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Remembering the state of the Memphis Grizzlies

Balancing excitement with reality.

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NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Houston Rockets Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Watching the Memphis Grizzlies can be intoxicating. Whatever the vice, however you get there (if you choose to do so, hopefully it is responsibly), there are a lot of similarities between the feeling of “letting go” and watching a Grizzlies player let go of a pass to a rising/alley-ooping Ja Morant. It can be a welcome distraction from the stresses of everyday life, like most any form of entertainment. This particular version just features uncommon feats of athleticism performed by ascending talent that seems to love the city they represent and want to be there for the foreseeable future.

You can understand, then, why Memphis Grizzlies fans look at the current state of play for the squad and can’t help but feel excited about the upcoming postseason. Even after a disappointing loss to the Houston Rockets in Houston on Sunday evening that sent Memphis back to the 3 seed in the Western Conference after a brief stint at #2, the fact that these Grizzlies are in this position at all remains quite impressive. They are, of course, one of the youngest teams in the NBA - arguably their three best players (Ja Morant, Desmond Bane, and Jaren Jackson Jr.) are all under the age of 24. Combine that with the various injuries/absences they’ve had to deal with (near the top-10 in games missed by players in the Association) and their place among the best in the NBA is not quite a miracle...but it most certainly improbable.

This reality puts fans of the Grizzlies in a unique position, one that now many supporters of teams so young have been recently. Aside from the exception of the Boston Celtics (young Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum), Denver Nuggets (Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr., Nikola Jokic), or the Oklahoma City Thunder (early years of Kevin Durant/Russell Westbrook/James Harden), rarely in the last 15 years or so (and in general) has a team with the lack of experience that Memphis possesses been in a position to be considered a championship contender. The understandable expectations that accompany such a place in the NBA hierarchy can be a burden even the most veteran of teams struggle with, much less one whose most veteran player, Steven Adams (playing season 8 in the NBA) is only 28 years old.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Houston Rockets Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Consider the rosters of the teams ahead of Memphis in the standings/seedings in both the Western and Eastern Conferences. What do they all have in common? Veteran stars - whether it is Stephen Curry and Chris Paul in the west, or Jimmy Butler in the east. While all three of the Suns/Warriors/Heat have young talents that contribute at a high level to winning there is distinct leadership in place at the top that has been through the wars of an NBA postseason and have either won, or competed in, an NBA Finals. There are teams below the Grizzlies currently - like the Philadelphia 76ers, Brooklyn Nets, Boston Celtics, and Milwaukee Bucks in the east and Utah Jazz in the west - that can say similar things, or at least can boast players at the peak of their powers and either in or closer to their primes. These are all reasons that, depending on the sports book, all the teams listed are given a better chance to win the NBA Finals than the Grizzlies.

And the wise guys in Vegas are right. The Memphis Grizzlies should be a top-10 favorite for the Finals, not a top-3 or 4 as their current record indicates.

This is not a slight at Memphis. It is a reminder of where the Grizzlies stand among the “true title contenders”.

Zach Kleiman’s talk of being “limitless” is what he should say, of course. He isn’t going to go to any live microphone and say “well, we may well struggle in the 1st round depending on matchups”. But actions speak louder than words, and when Memphis had a chance to shore up the back end of their bench they didn’t. With rumors of players like Harrison Barnes and Jerami Grant being available via trade, and the Grizzlies having the resources to secure the services of such talents, adding someone comparable would have put Memphis in a better position to claim title contendership. A playoff rotation featuring names like these, or even that of an Eric Gordon or someone that was indeed moved like Caris LeVert or Jeremy Lamb, would have been more impactful in terms of veteran presence/skill than what the Grizzlies currently feature at the end of the rotation.

That is not to say that Memphis was wrong for not making a move, especially if the resources being needed to make such a transaction would inhibit future business. It is, however, a reminder that compared to the “true” contenders in front of the Grizzlies this front office is indeed in a much different thought process.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Houston Rockets Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The roster remains imperfect, even after Dillon Brooks returns. The team almost certainly will continue to have issues in the half court offensively, and will also not become a great three point shooting team through development in the next month. They remain frontcourt heavy, with players like Kyle Anderson being more of a big that sometimes plays on the perimeter than a wing that can be a “stretch four” that doesn’t shoot threes very often. Players like Xavier Tillman Sr. are entirely out of the rotation, and could have helped facilitate a move if the opportunity had presented itself. Those two players, plus a pick or two out of the vast draft selection war chest Memphis has accumulated, hypothetically could have netted the Grizzlies a wing that could have supplanted the talented-but-raw Ziaire Williams or the hard working but limited John Konchar in these situations.

But it didn’t. And now, while the experience ahead is valuable, it may not result in immediate results.

That is of course “all part of the plan” when you’re a young team. But Memphis is still very young, and with that youth sometimes make the mistakes that accompany it - like overlooking bad teams, or missing defensive assignments, or not finishing games when they have leads. A trade could’ve addressed these issues some, but even if Kleiman had pulled the trigger it would not make this team’s core age all of a sudden. These are problems that will likely prevent Memphis from going on a grand run to the NBA Finals, or Conference Finals. Depending on who their 1st or 2nd round opponents are, things may get tougher for the Grizzlies than we’re currently prepared to admit.

Such an outcome would in no way make this season a failure. But it would remind us of how lucky we’ve been to enjoy this level of play, from this team, before they’re fully engaged in acting like a contender as a franchise.

The Memphis Grizzlies are in one of the most enviable positions in the NBA. They are a legitimately great team right now, with a future that can be shaped however Zach Kleiman and company wants it to be. But as much as they have overachieved each of the last three years, the truth is that the organization’s leadership is still running the team as a rebuilding one. The moves they’ve made have worked out so well that they are of course performing better than that. But until the front office turns the page, every possible outcome of this upcoming postseason is on the table.

Could the Memphis Grizzlies make the NBA Finals? Yes.

Could they also lose in the first round? Yes...and this is perhaps more probable than a Finals run.

The Grizzlies have had a remarkable season, and the entire franchise deserves credit for that. But the time is coming where they will encounter a team that is in their contending window - one that Memphis has yet to fully open. It may happen sooner rather than later, which is partly why the #2 seed should be so valuable to the Grizzlies...and makes the Rockets loss sting that much more. A series against the similarly young Timberwolves, for example, may go better for Memphis than one against the Nuggets or Dallas Mavericks.

But that time together for the team to compete in such an arena as it comes, win or lose, will be invaluable as the next chapter of this era of Grizzlies basketball approaches.

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