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Five Grizzlies takeaways from the NBA Awards Finalists

The Memphis Grizzlies are both happy and unhappy.

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NBA: Playoffs-Minnesota Timberwolves at Memphis Grizzlies Christine Tannous-USA TODAY Sports

The NBA announced the finalists for the league’s end-of-season awards on Sunday, and there was a mixed bag of news with regard to the Memphis Grizzlies. On one hand, Memphis has two awards that their nominees are almost certainly going to be in the running for. On the other, there are two names that were left off the top-three for specific honors that have some scratching their heads - including Grizzlies superstar Ja Morant.

One of the very best regular seasons in the history of the Memphis Grizzlies has resulted in some recognition for jobs well done. But is it enough?

Five thoughts on the nominations of Ja Morant (Most Improved Player) and Taylor Jenkins (Coach of the Year), and the snub of Jaren Jackson Jr. (Defensive Player of the Year) and Desmond Bane (Most Improved Player)

Ja Morant will win Most Improved Player

NBA: Playoffs-Minnesota Timberwolves at Memphis Grizzlies Christine Tannous-USA TODAY Sports

No disrespect to the other two nominees - Dejounte Murray of the San Antonio Spurs and Darius Garland of the Cleveland Cavaliers - who both had remarkable seasons worthy of praise. But Ja Morant, who without two knee injuries that cost him over a quarter of his season may have been a top-3 finalist for the Most Valuable Player award he most certainly covets, rose up to the realm of superstardom in this season. The argument that Ja should not have been considered for this award is a fair one - he was, of course, the #2 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft. In theory, this level of production is expected of a player that is selected that high.

But that, of course, is not always the case. Memphians know that quite well (cough Hasheem Thabeet cough). For every stud that gets picked at #2 like Ja, there’s a bust or under-performer. The logic of voters probably shines through there - Morant has not just realized his potential in year three, he’s shown he can grow his game at an exponential rate. He’s a larger threat from three, and has grown as a defender creating turnovers while also amplifying the strength of his game - finishing at the rim. He led the NBA in points in the paint as a 6’3” guard. That’s rare.

This is Ja’s award. But should it be?

Desmond Bane - right place, wrong time

NBA: Playoffs-Minnesota Timberwolves at Memphis Grizzlies Christine Tannous-USA TODAY Sports

Many Grizzlies fans - and even Ja Morant himself - had made it clear that they believed that Desmond Bane deserved to be considered for the Most Improved Player award that Morant seems pretty clearly on his way to winning. In fairness, they have a point -

The numbers are impressive. And if you watched Bane throughout the season, you know that the eye test backs up those stats. He’s a legitimate star for these Memphis Grizzlies, and was the 30th pick in the 2020 NBA Draft. He wasn’t SUPPOSED to be this good.

But it’s rare for 2nd year players to win the Most Improved Player award because, in theory, they’re supposed to get better in their sophomore campaigns. So even though Bane took full advantage of the opportunity that Grayson Allen’s departure provided him and has become a potentially “untouchable” trade asset because of the nature of his contract combined with his skill set, voters may have held against him that he was “naturally” going to make a leap.

That, and the reality that Morant would not win MVP due to the extremely deserving three candidates that did make the cut and the injury issues, probably cost Bane. Ja has to win SOMETHING - you could argue Morant’s rise has been THE individual story of the 2021-2022 NBA season. 2nd Team All-NBA (if Luka Doncic and Devin Booker get 1st) seems to fall a tad short.

Bane may be the betting favorite for this award NEXT season. But for now, the snub, while it stings, makes sense with the way Morant is being viewed.

Jaren Jackson Jr. is the Grizzlies snub to be mad about

NBA: Playoffs-Minnesota Timberwolves at Memphis Grizzlies Christine Tannous-USA TODAY Sports

Over the span of the 21st century, 19 times a big man has won the Defensive Player of the Year award. Only Kawhi Leonard and Ron Artest (Metta World Peace) have been given the honor as perimeter defenders. Of course, there have been many tremendous guards and forwards that have played the game at an elite level defensively - Tony Allen of the Memphis Grizzlies, for example, is widely regarded as one of the best perimeter defenders of this century. And yet, he never won a Defensive Player of the Year award. Even during the peak of Grit and Grind, when Memphis earned a DPoY honor it went to the team’s big man - Marc Gasol - while many acknowledged Allen’s brilliance on that end of the floor.

Perimeter players rarely win DPoY. It is an award for elite big men, and truly elite perimeter players that defend at a high level.

