Grizzlies

Morant, Grizzlies Ready to Run With the Big Dogs

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Draymond Green gave Memphis some bulletin board material for the 2022 offseason.

“They’re going to get their reality check.”

After beating the Grizzlies in six games to head to the Western Conference Finals, the seasoned Golden State Warriors went on to win their fourth championship of the Stephen Curry era. Despite their return to championship form and dominance, though, the Warriors spent plenty of time talking about the Grizzlies rather than that championship.

While it was indeed strange for this to be the case, the truth is it was plenty warranted.

Memphis is a young, brash team that is led by a fiery human highlight reel in Ja Morant. Morant prides himself on never backing down from anyone, and he makes sure everyone knows he’s coming for them.

The Grizz pride themselves on their brashness, so it should come as no surprise when other teams jump at the opportunity to talk right back.

But after winning 56 games and finishing with the second best record in the entire league, these young Grizzlies find themselves in unfamiliar waters. There is still room for them to improve, but the room for improvement is smaller than before while the difficulty to improve is greater. Not only that, but between Memphis’ trash-talking and success, teams will be gunning for them every night in a way they haven’t before.

So, will Memphis be able to back up their bark with their bite?

Why They Won’t

One Word

Injuries. That one word is the biggest threat to Memphis’ season.

Jaren Jackson Jr. had offseason foot surgery and will miss an unknown amount of time to start the season.

Ziaire Williams and Dillon Brooks are already dealing with injuries before the first tipoff of the season.

The one thing Memphis won’t likely have this season that they’ve had since Morant’s arrival is elite depth. While they have a couple of elite players coming off the bench in Tyus Jones and the recently-extended Brandon Clarke, they can’t afford to lose rotation pieces such as Jackson, Williams and Brooks like they could have in the past.

They brought in multiple serviceable rookies in Jake LaRavia and David Roddy, but relying on those guys early and often is unlikely to be a recipe for success.

Memphis has built a “next man up” culture, but there’s a reason certain guys make millions to play basketball and others don’t. The depth of talent simply is not what is has been in years past, and injuries are more likely to catch up with Memphis this season than in years past. While they have the ability to cope with an occasional injury here and there, beginning the season with three major rotation players on the mend is a definite area of concern for the team.

Growing Up

Memphis’ rough and rowdy attitude is part of its DNA. It’s part of what makes them great, and it should remain a part of this team for as long as it possibly can.

That being said, there is a real difference between this season and the three prior.

In another part of his statement concerning the Grizzlies, Draymond said the Grizzlies were going to get a reality check because they’re “young and don’t understand how big these moments are.”

And that is true.

That’s not an insult to Memphis—people can’t expect a team to act like it’s been there before when it, in fact, hasn’t been there before. It’s part of the process, and every young player and team has to go through that.

But it is a new wrench to throw in the process for this team that many experts outside of Green have acknowledged. Tracy McGrady said this summer that he could see things spiraling out of control if Memphis didn’t get veterans to stabilize them. Their own vet, Danny Green, spent a decent time hitting on the maturity Memphis needs both on and off the court to continue to succeed.

Morant and these young Grizzlies have matured and grown much quicker than anyone could have expected over the past three years. They’ll need to do so again to continue their success this season.

Why They Will

The Vet

Danny Green.

Green won’t play much, if at all, this season as he recovers from a gruesome knee injury. That was known when Memphis traded for him, and it’s unlikely he surprises fans with much on-court contribution.

But Green brings that veteran presence Memphis sorely needs. Most importantly, he does not just bring a veteran presence, he also brings a championship pedigree. Having won championships with the San Antonio Spurs, Toronto Raptors and Los Angeles Lakers, Green brings knowledge and experience no one else on the team can claim. Green was a key contributor for each of those teams, and he should have the respect of the Memphis locker room for that, no matter how many minutes he logs.

That presence will be invaluable for this team. Despite their tenacity and bravado, they will need to lean on that veteran experience during a season with new challenges and difficulties.

Green will be an anchor for Memphis in those instances. If he ends up hitting some big threes in the playoffs, all the better.

Been Here Before

In 2019, the Grizzlies were pegged to be one of the worst teams in the league and finish with less than 30 wins. Instead, they won 34 games and came close to snagging the eighth spot in the Western Conference playoffs.

In 2020, experts predicted Memphis would have a losing record and finish 11th in the Western Conference. They went 38-34, beat the Spurs and Warriors (at Golden State) to take the eight seed in the playoffs.

