Xavier Tillman Jr., the 35th pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, was taken by a Memphis Grizzlies organization that was already quite deep in the front court. Between Jaren Jackson Jr., Jonas Valanciunas, Brandon Clarke, and Gorgui Dieng, it was widely assumed that Tillman would see a lot of playing time with the Memphis Hustle or hang on the edge of the rotation. But all the previously mentioned players dealt with some form of injury or adversity throughout the season, and Xavier Tillman was given far more opportunity to play than was initially thought.
Through those reps, Memphis decided that Tillman was ready to supplant Dieng as the back-up center despite the fact that Dieng was playing quite well for the Grizzlies himself. Statistically speaking, Gorgui was a superior player - better win shares per 48 minutes, better rebounding percentage, better three point shooting rate and true shooting percentage. If the Grizzlies were interested in maximizing the season at hand, Taylor Jenkins and company would have prioritized playing Dieng and letting Tillman get his opportunity next season since he was a long-term signing and Gorgui was an expiring contract.
But the data that was accumulated led Memphis to parting with the better-by-numerous-metrics Dieng in the name of developing Tillman. Now, there are some that think Tillman should supplant Brandon Clarke in the rotation.
None of that happens if the Grizzlies front office approached this season with a 100% total win-now mentality.
The same can be said of the 1,253 minutes logged by Desmond Bane this season for the Grizzlies. The 30th overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, Bane is the leader in the rookie clubhouse in minutes played among current NBA playoff/play-in teams. There are several players that have been on the floor more than Bane, but they play for teams that are in rebuilds or are 10 games under .500 and are somehow still in the Eastern Conference play-in picture. Of this rookie class only Bane, LaMelo Ball, Immanuel Quickley, and Payton Pritchard have participated in over 1,000 minutes for current playoff teams (Tillman at 940 minutes is 5th). Desmond has gotten the opportunity to show not just his elite shooting stroke (he easily leads rookies that have played at least 500 minutes at 45.5% from beyond the arc), but that he can defend within scheme and create off the dribble for himself and others despite his physical limitations.
Again, injury has led to opportunity to an extent. But instead of giving a known commodity in John Konchar that run, who again posts better advanced numbers than Bane and could especially help as a rebounder for a team that at times struggles in that area, they decided to give Bane run. Why? To see what they had in him. To get enough information to see if he could compete with Grayson Allen and De’Anthony Melton for minutes on the wing for the Grizzlies right now.
You never know what Bane is capable of without those minutes. And without the patience the Grizzlies have shown in allowing both he and Tillman to step up in to the roles they’ve been given over the course of this season.
This entire campaign, from General Manager Zach Kleiman to Head Coach Taylor Jenkins to even many of the players, the goal has been stated and understood. Improvement. Growth. Data accumulation. Finding out who fits, and who doesn’t, in this second season of a rebuild for the Memphis Grizzlies. They have made remarkable strides in that pursuit that I wrote about when the season began over four months ago - Kyle Anderson, who seemed on his way out, now appears to firmly be in. The Grizzlies finally have multiple good to great three point shooters, with Grayson Allen going from fringe NBA rotation player to a possible big pay day sooner rather than later. Jonas Valanciunas has shown his consistency and despite criticism from me has displayed high enough levels of play to perhaps be a part of the long-term plans for Memphis in some fashion.
The organization has a better understanding of what is needed entering their final offseason before the team enters the realm of real expectation as supposed franchise cornerstone Jaren Jackson Jr. comes due for a rookie contract extension. And they did all this while prioritizing these pursuits more than specific roster moves to get more wins in the here and now.
The approach to this season has never, ever changed. Not once. And yet, some members of the Memphis media and many Grizzlies fans have decided that now is the time to get angry and yell at the metaphorical clouds that represent the franchise’s steady vision for what this team is, and where they are heading. Because to them, the timing isn’t right for such things. Yet the Grizzlies franchise has been quite persistent though word and action in the idea that they will operate on their own timeline, regardless of public pressure. Because the goal is sustained success. Not pushing for the six seed when they’re not ready to compete with the elites of the NBA.
After trading for Justise Winslow, Zach Kleiman spoke of the potential impact of Winslow for the Memphis Grizzlies in the same breath as Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. While his play to this point has not warranted being held to such esteem, the point is well taken - at least by those listening - that the Grizzlies value Justise as a possible key cog on the “next great Grizzlies team”. They showed this through the decision that they were willing to take on dead money and part with players who could have possible helped Memphis to end the 2019-2020 season stronger in Jae Crowder and Solomon Hill in exchange for what they feel/felt Winslow could be. Finally, Winslow is “healthy”, and he is struggling mightily - especially offensively. Advocacy for Justise remaining in the rotation isn’t based off of merit, and if the coaching staff made a change at any point it would be for understandable reasons.
But this season was never about maximizing single-season record. Again, the actions of the franchise have backed up those words throughout the year. Winslow will get opportunity, because they see him as worthy of it. They must figure out what he can be with this Grizzlies team, and accumulate as much information in live game time as possible about whether he can find his shooting stroke and footing as a physical presence at the rim as a finisher. In a way, these minutes are his practice sessions. Accept it, or vehemently disagree, but understand that this is not a shocking development. Just because the Grizzlies are overachieving in 2021 doesn’t mean Kleiman and company are looking to abandon their long view plans.
