As the 2021 NBA Finals approach under almost normal circumstances, most NBA franchises now have their sights set on what will be a condensed offseason. The Finals are scheduled to end at the latest on July 22nd if seven games are needed. From there the NBA Draft is July 29th. The first week of August is dedicated to free agency, and then the next month (September 28th to be precise) training camps get under way.
You read that right. If the NBA Finals goes seven games, the Phoenix Suns and Milwaukee Bucks will have two months off between the end of one season and the start of another. To get back to the “normal”of an 82-game slate, the NBA will be putting their 30 franchises to the test with an on-time start after a season whose beginning was delayed.
The Memphis Grizzlies are unique in this pursuit among the 29 other organizations in the National Basketball Association. Their roster - at least as of now - is relatively stable. Not counting Justise Winslow’s team option (more on that in a moment) and Jontay Porter’s fully non-guaranteed contract (for another article another time) Memphis has twelve contracts on the books for the 2021-2022 season. The easiest thing to do would be to keep the band together and run it back with a (hopefully) healthy Jaren Jackson Jr. by Ja Morant’s side in year three of the “rebuild” where expectations will surely be raised. Internal improvement seems to be the priority of Grizzlies GM Zach Kleiman, Head Coach Taylor Jenkins, and the entire crew down at 191 Beale Street.
Will that result hold, though? What will become of extension talks with Jaren Jackson Jr.? Can he and Kyle Anderson co-exist? How does Justise Winslow fit in to the process?
We begin with the biggest question of this offseason - and my biggest prediction.
Jaren Jackson Jr. will sign a strong rookie extension
Bobby Marks of ESPN broke this down pretty well (per usual) in his ESPN offseason analysis for the Grizzlies. Jaren’s injuries are well-documented at this stage and because of that his development has been stunted. He could be one of the most unique players in NBA history - a big with physical strengths that make him a monster defensively with the offensive basketball skill of a poor man’s Kevin Durant (which is pretty good for a “big”). The handle, the three point volume scoring, the possible growth in rebounding that was present in the Utah Jazz series, his defensive possibilities...it all adds up, especially when you consider he won’t be 22 until September. He’s a legitimate unicorn - not really the next anyone, but the first Jaren Jackson Jr.
But how much do you invest in to a player for what you think he can be, as opposed to what he has been beyond flashes and potential?
Marks suggests a 4 year $80 million contract with the same Exhibit 3 (prior injury exclusion) clause in it that the Orlando Magic included in their deal with Jonathan Issac after he tore his ACL in the Bubble. It makes a ton of sense for all involved and screams the kind of shrewd signing this front office would make. The clause protects the team in case of catastrophic injury while also paying a player they hope will be a key part of the organization moving forward. This should very much be the play of the Memphis Grizzlies with Jaren - and they should be willing to go beyond the $80 million number that Marks suggested.
Because Jaren is the most talented player they can get to/keep in Memphis. Because he is already here. And regardless of how the next year or so of the process plays out, the Grizzlies can match any future offer in restricted free agency if they so choose. It just behooves them to extend Jaren now, when their only competition for his services is themselves.
While the Grizzlies front office can (and should) take their time when it comes to a Jaren extension, expect a 4-year $90 million offer from Memphis. It pays Jackson Jr. for what he can be if healthy, which the franchise has invested in through their patience with his return from his knee surgery. And it shows the likes of Ja Morant that they are willing to spend to keep capable talent at his side.
But if Jaren remains in the long-term plans...
Kyle Anderson will be the most active name in trade rumors
Note that this doesn’t predict a Kyle trade. Again, the most likely course of action for Memphis is to stand pat and see what this roster does with a fully healthy Jaren and Justise Winslow (more to come there) in the fold. But Anderson’s role as the sexiest name out there in trade rumors makes a ton of sense, mostly for three reasons.
- HE IS COMING OFF OF A CAREER YEAR. Per 100 possessions Kyle Anderson scored almost 22 points, shot over twice as many threes (at a 36% clip) - both the best of his career - and posted an excellent +9 net rating. A career high PER, three point rate, assist percentage, and usage rate all suggest he played some of the best basketball of his life this past season. If you’re not sold on those good times continuing to roll, selling high to a contender seems best.
- HE DID MOST OF THIS AS THE STARTING FOUR FOR THE MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES. Ja Morant/Grayson Allen/Dillon Brooks/Kyle Anderson/Jonas Valanciunas. Those were the main first five in Memphis this past season. In this role Kyle was able to embrace his point forward skill set while also finding ways to create mismatches against opposing bigs. His versatility shines through as a “big”...but Jaren Jackson Jr. will take that job back, assuming Jonas Valanciunas sticks around (which he probably should given his strengths canceling out Jaren’s current weaknesses). Can Kyle replicate the season he just had as a “small forward”? Should the Grizzlies keep him as a reserve to lead the second unit and potentially pay him big money to have that kind of role?
