Ahead of Wednesday’s play-in game with the San Antonio Spurs, it is natural to focus solely on just that contest. The Spurs boast a veteran roster compared to the Memphis Grizzlies, as well as a Hall of Fame Coach for San Antonio in Gregg Popovich taking on Taylor Jenkins, who in his second season is just beginning his NBA journey. But before that contest, the bears of Beale Street played 72 of the most unique games in the history of the Association. Between COVID-19 protocols and issues, injuries to both young cornerstone pieces Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr., and an era of “data accumulation” that likely cost them a win or two now in the name of the greater good of “sustained success”, Memphis has endured a good bit.
Let’s look back on the season that was for the Grizzlies with some of GBB’s best in a good ol’ Roundtable! Joining me are GBB Associate Editors Parker Fleming and Brandon Abraham, as well as Senior Writers Bryce Hayes and Justin Lewis.
What will you remember most about the 2020-2021 Memphis Grizzlies regular season?
GBB Site Manager Joe Mullinax (@JoeMullinax) - I will remember how weird it was due to the pandemic that ravaged the planet while it tried to go on. Of course there are financial reasons this NBA season occurred - viable ones. Lots of folks would be out of work if the Association hadn’t played. But there are consequences to actions regardless of the decision. There are players complaining of long-term impacts from contracting the virus. Multiple serious injuries have occurred. The Grizzlies and Spurs had to play 40 games in 68 days because of their Covid issues earlier in the season. Simply playing during this unprecedented time is likely seen as a “success”...but it’s fair to question the cost. Was the juice worth the squeeze? A majority will say it was. But it wasn’t without its issues.
GBB Associate Editor Parker Fleming (@PAKA_FLOCKA) - The evolution of Dillon Brooks. Though he still led the team in shot attempts in the regular season, he cut down on the chucking, and more of his offense came within the flow of the offense. The biggest thing though is his commitment to excellence on the defensive side of the ball. At the beginning of the season, he proclaimed his mission of joining an All-Defense. It’s going to be tough for him to crack - with Jimmy Butler, Ben Simmons, Jrue Holiday, Matisse Thybulle, among others to compete with - he’s getting credit in this field from a national level (specifically Zach Lowe, Kevin Pelton, and Dan DeVine recognizing him as an “honorable mention” candidate). Even if he doesn’t get it, his edge, work ethic, and aggression lead to some signature defensive outings against some of the league’s elite — giving the Grizzlies a nostalgic taste of Grit ‘n’ Grind
GBB Associate Editor Brandon Abraham (@bcabraham) - I’ll remember the resiliency from this year’s Grizzlies squad. They always seemed to punch back whenever they were punched and embraced adversity en route to a successful season. The young team responded well to most all challenges thrown at them and never gave up on their goals of the season.
GBB Senior Writer Bryce Hayes (@nxtprodigy) - The adversity these guys overcame to still “overachieve.” COVID, empty stadiums, Jaren missing 85% of the season, Ja missing time, COVID parking the team for over a week, only having the team 100% healthy for 3 games max - yet the Grizzlies finished above .500 & found ways to win as TEAM with a number of guys stepping up over the course of the season. They fought like hell this season & battled a tough schedule to get to where they are now - hopefully they’re rewarded with a playoff appearance.
GBB Senior Writer Justin Lewis (@J_Timberfake_) - The progression of players. Kyle Anderson looking like what they paid for initially. Grayson Allen continuing his bubble run for stretches of the season. De’Anthony Melton proving he was worth his extension and a valuable part of the core going forward.
Which player most impressed you during the regular season?
MULLINAX - Dillon Brooks. Honorable mention to Kyle Anderson and Jonas Valanciunas, who both have legitimate claims to being the MVP of this season for the Memphis Grizzlies. But Dillon the Villain took another leap toward Memphis immortality this season. He’s a trick or treat acquired taste like Tony Allen before him, and some would say he doesn’t have the personality that TA did that made his inexplicable shots more palatable. But he has the same tenacity and passion for the game. Brooks had a borderline All-Defense season and also carried a ton of offensive weight. Most important, though, was his establishment of the tone for the roster in terms of energy and effort. While he isn’t “untouchable” in a trade like Ja Morant, the Memphis Grizzlies currently need Dillon Brooks to succeed. I am not sure that was true nine months ago.
