When you looked at some of the moves the Memphis Grizzlies made during free agency last week, you had to check your watch to make sure we hadn’t traveled back in time to 2008. While not exactly a championship-caliber contender, a core group featuring Dwight Howard, Andre Iguodala and Kyle Korver would’ve been delirious fun a decade ago.
But this isn’t 2008 anymore, and the organization will most likely buy out, waive, or trade all three before any of them ever puts on a uniform. Still, you’ll have to forgive Grizzlies fans if they’re feeling a little nostalgic these days. It’s a perfectly reasonable response to the existential dread of an uncertain future. Some of that dread stems directly from the slow, painful demise of the Grit-n-Grind era.
In reality, the Grizzlies have been in a soft rebuild for at least the past two seasons. They’ve just been good about creating the illusion that they might still be a playoff team. All that came crumbling down early last season when it quickly became clear that half measures were no longer gonna cut it.
Yet even after trading Marc Gasol at the deadline, the front office failed to get a deal done for Mike Conley, and they only compounded things by floating the idea that they might keep him around to mentor incoming rookie Ja Morant. That turned out to be a short-lived proposition, as they finally worked out a deal to send Conley to the Jazz last month.
Now the team can train their sights squarely on the future, and there are plenty of reasons for optimism. Last year, Jaren Jackson Jr. was one of the best rookies around the NBA in his 58-game campaign. Even as Luka Doncic and Trae Young chewed up all the press, JJJ made his mark as one of the clear studs of the incoming class, and having time under Gasol’s tutelage — particularly on the defensive end — certainly didn’t hurt.
Nor did it hurt that they finished with one of the worst records in the NBA last season and landed the No. 2 pick in the process, ensuring them the right to take Morant, barring some unexpected twist of fate in which the Pelicans momentarily lost their mind and talked themselves out of Zion Williamson. Morant, to be certain, is not just some consolation prize. The Murray State standout was a first-team All-American in his sophomore year and became the first player in NCAA history to average 20 points and 10 assists in a season. Beyond the numbers, Morant is a lengthy and athletic 6’3 combo guard who seems almost tailor-made for the rigors of matching up against the league’s endless parade of speedy and implacable point guards if he is able to take some steps forward on defense.
But the Grizzlies weren’t content to walk away from draft night with Morant in hand, believing they’d done their due diligence. Instead, they finagled a trade with the Phoenix Suns to acquire the No. 21 pick, which they used to select Gonzaga star Brandon Clarke. The name might not sound familiar, but his advance stats from last season should be more than enough to command your attention.
In terms of Box Plus/Minus, only Zion Williamson (20.0) had a better BPM than Clarke did last season (18.9). In fact, you have to go all the way back to Anthony Davis’ brief Kentucky stint (18.7) to find the next highest number in that category. Obviously, that isn’t necessarily an indication of future performance, particularly in a league that is very different from the collegiate ranks, but it’s more than enough to keep Grizzlies fans intrigued.
As with any scenario, some of the other transactions this past week range from ambivalent to groan-worthy. The team will likely waive Avery Bradley, though Jae Crowder has recently indicated that he’d like to stay in Memphis. Crowder was part of the Conley trade package that included Korver and second-year wing Grayson Allen, who didn’t make much of an impression during his rookie season in Utah.
Still, the front office made some modest traction amid all their dealings by securing a handful of future picks, to go along with a solid young core. Don’t expect them to be competitive in the West anytime soon, but the dynamic duo of Jackson and Morant, along with a potentially really good frontcourt player in Clarke, is definitely one to watch if the front office can continue to build around them and they are able to establish themselves as future stars in this league. The Grit-n-Grind era is finally over, and while speaking in certainties with regards to the future is a risky proposition, the Grizzlies have put themselves in position to be a fixture in the Western Conference playoff picture moving forward.