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The Memphis Grizzlies and the journey to sustained success

The future of the Memphis Grizzlies can go a variety of different, but prosperous, directions.

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NBA: Playoffs-Memphis Grizzlies at Utah Jazz Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

As much I am a fan of basketball, I also absolutely love comedy. Television, movies, stand-up performances, improv, all of these sources of laughter just make life more positive and enjoyable. Of course, one of the best staples of comedy in American society is Saturday Night Live, or SNL for short.

Over the past several decades, SNL has produced dozens of memorable and even legendary characters. One of the more beloved ones in recent memory is Stefan, the very knowledgeable New York City tourism guide, who is played by the hilarious Bill Hader. One of his best lines when he is describing a new place to visit is “This place has everything...”. The relevance of that line in relation to the Grizzlies and this season is the added significance that existed on many levels and in many narratives for Memphis’s series against the Jazz. For instance, this series literally had everything, including:

-two of the NBA’s smaller markets facing each other in a season where both rosters exceeded expectations

-Mike Conley facing his former team and returning to Memphis in a playoff setting

-Quin Snyder and Taylor Jenkins facing each other in the playoffs years after they had coached together to start their careers together in the Spurs system

-The playoff debuts for this new generation of Grizzlies that really came into existence due in large part to the trade package return Memphis received in the Conley trade two summers ago with Utah

NBA: Playoffs-Utah Jazz at Memphis Grizzlies Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

Obviously, for the rest of the series beyond Game 1, the Jazz simply outclassed the Grizzlies on the court. However, this young Grizzlies roster gained valuable experience and established a check point in their path toward one day being a contender in their own right. Through Utah, Memphis also had a first-hand view of what the targeted endgame of this new generation of the Grizzlies could look like in a few years.

As this year’s NBA Playoffs progress, three themes seem to certainly stand out. For one, due to a shortened offseason and condensed regular sesaon schedule as a result of the pandemic, injuries have significantly impacted the chances for certain contenders to make the most of their title pursuits, such as the Lakers. However, while several established stars have dealt with ailments, many emerging young stars have truly shined in the first postseasons of their careers. As a result, many franchises remaining in the playoffs are experiencing their most successful season in quite a long time.

In terms of how this ties into the Grizzlies and their future, many of the teams currently thriving reached this point by taking a journey Memphis is currently starting. The highly encouraging factor is that though each of these teams started in similar fashion, they have proven that there are different paths to take that can lead to sustainable success.

For instance, Utah has become a true contender through drafting well, development, and adding productive depth. This started when Utah made a home run hire at head coach in Snyder. Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert were drafted 13th and 27th overall in their respective drafts, and through the team building around and developing their strengths, have become All-NBA level talents. Joe Ingles and Royce O’neale were international and undrafted respectively free agent signings that have become productive role players. As this core developed, the Jazz have also done a wonderful job acquiring talent that effectively complimented their core, as they signed Bojan Bogdonavich and traded for Jordan Clarkson and Conley. The end result is the best and deepest team in the NBA this season, and a franchise that has its best shot at a title in nearly 25 years.

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Memphis Grizzlies Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Though their title hopes just ended, Denver is another team who has emerged as a consistent contender in the Western Conference in similar fashion as Utah. Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr., and Nikola Jokic have all been massive hits through the draft. With the impact of that trio, Denver has had to make less additions but still has found complimentary pieces, such as Aaron Gordon this year. Even with Murray’s unfortunate injury earlier this season, Denver made Western Conference Finals just last year and should heavily involved in the playoff picture for years to come.

As in any memorable SNL skit, NBA contenders have their true difference makers as the main stars with effective role players as the supporting cast. While Denver and Utah found their best talents through the draft and supported them with additions through trades and signings, other contenders over the past few years have found success via a different route.

