December 1, 2022

The Memphis Grizzlies started the 2013-14 season in a 10-15 hole. They had a new coach, Dave Joerger, and an injured star, Marc Gasol. Searching for a spark, they traded Jerryd Bayless for Courtney Lee and called up James Johnson from what was then known as the D-League. Joerger broke down the schedule week by week and gave the team smaller goals: Win two of the next three, then three of the next four.

By the time Gasol came back, the Grizzlies had begun to find themselves. They finished the season on a 40-17 tear, good enough to squeak into the playoffs as the seventh seed.

The next season, Mike Conley suffered a gruesome facial fracture in Game 3 of the first round, but Memphis won the series in five anyway. The lesson: Never count out the Grizzlies.

Years removed from the Grizz’s Grit-‘n’-Grind era, this remains a good policy. In 2020-21, Memphis made the playoffs despite missing Jaren Jackson Jr., who was recovering from a torn meniscus, for all but 11 games. To do this, it needed to win two play-in games, including an overtime thriller against the Golden State Warriors.

Nonetheless, when Ja Morant hurt his knee against the Atlanta Hawks last November, it felt like a crushing blow. The Grizzlies lost that game by 32 points and fell to 9-10 on the season, with the worst defense in the entire league. But they then won 10 of their next 11 games, all without their best player. Memphis finished the season 56-26, second in the West, with a top-five defense. 

So what should be expected of this year’s Grizzlies? And how is one supposed to factor in Jackson’s latest injury? The 23-year-old big man, coming off a breakout season on the defensive end, had foot surgery in late June and was ruled out for 4-6 months. 

Unlike the last time Jackson was out for an extended period, Memphis cannot fill its hole at power forward with Kyle Anderson, who left for the Minnesota Timberwolves in free agency. It traded another one of its best defenders, De’Anthony Melton, for veteran Danny Green, who is recovering from a torn ACL and LCL, and the No. 23 pick, which it used to select David Roddy.

Roddy is a 6-foot-6 power forward who was insanely efficient in college but will need to prove he can hang defensively. If the starting spot goes to one of the guys the Grizzlies have drafted late in the first round, though, it’ll likely go to either Santi Aldama, the No. 30 pick in last year’s draft, or Brandon Clarke, the No. 21 pick in 2019. Clarke is much more seasoned, but don’t be surprised if Aldama gets it. (There are others in the mix, too.)

Unlike some of its Western Conference competition, Memphis did not trade for a star or get one back from a long-term injury in the offseason. Based on Jackson’s uncertain return date and the loss of Anderson and Melton, it’s fair to wonder how the defense and the second unit will hold up. If there is a way for the Grizzlies to overcome all of that, though, they’ll find it.

The conversation

Grizzlies believer: This season hasn’t even started, and Ja Morant already has a 360 on his highlight reel. The Grizzlies have a glorious thing going on. My only qualm with their front office is that they’ve acquired too much young talent. If Kenneth Lofton Jr. is as good as I think he is, then how will Taylor Jenkins find minutes for David Roddy?

Grizzlies skeptic: You’re bringing up Kenneth Lofton Jr. before Jaren Jackson Jr.? OK then. You know Lofton is on a two-way contract, right?  

Grizzlies believer: Yeah, but there’s only one way his career trajectory is going to go: Straight up! This team has an amazing track record with prospects who are beloved on the internet and strangely undervalued around the league, and Lofton might be the biggest steal of the bunch. He produced on the U19 team, in college, at the G League Elite camp and at the combine, then went undrafted. It feels like everybody except the Grizzlies was way too focused on his weight. 

Grizzlies skeptic: Lofton’s fun, hope you’re right, way too early to tell, so let’s talk about the most pressing issue: Jackson won’t be back until November or December. He made First Team All-Defense last season, and Memphis’ defense was 4.8 points per 100 possessions better with him on the court than without him, according to Cleaning The Glass. If that isn’t nerdy enough for you, he was also far and way its best defender according to luck-adjusted DRAPM. Defensively, the Grizzlies just aren’t nearly as fierce without Jackson roving around and blowing up actions.

Grizzlies believer: Fierce. Grrr. Good one. And wow, you did all that research just to tell me that JJJ is an awesome defender? Thanks, I know! But the Grizzlies were good defensively (and great offensively) with Steven Adams and Brandon Clarke sharing the frontcourt last season. I’m not sure exactly how Jenkins will manage the rotation, but it’s not a bad thing that Santi Aldama, Xavier Tillman, Jake LaRavia, Roddy and Lofton will be competing for Jackson’s playing time. Dillon Brooks, Ziaire Williams and John Konchar can all slide up to the 4 spot in a pinch, too, and maybe Killian Tillie will be healthy at some point. In the long run, some lineup experimentation could be helpful. And the short-term harm of this injury has been wildly overstated. 

