Of the 32 games to start the season, the Memphis Grizzlies had to play ...
- 8 of them without Ja Morant
- 25 without Justise Winslow
- all of them without Jaren Jackson Jr.
Factor that in with the revolving door of rotation players missing time and the week off from “health and safety protocols,” and that’s a whirlwind start to the season. And they still finished with a .500 record, and they’re sitting at 10th in the Western Conference — good for the play-in.
If you laid out those scenarios to any Grizzlies fan, they’d ask if it was that bad. Instead, Taylor Jenkins rallied this guys to the “next man up” mentality to weather the storm and maintain fighting position in the brutal Western Conference.
As we await the second half of the season, let’s reflect on the first 32 games. Joining me for this GBB roundtable is Joe Mullinax (@JoeMullinax), Brandon Abraham (@bcabraham), Lauren Harvey (@DragicKingdom), and Tev Shakir (@TevShakir).
1) Who was the Grizzlies MVP for the 1st half of the season?
GBB Site Manager Joe Mullinax: A lot of folks will say Kyle Anderson, and for good reason - he’s grown considerably and is a dark horse Most Improved Player candidate. But for me, it’s Ja Morant because of how important he is to this team. Without Ja, the entire offensive scheme of the Grizzlies loses impact because no one executes the drive and kick aspect of the Grizzlies system as well as Ja. Morant being in the All-Star conversation despite his injury reflects his production on the floor and his role off of it. The ceiling of Memphis is far lower when he isn’t on the floor - because of that, he’s my MVP.
GBB Associate Editor Brandon Abraham: This is a toss-up between Kyle Anderson and Ja Morant. I lean towards Kyle Anderson as he’s taken a major leap this season and helped keep the team afloat while Ja was out with injury. Ja is the expected MVP but it can’t be understate how crucial Kyle was as the Grizzlies went 16-16 through the first 32 games.
GBB Staff Writer Lauren Harvey: Kyle Anderson. Anderson is healthy, and his leap in scoring is a huge reason why the Grizzlies have remained respectable in the Western conference. My favorite few minutes of Grizzlies basketball in the first half was Anderson showing off his new shot against Charlotte and draining four straight corner threes from the exact same spot. I guess they didn’t get the message. He’s been the most consistent player on the roster on both ends of the floor and if his shot sticks around, he has a spot on the next contending Grizzlies team.
“The Starting 5” Co-Host Tev Shakir: My MVP for the 1st half would be Jonas Valanciunas. “Consistency is Key” is the motto and he’s a prime example of it. While averaging 15.6 ppg and 11 boards a game (8th in the league), his big frame along with his skill set makes him a headache for defenders. I’m all in on him being “Mr. Consistency” for the Grizz.
GBB Associate Editor Parker Fleming: I’m going to roll with Kyle Anderson. Though, like what Joe said, Ja Morant’s impact can’t go understated, Anderson’s versatility and leap has helped the Grizzlies stay afloat. His 3-point shooting has been a revelation, and it’s also instilled more confidence in the rest of his offensive game — as a driver, facilitator, and mid-range creator. His positional versatility though has been a huge boost as well. He’s taken a lot more time at the 4, with Jaren Jackson Jr. out, and the Grizzlies have outscored opponents by 5 points per 100 possessions with him at that position — per Cleaning the Glass. In addition, he took on a larger playmaking role when Morant was out with injury, averaging 5 assists a game in that span. His jump from “likely odd man out” to “vital link in the chain of success” has been awesome and has made him the Grizzlies’ most valuable player.
2) What was the biggest surprise for the Grizzlies to start the season?
GBB Site Manager Joe Mullinax: The play of the aforementioned Kyle Anderson. His offensive explosion compared to what he’s been his entire Grizzlies tenure combined until now, the fact he remains the team’s most versatile (if not best) defensive player, it all adds up to him being a piece of the success of this team when it seemed as if he was destined to be on the trade block due to not cracking the rotation. He may still be a trade piece, but it won’t be because he’s lost value as a Grizzlies player. On the contrary - the team may opt to strike while the iron is hot and take advantage of his recent streak of great play.
I’m not sure I’d make that deal. I’m saying the depth of the team eventually needs to be used in a way that makes the long-term prospects of Memphis stronger. Kyle isn’t immune to that.
GBB Associate Editor Brandon Abraham: The biggest surprise to me was the Grizzlies young core keeping the team afloat with Ja with injury. Each of the young guys that the front office is “evaluating” has had more good than bad moments in the first half of the season. The young core keeping the Grizzlies alive with Ja (and Justise & Jaren) out was one of the bigger stretches of the season. Instead of crumbling under pressure, the guys stepped up and kept fighting.
GBB Staff Writer Lauren Harvey: The rookies having an immediate impact. Both Desmond Bane and Xaxier Tillman projected as seasoned college players who potentially could be successful right away but they have exceeded my expectations. Bane has the smoothest shot of any Grizzly in recent memory and Tillman is the exact type of versatile big this front office has fallen in love with. Watching them gel with this roster has been one of the most fun parts of the season thus far.
“The Starting 5” Co-Host Tev Shakir: The biggest surprise for me is the turn up of Slo-Mo! I knew Kyle Anderson was a great defender but coming into the season, I wasn’t sure on how his offensive game, or lack thereof, would fit. Who is this guy?? Kyle Anderson is EASILY the Most Improved Player in the league thus far but...we will leave it there.
