The Memphis Grizzlies put the league on notice this season with a 56-26 record — good for 2nd-best in the league, and tied for the best record in franchise history. From late November all the way through the end of the season, they looked like a well-oiled machine. Even without Ja Morant for 28 games and Dillon Brooks for 50 regular season outings, the team didn’t miss a beat for the majority of the year.
There are a lot of reasons for their successes. Ja Morant is a top-10 player now. They’re a deep team with roughly 12-13 NBA rotation players. Desmond Bane and Jaren Jackson Jr. took leaps towards All-Star caliber impact. Steven Adams and Brandon Clarke had bounce-back seasons. Tyus Jones’ efficiency stayed the course even with an expanded role.
Two more pillars for the Grizzlies’ successful season are head coach Taylor Jenkins and EVP of Basketball Operations Zach Kleiman.
Both Jenkins and Kleiman received their flowers on their work this season.
Jenkins finished as the runner-up for the Coach of the Year award, trailing Monty Williams — another deserving candidate. The system he and his staff architected has a lot of plug-and-play elements that alleviate any sort of absences in the rotation. It predicated around defensive force to generate offense (1st in steals, blocks, rebounds, and fastbreak scoring), a controlled pace to their game (4th in pace), moving the basketball (6th in assists), and finding their way into the paint (1st in points in the paint). As a result, the Grizzlies finished with top-6 rankings in offensive and defensive efficiency — the Suns were the only other team with those marks.
Zach Kleiman’s offseason moves came across as polarizing. A segment of people didn’t understand his moves — trading away 2 starters (Grayson Allen and Jonas Valanciunas), flipping Patrick Beverley for a flier on a struggling lottery pick, and using 1st round draft picks (including a trade-up) on multi-year projects. There’s a lot of nuance to it. It more shows that he was calculated in his moves, and he was betting on the talent on the roster and the development program intact. Desmond Bane wouldn’t have had the opportunities this season with Allen and Beverley — who expected to start, per his conversation on an episode of “The Old Man and The Three.” There would be fewer touches to go around with Valanciunas on the roster, which benefitted Morant and Bane, and replacing him with a lower-usage big man that added similar value with rebounding and screen assists in Steven Adams was key in this season’s fortunes.
That bet paid off, and you could see that Jenkins bought into those moves as well. Bane was a fixture in the starting lineup and in the offensive gameplan from the jump. There were plenty of growth opportunities for Ziaire Williams as well. Sticking with 10-man rotations throughout the regular season, regardless of who’s in and out, showed the confidence these two have in the roster 1-15.
These developments illustrate something that caught my eye in the exit interviews: the togetherness of the organization. The team’s chemistry was on display throughout the season, and it’s clear they all genuinely care for one another. That togetherness trickles down from Taylor Jenkins and Zach Kleiman and their synergy in coach/front office relations and operations.
They both mentioned it several times in last week’s exit interviews, and Steven Adams summed it up quite nice: everyone in the organization “sings the same song.” Everyone being on the same page like that creates a great, gravitational culture. Whether it’s embodying the “next man up” mentality, the bench hyping up their teammates on big plays, the post-game photo ops and interviews, the coach empowering his players, the team not missing a beat when assistant coaches have to step in because of COVID, or the GM crediting his entire staff by name — everyone is bought in on the team’s culture, the backbone for this success.
That’s a testament to the Grizzlies’ leadership, setting a standard of togetherness by their own example.
The Memphis Grizzlies are often referred to as a young team on the rise. Not a single member of team’s core of Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr., and Desmond Bane is 24 years old yet. They have a plethora of complementary players that have room for growth, and fall in line within the team’s timeline.
Zach Kleiman and Taylor Jenkins are young amongst their peers as well. Kleiman was the youngest winner of the Executive of the Year award, and Jenkins is the 2nd-youngest coach in the NBA. Both of them were named to The Athletic’s “40 under 40” for the basketball world.
While executive and coach age isn’t the end all be all, the Grizzlies’ structure bodes well for the team’s goal of sustainable success, as these two are just getting started in their respective careers.
The 2021-22 season will be remembered for a lot of reasons, and one of them will be how Taylor Jenkins and Zach Kleiman emerged as 2 more rising stars from the Memphis Grizzlies, and as two of the league’s elite in their roles.
Now comes the fun part of how the Grizzlies build on this year’s success with these two at the helm.