Brandon Dill/Associated Press
Cementing their spot in the Western Conference’s playoff picture this season would not automatically validate the Memphis Grizzlies’ immediate future. Again: The West is the West is the West.
Next year could very well end in a lottery appearance. (Sending the Boston Celtics this year’s pick would ease that pain.) The Grizzlies exploited a power vacuum this year. Injuries butchered the fate of the Blazers, Warriors and even New Orleans Pelicans. All of them should be healthier next season. To convolute matters further, not one of the Kings, Suns or Timberwolves projects to fall off.
Putting the Grizzlies here is a hedge against that Western Conference hierarchy. It is also a nod to their authenticity. They could easily tumble lower if this season were a flash in the pan. It’s not.
Ja Morant deserves a lion’s share of the credit. He isn’t just a star on the rise. He has the makings of an inevitable MVP candidate. Oscar Robertson and Trae Young are the only other first-year players to put up 20 points and eight assists per game, and Morant’s doing so with a true shooting percentage above the league average.
Memphis firms up its three-year outlook with a frontcourt rotation worth setting in stone. Jaren Jackson Jr. is letting ‘er rip from three. Brandon Clarke has somehow made more floaters than he’s attempted and throws ridiculous passes. Jonas Valanciunas provides both brute force down low and floor spacing beyond the arc.
The defensive ceiling on this trio is a little spotty but not red-alert troubling. The Clarke-Valanciunas pairing has earned more of a look, and Jackson, for all his fouling and rebounding struggles, has the length and lateral gait to be disruptive both at the 4 and 5though it might turn out he needs to stay at power forward.
Having three spots in the lineup occupied by above replacement-level players is an enormous victory, particularly when one of them is an MVP candidate in training. The Grizzlies might have more than that. Count me among the Dillon Brooks skeptics, but between him, Kyle Anderson and De’Anthony Melton (Early Bird restricted), Memphis’ rotation has depth to it. Something’s gone right when Gorgui Dieng is your fourth-best big, and Josh Jackson has played well enough, mostly in the G League, to earn consideration in free agency.
Justise Winslow stands to be this team’s tipping point. Morant can play off him without issue. If he, in turn, can down enough of his threes to play off his point guard, the Grizzlies have the exact sort of wing presence they’ve longed for since the Grint ‘n’ Grind era.
Also of note: Memphis could have max space in 2021 without breaking up the crux of its current roster. Bigger markets are all the rage in free-agency conversations, and the Grizzlies cannot bank on luring stars. But they should, at bottom, appeal to players in the next tier down. And with so much already in place, they may not need much else.
Brandon Dill/Associated Press