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Waiting for it with the Memphis Grizzlies

I’m willing to. Are you?

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NBA: Brooklyn Nets at Memphis Grizzlies Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

The Phoenix Suns - the team currently dominating the NBA with the best overall record - selected DeAndre Ayton with the 1st overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft. The same draft that Luka Doncic went 3rd overall, and Jaren Jackson Jr. was selected 4th by the Memphis Grizzlies, features the selection of a big who had the potential to control the paint on both ends of the floor. He was added to a roster that already boasted a young superstar in Devin Booker - the 13th pick in the 2015 NBA Draft - and was part of a rookie class that also featured Mikal Bridges and current Grizzlies rotation member De’Anthony Melton. That team went 19-63. The next season, under new coach Monty Williams, the team improved to 34-39 and impressively went undefeated in the NBA Bubble in Orlando.

After that impressive run, they decided to trade for Chris Paul that offseason.

The team then improved to 51-21 in the 2020-2021 campaign, and made the NBA Finals.

Before them, and still currently having tremendous success in the NBA, the Golden State Warriors meticulous pieced together one of the best cores in the history of the league. Kevin Durant’s free agency decision to come to the Bay later aside, the Warriors took and made Stephen Curry (7th overall pick in 2009), Klay Thompson (11th pick in 2011), and Draymond Green (35th pick in 2012) the main parts of a machine that dominated the NBA from coaches Mark Jackson to Steve Kerr. Yes, Durant put them over the top for two Finals wins. But Golden State made two prior to his arrival, winning one of them. All with a group that had been built largely through the draft - those three and Harrison Barnes (7th pick, 2012 NBA Draft) were the original “Core Four” of the Golden State Warriors.

Then, in today’s NBA, currently you have the Memphis Grizzlies. Who should combine learning from both teams and understand that the moment for ultimate success in this league is finite and fleeting, while also earned through years of proper roster management and timely choices on when to add “the final piece”.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at New York Knicks Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

As the trade deadline approaches, it is natural to want to try to improve the team. Even if it is just at the end of the rotation, transactions to make the Memphis Grizzlies better should be discussed and explored. After all, it isn’t every season your squad is good enough to claim that you’re a top-5 team in the NBA and boast legitimate-to-dark horse MVP (Ja Morant), Most Improved Player (Desmond Bane), Defensive Player of the Year (Jaren Jackson Jr.), and Coach of the Year (Taylor Jenkins). While so much is going right for Memphis - and Dillon Brooks will be in his own way a trade deadline acquisition as he gets healthy in the next couple of weeks - the roster is still flawed. They struggle in halfcourt scoring (91.4 points per 100 halfcourt possessions per Cleaning the Glass, 24th in the NBA) as well as three point shooting (34.7%, 21st in the NBA). As the game gets messier/slows down in the playoffs, Ja Morant will be targeted as the man to stop for opposing defenses even more than he already is.

Are the Grizzlies prepared for that as currently constructed? It is a fair question.

Another fair question - does it matter?

Acquiring Kenrich Williams for Jarrett Culver for a heavily protected 1st round pick, as outlined above, doesn’t solve that problem. But is there a way to get closer to the answer without disrupting the current energy and chemistry of the team? Probably not - unless you’re willing to make the Culver/1st package even sweeter with another pick.

Realistic names on the trade block - the aforementioned Harrison Barnes, as well as Eric Gordon, for example - could perhaps come to the Grizzlies for a combination of players and picks, though. And these two could help Memphis in the three point and half court categories. Barnes (41% from three, 91st percentile) and Gordon (42%, 90th percentile) can shoot it from deep while also creating for themselves off the dribble (Gordon’s percentage of shots made that are assisted on is only 48% - 94th percentile in the NBA among his position group per Cleaning the Glass - while Barnes is at 69%, good for 64th percentile.)

