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The Memphis Grizzlies can’t afford to worry about just themselves

Their biggest challenge won’t be taking a step back, but rather being left behind.

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Miami Heat v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Of all the surprising twists and turns in the professional sports world over the last 10 years, there may be none more surprising than the fact that the Oklahoma City Thunder never made it back to the NBA Finals after 2012. They were the second-youngest team in the NBA at the time, and they seemed poised to win multiple titles with three future MVP’s in Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden leading the charge.

Now there were several factors for why this wasn’t the case (i.e. the San Antonio Spurs becoming an ageless juggernaut), but the biggest one is also the most frustrating: they were complacent. They traded James Harden to save luxury tax money, and they believed that the internal growth of their two stars would be enough to win championships. Meanwhile, the rest of the Western Conference —specifically the Spurs and Golden State Warriors — added key pieces and eventually left them behind.

Nothing was guaranteed for the Oklahoma City Thunder back then, and nothing is guaranteed for the Memphis Grizzlies in the here and now. Complacency — even under the guise of an emphasis on internal improvement and development — can breed stagnation.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Oklahoma City Thunder Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

To be clear, there is little to no reason to believe that the Grizzlies will take a step back this season. Kyle Anderson and De’Anthony Melton in particular are fine regular season players, but they are replaceable; their absence may just mean that the Grizzlies will — for the first time in Taylor Jenkins’ tenure! — need to give heavier minutes to their starters while their rookies like Jake LaRavia and David Roddy develop and become more ready to fill that void.

Even with a bit less depth to start the season, the Grizzlies still have a generational star in Ja Morant, one of the league’s best shooters in Desmond Bane, and a dominant defensive anchor Jaren Jackson Jr., who may not even miss the first month of the season. That’s not even to mention an excellent cast of complementary role players, headlined by Steven Adams, Tyus Jones, and Brandon Clarke. They will ultimately be fine.

However, the question remains of what fine will look like for the Grizzlies. Because while they won’t necessarily be worse, they do face the possibility that the rest of the Western Conference has gotten much better. Over the course of the 2021-22 season, the Grizzlies won 56 games and attained the 2 seed, finishing ahead of teams like the Minnesota Timberwolves, New Orleans Pelicans, Denver Nuggets, and LA Clippers. The Grizzlies were the second-youngest team last season, so it stands to reason that they will maintain a stranglehold on the West for the foreseeable future.

NBA: Preseason-Memphis Grizzlies at Detroit Pistons Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Yet that assumption looks murkier when examining how these teams have reloaded for this season. The Nuggets — who made the Western Conference Finals with a fully healthy roster in 2020 — will be adding back Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. to a team that still won 48 games last year through mainly the brilliance of Nikola Jokic. The Timberwolves — who won 46 games last year and figure to benefit from internal improvement themselves — added the best defensive center of the generation in Rudy Gobert. The Pelicans finished 10 games below .500 last year, but they won at a 45-win pace after trading for CJ McCollum and will now be reinserting a generational talent in Zion Williamson back into the lineup. And with the return of Kawhi Leonard, the 9th-seeded Clippers now figure to be a juggernaut from top to bottom.

So in response to all of this, the Grizzlies added ... an assortment of rookies to replace two veteran rotation players. And they didn’t acquire a single player from free agency or trade that wasn’t already on the roster last year.

NBA: Preseason-Orlando Magic at Memphis Grizzlies Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

No matter how highly you think of the Grizzlies and their young core, this is undeniably jarring for a team that’s supposed to be in contention. Even the Boston Celtics fresh off a Finals appearance made a splash by merely trading away a bad 2023 1st round pick as well as a bag of chips for an All-Star caliber guard in Malcolm Brogdon (out of all the moves the Grizzlies missed out on, this one was the most inexplicable for me considering their need for shot-creation).

Hardly anyone was asking the Grizzlies to cash in all their chips and go all in just yet; they just wanted them to do something. Because making short-term improvements to the team that may admittedly limit future flexibility does seem preferable to holding out for the perfect move when A) the perfect move may never materialize, and B) some of the league’s other contenders may just leave you behind in the meantime.

NBA: Preseason-Memphis Grizzlies at Detroit Pistons Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

However, while these concerns are valid, it’s also possible — if not likely — that the Grizzlies, once again, make them look stupid in retrospect. As much as this makes me feel like a shill to admit, the Grizzlies front office has yet to make a significant mistake. They have proven they know what they’re doing, evidenced by the fact that, again, the league’s second youngest team was the league’s second best team last year.

They haven’t always followed conventional wisdom (and they’ve certainly not always followed my wisdom!), but no NBA front office has maximized the hand that they’ve been given like them over the last few years. They absolutely deserve the benefit of the doubt.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Memphis Grizzlies Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

The culture that the Grizzlies have established and the overall talent that they possess deserves that same credit as well. Frankly, you can bet against Ja Morant and the other members of the NBA’s best young core. I know I have in the past. And I can humbly tell you from experience that it never goes well when you do. They “run up the chimney” along with all sorts of colloquial expressions that even I at 25 don’t understand.

To be sure, the Memphis Grizzlies have questions to answer and concerns both about themselves and the wild West in which they find themselves. You can argue that their answers and solutions ultimately won’t be enough, as their offseason inaction may definitely catch up with them. But I will continue to trust the process until I’m given a reason to doubt it.

NBA: Playoffs-Golden State Warriors at Memphis Grizzlies Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

The Grizzlies will again win the Southwest Division, finishing as the 3rd seed in the West with a 52-30 record.

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