Rudy Gobert being nominated again isn’t the issue. He may be the best defensive player ever - he probably isn’t, but he’s the most dominant true big defensively since Dwight Howard a decade ago. It’s the fact that both Marcus Smart and Mikal Bridges are nominated, and Jaren Jackson Jr. - who led the NBA in blocked shots and “stocks” (steals + blocks) - was not.

For this writer, the issue comes from Smart. Mikal Bridges is a Kawhi Leonard-esque defensive force at this stage of his career and is a major part of the historic season the Phoenix Suns have enjoyed. Bridges is versatile and can impact both perimeter players and certain bigs with how he attacks defensively. Smart, though, is limited - Marcus is elite in steals (92nd percentile) but struggles in blocks due to his size as a guard. Jaren, meanwhile, was in the 73rd percentile in steals and 98th in blocks. Jaren is a major reason the Grizzlies are where they are - his defensive versatility and rim protection is cornerstone type of stuff in terms of scheme. Smart, who also has the likes of Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Robert Williams (before his injury) that are above average to elite defenders while Jaren only has had Steven Adams consistently by his side in the starting lineup, is not capable of such switchability.

Smart is vital to what Boston is as a team. But he’s a lot like what Tony Allen was to the Celtics. An excellent defender with the benefit of other good to great defensive players around him should not override the importance and impact of Jackson’s season.

Jaren Jackson Jr. should be salty. Hopefully he is...and takes it out on the Timberwolves.

But more on that in a moment.

Taylor Jenkins will be the runner-up for Coach of the Year

NBA: Boston Celtics at Memphis Grizzlies Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

Monty Williams should have won the award last season. He and the Phoenix Suns had an even better regular season, and in a crowded field they are the unquestioned favorite as the NBA enters playoff time. The Suns love playing for him, and his schemes have led the Phoenix putting up numbers on both ends of the floor reflective of their elite status. He deserves it. No issues there.

The issue would come from anyone saying Erik Spoelstra deserves it “more” than Taylor Jenkins.

You could easily argue that “Spo” is the most underrated coach of this generation. Spoelstra always seems to have the Heat overachieving, in positions to compete with teams and for titles that they should not be in the mix for. The “Heatles” Era of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh seemingly has some folks unable to see what Spoelstra means to Miami. He deserves his flowers.

But the Miami Heat’s roster tells you why he has not done the job that Taylor Jenkins has. Jimmy Butler, Kyle Lowry, Bam Adebayo...that roster is loaded with both young and veteran talent. The Grizzlies front office has done nothing to go “all-in” for a championship. In fact, many felt the team took a step BACKWARDS this offseason when they traded Jonas Valanciunas and drafted Ziaire Williams. Understandably so - Steven Adams had just had an awful season for New Orleans, and everyone (even the Grizzlies themselves) acknowledged that Williams was a “potential” pick.

But then a funny thing happened. Steven Adams had a career renaissance season, posting a career high in assists and also leading the NBA in screen assists and offensive rebounding. Ziaire Williams started the season slowly and then was a contributor - as a rookie - to the #2 team in the NBA in terms of record. Bane, Morant, Jackson Jr., De’Anthony Melton...the list goes on and on of players that have found growth in the development system of the Memphis Grizzlies.

Imagine what Jenkins will do once the Grizzlies actually act like a contender in the front office (assuming one way or another that’s coming this summer)!

Spo is awesome, and the Heat had a great season. But they were viewed as contenders entering the campaign. Memphis was not. The level of overachievement makes Jenkins the clear choice.

The Grizzlies will use this as motivation

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

If there was ever a team primed to use award season “snubs” for motivation, it is the Memphis Grizzlies. It was Bane who acknowledged the Detroit Pistons, who said they were interested in drafting him but then passed over him not once but twice, inspiring him to have one of the best games of his career against the Pistons. It was Jackson Jr. who has said in multiple media interviews that the team knows they’ve been viewed like underdogs in the past and they’re looking to prove people wrong now.

And of course, Morant himself has led that talk himself with his “going up the chimney” words about not avoiding any smoke.

The Grizzlies got punched in the mouth in Game One against the Minnesota Timberwolves. Minny deserved the win - they played better than Memphis - but now that Morant and company have lost home court advantage (for now) they can once again stake claim to the “underdog” mentality that Anthony Edwards and the Wolves currently wear so well. Jaren especially has a grievance - to lead the NBA in the categories he did and not be in the top-3 is surprising. Between that and the backs against the wall feel this early in the series, Memphis has plenty of energy ammunition for Tuesday night’s key Game 2.

It’s going to be a big one in Memphis.

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