The NBA returns this week as training camps open across the Association. This of course means that the Memphis Grizzlies are back to work themselves, starting the third year of a rebuild out of the ashes of Grit and Grind that has gone better than anyone could have reasonably expected. Over the last two seasons and some change the Grizzlies have made a multitude of moves and have lucked in to the #2 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft. This has enabled Memphis General Manager Zach Kleiman and company to potentially position themselves to be led by a generational talent in Ja Morant while also being able to build a team around him that can both compete now and develop for the future.
It’s made these “lean” years far more palatable for fans. There has been little pressure to achieve now while forsaking the long-term organizational “North Star” of sustained success, in part because the team has had short-term goals achieved. Two full years of Kleiman has led to two play-in appearances while boasting one of the youngest rosters in the NBA, and this past campaign the Grizzlies became the first non-8 seed to make the playoffs due to “winning” the play-in tournament after knocking off the San Antonio Spurs and Golden State Warriors. Yes, a five game series loss to the Utah Jazz smarts. But the team is improving, is nowhere near their prime, and remains optimistic about both the months and years ahead.
How many organizations can realistically say that in the NBA?
But as time goes on, expectations increase. So while progress is not always linear, and on paper an argument can be made that the transactions of the last few months - the Jonas Valanciunas trade to New Orleans in particular - have made Memphis worse, Grizzlies fans no doubt want to see a return to postseason play. And as key players like Jaren Jackson Jr. and Kyle Anderson approach restricted and unrestricted free agency respectively, long-term visions and short-term dreams are going to become more and more intertwined.
Here are some things to watch for as the Grizzlies begin preparations for their 2021-2022 campaign.
The year of Jaren Jackson Jr. begins
The newly-minted 22-year-old has quite a lot on his plate. He is line to make a large sum of money as his rookie contract comes to an end, and the Memphis Grizzlies are in line to be the most likely squad to pay him those funds. But that financial commitment of over $100 million and four to five seasons is substantial business for both Jaren and the Grizzlies franchise. For Memphis to pay Jackson Jr. like he is indeed a 2nd or 3rd best player on a hopeful title contender over the length of his next contract, Jaren needs to - well - show he is that caliber of player consistently. And the key word, of course, is consistently. For Jaren has posted historic numbers as a combination volume shooter from beyond the arc and generator of blocks at and around the rim, earning himself the Unicorn moniker that oftentimes gets overused in NBA circles. Add in the flashes of his off-the-dribble shot creation, and you ask yourself why Memphis has not maxed him out yet.
But if Jaren is not able to be on the court, available to both become elite in these levels and grow the areas of his game that need improvement (foul issues, rebounding, etc.), then the potential that is in place will never be realized. And in a market like Memphis there is a slim margin for error when it comes to building a championship contender. One bad long-term deal could partially, or even completely, negate the work done up to this point to put the Grizzlies in the enviable spot of being both a competitive out now and a possible championship contender in the years to come.
This is the first major inflection point for the Grizzlies front office as the transition from rebuild to contender progresses. It is unlikely Memphis adds any talent superior to Jaren for the amount of money they’ll have to pay him. Jackson Jr. already has had a hand in building this current version of the Grizzlies, and in terms of versatility and spacing there are few bigs that theoretically fit better next to Ja Morant better than Jaren. This is why JJJ is likely longed for Memphis - but will the extension come in the weeks ahead? Or will Jaren bet on himself and hold out for a strong season and the larger contract that will come with it?
The Grizzlies have the ability to match any deal that Jaren gets offered if he hits the market next summer, so the pressure isn’t on them necessarily to sign him now beyond saving some cash. But they may well value the ability to see Jaren at his best before making any long-term commitment. And Jaren, after a full offseason to work on his game and not have to rehab an injury, is primed for a breakout season.
This season is all about Jaren. How quickly the questions gets answered will be fascinating to watch in the weeks ahead.
Is Ja Morant ready to ascend to greatness?
Where does Morant rank among the very best the NBA has to offer? Depends on who you ask - but the general concensus is as Ja enters year three for Memphis, he is a player on the periphery of the All-Star Game conversation. This buzz is deserved - very few players did as much for their overall standing as a possible franchise cornerstone than Ja did in the play-in tournament and against the Jazz. That’s not to say Morant is better than, say, Stephen Curry or Donovan Mitchell. It does lead one to believe that Ja isn’t as far from those names as perhaps we all thought he may have been six months ago.
