One of the strangest stories this NBA season has been the sheer ineptitude of the bottom half of the Western Conference. What was supposed to be a raucous battle to get into the postseason has instead morphed into a series of sub-.500 teams sprinkling periods of brief competence in between extended losing streaks.
The Oklahoma City Thunder, a team that was ostensibly planning for the future and supposed to tread water until shipping away its veterans at the trade deadline, is firmly in control of the seventh seed. The eighth seed looks like it will be claimed by a team with a losing record: The Spurs, Blazers, Kings, Wolves, Suns, and Pelicans are all within striking distance, but at the moment, the team that is unexpectedly showing the most promise is the Memphis Grizzlies.
The Grizzlies, by all accounts, should be terrible. They have a rookie head coach who most casual NBA fans could definitely not name, let alone identify if presented a series of pictures. They have a rookie point guard, the position at which development tends to take the longest. None of their players (at least the ones who have suited up – looking at you, Andre Iguodala) are 30 years old, and they only returned 41 percent of their minutes from last year’s roster.
And yet, the Grizzlies have won four of their last five to claw into a tie for ninth at 16-22, including thrashing the Clippers in Los Angeles over the weekend. They’re young, they’re fun, and they’re getting the job done.
It all starts with Ja Morant, the human highlight reel who really needs to fix his landing mechanics to ensure that the world gets to enjoy his brilliance for years to come. He is leading all rookies in points and assists and is the runaway favorite for Rookie of the Year. He overwhelms his opposition with his physical gifts, whether that’s blowing by in the open court or exploding over defenders at the rim.
His athleticism is enhanced by his craft with the ball. Morant had an absolutely disrespectful crossover (that was Lou Williams approved) on Jerome Robinson that he capped with a stare and a made three-pointer.
— Memphis Grizzlies (@memgrizz) January 4, 2020
He even made Kawhi Leonard look silly on a baseline drive where he finished with a pretty reverse.
Ja Morant putting the moves on 2x DPOY Kawhi Leonard pic.twitter.com/5HF7KkSieZ
— Chris Montano (@gswchris) January 4, 2020
But Morant is just one piece of an exciting young core for the Grizzlies. There is also Brandon Clarke, who was awesome at everything at Gonzaga, and wouldn’t you know, is also awesome at nearly everything in Memphis. He shoots the crap out of the ball, both at the basket and on jumpers, and is a pogo stick catching alley-oops. His partnership with De’Anthony Melton in the second unit has a plus-15.1 point differential per 100 possessions, per Cleaning the Glass. They’re absolutely blitzing bench units on offense with their speed — the league average pace is 100.4, but Clarke and Melton both exceed 106 possessions per 48 minutes.
— Fastbreak Breakfast (@fastbreakbreak) January 3, 2020
That trio of Morant, Melton, and Clarke is enough to build around. Two dynamic young guards who can make plays (Morant brings the offense while Melton locks in on defense) combined with a do-everything big is a core most other teams woulds salivate over. That doesn’t even include last year’s lottery pick, Jaren Jackson Jr., who continues to ooze potential as a stretch big. He’s knocking down 41 percent of his threes, leaving plenty of room for the guards to attack the basket and Jonas Valanciunas to set up shop in the post. Jackson’s defense has slipped since his rookie season, but losing Marc Gasol makes that end of the floor harder for everyone. At 20 years old, the Grizzlies can count on Jackson to be a pick-and-pop partner for Morant for years to come.
The Grizzlies have a ton of other young fliers, including 23-year-old Dillon Brooks, who they fought to keep out of a trade last season. He can pour it on in a hurry, even if his current shot profile trends towards irrational confidence, and Memphis is undefeated when Brooks scores 20 points in a game. Tyus Jones, also age 23, has settled in as the team’s backup point guard next to Melton. Despite still being unable to reliably generate his own offense, Jones’ passing feels makes a him a perfect fit for a run-and-gun team. His assist-to-turnover ratio (4.53) continues to impress, ranking third among players who have appeared in at least 25 games.
Since Dec. 9, when Morant returned from a four-game absence due to injury, the Grizzlies are 10-6. That includes wins over Miami, Oklahoma City, and the Clippers. They have the 11th-toughest remaining schedule, though the team could theoretically improve moving forward. The young guys can continue to grow, and if someone can make the money work, Iguodala could fetch a useful rotation player at the trade deadline.
The Grizzlies are currently a half-game out of the eighth seed. Even if the playoffs weren’t part of the plan entering the season, they aren’t exactly worried about ending up outside the lottery this season given that their draft pick conveys to Boston if it falls outside of the top-6, and this is projected to be one of the weaker drafts in recent memory. Memphis could simply regroup with its existing young core; it’s hard enough to find minutes for all of the young players as is. Just ask Bruno Caboclo.
Whatever the future holds, the present is tremendously fun. The Grizzlies are a tough out every night, they play hard, and Morant himself is must-see TV. Even when Memphis was good during the Grit and Grind days, they opted to turn games into the slog. Now, they’re one of the league’s most exciting teams, and should be for a long, long time.