Memphis Grizzlies: For a guy from a small town in South Carolina, Ja Morant is quite at ease in front of the camera. Following the Memphis Grizzlies’ win at Madison Square Garden on Feb. 2, he was in his element entertaining the New York media horde.
“Mic check, mic check — yo, yo, yo,” Morant said, jokingly cupping the microphone as he took his seat next to Jaren Jackson Jr., another 22-year-old franchise cornerstone. “I’m the Unicorn, and I’m here to check in with the Ninja.
“Are you all set?”
When Memphis’ “Grit ‘n Grind” chapter closed in 2019 and a rebuilding project began, the Grizzlies pushed their way into the contender conversation at least a couple of years earlier than many expected.
With Morant and the Grizzlies, things move quickly
That’s the case when Morant sprints coast-to-coast and finishes in under four seconds, as he did after grabbing a rebound off a shot Jackson missed and flying up the floor for a crucial transition layup in the Grizzlies’ recent home win over the New York Knicks.
It’s also true in the big picture, as Memphis went from moribund to a play-in team with massive long-term upside during Morant’s rookie season, then took a big step forward by making the playoffs his sophomore season, and then took another big step forward this season, when only the reigning Western Conference champion Phoenix Suns have a better record.
The Grizzlies, led by vice president of basketball operations Zach Kleiman, 34, and coached by Taylor Jenkins, 37, appear to be extending their window of opportunity to compete. The Grizzlies’ stars are barely old enough to buy a bottle of Casamigos, the tequila Morant gleefully sipped during his Instagram Live session filmed on a private jet en route to the first of what will likely be many All-Star appearances.
The Grizzlies are a wildly entertaining team that often overwhelms opponents with athleticism, leading the league in points in the paint, rebounding, and blocked shots with Morant in constant attack mode. The Grizzlies, who play the Brooklyn Nets on Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. ET (ESPN and ESPN the App), are also the league’s unofficial brash leaders.
We’re going to make sure everyone knows we’re here, Morant said
The Grizzlies have gone from being viewed as a fun, young team on the rise to being viewed as a team with a target on its back. Some detractors, notably veterans from across the league, believe the team’s confidence, which borders on arrogance, is too early for a team that has yet to win a playoff series. The Grizzlies, on the other hand, “ain’t duckin’ no smoke,” as Morant put it that night at Madison Square Garden.
“Wait and see, man,” Jackson advised. “You could compare it to whatever you want from back in the day when young teams came together with a lot of potential and went on to become quite successful.
“You’ll see what I mean. Let’s see what happens. It should be a great time.”
From Grit ‘n Grind to the best entertainment in the league, there’s something for everyone.
The end of the Grit ‘n Grind era marked the start of Memphis’ basketball resurgence. In 2017-18, the Grizzlies still had cornerstones Mike Conley and Marc Gasol despite the departures of Tony Allen and Zach Randolph. However, an Achilles injury limited Conley to only 12 games that season, and Memphis finished 22-60 without him, forfeiting the No. 4 overall pick used to select Jackson.
When Gasol was traded to the Toronto Raptors at the 2019 trade deadline, the Grizzlies genuinely began looking to the future. Despite finishing the season with a 33-49 record, Conley was traded to the Utah Jazz immediately before the 2019 draught in exchange for several first-round selections.
Memphis had already gotten the kind of break that any rebuilding club needs at that point. Because the Grizzlies owed the Boston Celtics a first-round pick as a result of the Jeff Green trade, they didn’t tank down the stretch in 2018-19 in the hopes of clearing their pick commitment. Instead, Memphis jumped from eighth place to second place in the lottery, landing Morant.
The Grizzlies appeared to be on the verge of a multiyear rebuild, even with Morant and Jackson as promising young talents. They did the same thing, wisely leveraging their cap space to acquire contracts from other teams (Andre Iguodala and Josh Jackson) in return for future selections and De’Anthony Melton, then a second-year guard who has evolved into a crucial reserve in Memphis.
The Grizzlies used extra draught picks to add undervalued prospects later in the draught, in addition to their own lottery picks. Memphis received a 2019 first-round selection in the Conley trade, which they used to sign Gonzaga big man Brandon Clarke. The Grizzlies were busy on draught night a year later, getting the 30th pick to take TCU winger Desmond Bane and second-round picks for Jackson’s former Michigan State teammate Xavier Tillman, both in exchange for second-round picks.
Despite the transactions, Memphis still has further draught picks on the way. If the Los Angeles Lakers’ pick (now No. 12 overall) slips outside the top 10 and the Grizzlies obtain Golden State’s first-rounder in 2024 from the Iguodala deal, the Grizzlies might have as many as three first-rounders this season.