The same can be said for the re-integration of Jaren Jackson Jr. in to the rotation and starting lineup. This is seen as a (albeit less controversial) questionable coaching decision as well - “Jaren is a starter, get him in as a starter”. Critics will take the previous 1,000 words here about development and say that matters for Jackson Jr. as well given his own injury history and youth.
That’s fair. But the specific nature of this injury is why they are hesitant to throw him in as a starter, along with their apparent desire to limit Jaren’s early run with Jonas Valanciunas so he can play the more traditional “center” position. They clearly see Jaren as a cornerstone-level player, and they want to make sure he is 100% healthy and comfortable with his body before unleashing him. They want him to knock off rust against reserves, to better learn defensive angles and foul less while checking the bench big men to start. That makes sense for what the Grizzlies desire from this season - a healthy Jackson, as well as Winslow, making it to the offseason being able to prioritize working on their skills sets and not being busy rehabbing nagging injuries. Perhaps Jaren returns to the starting five this weekend. That would be great - but it will not be rushed.
Because for this Grizzlies performance/training team, the long view means nights off on back to backs during a playoff race. It means a gradual return to the starting five. And it leads to more yelling at the heavens, being frustrated with water being wet or the sun being hot.
The approach and message of the Memphis Grizzlies organization has been consistent. It is the media and fan perception of them and what matters this season that has changed. And that is not their problem.
The complaints and concerns are valid on the surface - but they lack merit and context. For every “the team will become toxic with Winslow being force fed minutes”, there’s a blatant ignoring of the words of players like Jaren Jackson Jr. and others about how Justise fits with the culture and chemistry of the roster nicely. The team of course like Tyus Jones too, but reaching to create tension based off of how you’d react without knowing any of these players personally or the internal workings of the locker room is wild speculation. And they know what Tyus Jones is capable of. 438 minutes for Winslow, despite what some say, is not a large enough sample size within the framework of this jam-packed season, much less the Grizzlies schemes and rotations, to determine whether a player is fully healthy much less able to contribute after being out for so long.
Now perhaps the gripe is that Justise shouldn’t be the backup point guard. If he doesn’t take time from Tyus, who should he take it from then? For Tyus isn’t shooting particularly well either (31% from three), is limited defensively due to his frame, and again, they know what they have in Tyus. He arguably is the player most deserving of losing time. For every statistical data splash regarding just how bad Justise has been (and again, he has been bad), there’s an unintended admittance that you have not been paying as close attention to the team all season long. Or you simply do not care now and want them to abandon their philosophy because they could possible lock in a series against the Clippers. That is not the way this group views this situation. It would be out of character.
Gorgui Dieng was better than Xavier Tillman at the time of that decision being made. And yet, Gorgui is gone and X is here. Desmond Bane has gotten more playing time than a known commodity within the schemes of Taylor Jenkins in John Konchar when injuries struck. Is Bane better than Konchar? Perhaps. But you now know that because of the playing time that Desmond has received. Time that rookies usually do not receive on teams trying to compete at the highest levels of the NBA. Two of the top-5 minutes played rookies in the NBA on current playoff teams are on
The same logic applies to Justise’s continued rotational role, or Jaren’s slow but steady return. No, they aren’t rookies. But they are both returning from injury in less than ideal circumstances. And both are seen as valuable pieces of this team’s future. It isn’t about individual performance right now for these Grizzlies as much as it is how they fit with their “North Star” mentality of sustained success, in the not-too-distant future when being the 8 seed in the Western Conference will no longer be considered overachieving. Feel free to criticize and analyze those decisions, but do not try to make it seem like this is a departure from what this team always expected to be.
They expected to compete. They’re doing that.
They expected to grow. They’re doing that.
They expected to accumulate data. They’re doing that.
If the team makes the playoffs as a result? Wonderful. If they don’t? Surely there will be disappointment from many, most importantly players and coaches, but the play-in tournament was the “expectation” of most for this campaign. And Memphis is solidly there at the moment, while handling the season the way they have.
In every way, shape, and form, they’re succeeding based of their definition of what they hoped to accomplish in this season.
The Grizzlies front office is facing its first true test. Memphis loves a winner, and naturally the city and its fan base longs for competing for those spots at all costs. But the vision remains off on the horizon, at least for now. Their pursuit of that greater Memphis future at the perceived (and to a lesser extent than most believe real) expense of individual wins in specific games this season is causing some to question just where Kleiman and company stand. How they handle these issues matters, of course. But it is a two-way street. Impatience is growing...but it is coming from either a lack of understanding or a distrust of a process that, to this point, has been wildly successful.
Critique their current philosophy if you see fit. It is one that is not sustainable and won’t be around when the team is actively engaged in winning and maximizing the talent they’ve accumulated as it comes of age in the years ahead. But just understand that the Memphis Grizzlies strategy that got them to where they are now is what you are battling against.
They aren’t the ones shouting at the sky, mad at the clouds rolling by as they always have.
Stats provided by basketball-reference.com