The Memphis Grizzlies experienced a season for the books, one with too many moments and takeaways to count.
Let’s dive right in and cut right to the chase. I have Brandon Abraham (@bcabraham), EdMemphis (@EdMemphisPimpin), Jesse Cinquini (@CinquiniJesse), and Brendan Smart (@bsmart21) to talk about their thoughts on the 2021-22 season.
1) Biggest takeaway from this team this season
GBB Site Manager Parker Fleming: The championship window is open. Many would argue that the Grizzlies very well may still be playing basketball if Ja Morant never got injured — though to get a championship, you need the right cracks. The Grizzlies have entered the championship picture, and with 22-year old superstar Ja Morant alongside a great supporting cast headlined by Jaren Jackson Jr. and Desmond Bane, they could be in the mix for quite some time. It’s now time to see how they sustain this level of play, and build off it.
GBB Assistant to the Site Manager Brandon Abraham: “We Here” - Desmond Bane. The Grizzlies proved this season they are legitimate contenders and will be a force to reckon with in the Western Conference for years to come. Ja took a huge leap, JJJ was a menace defensively and the depth of the team was showcased all season. Jenkins and Kleiman are regarded as some of the top young coaches/executives in the league. Memphis proved they’re ready for the challenges of being a top team in the league.
GBB Staff Writer EdMemphis: The Time is NOW. Team definitely shouldn’t get old over night but must seize the moment & make a power move to win if the right opportunity is even possible & logical.
GBB Staff Writer Jesse Cinquini: The Memphis Grizzlies were the second-best team in the Western Conference. There are two reasons for this. First, they ended up as the two-seed with 56 regular-season wins, tying a franchise record in the process. Secondly, Memphis gave the Golden State Warriors the toughest postseason battle of any team in the West, being the only squad to take them to six games. Despite ending in disappointing fashion — Ja Morant suffered a bone bruise in Game 3 of the Conference Semifinals and sat the rest of the series — this season was undoubtedly a success for the Grizzlies.
GBB Senior Staff Writer Brendan Smart: How ahead of trajectory this young roster is. The story about this team throughout the last three seasons, was when should Zach Klieman and company press the magic button to make “the move” to maximize Jaren Jackson Jr., and Ja Morant. The future feels like it is now based on how your young cornerstones are handling the spotlight, and I don’t think that the front office is mad one bit about speeding up those plans to compete right now.
2) Which player impressed you the most?
Fleming: To go a different direction, I’m going to roll with Steven Adams. After a forgettable season in New Orleans, he experienced a renaissance in Memphis — crushing the glass en route to a dominant rebounding season, freeing up his guards with screens, and even showing off some pizzazz with his passing. He was a stabilizing force for this young team throughout the regular season. Though he had a rough patch in the first part of the playoffs, with his fall out of the rotation and COVID issues, he proved that he could still impact postseason basketball in the Grizzlies’ final 3 games.
Abraham: Desmond Bane’s leap into legitimate star alongside Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. is worth mentioning, but I’m going to go with JJJ as who impressed me the most. JJJ proved he can stay healthy this past season and how much of an impact he can have on the defensive end. He still has work to do offensively, but showed enough flashes to be excited about his improvement in that area as well.
EdMemphis: Desmond Bane. Guy went from a bench player, to someone getting 3rd Team All-NBA Votes. He was the constant in the Grizzlies successful season. And he cleary has more ceiling to reach, especially as a playmaker and shot creator
Cinquini: Desmond Bane’s growth from year one to year two was extraordinary. Bane nearly doubled his maiden season scoring average from 9.2 points to 18.2. Despite a much-heightened offensive workload (82nd percentile in usage rate compared to 38th as a neophyte), he maintained outstanding efficiency from the field and beyond the arc. Not only that, Bane showed flashes of shot-creating chops as a sophomore (30% of his 2021-22 baskets went unassisted). Don’t be surprised when the 23-year-old puts up 20-plus points per game next season.
Smart: This is a hard one, because the entire roster progressed their own individual games. Speaking of putting pressure on the front office, the sophomore leap that Desmond Bane took this past season wasn’t anticipated at all. I expected Bane to progress with the ball in his hands, creating off the dribble, and just being comfortable overall with the basketball. That type of progression normally takes offseason(s) for a shooting guard, whose main focus is getting open off the ball. Bane’s leap really magnifies a lot of things on this Grizzlies roster. He isn’t the elite defender that Dillon Brooks is, however, Bane showed that he can carry the offense alongside Ja Morant throughout lulls, and in multiple different ways. Bane’s leap raises the Grizzlies ceiling overall.
3) Which player do you wish showed a little more?
Fleming: I’m going to roll with Kyle Anderson here. Though he remained tremendous at creating defensive events and serving as a frontcourt playmaker, his jumper from the 2021 season not carrying over was a bit disappointing. That, along with the return and reemergence of Jaren Jackson and Brandon Clarke, diminished Anderson’s role. Now, his free agency outlook with the Grizzlies is a bit blurry.
Abraham: Kyle Anderson. He was so great last year with his improved 3-point shooting but this year he just seemed to fall off. He’s never been one to put up big stats but it didn’t feel like he impacted the season like he had in years past. The hitch in his shot came back and although he was effective defensively, I found myself wanting more from him throughout the year. With younger players stepping up it makes sense Kyle’s role would diminish, but overall it was a disappointing season after the season prior.