Jenkins’ selection, as a first-time head coach plucked from relative obscurity on the Milwaukee Bucks’ coaching staff, seemed to indicate the Grizzlies were more concerned with long-term growth than instant success. Despite this, Memphis held the No. 8 seed heading into the 2019-20 season’s bubble restart, thanks to Morant’s early success and a deep bench headed by Melton, Tyus Jones, and rookie Brandon Clarke (acquired via the Conley deal).
The Grizzlies’ hopes were not dashed by their loss in the play-in game. Memphis was right back in the play-in tournament a year later, amid fears of slippage, with fresh talent in important roles. Bane and Tillman, as well as second-year players Morant and Clarke, all played more than 1,000 minutes as rookies.
Memphis defeated the Golden State Warriors in the Bay Area this time to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2018. While the Grizzlies fell to the Jazz in five games, their young core getting a taste of the postseason set the tone.
The Brooks gaffe and the emergence of a defensive stalwart
On Dec. 14, 2018, Dillon Brooks was minding his own business on the Grizzlies’ bench, watching his team play the Miami Heat while he was out with a knee injury, when supporters at FedExForum alerted him of the news they had seen while reading through their Twitter accounts. Brooks had been sent to a different team.
That’s according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. He was rumoured to be on his way to the Suns as part of a three-team trade. In order to acquire Trevor Ariza, the Washington Wizards agreed to send Kelly Oubre Jr. to Memphis and Austin Rivers to Phoenix.
One significant stumbling block: the Grizzlies refused to deal Brooks.
The Grizzlies believed they were relocating MarShon Brooks, a journeyman guard who had spent the previous season in China. In his second season, Dillon Brooks, a promising second-round pick, figured heavily in the franchise’s long-term aspirations. Because then-Grizzlies GM Chris Wallace talked with the Wizards’ front office rather than directly with the Suns, the confusion occurred.
The transaction fell through, leaving Memphis with an unpleasant, humorous footnote.
Brooks has developed into an essential component of the Grizzlies’ core, just as the Grizzlies had intended. Over the last three seasons, he has averaged 16.8 points per game and has established himself as one of the league’s most tough on-ball defenders. Brooks’ snarling swagger has earned him the moniker “The Villain” among colleagues. Brooks, who signed a three-year, $35 million agreement in 2020, has been sidelined for much of the season due to wrist and knee problems, returning only lately after an 11-week layoff. He was reintroduced to the starting lineup and is expected to play a significant role in the team’s playoff run, notably as the thorn in the side of the opponent’s leading scorer.
Jenkins stated, “We realise how important he is to us.”
Regardless of what their trading partners thought, the Grizzlies knew all along.
Will children and teenagers be served? Why is Memphis fighting history?
Despite the team’s postseason run in 2021, Memphis had low expectations heading into this season. Last summer, Memphis made another forward-thinking trade, sending starter centre Jonas Valanciunas to the New Orleans Pelicans in exchange for centre Steven Adams and additional compensation. The Grizzlies moved up from 17th to 10th overall in the draught, selecting Stanford forward Ziaire Williams, as well as acquiring a protected first-round pick from the Los Angeles Lakers in 2021.
Memphis was ranked sixth in the West with an over-under of 41.5 wins at Caesars Sportsbook. The Grizzlies were a part of it. Morant was on pace for 500 points and a 9-10 record when he suffered a knee sprain, a setback after his great start to the season.
Memphis, however, went 10-2 without Morant thanks to solid defence, depth, and some good luck with opponents, only to lose when he returned.
Morant didn’t waste any time reminding everyone how good the Grizzlies could be when he was on the court. Memphis ripped off a pair of statement wins just before New Year’s Day, travelling on the road to beat the Suns 114-113 and the Lakers 104-99, kicking off an 11-game winning streak that included a home win against the Warriors.
Around that time, the Grizzlies went from being a good tale to being a West top team.
A club as young as Memphis — the league’s fourth-youngest team by minutes played this season — making a deep playoff run is certainly unique. Only six teams in NBA history have gone to the playoffs with an average weighted age of less than 25 at season’s conclusion (a group that includes last season’s Memphis team).
This season, five teams with youthful players are in the NBA, including the Memphis Grizzlies and Minnesota Timberwolves, who are both on course to make the playoffs. The other three teams, Detroit, Orlando, and Houston, have the league’s poorest records.
Only the 2011 Oklahoma City Thunder, who beat Memphis in a seven-game series in the second round, won a series out of that bunch of playoff teams. The Grizzlies have every reason to believe they can do better. Only one of the first-round losers in that series (the 2009 Portland Trail Blazers) had home-court advantage, which Memphis will undoubtedly have.
Although inexperience enhances the odds of an upset in the first round, performance is more important. And the Grizzlies have looked every bit the part of a championship contender.