The NBA tends to operate on the “wait your turn” system. Young teams kill a few years in the lottery before suffering their first few playoff humiliations. Only then are they allowed to be taken seriously. The Memphis Grizzlies have spent the past two seasons doing everything in their power to rebuke that norm. They jumped from No. 2 overall pick into the play-in round after landing Ja Morant, and had the standings frozen when the pandemic paused the 2019-20 season, they would have made the playoffs. They actually did so last season by knocking out Stephen Curry and the Warriors in the play-in round, collectively costing the league’s broadcast partners millions of dollars in advertising revenue.
These Grizzlies are disruptors. Guards need to shoot? No thanks, watch our lightning bolt floor general ram the ball down Rudy Gobert’s throat time and time again in the first round of the playoffs. Post-up centers are out of fashion? We’ll build our half-court offense around one that’s never made an All-Star team. Nothing about this team made sense and that’s what made this team make sense.
That’s all well and good in the early stages of a rebuild. Year 3 is where the stakes start to rise. Memphis has tasted the playoffs. Now making it back there is the expectation. The roster is slowly starting to conform to league standards, and the front office refuses to fast-track this group to contention. That puts the Grizzlies in a somewhat unusual position entering the 2021-22 season. Their players are ready to make the jump, but is the organization? That’s just one of the most fascinating storylines surrounding Memphis as we approach opening night.
1. The never-ending youth movement
Getting a young star means catering to a young star. Trae Young wasn’t happy after two years in the lottery, so Atlanta splurged on free agents. Zion Williamson wasn’t happy after two years in the lottery, so the Pelicans tried to get Kyle Lowry. Such impatience can ultimately hurt in the long run. Ask the Pelicans if they’d like a do-over on the moves they made around Anthony Davis. But it’s the trend nowadays. The clock usually starts as soon as the young star is acquired.
But Memphis hit the snooze button after Morant’s rookie season, barely making any moves in the condensed 2020 offseason. Then they actively backtracked in 2021, giving up Jonas Valanciunas and their cap space to move up in the draft and pick up a 2022 first-rounder for their troubles. They didn’t devote long-term money to free agents. They might make the playoffs anyway this season, but it hardly seems like an organizational priority.
There’s logic to that. Rookie contracts give teams a three-year window of roster-building flexibility. This is Morant’s third season, and that means he’ll still have one offseason with an artificially deflated cap number before his inevitable max extension kicks in during the summer of 2023. That means the Grizzlies are still in line for significant cap space after this season, and if they’ve improved their draft pick in the process, then all the better. Adding top talent becomes significantly harder once a team’s best players are earning market value. The Grizzlies appear intent on taking advantage of this specific window to put the right players around Morant for the long haul. Using a top-10 pick on Ziaire Williams, widely viewed as a project rather than a sure thing that will help right away, fits that prerogative. The Grizzlies want to win a championship in the next few years. Their climb to that mountaintop doesn’t have to be linear, and it probably won’t be.
2. The security blanket is gone
Phil Jackson used to loathe calling timeouts when opponents went on hot streaks. Refraining sent a message to his team: I’m not bailing you out here, you figure it out. Trading Valanciunas is going to have a similar impact on this offense. For the past two years, the Grizzlies could always throw the ball down low to their center and he’d reliably get them a decent shot. Well, that center is gone now. If the Grizzlies want to score in the half court, they’re going to have to figure out how to do it themselves, without their safety blanket.
That’s going to be difficult. Memphis scored 92.4 points per 100 plays in the half court last season, ranked 26th in the NBA according to Cleaning the Glass. They survived as a killer offensive rebounding team. Steven Adams can do that just as well as Valanciunas, but he isn’t the same post-up threat. Can Memphis give him as many minutes if he’s limiting their half-court offense further? Or will they have to find that offense somewhere else, cutting into their offensive rebounding? The big man rotation this season is going to be what makes or breaks the season for Memphis, and one man stands at the literal and figurative center of it.
3. Jackson at the five?
The theory of Jaren Jackson Jr. has been much more tantalizing than the reality thus far. There’s a wholly unique big man lurking in there, a 3-point gunner that is just as comfortable running the floor with Morant and catching his lobs while competing for Defensive Player of the Year by chasing down guards on the perimeter. We’ve seen glimpses of that player, but injuries have deprived him of critical developmental minutes. He’s played in only 126 of a possible 227 games as a professional, but he enters the 2021-22 season seemingly at full strength.
He’ll likely start games at power forward, but that distinction has been mostly trivial thus far in his career. Jackson has played 45 percent of his career minutes at center according to Basketball-Reference, and last season, that figure jumped to 67 percent. The endgame here is obvious. When the stakes are at their highest, he is going to be a center.
But can he handle that position physically full-time? Can he stay out of foul trouble as a primary rim-protector? The former is possible. For now, the latter, less so. Jackson has committed seven fouls per 100 possessions for his career. That’s going to get him knocked out of a lot of games, but pairing him with Adams is going to cramp the offense. Eventually, Memphis would probably prefer to stick him next to Brandon Clarke and Kyle Anderson, more capable shooters and ball-handlers, but Jackson has to prove that he’s capable of handling a center’s workload without a more experienced veteran standing beside him.
4. The Brooks bump
Morant and Jackson are givens. Memphis needs both of them to play like superstars if the team is ever going to enter the title picture, but organically grown contenders only truly take shape when the third, more surprising building block emerges. The Warriors were good with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. They were great when No. 35 overall pick Draymond Green became Defensive Player of the Year Draymond Green. Milwaukee needed to hit a home run on Khris Middleton as a throw-in to the Brandon Knight-Brandon Jennings trade. And down the stretch, it really started to look like Memphis might have hit one on Dillon Brooks.
Brooks was a good player in his first three seasons and change. His shot selection was erratic and his intense playing style sometimes got the better of him, but at the very least he’d established himself as a valuable role player. And then his scoring started to rise. It went up with each passing month, culminating with a 19 points per game stretch across April and May that helped keep Memphis in the play-in tournament. Once there, he held DeMar DeRozan to 5-of-21 shooting to sneak past the Spurs. Curry might have scored 39 on him in the next play-in game, but Brooks at least kept him below 50 percent shooting. All you can do is make Steph work for it. Brooks did. Then he averaged over 25 points per game against Utah in the first round.
Look, these are ultimately small samples. The Jazz aren’t exactly known for their perimeter defense. Brooks probably isn’t going to shoot 56 perfect on corner 3’s again, and his finishing remains suspect. But who cares? How many players can raise their game that much for more than a month as his team approaches the playoffs, and then go even higher once they actually get there? It’s cliche, but what a player does in the biggest moments says a lot about who they are.
Brooks is utterly fearless, but he’s no longer reckless. He’s channeled all of that energy and confidence into something more sustainable. The wasted energy is gone. If the bad shots can go with it and he can just take that last step as a ball-handler, he’s going to emerge as the do-it-all wing that the Grizzlies sorely need alongside their franchise point guard and big man. He’s the swing piece here. Memphis needs somebody else to pop to make the leap from plucky young playoff team to year-in, year-out winner, and if last year was any indication, it’s going to be him.