The year a sports teams takes a leap to the arrival stage is one of the best times to be a follower, aside from winning a championship obviously.
The Memphis Grizzlies’ 3 “arrival” seasons in their franchise history have been some of the most enjoyable I’ve seen in my lifetime.
In 2004, the Grizzlies pulled off their first winning season in franchise history, winning 50 games and making their first postseason appearance in franchise history. It symbolized a winner being formed in Memphis.
In 2011, the Grizzlies did the improbable by overcoming the 1st seed San Antonio Spurs as the 8th seed. After a playoff run that ended with 7-game second-round series against the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Grizzlies had several arrivals take place. Zach Randolph emerged as one of the NBA’s premier power forwards, the Grizzlies rose into contender hierarchy in the Western Conference, and the “Grit ‘n’ Grind” culture was born.
Fast forward 11 years later, the young, audacious Memphis Grizzlies have arrived in 2022. In the 2021-22 season, they finished with a 56-26 record — tying their franchise record for regular season wins — and they ranked 2nd in the entire league in wins. Their playoff run ended in the second-round to the eventual champion Golden State Warriors in 6 games, after losing Ja Morant for the final 3 games of the season. Despite a recent slump and an array of injuries to start the season, the Memphis Grizzlies are still 3rd in the Western Conference and are 7th in the entire league in the win-loss column.
In 2022, the “next gen” Memphis Grizzlies arrived as a contender. When discussing teams that could ultimately hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy, whether it was last season or the current one, the Grizzlies have cemented themselves on the list of realistic championship possibilities.
The leaps — arrivals, perhaps — of their key franchise pieces catapulted them into this conversation this season.
Discussing the architects of the Grizzlies’ rise, Taylor Jenkins and Zach Kleiman arrived as elite coaches and executives, respectively. The culture and system they’ve brewed has been calculated over the years, and it never manifested a traditional “55-60 loss” season. These Grizzlies have always been solid, feisty; this season, they became a well-oiled machine.
Jenkins and Kleiman deserve credit for their rise. Jenkins has tinkered with the system and integrated more actions to have the offense catch up with the defense among the league’s best. 2022 Executive of the Year Kleiman trusted his evaluations in roster tweaking, and it unlocked new dimensions for this team — from flipping Jonas Valanciunas for Steven Adams to open up a whole new world for his guards, and opening a runway for Desmond Bane to take the reigns as the starting 2-guard.
Desmond Bane made his arrival as one of the best shooters in the world. The Grizzlies traded away incumbent starting shooting guard Grayson Allen to open up the opportunity for Bane to take that role, and he ran with it. His spike as a scorer and a creator has opened up more possibilities for the Grizzlies’ offense, and he showed more signs of progression prior to his toe injury.
This year, Bane emerged as a core piece for this franchise. He changed the calculus of the Grizzlies’ next big move. Bane’s rise has him among the NBA’s best 2-guards, and his fit next to Morant as a 3-point sniper and secondary playmaker has made the Grizzlies’ offense more potent.
After a lost year in 2021, Jaren Jackson Jr. arrived as one of the NBA’s best defenders. He seemed to put things together in terrorizing offenses. His size and his affinity for swatting shots make him an imposing threat in drop coverage, though he primarily flies in as a help defender next to Steven Adams to provide a ginormous amount of rim protection on drives. His ability to defend in space launches him towards the top of the conversation of best defenders. There aren’t many layers at his size who could cover every spot on the floor and switch onto any type of player archetype in the league.
He’s emerged as the lifeline for the Memphis Grizzlies’ defense, the piece that transforms them from “decent” to “elite.”
Perhaps the arrival that shines the brightest is Ja Morant’s rise into a full-fledged superstar. In 2022, he took his game to a new level to become one of the best players in the NBA — especially offensively. He used his speed, flexibility, and finesse to become a dominant interior scorer, leading the league in points in the paint per game last season despite his size. He also joined the “players you can build a championship contender around” echelon, perhaps the hardest part of building a winning franchise. The Grizzlies recognized that fact with a super-max extension for Morant.
His rise as a player and the flash and fun he plays with has also made him one of the faces of the NBA. He was voted in as an All-Star starter. He became the face of numerous commercial campaigns such as Body Armor, Sony, and Beats by Dre. To cap off an electric 2022, Ja Morant unveiled his Nike signature shoe, the “Ja 1,” an officially official sign of marketable superstardom.
When looking at the Grizzlies’ arrival as a contender, Ja Morant’s meteoric superstar leap played a major factor for that reality.
Yes, the Memphis Grizzlies’ Big 3, Taylor Jenkins, and Zach Kleiman received credit for arrivals in the team’s rise in 2022. However, the supporting cast was instrumental as well. Steven Adams and Brandon Clarke had bounce-back seasons to fortify the paint. Tyus Jones’ steadiness behind Morant was huge when the All-NBA point guard dealt with injuries. Though gone elsewhere now, Kyle Anderson and De’Anthony Melton did their jobs as “agents of chaos” off the bench. Despite a rocky 2021-22 season due to health, Dillon Brooks has continued to grow as a defender and leader. John Konchar was a great “next man up” within any absence. Ziaire Williams has provided early promise as the big two-way wing the Grizzlies have coveted for quite sometime.
It felt like each Grizzlies player that received a substantial amount of playing time served a pivotal role in making this calendar year a success.
In 2022, the Memphis Grizzlies arrived as a “must-see” premier team in the league. Ja Morant’s style of play is a driving factor, as he’s developed a global following with his ability to go viral at any moment. Jenkins and this team have formed an appealing two-way system — seek turnovers, get out and run, share the basketball, and play fast.
They do all this while being brash and audacious, not afraid to step up and talk trash to anyone. They celebrate each other’s success with fun postgame mobs. They bust out dance moves with both their pregame hype dance that’s recently gone viral, and with Ja Morant’s postgame griddy.
When you couple a fun brand of basketball with winning, attention comes along. They received a franchise-record 18 national TV games this season, while also getting flexed into some ESPN/TNT spots last season. The result was a doozy, but the Grizzlies were on the NBA Christmas Day slate. In March, ESPN ran an “all-access” day for the Memphis Grizzlies. Then, with all this winning and a superstar like Ja Morant, they became a more frequent topic in “talk shows.”
You can no longer say the national media doesn’t talk about the Memphis Grizzlies enough. It comes with the good and the bad, but they are now a team everyone takes notice of.
2022 was probably one of the best, most fun years in Memphis Grizzlies basketball. Expectations and the hard part of battling them en route to a championship will follow for the Grizzlies. Nonetheless, 2022 serves as a foundation for a team capable of bringing the franchise its first NBA championship.
The “next gen” Memphis Grizzlies arrived in 2022. What’s next in 2023?