GBB Associate Editor Parker Fleming: Kyle Anderson’s jumper is the eye-catcher, but there’s been another 3-point leap this season: De’Anthony Melton. His 3-point percentage jumped from 28.6% to 42.3%, and he’s shooting with more volume as well (2.3 attempts per game to 3.9). What’s even more impressive is his new-found confidence and efficiency as a pull-up shooter. He’s shooting 43.5% on pull-up 3’s, up from 17.5% last season. Desmond Bane and Grayson Allen's shooting catch more eyes in the shooting guard battle, but Melton is right there with them. Melton’s improvement as a shooter highlights his room for growth and his unknown, but tantalizing, upside.
3) What was the biggest disappointment?
GBB Site Manager Joe Mullinax: There isn’t one. Because there are no expectations. The hope for me this season was to figure out who fit long-term with this team. I do think we’re closer to that information now than we were, say, a year ago. Would it have been nice to see Jaren Jackson Jr. before now? Sure. But this front office marches to the beat of their own drum, not that of Grizzlies Twitter. This season isn’t a priority for them in terms of playoff seeding...so why be disappointed in anything involving record? They’re a young team so mistakes will happen. Their veterans are doing what’s expected. If you’re disappointed your perspective is off.
GBB Associate Editor Brandon Abraham: What is there to be disappointed about? I suppose you could argue the injuries haven’t been great, but outside of Ja Morant there hasn’t been major injuries that surprised the team. I’m always a half glass full guy, but I genuinely cannot find anything disappointing with the first half of the Grizzlies season.
GBB Staff Writer Lauren Harvey: Injuries in general. Even beyond the key missing pieces it seems the Grizzlies have dealt with injuries at a greater than league average rate. Hopefully this will be a distant memory very soon. In the second half it would be nice to have a solid month at least to evaluate the roster at full strength.
“The Starting 5” Co-Host Tav Shakir: The biggest disappointment would be our lack of effort defense in tough runs. The Grizz are a young, feisty team on defense but sometimes the best teacher is experience. As the Grizz go through runs without scoring, they have a habit of leaving shooters open, which makes it harder to stay in games. Only experience will show a good Grizz defense can become a great one.
GBB Associate Editor Parker Fleming: Is there really a disappointment for a team that’s gone .500 without its best perimeter weapon and a (once-theoretical) playmaking, defensive-stopping wing for the majority of it? Probably not. For the spirit of the roundtable though, I’ll name one — the short-lived arrival of “Dillon Brooks the Playmaker.” Granted, he closed the 1st half strong in the assist department, tallying 7 dimes against Milwaukee. However, he started to revert back to his old ways a bit in that regard. In the month of February, he averaged only 1.8 assists, down from 3.5 and 3.0 in December and January. It’s not worth ditching “Dillon Brooks Island” over, as his efficiency has been better recently and his defense has been strong, but it’s definitely disappointing for someone looking to see Brooks grow as a facilitator.
4) Are the Grizzlies “tanking”?
GBB Site Manager Joe Mullinax: Ah yes, the outlier question asked of some online. Of course they’re not tanking. If they are, they’re doing a terrible job of it. Their stated goal this entire season has been “data accumulation” to quote Grizzlies GM Zach Kleiman. You can’t gather data on John Konchar by never playing him. This team knows who they are. They’re a play-in team right now. They’re a playoff team if they prioritized getting players on the floor as soon as possible. But what’s the end game? To increase the odds of long-term health issues for the likes of Justise Winslow and Jaren Jackson Jr. to be the 5 or 6 seed and eventually get demolished in the 1st or 2nd round by real contenders? The long view is what they’re choosing. And it’s the right decision. It’s not a tank - it’s an understanding that their time isn’t now - but it’s coming soon.
GBB Associate Editor Brandon Abraham: To quote Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street “Absolutely... Not!” The notion that the Grizzlies are tanking is ludicrous and that’s putting it nicely. Has Jenkins been creative and confusing with some of his rotations, especially when the team had the injury bug? Sure. But the team has played it’s butts off every single night and the front office isn’t doing anything to force the team to tank. If you think them waiting and being cautious with Justise Winslow and Jaren Jackson Jr. is “tanking,” go watch Kristaps Porzingis struggle to move around in the early season Mavericks games.
GBB Staff Writer Lauren Harvey: Absolutely not. They are a .500 team in the West. I’m not sure what some fans were expecting but the Grizzlies look exactly like a slightly ahead of schedule, competitive team that is still rebuilding.
“The Starting 5” Co-Host Tev Shakir: As said on the Starting 5 pod: They are completely “tankompeting”! Coming into this season, I just wanted to see personal growth in our young core...that comes with losing games we should win but also vice versa. To further answer this question, I think we will finish around the .500 mark.
GBB Associate Editor Parker Fleming: Absolutely not. This front office is strategic with resting and injury recovery, and it’s unfair to criticize them for it when they’re the ones with the data. For a team that’s technically still in the beginning phases of a rebuild, not rushing the returns of 2 of their 3 most important players is fine.
Now you may bring Coach Jenkins’ rotation decisions into question, as he goes 10-deep regardless of who’s available. If that means getting extended looks at Killian Tillie, John Konchar, and Sean McDermott, that’s okay. They’re in a “data accumulation” mode right now. How do you get that data? By playing them. What the Grizzlies are doing is what every young team should be doing: assessing their talent and being cautious with injury risk, all while remaining competitive.
Thank you to our writers that participated in this roundtable. Feel free to sound off your responses in the comments below.