recent NBA history; there aren’t many).
The final and most likely solution is to significantly reduce Xavier Tillman’s minutes and/or remove him from the rotation, while experimenting more with four-guard lineups that include both Jaren Jackson Jr. and Brandon Clarke soaking up minutes as the de-facto backup fives and Kyle Anderson playing almost exclusively at the four. Clarke played stretches at center to mixed results as a rookie, but this approach could allow the Grizzlies a more extended sample size to evaluate Jaren as a center while also not removing any of the Grizzlies’ young shooting guards from the rotation.
And I believe that the Grizzlies should try their best to ensure that each of their young guards are getting consistent minutes. To be sure, the time is coming (probably this offseason) when the Grizzlies will inevitably have to make some difficult decisions about who will not be a part of the core going forward. The fact that they will likely select another wing in the 2021 NBA Draft only solidifies that coming crossroads.
I will not envy that decision when it comes. Melton is impactful in many different facets of the game and is still growing at just 22 years old. Desmond Bane is currently having the second-best three-point shooting season for a rookie in NBA history. Grayson Allen compares favorably to J.J. Redick at this stage of his career. And this all is not even including the calculations the front office will have to make including holdovers from the previous regime like Kyle Anderson and Dillon Brooks.
But until the time comes when decisions of necessary evil will have to be made, the Memphis Grizzlies need to make sure that they are maximizing the opportunities they give these players so they can eventually make the most informed decisions possible.