He is elite as a passer and as a creator off of dribble penetration for himself at the rim and for others. He has shown growth as a shooter, albeit in a far too small sample size that certainly needs to be confirmed. And his leadership - something that goes underreported far too often - is a major reason why Memphis is in the place they are on the floor. A team as young/inexperienced as the Grizzlies, with their star player being a point guard in their early twenties, probably should not have been as successful as they have been the last two seasons. And while many deserve credit for that success, Morant is the straw that stirs the drink. He sets the tone for the franchise. It’s why Ja doesn’t complain when Memphis trades away arguably his best running mate of his career to date in Jonas Valanciunas. He’s been briefed on the vision. And he seems to be on board.
That mentality and patience is rare for someone so young - and it allows for the Grizzlies front office to play the long game as they have to this point with transactions. But in order for it to pay off, Morant must continue to progress - especially as a shooter and as a defender. How much ground is he ready to cover to keep Memphis on pace toward a middle of the decade title contending window? Their immediate ceiling will be directly impacted by that answer.
Other stories to watch
- Who starts next to the assumed locked in four of Ja/Dillon Brooks/Jaren/Steven Adams? Put aside your irrational fears that Sam Merrill will replace Grayson Allen. There are three legitimate contenders for the starting spot alongside Morant/Brooks/Jackson Jr./Adams. And all three have logical arguments for their presence in that lineup. Desmond Bane, who showed real growth in his game at Summer League and may be primed for a breakout season of his own, could be a major help creating space thanks to his amazing shooting ability. De’Anthony Melton has earned his Swiss Army Knife reputation and would be better suited to make Ja’s life easier as a defender by taking on the tougher back court assignments. And Kyle Anderson has the most experience in the role as starter and could be a solid secondary creator off ball.
Who closes (Anderson over Adams with Jaren moving to the five while Bane and Melton O and D sub in and out gets my vote) matters more in terms of winning time. But the starting question will lend itself to rotation answers as well. Is Tyus Jones still the primary backup point guard? Will Melton or Bane take on that role if they don’t start? Could Kyle if he’s a sixth man point forward? How do Xavier Tillman and Brandon Clarke fit in?
All good questions. The journey answering them starts with the first five.
- How involved will Ziaire Williams be? Grizzlies GM Zach Kleiman pleaded for patience with the #10 pick in the 2021 NBA Draft. And that makes sense - as far as upside swings go, Ziaire Williams is one of the biggest from this past draft class. Williams could be a third star wing that makes Memphis a title threat in the years ahead. He could also flame out gloriously, struggling in the pros as he did at times at Stanford during his college days. How Williams contributes early won’t decide that fate, but it will be an indicator as to how much the “patience” line applies in his rookie season. Could there really be a possibility that Williams is out of the rotation completely? If Tyus Jones/Melton or Bane/Anderson/Clarke/Tillman is the bench unit, it would seem that way. But Williams may do enough as a two-way player early on to force the likes of Tillman or Clarke to the 11th man role. Or does a Jarrett Culver type make waves and disrupt the current “plans”?
Ziaire needs reps of course. He should get plenty in the weeks ahead. Where he finishes as a player two to three years from now matters far more than how he does this season, but there’s no denying his size and skill set would be tantalizing to utilize if he’s prepared to produce earlier than expected.
- Do the expirings come in handy with a major trade? Memphis has proven time and again that they will always look for ways to improve their future standing financially or in terms of draft capital - even if it potentially weakens them roster wise in the here and now. For example - while Steven Adams is not as bad as some let on, he is not the offensive talent that Jonas Valanciunas is. But that was part of the cost of doing business to acquire the #10 pick from NOLA. Now, there are other names being floated as possibly being moved as the season approaches.
Will the Grizzlies acquire Ben Simmons? Probably not. Could Memphis use the services of John Wall? No...no they’d be foolish to bring him on board at this stage of his career and their rebuild. BUT...is there a team better set up to help facilitate such a massive transaction as a third squad than the Grizzlies? The combination of lack of higher expectations and the surplus of potential contract value makes them an attractive trade partner in that way.
It’d be fun to hypothesize about what a Ben Simmons/Grizzlies team would look like. The more likely scenario is Memphis helping Simmons get to his final destination while adding yet another draft asset or young players to their ranks. Keep an eye on the rumor mill.
The Memphis Grizzlies are back. That, in and of it self, is reason enough to celebrate. But the fact that the team once again is set up for success both now and beyond makes following the Bears of Beale Street as fun as ever.