The Memphis Grizzlies could have gotten drunk on their playoff appearance. They were a feel-good story, an upstart team full of youth and vigor, led by a star whose style, smarts and complete lack of fear translated beautifully to the postseason. They played spoiler against Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors in the play-in, and then they stole the series opener against the No. 1 seeded Utah Jazz. When they were eliminated in five games, Ja Morant said they had “an unbelievable season” and there was “a lot to be proud of.” It was precisely the type of showing that could make a previously patient front office lose perspective.
In the most extreme scenario, Memphis could have overpaid a veteran free agent, signed 29-year-old big man Jonas Valanciunas to a rich contract extension and moved some of its young talent in a win-now trade. It could have justified this by pointing to the Atlanta Hawks‘ 2020 spending spree or the Phoenix Suns‘ acquisition of Chris Paul, both of which paid off immediately.
Instead, the Grizzlies went for delayed gratification. They added more high-upside players and stayed flexible. If they’re better next season, it will be a result of better health and internal improvement, not some headline-grabbing move. A quick recap of their maneuvering:
In other words, the Grizzlies swapped their offense-first bruiser for a defense-first bruiser, added a late first-round pick, took a couple of big swings in the draft, took a flier on the No. 6 pick of the 2019 draft and shuffled around some role players and second-round picks.
This is the type of offseason that is praised only by dorks on the internet. Memphis’ front office looked at the roster and the landscape of the league and decided this was not the time to go wild. The Grizzlies might believe they were better than their 38-34 record last year, but that didn’t stop them from acting like a team that is firmly in rebuild mode.
Ideally, their 2021-22 season will be defined by the continued ascent of Morant and the growth of Jaren Jackson Jr., Dillon Brooks, Desmond Bane, De’Anthony Melton, Brandon Clarke and Xavier Tillman. Kyle Anderson and Tyus Jones will once again be stabilizing forces, and Memphis should still be able to beat up opposing bench units. If Hernangomez’s most recent season was an aberration, he’s a rotation-caliber player, but I’m not sure he’ll crack this one. Allen’s shooting will be missed, but there are only so many minutes to go around.
One can quibble with any of Memphis’ moves individually — maybe you’re skeptical about Williams adding the strength and the shooting he needs to reach his potential, maybe you don’t buy Aldama’s numbers in the Patriot League, maybe you’re fully out on Culver and extremely high on Allen — but the overall strategy seems sound. When most of the league is thinking short-term, the bar for win-now moves should be higher than normal.
Last November, in explaining the Oklahoma City Thunder‘s teardown, general manager Sam Presti said that they couldn’t afford to “make decisions based on what we prefer as opposed to what’s best.” Having seen a sold-out crowd lose its collective mind in the playoffs, the easy thing to do is maximize your chances of getting back there. The Grizzlies aren’t about to bottom out the way OKC did, but their front office also chose to do the difficult, best thing. Their goal is to build a contender, not just a perennial postseason team.
Next season, Memphis projects to be in the middle of the pack, where conventional wisdom dictates is the worst place for an NBA team to be. The reality is more complicated, especially now. Being a fringe playoff team full of vets is not the same as being a fringe playoff team with only two players older than 25 years old. (Adams is 28, Anderson 27.) Even for teams in glamor markets, acquiring star players is more about stacking good young players and picks rather than simply clearing cap space, a reality that small-market teams have been living with forever. If the Grizzlies’ endgame is adding another star, they’ve put themselves in a better position to do so. In doing that without necessarily taking a step back, they’ve pulled off a magic trick.