- HE IS AN UPCOMING FREE AGENT. Say the Grizzlies do indeed decide to see what Jaren can do before they make major moves. Kyle is a free agent in the Summer of 2022, and he was not a signee of this front office. He even was not a priority of Coach Jenkins while Jae Crowder and even at times Solomon Hill were on the Memphis roster. Is part of that due to his shoulder injury that limited Kyle? Almost certainly. But even if Anderson was fully healthy, especially Crowder seemed to be a favorite of Jenkins. Do the Grizzlies really feel as if Anderson is a key piece moving forward?
A Kyle Anderson trade is much more likely around the trade deadline if the Grizzlies are sellers, and Memphis surely wants to try this group of players alongside healthy fellow key contributors. But that won’t stop the rumor mill from churning - and Valanciunas, while in the same boat as Anderson as an expiring, gives the Grizzlies more of what they “need” in this coming season than Kyle (although Kyle’s versatility would be missed). So while “Slow-Mo” will almost surely be on the roster come opening night - and rightfully so - trade banter will persist. And Anderson makes the most sense among current Grizzlies players to be on the move - he is coming off the books, he can make winning basketball plays, and he is malleable enough that he can fit in almost any rotation situation.
Sounds like a guy you want to stick around, right? Again, he probably will. But teams will ask...and Kleiman will (and should) listen.
Justise Winslow will have his contract opted in to
Not the move that many want to read that frequent GBB. But the Justise Winslow decision is as good as made. The Grizzlies front office values him. He has not had the opportunity to be healthy and enter a season with Memphis after a full offseason to work on his game and a preseason to get acclimated to his fit in the organization. He “picked” a terrible time to suffer injuries - the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted many things, including the NBA timeline and recovery/treatment plans and opportunities. The organization sees his possible fit as a creator on the wing that can also defend at a high level and believes that his possibilities there outweigh the baggage he carries now as a health risk on the floor.
So why pick up the option after the essentially lost season he just endured? It has to do with Jaren as well - if the goal of this season is to see Jaren healthy alongside this roster the front office has built, opting out of Justise’s $13 million to try to make waves in free agency does not make as much sense. The team is plenty deep, as was mentioned before, and if Winslow fails he is a sunk cost for a year more and then becomes a free agent the same year that Anderson and Valanciunas do, helping get the Grizzlies off of over $36 million entering the Summer of 2022. Trading for stars. Trying to sign help for Jaren and Ja. All options are on the table.
And if Winslow hits? Now your roster is even more formidable, and you have a weapon that can take some of the weight off of various aspects of the rotation. Dillon Brooks has a defensive running parter. Ja Morant has yet another player capable of making offense for both himself and others. If the Miami version of Winslow finally arrives - the one that shot in the mid-30s from beyond the arc and could be an effective two-way player - he makes Memphis more dangerous and allows for the team to be more aware of the craziness of the schedule. Minutes can be shared more in a season where that may matter more than ever.
The Grizzlies are projected to have about $68 million on the books entering the 2022-2023 season. That can be the time to pull the trigger on larger moves and signings. For one year, try to find out what Winslow is - and can be - the way they hoped they would this past season. Duncan Robinson would be fun with the Grizzlies...but is he worth losing some of that valuable future cap space over taking another swing at what Winslow could be (and then simply not re-signing him in 2022 if it goes south)?
Robinson isn’t getting the Grizzlies to the Finals next season. “Sustained success” is the stated goal. The franchise won’t know whether they’re on the path until they see what the likes of Jackson Jr. and Winslow can do healthy. In this case, it may get Justise $13 million - and the Grizzlies the flexibility to move on relatively soon if things do not work out.
NBA Draft predictions will be coming in the days ahead. But the stakes for the Grizzlies are pretty clear overall this offseason. Whoever Memphis drafts is not likely breaking this rotation - they’ll be a developmental talent who may spend more time in Southaven with the Memphis Hustle (the Grizzlies G-League affiliate) than with the Grizzlies. Memphis may change that with a trade up for a more impactful player, or a trade back to gain back some assets spent in the Desmond Bane/Xavier Tillman moves. But for now, all eyes are on what will be done with Jaren Jackson Jr.
He dictates other decisions. How Kyle Anderson is used. When they make their strike given the cap space and picks at their disposal before the time comes to max out Ja Morant in two years. The Grizzlies still have time - it is just running out. And the biggest domino to fall looks a heck of a lot like a unicorn.
He’s almost certainly sticking around. But what comes next?
Only time will tell.