The Grizzlies Aren’t Just Building Tomorrow, They’re Here Today

Thu 6th February 2020

There are a lot of ways to handle the fall to the depths of the standings that inevitably afflicts all NBA franchises. There are long, protracted, painfully-mediocre rebuilds like what’s been happening at the Knicks for the last two decades. There are drastic tank-athons as conducted by the 76ers in the early 2010s. There are masterful bounce-backs under new management as we’ve seen at the Nets over the last three years.

And then there’s the incredible 12-month turnaround we’re watching unfold in front of our eyes in Memphis.

The Grizzlies – against all odds, against all preseason predictions, against all expert analysis – currently sit eighth in the Western Conference for the 2019-20 season, a game over .500 (26-25). Tonight they were finally able to pull off the Andre Iguodala trade, a cash-in effort which has been in the works since the Warriors gave Memphis a first round pick to take the veteran’s contract off their books.

While details of the trade with Miami remain murky at the time of writing, it appears that – at the bare minimum – Memphis have managed to turn Iguodala in to Justise Winslow. Not a bad result given no one – not even Iguodala’s Grizzlies teammates – wanted him to stay in Memphis beyond the trade deadline.

What the Grizzlies have done since realising their playoff fortunes were flagging at the end of 2018 as Marc Gasol and Mike Conley both began to reach the age where their status as frontline NBA stars came in to question has been astonishing.

In 2017-18 Memphis won 22 games. Last season they won 33. This season they’re on track to win 40. Next season, as the young core of Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr., Dillon Brooks, Brandon Clarke and Winslow continues to develop, who knows what’s possible. Brooks and Jackson Jr., in particular, have been outstanding this year, and Brooks was rewarded tonight with a three-year, $50M extension.

The most impressive part of Memphis’ resurgence is that there is no one factor to which you can point to by way of explanation; no singular trade or draft pick or coaching hire which would justify this remarkable climb up the Western Conference rankings.

Of course, though, some choices do carry slightly more gravitas than others. Ja Morant – the No.2 pick in last year’s draft – is going to win this year’s Rookie of the Year Award by the length of one of Jackson Jr.’s arms. He has been nothing short of spectacular, which is both a product of Morant’s freakish athleticism and vision but also a result of head coach Taylor Jenkins’ complete lack of hesitation in handing the rookie point guard the keys to his offense and allowing Morant to do his thing.

Morant was an obvious choice with the second pick, but what was not so obvious was the draft-night trade which saw the Canadian Clarke arrive in Memphis via Miami with the 21st pick – just behind such illustrious names as Goga Bitadze and Luka Šamanić.

Clarke has played in 43 games already this season, is averaging 12 points and 5.7 rebounds on nearly 62% shooting, has shown glimpses of two-way brilliance and has arguably been the most pleasant rookie surprise in the NBA, far outperforming his counterparts taken in the top 10. Memphis traded up to get Clarke in order to fill a glaring hole at power forward, so while Morant was a “no-brainer” with the second pick, the decision to take Clarke evinces some serious draft-day nous.

As do Memphis’ trade moves in the last twelve months. The Gasol move which netted Jonas Valancunias and Delon Wright from Toronto occurred at the perfect time for all parties, and while Conley was probably held on to for a tad too long – which is hardly unexpected given his status within the franchise – the Grizzlies were still able to turn the veteran point guard in a quality young gun in Grayson Allen, a couple of valuable veterans and a first round pick. Those vets were then flipped for a guy with limitless talent in Josh Jackson, as well as a couple of second round picks.

The trade for Iguodala raised some eyebrows when it happened, but it’s now netted the Grizzlies a 2024 first round pick and Winslow; an outstanding haul under the circumstances.

The veterans they’ve added have also done exactly as planned, providing leadership and stability to a team craving exactly that. Valancunias has been outstanding as a mentor to Jackson Jr., and while Jae Crowder seems to be about to get traded he has done more than enough in the interim to justify his addition.

What the Grizzlies’ front office has netted them is draft capital, valuable tangible assets and – most importantly – the ability to free up vast amounts of cap space thanks to the number of expiring contracts on their books.

All this rebuilding on the fly, all this stockpiling of draft picks and cap space, and they’re still well and truly in the playoff hunt, despite FiveThirtyEight’s prediction model projecting them behind the Spurs and Trail Blazers in the race for the No.8 seed.

Regardless of this year’s outcome we are witnessing something special in Memphis, and the best part is that there’s no need to wait; it’s happening now.

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