22 Questions: Do the Memphis Grizzlies Even Want to Make the Playoffs?

One of the NBA’s best young teams might be too good for their own good

July 14, 2020 10:29 am
memphis grizzlies jaren jackson ja morant
Jaren Jackson Jr. and Ja Morant have made the Grizzlies a playoff contender ahead of schedule
Brandon Dill/Getty

Over the next three weeks, we’ll be preparing for the NBA’s long-awaited restart by attempting to answer the single most important question facing every franchise that will be present and accounted for in Orlando. This is 22 Questions.

This season, the Memphis Grizzlies arrived. After dismantling the final remnants of their beloved Grit ‘N Grind teams, they seemed primed for the kind of protracted rebuild that usually accompanies handing over minutes to players in the zygotic stage of their careers. Instead, the Grizzlies emerged as an unlikely playoff team thanks to Ja Morant, the presumptive rookie of the year; at 32-33, they may not have exactly stormed the league, but they at least briskly and sternly walked towards it. Behind Morant and second-year big man Jaren Jackson, Jr., the Grizzlies have wildly outpaced expectations, potentially establishing themselves as a force for the next decade — but perhaps also limiting how much of a force they will become. 

Ostensibly, teams in rebuild mode value cap space and roster flexibility. The Grizzlies, though, are already above the salary cap without any obvious paths to ducking below it. As such, they’re limited in their ability to make the necessary marginal gains around the edges of the roster, such as shoring up their wing depth or adding more offensive spunk to their guard rotation. The Grizzlies will have two first-round picks in this year’s deep draft, but a playoff berth (and the resultant first-round exit) would cost them a shot at adding a top draft pick in the lottery. With nearly their entire roster under contract for next season and a hefty raise due for glue-guy De’Anthony Melton, the Grizzlies are more or less locked into their current core — not a bad fate to have, but it means that they’ll be staking their future success almost entirely on internal development. 

Granted, there’s a degree of concern trolling here: the Grizzlies are pretty good now and should be great soon. Still, it doesn’t mask the immutable truth that truly high-level performance in the NBA is really hard and really complicated. It’s not enough to merely have all-NBA players; it’s also a matter of creating the proper support apparatus for your stars. The Warriors didn’t become a dynasty just because they had the Splash Brothers, but because they had the Splash Brothers and a swarm of heady defenders, passers and screeners who could spring Steph Curry and Klay Thompson for clean shots.

To be fair, the Grizzlies have made headway on both fronts. The 20-year-old Morant is nearly the perfect point-guard prospect, posting stats that no rookie has equaled in 40 years. Like that weird shadow baby monster baby in Game of Thrones, Morant is as sneaky as he is dangerous, slithering past perimeter defenders before assassinating big men at the rim. Although it would be nice if Morant could become a more prolific three-point shooter and play more defense, those are pretty minor nits to pick for somebody so young and so awesome. If your main takeaway from Morant’s rookie season is that [pushes glasses so far up your nose that it hurts ] Morant doesn’t have enough off-ball gravity or generate enough deflections per 75 possessions, you must kill at parties. In addition, Jackson’s odd-ball offensive game could make him a devastating center, even if his inability to rebound or not foul people has prevented him from fully materializing his vaunted defensive potential. The exhaustive, unabridged list of guys with 7’4 wingspans who shoot nearly 40% from deep, juke good defenders out of a dribble-handoff and rank among the top fistful of rim protectors: Jaren Jackson, Jr. 

On the role-player front, Melton and Brandon Clarke should both continue to be very good for a very long time. Neither of them amass head-turning stats, but that’s not really the point. They allow for the team to cohere, as evidenced by their sterling marks in advanced stats like Player-Impact Plus/Minus. Together, they perform similar functions as that of a world-class defensive midfielder in soccer, linking the different aspects of the team and providing an intangible ligamenture and scaffolding that isn’t captured by a boxscore; they play Sergio Busquets-ball.

While these four provide the foundation for a perennially excellent outfit, there’s the creeping sense that it may not be enough. For all of the quartet’s considerable virtues, it’s difficult to imagine any of them equalling the peaks of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Luka Doncic, Zion Williamson, Jayson Tatum and their other most-elite contemporaries. In this light, it’s not hard to imagine that the Grizzlies right now are slated for Finals contention, but championship contention could elude them. There’s a nagging sense that they’re still another player away and that their unexpected playoff spot could cut off the easiest avenues of improvement. They won’t be active in free agency after a deserved extension for Melton will drive them tens of millions of dollars into the luxury tax, leaving only a biannual exception (whatever that may be) to sign talent. Without the means to really add free agents, The Grizzlies will need to find contributors in the draft, which is considerably harder as your pick creeps downwards into the high-teens. They would particularly benefit from drafting a secondary playmaker like Deni Avdija or Tyrese Haliburton, neither of whom have any chance of staying available outside of the lottery. 

Playoff experience is important and has a significant statistical link to future success, but how much value can really be derived from a swiftly, LeBron-delivered beatdown at rodent-themed amusement park? As galaxy-brained as it may be to suggest it’s actually bad that the Grizzlies aren’t bad, it’s possible that sabotaging one brief playoff appearance could help protect a decade of future playoff success. The Grizzlies have already aced the hard part and built a strong, young roster. Now, they just need to figure out how to navigate how to best steer it for years to come — even if that means deciding that this (Disney) world is too much for them, late and soon.

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