The Memphis Grizzlies traded away their two most recognizable players in 2019, dealing Marc Gasol to the eventual world champion Toronto Raptors and then sending Mike Conley Jr to the Utah Jazz in the off season. They hired a 35-year old, first –time head coach in Taylor Jenkins and then selected Ja Morant second overall in the draft to go along with their previous season’s pick of Jaren Jackson. All signs pointed to a long rebuild in a small market where it would be tough to attract free agents.
But then, it turns out Ja Morant can really play and Taylor Jenkins can really coach and surprising just about everyone, possibly even themselves, the Memphis Grizzlies have played right around .500 ball all season and find themselves with a firm hold on the 8th seed in a very tough Western Conference. With a 3.5 game lead over the triumvirate of Portland, New Orleans and Sacramento, it’s virtually impossible for them to not end up playing for that 8th seed they currently hold. They’re 2-5 against that trio that they’re likely to face in that play-in situation but they’ll just need to win once and if Ja Morant has proven anything in college and now in his rookie season is he can carry a team to a single win if he needs to.
The Grizzlies started the season slowly, as expected, and were 13-21 on January 1st. They caught fire in January, going 11-4 before coming back down to go 8-8 since February 1st. For the season, they’re a bad three-point shooting team, right around 35%, ranking in the bottom third of the league. But when they really got going in January, they were well over 40% from behind the arc. Their top shooters are Jaren Jackson, Dillon Brooks and Jae Crowder. Jackson has been pretty good from out there all year but Brooks and Crowder really got going as Morant started attracting more attention and was able to kick out to those guys who were wide open.
They aren’t a great defensive team but a decent rebounding group. So, it’s very possible for games to get away from them if an opponent can contain Morant, even just early on and they aren’t able to get much going offensively. But if they keep it close, a pick and roll with Morant and Jackson can be very effective late in games.
Morant is the likely rookie of the year in spite of Zion Williamson’s late push. Williamson just won’t end up playing enough games to usurp what Morant has done. And I think we will have these two rookies go head to head for the eighth seed in the West before it’s all said and done. But the Pelicans just have more talent and Jrue Holiday should be more than enough to slow down Morant, which in turn will slow down the whole team. As much credit as Memphis deserves for being in the mix this season, in the end, I think they’ll fall just short of the playoffs but with tons to look forward to as this group matures.
Next season, Miles Plumlee’s $12.5M and Josh Jackson’s $7M comes off their books but their cap really opens up in the 2021-2022 season, right around when they’ll be looking to extend Jaren Jackson and Ja Morant. If those two continue to get better, it also may be a great time to add a third big piece to the Grizzlies and put them back into contention.