Grizzlies skeptic: If Adams and Clarke are such a good combination, then why did Jenkins play them together for only four minutes in last year’s playoffs and start Aldama over Clarke on Monday? As well as damaging Memphis’ defense, Jackson’s absence is suboptimal for spacing. Even though he made just 31.9 percent of his 3s last year, opposing teams were worried when he was open on the perimeter, which is more than I can say about any other starter not named Desmond Bane. After finishing 22nd in halfcourt offense, per Cleaning the Glass, I figured that the Grizzlies were determined to make a jump in that area, particularly when they decided not to bring back De’Anthony Melton and Kyle Anderson, two of their best defenders. That jump is unlikely now.

Grizzlies believer: About Monday: Aldama had 21 points on 7-for-9 shooting, including 4-for-5 from deep. He shot 8-for-20 (40 percent) from 3-point range at summer league, too. He’s one of the reasons I’m not worried about the spacing. Another is that, as you alluded to, the minutes that went to Melton and Anderson are now going to better spot-up shooters. I’ve been all-in on the John Konchar Experience for years now, and I must note that he made 42.1 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3s last season. Roddy was one of the best spot-up guys in college basketball, and fellow rookies LaRavia, Kennedy Chandler and Vince Williams Jr. can all space the floor. I anticipate improvement from Morant and Ziaire Williams in this area, too. 

Grizzlies skeptic: This is so much fun. I bring up legitimate concerns, then you wave them away with your magic wand: Ja Morant is going to start making behind-the-back 3s, a sleuth of young, completely unproven Grizzlies are going to save the day with their sensational spot-up shooting. Cool!

Grizzlies believer: Should I not expect a 23-year-old superstar who just won Most Improved Player to keep developing? Should I dismiss young, promising players because they don’t have big names? It was easy to dismiss Bane, Clarke and Melton in years past, but it definitely wasn’t smart. And if the Grizzlies can go 20-5 without Morant, it can surely survive Jackson starting the season a little late. 

Grizzlies skeptic: Last year, I knew who the Grizzlies were, even when Morant was out: A tough, aggressive, physical, fast and unselfish team that wanted to force turnovers, dominate the boards and get out on the break. Anderson and Melton aren’t stars, but they’re not trivial losses. The temporary loss of Jackson isn’t trivial, either. I don’t know if this is an elite defensive team right now, and I don’t know if they can make up for that with offense. It’s not even all about spacing — I hoped Memphis would trade for another playmaker to support Morant, but instead it has put even more on his shoulders. 

Grizzlies believer: Morant can handle it, and on the other end he says he’s going use his speed, athleticism and length to disrupt ballhandlers. That’s not as exciting as adding a consistent pull-up 3, but it’s not a trivial improvement. I don’t see the Grizzlies’ identity changing much, if at all. On offense, Morant will run the show, Bane will freak opponents out and the bigs will pound the boards. They still have Steven Adams protecting the paint, and they still have a lot of versatile dudes who can switch on the perimeter. Maybe the defense isn’t quite as dominant early on, but the spacing should be better and the system is the same. Predicting a major drop in the standings is foolish. 

Grizzlies skeptic: In an ideal world, Morant makes 3s and makes strides defensively, Bane takes another step as a playmaker, Ziaire Williams breaks out and Jackson’s quicker-than-anticipated return provides a boost for a team that is already thriving thanks to the steady contributions of numerous young role players. More likely, though: Memphis misses the defenders that departed, declines defensively and doesn’t get out in transition as much, putting too much pressure on a halfcourt offense that is too dependent on Morant. And considering how stacked the West is, the Grizzlies will probably fall a few spots even if more things go right than wrong. 

The curiosity: Kenneth Lofton Jr.

There is no one in the league quite like Lofton. There’s some Boris Diaw to his game — he was a point guard before his growth spurt and processes the game like one — but he’s built more like a football player and is an absolute bully around the basket. 

The first chance Lofton got to play in an NBA game, he went right at Brook Lopez and Serge Ibaka:

The two-way deal means that Lofton can only be activated for a maximum of 50 NBA games unless Memphis converts his contract to a standard one. If he earns a real role while Jackson is out, he could force the front office’s hand. 

One more thing

Green, 35, could potentially play a role on this team. He said on his podcast that he expects to be back by the All-Star break, and Grizzlies general manager Zach Kleiman said at media day that he could return before the end of the regular season. Green is on an expiring contract, but this is not another Iguodala situation. 

If they’re going to keep him around, though, they’ll need to cut or trade someone else with guaranteed money before the season starts. Memphis has 16 players under contract, excluding training-camp deals and two-ways. 

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