FLEMING - Though the leaps from Kyle Anderson and De’Anthony Melton catch more eyes, including mine, I’m going to roll with Grayson Allen. After some hot shooting in the bubble, it might have been easy to note his performance as a mirage, given the unusual circumstances. However, Allen solidified himself as a 3-point marksman at the NBA level. He shot 40% or better in 3 of the 4 full months (January-April), and a cold end to the regular season knocked his April percentage down to 38.2% - which could be tied to tired legs and limited practice time. He not only showed the accuracy, but he also fired at the clip you want to see out of a shooter of his quality. Grayson Allen’s performance is the most impressive, because he helped his NBA career more than any other player on this roster. I don’t know what his future looks like in this organization, but he proved he belongs in this league for quite a while.
ABRAHAM - Kyle Anderson impressed me the most this season. Before the year, he was mentioned as a prime trade candidate for the Grizzlies. Now it’s hard to imagine where the Grizzlies would be without his growth. He’s developed into a solid 3-point shooter and has shown tons of flashes offensively to go along with his great defense and secondary facilitating proving to be a sneaky Most Improved Player candidate.
HAYES - I’m cheating but it’s a 4 way tie between Dillon Brooks, De’Anthony Melton, Kyle Anderson & JV. They all took leaps & matured in their roles on this team to help keep this team afloat in an extremely turbulent season. Brooks was a better decision maker & an improved defender thanks to an improved body. Melton & Anderson improved offensively - especially on the perimeter. JV at times was the Grizzlies best player & simply doesn’t get enough credit for the job he’s done this season.
LEWIS - Xavier Tillman. When we picked him I was very meh because I knew nothing about him, so I had literally no expectations for him. The grown kid can flat-out play basketball on both sides of the ball. He’s going to last quite a bit longer in the league than Jarnell Stokes or Jared Sullinger.
In your opinion, was it a mistake to not prioritize winning/prioritize reorienting Justise Winslow and Jaren Jackson Jr. post injury this season?
MULLINAX - In a word? No. They had to figure out what they had in Justise Winslow. They needed to get franchise cornerstone Jaren Jackson Jr. back in the fold. The front office never, not once, said or did anything to suggest they were fully invested in winning this season at the expense of their long-term planning. Silence at the trade deadline. Over 400 minutes of play for Justise even as he struggled. Continued investment of time in Jaren who, although he needs the reps more and is a bigger piece of the future, has disrupted the rotations for a team that was having success. These are moves that help them make decisions in the future, not ones that get them the 6 seed in the present. And that matters more, because this team overachieved even with this perspective. As the time to compete at a higher level arrives post-rebuild, they had to get information on how these guys fit.
FLEMING - I’m still unsure, I guess a blend of both. With Jaren Jackson Jr., you win or lose with this guy. He’s your franchise cornerstone, a building block for what they’re trying to build going forward. I would’ve rather seen him knock off rust now rather than at the beginning of a contract year (barring a preseason extension). If getting him back into the system meant losing games, so be it. Justise Winslow is a tricky one. He’s always been likened to more of the Golden State Andre Iguodala role - a do-everything wing that prides himself on excelling on defense and in transition, but comes off the bench and (potentially) closes games. Though it wasn’t as big of a failure as people make it out to be (they won the 2 road games in Portland WITH Winslow as the backup point guard), they tried to do what they can to get him fit in the system, but it didn’t work. Taylor Jenkins recognized it and adjusted. He looks healthy but rusty, and a healthy offseason in more normal conditions should be in his and the team’s favor...if they opt into his option.
ABRAHAM - I don’t think it was a mistake, but hindsight is 20/20. The plug could have been pulled on the Winslow experiment or start JJJ a few games earlier to try and avoid Sunday’s play in to the Play-In. However, with the message the front office has sent all season of data accumulation I don’t think it was a mistake to try those things out since a major collapse would have had to happen to fall out of the Play-In Tournament.
HAYES - I don’t think it was a mistake, but the approach was wrong. They have a decision to make with Winslow this offseason so they had to play him to see how he fit but he was also effectively relearning how to play after that significant injury as I mentioned in my article. Once it wasn’t working they should’ve pulled the plug. Jaren, on the other hand, was done right but could’ve pulled the trigger on starting him earlier.
LEWIS - What team in the NBA is not going to reorient guys of their caliber back into their lineup? Did they force the Winslow issue for too long? Maybe. But was it a mistake? Absolutely not. Data accumulation or not, they gave the Grizzlies the best chance talent wise to prioritize winning in the end.
Thanks to Parker/Brandon/Bryce/Justin for being part of this Roundtable!