How much better can the Memphis Grizzlies realistically get next season?
They have a burgeoning star in Ja Morant. In his second year in the NBA, the former Rookie of the Year averaged 19.1 points, 7.4 assists and four rebounds per game. He helped guide the Grizzlies out of the play-in tournament, first fending off the San Antonio Spurs, then going into the Bay and scoring 35 points to go with six assists, six rebounds and four steals to stave off Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and company.
And while Memphis got outmatched against the Utah Jazz, Morant helped lead his team to a Game 1 victory and followed it up with a 47-point, 7-assist performance in the following contest.
Dillon Brooks also used the postseason to solidify his importance to the growth of the franchise. As the defender primarily responsible for guarding DeMar DeRozan, the fourth-year wing helped frustrate the Spurs’ leading scorer, who made five of his 21 field goals, finishing with an inefficient 20 points. And in the final frame, Brooks scored eight straight points for the Grizzlies, helping them gain a lead they never relinquished.
In his first taste of the playoffs, Brooks averaged 25.8 points, 4.2 rebounds and 1.4 steals while cashing in on 51.5 percent of the 19.4 shots he took per game, including connecting on 40 percent of the four three-point attempts he hoisted per contest. In that Game 1 win against the Jazz, he scored a game-high 31 points.
While Morant and Brooks used this season to reinforce what they mean to the Grizzlies, it’s unclear how much Jaren Jackson Jr. can contribute to elevating the franchise past the point of needing to fight through the play-in tournament. Perhaps, growing into a legitimate title contender at some point down the road.
That reality isn’t Jackson’s fault. The fourth overall pick in the 2018 draft suffered a meniscus tear in his left knee when the 2019-20 campaign resumed in the Orlando bubble. The injury cost him all but 11 games this season. Understandably, he looked rusty upon returning to the lineup, particularly from long range. After making 39.4 percent of his 6.5 three-point attempts last season, he converted just 28.3 percent of 5.5 shots from beyond the arc this year.
Despite his struggles as a shooter, in those 11 games, Jackson still managed to produce 14.4 points, 5.6 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per contest. And in a January interview with Marc Spears of The Undefeated, Jackson confirmed that he’s grown to seven feet tall. That boost could help him become an even more impactful rim protector. Hopefully, he utilizes this offseason to recapture his rhythm as a shooter and develop the rest of his game so he can re-establish himself as a part of the Grizzlies’ core moving forward. Trading him now, before he’s had that opportunity, and while his value is likely lower than it will be next season, seems premature. But if the 2021-22 campaign plays out in a more unfortunate fashion, it may nudge Memphis to move on from Jackson if it hasn’t done so already.
As for the rest of the Grizzlies’ roster, executive vice president of basketball operations Zach Kleiman has done a terrific job putting together a team loaded with quality young players such as Morant, Brooks, Jackson, Brandon Clarke, Desmond Bane, and Xavier Tillman. That’s why he received a long-term extension earlier this month.
This offseason, the most pressing decision the franchise has to make is whether to exercise Justise Winslow’s $13 million team option. The Grizzlies acquired the former 10th overall pick in hopes he would fill their need for a big wing defensively and give them another playmaker at the offensive end. However, injuries, starting with the back injury he suffered while with the Miami HEAT, have limited him to 27 underwhelming games with Memphis, including one appearance in the playoffs. Declining the option year would go a long way towards the Grizzlies having ample cap space this offseason, but they’d be looking to fill the same boxes he didn’t check off for them, and the free-agent market lacks enticing options. If they’re determined to acquire an upgrade, a trade makes the most sense. Otherwise, they can give Winslow one last chance in a season where the schedule is less condensed to see if he can address one of the team’s most notable holes.
In addition to finding more two-way production from a big wing, Memphis’ offense needs to become more dynamic. To their credit, the Grizzlies relentlessly attack the paint, crash the offensive glass and they feast off turnovers. But they took the seventh-fewest threes in the NBA this season, attempting just 31.4 per game. For context, the Oklahoma City Thunder launched 35.1, and they ranked 13th. The Jazz hoisted a league-best 43 per contest. They weren’t particularly efficient from long range, either, converting 11.2 of those attempts, which translates to a 35.6 percent success rate, figures that rank 24th and 20th, respectively.
It’s no secret that’s the weakest part of Morant’s game offensively. He attempted an average of 3.8 threes per game this season and made 30.3 percent of them. For him to unlock his full potential, he has to develop into a respectable long-range shooter. It’s one thing for defenses to prefer him to take a shot from beyond the arc, but it’s another for them to sag dramatically off him, compromising his ability to attack the rim.
It would also behoove Memphis to get to the free-throw line more often. Despite how often Morant and company put pressure on the rim, the Grizzlies took 21.3 free throws per game, tying the Orlando Magic for 17th. For his part, Morant averaged 5.9 in the regular season and raised that number to eight in the playoffs. However, despite tremendous body control, he takes a lot of hard falls around the basket, which is reminiscent of a young Dwyane Wade. Morant has a very effective floater he should start relying on even more, and an increased proficiency from beyond the arc could also help reduce the amount of punishment Morant takes on drives to the rim.
Defensively, Memphis is particularly effective at pressuring the ball. The Grizzlies tied the Philadelphia 76ers, generating the most steals per game this season (9.1). That, combined with how effective they were at limiting opponents’ second-chance opportunities, grabbing 35.3 defensive rebounds per game, the ninth-most in the NBA this season, went a long way towards Memphis holding teams to 110.5 points per 100 possessions, the seventh-best defensive rating in the league. However, the Grizzlies need to shore up their three-point defense. Opponents averaged a tick below 13 made threes per game against them, converting 36.7 percent of their attempts from beyond the arc, both of which ranked 18th league-wide.
Internal improvement is likely to be the key to most of Memphis’ growth next season. But they have the 17th pick in the draft, and as stated earlier, with so much young talent on their roster, their exploration of the trade market could be how they address some of their weaknesses and fortify the supporting cast around Morant.
On the horizon, difficult decisions regarding rookie extensions, most notably, as it pertains to Jackson’s next contract, loom; additionally, key veterans such as Jonas Valanciunas and Kyle Anderson are entering the final year of their contracts. A patient approach might be best, but there’s also no guarantee a players’ value will increase or even stay the same next season. That’s all the more reason for the Grizzlies to thoroughly examine the possibilities available to them on the trade market.
Memphis doesn’t have a clear path to title contention but has a franchise cornerstone, a roster loaded with young talent and the Grizzlies are in good shape regarding the cap. They also have a lightly protected 2024 first-round pick the Warriors owe them, which could become a valuable asset that helps them ascend. Whether they accomplish that goal and how high they climb is a matter of how creative, diligent and lucky they are. Time will tell.
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