This year’s Suns drafted a core (Devin Booker as a star, DeAndre Ayton, Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson) and then traded for Chris Paul to completely reverse the trajectory of their franchise. The 2019-2020 Miami Heat made the NBA Finals due to developing young talent (Bam Adebayo, Duncan Robinson, Tyler Herro) and finding a star and leader in trading for Jimmy Butler. The 2018-2019 Toronto Raptors may be the best example of this path to success, as after spending years creating a supporting cast (Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell, Kyle Lowry becoming a star over time) they added Kawhi Leonard, and to a smaller extend Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka, to win an NBA title.

As can be seen, it takes a combination of astutely adding value through multiple avenues for an NBA team to be a contender. Though the teams above have or are having different levels of success through different types of evolutions, each example began at a similar starting point.

All of the teams were not only successful at drafting/discovering talents over a span of years, they developed many of those talents to be better versions than hardly anyone expected.

This is the key characteristic of the Grizzlies growth as a franchise over the past few years. They have become widely recognized as one of the best franchises when it comes to drafting and developing talent. Sure, common sense and a good amount of luck resulted in them landing Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. However, since 2017, they have added Dillon Brooks, Brandon Clarke, Desmond Bane, and Xavier Tillman through the draft as very valuable present and future depth pieces. Each of these four players were drafted 23rd or later in the draft.

The Grizzlies must now gain knowledge as to what level they have their main stars and supporting cast for the future. Ja Morant is logically a good enough talent to be a featured contributor on a contender. The hope is that Jackson Jr. will prove to be that as well soon. Brooks, Clarke, Bane, and Tillman, along with De’Anthony Melton and others, seem to be a strong supporting cast.

The hope is that Morant and Jackson Jr. can turn into as impactful of a duo for Memphis as Denver, Utah, and Phoenix have found in the duos that have turned their teams into contenders. However, even if Morant or Jackson Jr. do not soon reach the level of impact as the aforementioned pairs, the Grizzlies still have avenues to explore to become a contender.

The main reason why is due to how well the Grizzlies capitalized on the Gasol and Conley trades in 2019. Even though those trades were two years ago and no true difference-making talent (as of yet) has directly come from these trades, Memphis has certainly acquired an attractive assortment of assets. Beyond just acquiring young talent and draft assets in general, Memphis has also proven it can identify talent that the Grizzlies can develop into significant talent in quick fashion. This creates confidence that to whatever level of a star-type talent Memphis will likely need to add to the roster in the future to become a contender, not only do they now have the assets to acquire that talent, there is a good chance they will invest these assets in the right talent that will take the Grizzlies to the next level.

Saturday Night Live - Season 43 Photo by: Will Heath/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images

Just as it was a great way to describe the Jazz and Grizzlies playoff series, Stefan’s signature phrase can be applied to the Grizzlies, as “this franchise has everything” it needs to find success moving forward. And just like SNL needs stars to assemble along with its cast and crew to make a successful show, the Grizzlies will likely need another star, or at least an upgrade or two over time, to assemble a contender.

The great thing is the Grizzlies have the foundation in place to take whatever direction they need toward contention. They have the leadership in place to identify the significant additions this team will need to add through the draft, trades, or signings in time. They have a coach in Taylor Jenkins and his staff who have consistently shown they can make an entire roster reach unexpected heights. They have cornerstone pieces in Morant and Jackson Jr. who are ready to play significant roles in this team becoming a sustainable winner and contender.

No matter how the Grizzlies final act may look in the future, they have all the pieces they need now to aggressively pursue whatever direction they need to become a contender. And they should not only be aggressive in their pursuits to make the roster better, but should do so with confidence. Hopefully, many years from now, the Memphis Grizzlies and their fans will truly be able to say “this franchise has everything,” including unprecedented levels of success and perhaps its first NBA Championship.

For more Grizzlies talk, subscribe to the Grizzly Bear Blues podcast network on Google Podcasts, Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, and IHeart. Follow Grizzly Bear Blues on Twitter and Instagram.