How Ja Morant and Grizzlies could challenge Western Conference elites now and into the future
The Ja Morant block against the Los Angeles Lakers that went viral was microcosm of Memphis’ season.
Morant and the Grizzlies have made plays all season.
Their ascent in the Western Conference standings and onto the national scene has been marked by impressive play, leading to a 30-14 record — third place place in the Western Conference — with victories against Golden State (twice), the Los Angeles Lakers (twice), the L.A. Clippers, Cleveland, Brooklyn, Phoenix, Philadelphia, Miami, Utah and Denver (twice).
They are on a franchise-best 11-game winning streak and have won 11 of their past 12 road games. They have players and a coach who are in consideration for some of the league’s major awards.
Let’s take a look at the reason’s for the Grizzlies’ success:
The third-year guard from Murray State took another leap this season with his play and leadership. He averages 24.6 points (almost six more than last season), 6.8 assists and 5.8 rebounds — one of six players this season to average at least 24-6-5. Include Morant’s shooting percentage (48.5% and four points better than season) and his 3-point shooting percentage (35.9% and almost six points higher than last season), he’s in a smaller club that includes just Morant, LeBron James and Nikola Jokic.
Morant, 22, has always been an elite finisher at the rim, and with his improved 3-point shooting, he is making it difficult for opponents to defend him, especially with his ability to pass. He also has developed into a patient playmaker, waiting to see where the advantage is before making his move.
And of course, he makes those electrifying, you-have-to-see-that plays.
Morant is entering MVP territory, should make his first All-Star team and even though the league is loaded with guards, he could be an All-NBA selection.
Other young players
Starting forward-center Jaren Jackson Jr. (16.4 points, 5.6 rebounds, 2.1 blocks, 1.1 steals per game) is 22 and starting small forward Desmond Bane (17.6 points, 4.4 rebounds per game, 42.2% on 3s) is 23. Bane, along with Morant, are Most Improved Player candidates.
Along with Morant, that’s a fantastic core to build around. All three are on rookie contracts.
Among other rotation players, De’Anthony Melton is 23, Xavier Tillman is 23, Ziaire Williams is 20 and Killian Tillie is 23. John Konchar and Brandon Clarke are 25 but just in their third NBA season. They all average at least 13 minutes a game, and Clarke and Melton post almost 10 points per game.
Those young players aren’t the only ones contributing to Memphis' success. Veterans Steven Adams, Dillon Brooks (who could be out until after the All-Star break with an ankle injury), Kyle Anderson and Tyus Jones provide stability on and off the court.
That depth gives the Grizzlies versatility to play big or small and allows the bench to maintain when starters get a rest.
Memphis has the No. 4 offense (112.2 points per 100 possessions), the No. 9 defense (107.8 points allowed per 100 possessions) and the No. 6 net rating. Memphis has the seventh-best scoring reserve unit and No. 1 rebounding bench unit.
Front office and coaching
General manager and executive vice president of basketball operations Zach Kleiman was hired from the law firm Proskauer Rose (the same firm where former NBA commissioner David Stern and NBA commissioner Adam Silver’s father worked) as Memphis general counsel in 2015. Kleiman rose through the front office — promoted to senior director of basketball operations to assistant general manager to his current role.
He began retooling the roster — drafting Ja Morant and trading Mike Conley and Marc Gasol in 2019. Kleiman has continued to build with savvy draft selections, trades and free-agent signings.
Kleiman also hired Taylor Jenkins in 2019, a move that has accelerated Memphis’ rise. Just 37 years old, Jenkins is a branch on the Gregg Popovich coaching tree. Jenkins was a coach of San Antonio’s G League team and then spent six seasons as an assistant for Mike Budenholzer — another Popovich protégé — in Atlanta and Milwaukee.
Pushing the pace on offense, the Grizzlies look for offense early in the shot clock, and Jenkins, a Coach of the Year candidate, has designed an offense around Morant’s skillset.
The Grizzlies are a team for the present and the future. With the young players, the Grizzlies can win for a while, and they have reshaped how the West is viewed. The Grizzlies are making a strong push for a top-four seed this season and expect to do so in the coming seasons.
While there are ways and room to improve, Kleiman does not want to forsake short-term success for long-term goals. The Grizzlies want a sustainable team that can compete for conference championships for as long as possible — similar to what Oklahoma City did for a decade. It’s not easy in a market like Memphis, but the Grizzlies have pieces in place, including the ability to re-sign Morant, Jackson and Bane beyond their rookie contracts.
The Grizzlies have set themselves up to be a major factor in the West today and tomorrow.