The Memphis Grizzlies Biggest Question And X-Factor For The 2023-24 Season

The Memphis Grizzlies have earned a top-3 seed in the Western Conference each of the past two seasons, but are somewhat an afterthought heading into the 2023-24 season. There are a few reasons for that, most notably Ja Morant being suspended for 25 games and other West contenders having big offseasons, but this Grizzlies team is well-versed in ripping off wins in the regular season.

Where they haven’t had much success is in the playoffs, and the goal going forward is to figure out how to be better in the 16-game season to match their 82-game season success. Their young core is all locked in long-term, with Morant, Desmond Bane, and Jaren Jackson Jr. all being extended recently. The question entering this summer was what could they do to bolster their roster for the playoffs, and they took a big swing by trading Tyus Jones and a pair of future firsts to land Marcus Smart in a three-team deal. Smart brings real playoff experience to the roster as well as a point guard with plenty of experience playing on and off-ball, depending on what stars he’s paired with at any given time. That will be a useful skillset in Memphis, where lineups with he and Morant will move him off the ball, while he can also play backup point guard when Morant sits.

Whether Smart’s addition is enough to keep up in the West’s arms race remains to be seen, but Memphis is somewhat quietly lurking in the background out West coming into this season, hoping to again force people to take notice of them.

Biggest Question: How Well Can They Manage Ja Morant’s 25-Game Suspension?

There aren’t a lot of questions left for this Grizzlies team in the regular season after back-to-back campaigns, and much of what people want to see is whether they can become a more real threat to top West contenders come playoff time. However, they can only answer those questions if they’re a playoff team, and this year they will face a real challenge in securing a guaranteed playoff spot in a crowded West with the 25-game suspension for All-Star guard Ja Morant. Memphis has been very good in Morant’s absence in the past, navigating stretches without him due to various injuries, but going 25 straight games without Morant will put them to the test.

With Tyus Jones now in Washington, they no longer have their steady-handed backup able to run the show, and that means a lot is going to fall on the shoulders of Marcus Smart to pick things up quickly and establish early chemistry with his teammates. Smart is certainly capable of running the show for a playoff contender, but he’s coming from a place where he had a ton of reps and an unspoken bond with Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Now he’ll have to quickly create that understanding with Desmond Bane and Jaren Jackson Jr., and there could be some hiccups along the way. In the long-run, I think the Smart trade was worthwhile for Memphis as he is an upgrade over Brooks and brings some real playoff experience and savvy to a roster that needs it. However, it’s not a guarantee that in the immediate absence of Morant things go as smoothly as they have in the past when the star guard has been out, and in what figures to be a very crowded race for the top-6 in the West, the Grizzlies will need to be able to tread water until he’s back.

X-Factor: Luke Kennard

For all of their talent, the Grizzlies still don’t have a ton of reliable three-point shooters. As a team, they were 23rd in the NBA in three-point percentage a year ago (35.1 percent, and only two of their returning players shot over 36 percent from deep a year ago. One of those is Desmond Bane, who has vaulted into stardom on the wing, at 40.8 percent from deep. The other is Luke Kennard, who shot an outrageous 54 percent from distance in his 24 appearances for Memphis in the regular season and knocked down 50 percent of his threes in their first round series loss to the Lakers. Lineups with Kennard were among the Grizzlies best last season, including in that playoff series with L.A., when five of their six best three-man lineups (out of their 25 most used) in terms of both offensive and net rating involved the sharpshooting wing.

The concern with Kennard is on the defensive end, which likely limited his minutes, but given his shooting is something they simply do not have anywhere else on this roster, the Grizzlies are likely going to need to expand his role some this season, especially with the departures of Dillon Brooks and Tyus Jones. That has thinned out the backcourt rotation a touch, even with the addition of Marcus Smart, and Kennard’s ability to open up the floor is going to be critical for Memphis come playoff time when there are fewer opportunities to run in transition and push the pace. Having a more dynamic halfcourt offense is vital for the Grizzlies if they’re going to be a real playoff threat in the West, and Kennard seems like the best bet to see an increased role to help open things up.

The question is whether he can remain as effective in more minutes (which is never a guarantee as more minutes mean more expended energy) and if the Grizzlies defense suffers at all. Playoff lineups featuring Kennard (in admittedly a very small sample) didn’t feature any real defensive struggles, in part due to Kennard almost always playing alongside quality defenders like Bane and the NBA’s DPOY. It certainly seems like Memphis needs more floor balance on the offensive end, and with plenty of good defenders on the roster like Bane, Jackson Jr., and now Smart, they can keep a strong defensive presence around their best offensive weapons like Kennard and, most notably, Morant. For Taylor Jenkins, the task will be figuring out what combinations work best come playoff time to try and raise the ceiling on what this Grizzlies team can be in the West.