2021? Allegedly Memphis “got worse,” “had one of the worst offseason in the NBA,” and at best would “be in the play-in mix again.” Apparently no one remembered to tell them, though, as they won 56 games, had the second-best record in the league and pushed the eventual champions to six games despite losing Morant after Game Three of the series.

The Grizzlies have had doubters every season since Morant’s and Taylor Jenkins’ arrival, but they have emphatically overcome those doubts every season. It would be unwise to doubt them again this season.

Yes, they are in a different spot this season. Yes, the standard of success has been raised. And yes, they have questions without clear answers.

But that’s been the case every season so far, and so far they’ve risen to the occasion.

By the way, what else has been the case every season?

Ja Morant is a Superstar

Maybe he wasn’t a superstar day one of his NBA career. But the star power has been evident since even before Morant left college, and he has only risen in stardom since.

To be ultra-successful, teams have to have a guy who can be the best player on the floor. Team basketball is great, and the Grizzlies are a great example of that. But to be a truly great team, there has to be the guy.

The guy who can take over when the game is on the line.

The guy who somehow wills his team to victory.

The guy who feels inevitable.

Morant is the guy for Memphis.

He penetrates defenses at will, makes mind-numbing passes, and raises the game of everyone around him. He craves pressure, seemingly hitting another level of play every time a game hits clutch-time.

Sure, he has some knocks on his game. He hasn’t shot the three well and is a liability on defense. But he’s made strides in his game every year, and this year will be no different.

Morant made a change in his shot over the offseason and obviously placed emphasis on improving his ability to score from range.

But that must have been a secondary emphasis for Morant, because he clearly took the slights about his defense personally. His tenacity and effort on the defensive end was intentional, and it looked like a sign of things to come this season.

Morant will always be undersized, but if he can lock in defensively like he did in the preseason, he will become a fast-break nightmare for the NBA.

Regardless, Morant is now a bonafide superstar. While there are question marks around the team, people seem to have forgotten Morant has taken care of those questions every year so far.

He’s about to do it again.

The Other Guys

Yes, the depth of the Grizzlies is not what it has been the past few years, and yes, they are going to feel it. But they are also going to have improvement from the guys at the top.

I may or may not have gone on a podcast and said something silly like Desmond Bane wouldn’t make another jump this season point-wise. If I happened to do that…I was wrong.

Bane is about to make another leap this season. He has always been a sneaky good defender, and his shooting prowess may be second in the NBA to only Steph Curry. But this preseason, he has showed a quickness and explosiveness to the rim that is a very welcome addition to his game. Add that to an improved floater and already elite finishing, and Bane is a true three-level threat.

Ziaire Williams should make another leap when he returns to the lineup, as well. He showed real flashes of greatness towards the end of last season, and that carried over to the Summer League and preseason. He looked much more comfortable from three, made some really impressive passes, and used his length to cause absolute havoc on defense. Once he returns, there is a chance that plays such as this one become more commonplace than many would expect.

Throw in the fact that John Konchar is a real Three & D threat (41.3% from three and 4.6 REB in 17.9 MP last season), Santi Aldama has made real strides this offseason, Memphis brought back the best backup PG in the league in Tyus Jones, and they have a successful track record of drafting useful rookies, and there is optimism to be had for the Grizz supporting cast. While they won’t have the plug-and-play abilities of the past, they will still have impact players around Morant.

Chances are at least a couple of those guys will prove to be more than just useful rotation pieces.

Run With the Big Dogs

Will there be early season struggles? Most likely.

Will there be questions marks around the roster? Most definitely.

But these Memphis Grizzlies have never been one to bring their bark without also bringing their bite. They run their mouths as much as they run in transition, and both are only going to happen even more often this season.

Expectations are high for this team. But the reality is their goals are even higher. They aren’t headed into this season expecting to lose the last game they play. They’re looking to have a long, exciting season ahead.

Starting tonight, Grizz fans shouldn’t think their team is chasing the big dogs—this time around, they’re going to be one of them.

CRAVING MORE GRIZZLIES?

Check out the last Deep Dive Piece on Jake LaRavia by Chris Ingram (@chriman_), Will LaRavia Be an Immediate Weapon for Memphis?. And be sure to check out the Grizz 901 Podcast, where the Grizz Lead guys get on to discuss these Deep Dive players and much, much more!

About Nathan Qualls

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