As the 2021-2022 NBA season winds down, chatter about the major NBA awards starts to heat up. Grizzlies star Ja Morant has been vocal about gassing his guys up for various awards. Ishmael Wainwright and other Suns players have been vocal of late in regards to their guys. Arguably the hottest team in 2022, the Boston Celtics have an argument to take home a bunch of hardware as well.
Ultimately, the Grizzlies will care more about finishing the season strong and going on a deep post season run, but from a media perspective it’s hard not to turn a side eye to the regular season awards as we enter the final weeks of the season. Let’s rank the likelihood of Memphis bringing home a major award.
7. Rookie of the Year
After a rough start to the year, Ziaire Williams have been really solid since his return from a knee injury in late December. In 36 games since the calendar flipped to 2022, Williams has averaged 9 points per game and taken some really tough defensive assignments. Williams just hasn’t had a large enough role to get the numbers to compete with Evan Mobley, Jalen Green, Cade Cunningham and the other ROTY leaders. Ziaire has had some good and bad games this season, and the Grizzlies will be happy with his growth despite him not being a ROTY candidate.
6. Sixth Man of the Year
The Grizzlies have one of the best bench units in the NBA, but don’t have “the” guy off the bench that typically wins these awards. De’Anthony Melton and Brandon Clarke both average 10 points off the bench, but the Grizzlies bench success is a total team effort with Tyus Jones, Kyle Anderson and John Konchar all stepping up at various times throughout the season. The Grizzlies bench is great, but they don’t have guy a guy like 6MOY favorite Tyler Herro who averages 20 points off the bench.
5. Executive of the Year
A potential controversial take, but I don’t think Grizzlies General Manager Zach Kleiman should really be in the discussion for Executive of the Year. While the moves Kleiman has made over the years have helped lead to the Grizzlies currently holding the second best record in the NBA, he hasn’t made any moves this season to really warrant taking home the award. The Grizzlies didn’t make any moves at the trade deadline, and the Steven Adams & 10th pick for Jonas Valanciunas and the 17th pick has worked out well for both teams.
The entire body of work with Kleiman over the years should clearly make him one of the NBA’s top GM’s, but for this year specifically the best thing Kleiman has done is let the team grow. It’s hard to argue for Kleiman and his lack of activity against other candidates. Artūras Karnišovas should probably be in the lead with his acquisition of Lonzo Ball and DeMar DeRozan helping levitate the Bulls to contenders in the Eastern Conference. Pat Riley/Andy Elisburg deserve credit for acquiring Kyle Lowry as the team looks to get back to the Finals after the NBA bubble.
(Authors Note: I do not think that voters will care too much about the tampering with the Lonzo Ball/Kyle Lowry deals from last summer)
4. Defensive Player of the Year
Jaren Jackson Jr. is the key to the Grizzlies defense. After the Grizzlies started 9-10 and had the worst defense in the league, JJJ stepped up big time after Ja went out with that knee injury and the Grizzlies have boasted one of the best defenses in the NBA since. JJJ deserves all the credit for anchoring the Grizzlies defense, with guys like De’Anthony Melton and Kyle Anderson racking up steal numbers. JJJ leads the NBA in total blocks and narrowly trails the NBA in blocks per game. Blocks alone don’t define a DPOY but it also highlights Jaren’s effectiveness at the rim. Shooting percentages for players plummet with JJJ as the nearest defender, and his ability to guard 1-5 helps the Grizzlies a ton.
JJJ is a very deserving candidate for the award, but it is a crowded race with JJJ going up against other new comers in Mikal Bridges and Robert Williams. Rudy Gobert and Giannis Antetokounmpo will likely be finalist for DPOY as long as they play, with Bam Adebayo currently holding a narrow lead on the award, at least by Vegas odds.
3. Most Valuable Player
Ja Morant has had a breakout season for the Memphis Grizzlies. He’s been fantastic, averaging 27.6 points, 6.7 assists and 5.7 rebounds per game for the Grizzlies. He’s been a leader in points in the paint, while also flashing a respectable 3-point shot this season. From a narrative standpoint: no player has taken the NBA by storm like Ja Morant has, quickly becoming a national favorite with his many highlights plays. Ja was rewarded with his play by becoming an All-Star starter in Cleveland. Ja is currently in the “second tier” of candidates, behind Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Sitting out the majority of the rest of the season with “knee soreness”, it’s going to be tough for Ja to make up ground and jump back in the top 3 of MVP voting. MVP voting is also very weird, and the Grizzlies success without Ja Morant will likely turn some voters away even though it shouldn’t. Ja has been great and should be First Team All-NBA, but we’ll have to wait another year for Ja to have a really good shot at taking MVP home.
2. Coach of the Year
There’s no denying the job Taylor Jenkins has done this season for the Memphis Grizzlies. I wrote in depth about his case last week, so I’ll spare the loyal readers from repeating what was said in my piece. Put briefly, the work Jenkins has done despite the circumstances this season has been great, as the Grizzlies will finish the year, at minimum with the 3rd most wins in franchise history. They are poised to clinch the Southwest Division title for the first time in franchise history this week. The Grizzlies record without Ja Morant says more about Taylor Jenkins than anyone else on the Grizzlies. Jenkins will lead the Grizzlies to some of the best regular season accolades the franchise has seen.
Monty Williams is likely the favorite, with the Suns running away with the best record in the NBA. Not to discredit the job he has done, but Jenkins has done more in exceeding expectations than Williams who returns a roster that made the NBA Finals last season. J.B. Bickerstaff has been excellent for the Cleveland Cavaliers this season, but late season struggles in a tough Eastern Conference will likely cause him to slip some in voting.
1. Most Improved Player
It only makes sense that the most likely award the Grizzlies take home is the weirdest award handed out by the NBA. This is a very broad and judgmental award, as it has been given to players who have seen a vast improvement over the course of a year while also being given to players who showed steady progress but lifted their team’s overall success. There’s no doubt that two Grizzly players fit the definition of the MIP award. Desmond Bane has shined in Year 2 of his NBA career, doubling his points per game after averaging 9.2 last season. Bane has also improved as a ball-handler and facilitator while taking on some tough defensive assignments. After being drafted 30th overall in 2020, Bane has proven many of his doubters wrong this season, especially carrying a heavy offensive load when Ja Morant has been out.
But ultimately Ja Morant is the betting favorite to take home Most Improved honors. Ja has certainly lifted the Grizzlies overall success while also seeing his scoring averages increase from 19.1 points per game to 27.6 points per game. There is no doubting that Ja Morant has technically been one of the “Most Improved” players in the NBA, but this is where the award being so broad hurts voting. Ja Morant was the 2nd overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft. Ja is supposed to make a leap entering Year 3. Ja’s leap has been extraordinary and likely exceeded the most lofty of expectations, but in my opinion the award should go to guys like Desmond Bane or even the likes of Dejounte Murray, Darius Garland, Miles Bridges or Anfernee Simons. Ja Morant has even publicly announced his support for Desmond Bane for MIP multiple times this season on Twitter.
The Grizzlies will likely take home just one major award, with Ja a favorite for MIP. However, having really strong arguments to take home Coach of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year, and MVP really showcases the depth of the team and how bright the future is for the squad. While they ultimately aren’t likely to win any other major awards, the teams focus will certainly be on making a deep playoff run as the (likely) 2-seed in the Western Conference.