Allow me to qualify everything I’m about to say with a positively true disclaimer: the Memphis Grizzlies are well-ahead of schedule, and the sky is not falling. Hardly any analyst of any credibility projected the Grizzlies as a playoff team this year, and the fact that they are in sole possession of the eight seed in the West with 11 games to go is a testament to the internal development of their young core as well as the intelligence of the coaching staff.
But the Grizzlies also have a problem, albeit an admittedly good one to have—they are stuck between worlds. The primary organizational objective from the front office for this season was internal growth as well as to evaluate who will be long-term members of the core around Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. going forward. Yet the Grizzlies have advanced well beyond those organizational objectives and are good enough to make the playoffs for the first time since 2017.
Now here’s the issue: the fact that the Grizzlies’ front office desires data accumulation and proper evaluation of its prospects should not be in conflict with the fact that the team is much better than expected because of internal improvement alone. After all, if your exceedingly young team is surpassing almost every expectation, you will naturally figure out who is proving themselves impactful to that success. However, these two realities are proving to conflict with each other.
Enter Justise Winslow
I’m just going to pull no punches right from the very beginning: Justise Winslow should not play another minute for the Memphis Grizzlies this year if the team wants to win basketball games and make the playoffs. Whether they opt-in or not to his $13 million team option next year is irrelevant in the context of this discussion; he is, in his current form, absolutely awful. The experiment, at least for this year, has failed.
Even if evaluation is a stated organizational goal, there’s simply no way to justify continuing to give him significant minutes when he’s given you a significant 22-game sample size of data in which he’s shot a horrific 34% from the field and 13% from three, all while his defensive value is questionable at best. He’s not helping you in any way this year, and even if he still can be a good NBA player, he’s not going to demonstrate any meaningful evidence of that this year. To believe otherwise is to be divorced from reality.
Justise Winslow is currently averaging:— Peter Edmiston (@peteredmiston) April 29, 2021
19.9 min/gm (22 gms)
Going back at least 25 yrs, no one has ever put up such bad offensive numbers while playing so many minutes at that usage level. It's never happened.
Hard to say you're trying your best to win now
And the reality is that the Grizzlies need Tyus Jones, a superb floor general who has been one of the league’s better backup point guards, to resume his role. Despite his deficient scoring, he raises the bench unit’s offensive floor while maintaining their chemistry and continuity.
To be honest, I was pretty indifferent at first about the Grizzlies giving Winslow backup point guard minutes at the expense of Jones because A) I, too, wanted to evaluate what Winslow could be in that role going forward, and B) I’ve been fairly low on Tyus for awhile because of his scoring/shooting struggles and don’t think he’s a part of the long-term core. Now I didn’t think it was particularly wise to be drastically disrupting rotations and bench chemistry with less than 15 games to go in a playoff race (and I was right), but I could at least see the philosophy behind it
Yet the truth is that the Grizzlies are utilizing Winslow as a point guard because they can’t utilize him anywhere else; he simply doesn’t present any semblance of an offensive threat when he doesn’t have the ball in his hands. To be fair, he also doesn't when he is the team’s primary playmaker on the court, because he can even make Enes Kanter look like a solid pick-and-roll defender with how far he gets to drop into the paint. His vision is not that of an NBA point guard, and the offense generally stalls and stagnates when he’s on the court.
Of course, I don’t want to tear down Justise Winslow (which admittedly may not be obvious based off the last few paragraphs). He’s not the problem, and I truly do hope that he can at least somewhat return to his form from the 2018-19 season. The problem is that because of the stubbornness of the front office to ensure return on their investment from last year, a player who is struggling to the point where he’s actively hurting the team in the midst of a playoff race is remaining in the rotation.
Now there are those out there who would say that because the Grizzlies weren’t supposed to make the playoffs this year, the playoff race ultimately doesn't matter, and the stated organizational goals of internal improvement and data accumulation for the future are what truly matters.
I think that’s really dumb, mainly because, again, there shouldn’t be tension between those two things. After all, the Grizzlies have already achieved their organizational goals for this season.
At this point in the season, the Grizzlies have now had 61 games of data to evaluate who will be long-term pieces next to Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr, and they’ve had 22 games to evaluate Justise Winslow. No matter what happens in regards to the playoff race over the next few weeks, they aren’t going to learn anything new in these last 11 games. And even if they somehow did, would it be valuable enough to warrant hurting the team in the present and robbing their young core of valuable playoff experience? No, it would not.
I also just think the optics of the front office making the team tangibly worse when they’re in the middle of a playoff race two years in a row—with the Winslow trade last year and his forced insertion into the rotation this year—are really bad. In context, the Winslow trade made sense, and I supported it, but they lost two veteran rotation players in Jae Crowder and Solomon Hill. You just can’t keep handicapping your players from achieving what they’ve grinded for all season for the sake of what you hope to gain back on the investment of one player. Despite what many may think, it doesn’t go unnoticed by the players.
If they really to make a more informed decision about Winslow’s future in particular, they can just opt-in to his team option like they almost absolutely will and gather more data from him next year.
With all of that in mind, the Grizzlies need to focus on putting together their best rotations and utilizing their most well-equipped players in an effort to win as many games as they possibly can to finish out this season. Organizational objectives should evolve, especially if the primary objectives coming into this season have already been achieved. The players have earned this opportunity, and they don’t deserve to be handicapped in trying to make the most of it.
The Memphis Grizzlies are ahead of schedule. And it’s time for all parties involved to acknowledge that reality and proceed accordingly.