EdMemphis: Jaren Jackson, offensively. Jaren wasn’t bad offensively, but I definitely expected him to be more efficient scoring, particularly more polished in the post scoring. He has to improve his shot selection and needs to be more active offensively to increase his attempts.
Cinquini: It’s safe to say Xavier Tillman had a sophomore slump. He was fantastic for the Grizzlies during his rookie campaign, functioning as a switchable, smart defender and lethal shot-maker from the floater range. But in 2021-22, Tillman’s playing time and scoring efficiency plummeted. He even accumulated several DNPs. Sure, Tillman had solid games here and there — notably a seven-point, six-rebound, and three-steal performance in Memphis’ Game 2 win over the Warriors — but his sophomore stint left me wanting more.
Smart: This is honestly a tough answer, as I feel like everyone progressed. However, if I had to pick it’d be Xavier Tillman. Despite the one or two positive playoff games, Tillman found himself a DNP Coach’s Decision for majority of the 2021-22 NBA Season.
Credit to Brandon Clarke for finding himself again, and really outplaying Tillman consistently throughout this past season. Now, a lot of factors play into Tillman’s future in the 901 as his usage dropped.
4) If Ja Morant never went down, how far do the Grizzlies go? Do you think the outcome changes drastically?
Fleming: I’m not going to go out and say the Grizzlies would’ve won the series. It was pretty neck and neck between the two squads. It could’ve gone either way. In that series, Ja Morant played like the best player on the floor, and the Warriors didn’t have answers for him. He is the guy that takes the Grizzlies over the top. In those final 3 games, the Grizzlies needed his go-to scoring chops down the stretch in clutch-time situations. I’m not going to discredit anything to the Western Conference Champion Golden State Warriors, but this matchup would’ve gone to a thrilling 7 games that could’ve gone either way.
Abraham: It’s easy to see a pathway where Memphis is in the NBA Finals if Ja Morant doesn’t get hurt. Dallas has hardly put up a fight against Golden State so it’s easy to wonder if Memphis could have gotten past Golden State they’d be meeting Miami or Boston in the Finals. It is certainly a realistic outcome but they also very well could have lost to Golden State. Games One and Two were really close with Ja. Game Three wasn’t entirely close before Ja got hurt, but Memphis’ depth allowed them to keep it a closer series than outsiders expected. Personally, I think they ultimately still fall just short in the Golden State series, but it sure is fun to fantasize about them still playing right now.
EdMemphis: I’m with Skip, If Ja doesn’t go down, and Dillon Brooks plays every game Memphis could’ve won it all this season. Their biggest hurdle would’ve been Golden State
Cinquini: Unfortunately, I don’t think the outcome of the Golden State series would have been different with a healthy Ja Morant. The Warriors are not only more battle-tested, but they certainly have a superior defense, too. Perhaps the Grizzlies would have won an extra game and forced a Game 7 with an in-tact Morant, but I would have picked Golden State to win the series even if that were the case.
Smart: As much as I want to think about how far this team could’ve gone with Ja Morant on the floor, *if* Ja was healthy, they were going to struggle to get out of the second round. The only reason I know? There were opportunities for Memphis to take a sizable series lead on the Warriors in both games one and two, but couldn’t finish the job in game one.
To answer your question, Morant has a huge influence on how the Grizzlies play, and how far they can go. However, if Morant is healthy, the series goes to a game seven at FedEx Forum, where both teams are exhausted. I don’t think Memphis could escape themselves in that series. Warriors still take the series.
5) Favorite memory from the season
Fleming: I’m going to roll with the Grizzlies’ Game 5 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves. It had everything: the trash-talk, the comeback heroics, and the star punches from Ja Morant and Anthony Edwards down the stretch. It made for thrilling postseason basketball. If I had to pick a regular season moment, it was the Grizzlies’ home win over the Golden State Warriors in January. That game felt like the night where the Grizzlies emphatically arrived.
Abraham: Ja Morant’s 52-point masterpiece against the San Antonio Spurs. Covering the game for GBB, I got a first hand experience at Morant dropping 52 points along with a massive poster on Jakob Poeltl and the insane full court buzzer beater off the assist from Steven Adams. It was another Morant highlight filled game that had the entire Forum buzzing.
EdMemphis: Santi Aldama breakout game. There were so many Bane and Morant moments though I don’t know where to start.
Cinquini: I’ll go with the Grizzlies’ Game 6 win over the Timberwolves to close out the series. To be down ten points heading into the final frame, on the road, in an elimination game, and rally back to win highlighted this team’s lovable grit and resilience. It’s also worth noting that the victory put a bow on Memphis’ first playoff series win since 2015, when it took down the Trail Blazers in five games in the opening round.
Smart: Sheesh. There were way too many to pick from. Probably because we were laughing at this Grizzlies team overachieving (in a good way). The whole season was fun. I don’t have the statistics or schedule in front of me, but the late games (West Coast games) were worth staying up for. From Ja Morant pinning a fast break layup from the Los Angeles Lakers on the backboard with two hands, to overall Memphis performing (while talking their talk) at Crypto.com Arena.
The 2021-22 season was a one to remember, but it’s only the beginning for the Memphis Grizzlies.
On to the offseason.