The two names most likely to be moved on from in this type of a trade are Kyle Anderson and De’Anthony Melton. A Melton for Gordon swap (still including Culver’s contract and a 1st, more than likely) would make Memphis better in these two categories - Melton is in the 45th percentile for shots made off of assists, and 36th percentile in three point conversion. The same can be said of Barnes for Anderson (again, with Culver/and a 1st), at least from three. Kyle at 35% from three is in the 57th percentile, but as a creator for himself he actually fares better than Barnes (58%, 81st percentile). Where Barnes would really be an upgrade over Kyle would be shot selection - only 24% of Kyle’s shots are three point attempts per Cleaning the Glass, whereas 38% of Barnes’ come from three. That would increase both spacing and points per possession in the half court for Memphis.

But at what cost?

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Los Angeles Lakers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Melton is 23-years-old and pretty clearly a key part of the “vibes” the Memphis Grizzlies currently enjoy. He fits the time frame of the primes of Jaren Jackson Jr. and Ja Morant well, and also remains elite as a defender for his size (96th percentile in both block and steal percentage per Cleaning the Glass) while Eric Gordon is...not (58th percentile in block percentage, a miserable 6th in steals). While Anderson doesn’t align in terms of primes with the key Grizzlies Morant, Jackson Jr., and Desmond Bane, he too provides better defensive production than his counterpart in this exercise Harrison Barnes. Anderson’s block (80th percentile) and steal (88th) percentages are drastically better than Barnes (6th and 11th percentiles, respectively). And with Anderson being an unrestricted free agent, Memphis could perhaps use Kyle as a sign-and-trade piece this summer and get future value for him if he is not considered part of the long-term plans of the Grizzlies.

Neither of the above trades hinders future business much for the Grizzlies. As Chris Herrington of the Daily Memphian has suggested, a Melton/Culver/future 1st for Gordon swap (or an Anderson/Culver/future 1st for Barnes transaction) would give the Grizzlies two essentially expiring contracts (Gordon’s deal is unguaranteed for 2023-2024) to pair alongside another large expiring - Steven Adams, for example - as the starting point for a trade for a star player like Jaylen Brown or Ben Simmons if the situation presented itself this summer. The major consolidation deal so many have seen coming the last year or so could still occur.

But adding a Gordon, or a Barnes, would disrupt what has gotten the Grizzlies to this point. Defense, transition scoring, even rebounding would take a hit - Melton is a drastically better rebounder than Gordon, and while Anderson and Barnes are closer than Melton and Gordon it would still weaken Memphis there a bit. It would be a growth opportunity in terms of half court offense, but it would also be a test of what the Grizzlies have become as a cohesive unit that is the envy of the entire NBA.

Is that worth putting in potential peril, with your three best players still so far from their primes?

The Golden State Warriors spent several years working on their chemistry as a unit, eventually adding a veteran like Andre Iguodala to punctuate their rebuild and help them rise to the level of contender. Chris Paul undeniably has been the exclamation mark at the end of the Phoenix Suns process. Both Iguodala and Paul were added in the offseason, while the rosters were on upswings but still not quite at the level of contender. The 2013-2014 Golden State Warriors lost in the 1st round before they won their first NBA Finals. The 2019-2020 Phoenix Suns didn’t even make the playoffs before ascending to championship aspirations.

The Memphis Grizzlies should take a lesson from those ahead of them in the standings, whose path to NBA championship glory they hope to emulate. These young Grizzlies have gotten to this point because of who they are, and who they play for. While the route to improvement is clear in a trade such as these, the risk of disrupting the play and pure joy that has them where they are is too much at this stage of the Memphis process. Such growth can come from playoff scar tissue and altered scheme/personnel entering a new season. Memphis is a playoff team NOW. They are favorites to host a home playoff series in this moment. Accelerating the timeline at the expense of the current journey is juice not fully worth the squeeze.

For some older, more experienced teams, the time to swing for the NBA trade deadline fences may be now.

But for the Memphis Grizzlies, it is likely better to wait for it.

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