Despite a lackluster 12-9 start to the the 2022-23 season, the Memphis Grizzlies still managed to win 51 games, the second consecutive year they crossed the 50-win mark. Even with all the regular-season success this organization has found the last couple of seasons, there are still plenty of question marks surrounding them for various reasons.
Perhaps the biggest question mark of them all is Ja Morant. Now through four seasons in the league, Morant has been nothing short of a superstar on the court, as he has been an All-Star for two straight seasons and has rapidly become one of the most electric scorers in the NBA. However, his antics off the court have been a dark cloud looming large over this franchise.
Following a game versus the Denver Nuggets on the road in March, Morant was seen flashing a gun on Instagram Live while at a strip club. As a result of what occurred, the Grizzlies star was held out of the next couple of games while the team and league investigated the matter. No evidence was found regarding Morant potentially bringing the gun on the team plane, so he returned to the court after a short eight-game suspension for his conduct.
Not even two months after the video in the Denver nightclub, Ja was once again seen on Instagram Live, this time holding a gun up while listening to music in a car. Morant had met with NBA commissioner Adam Silver following the first incident and was warned that any actions involving a firearm would not be tolerated by the league. As a result, he was suspended for the first 25 games of 2023-24 season shortly after the conclusion of the 2023 NBA Finals due to conduct ruled detrimental to the league.
“Ja Morant's decision to once again wield a firearm on social media is alarming and disconcerting given his similar conduct in March for which he was already suspended eight games,” Silver stated in the league's press release on June 16. “The potential for other young people to emulate Ja's conduct is particularly concerning. Under these circumstance, we believe a suspension of 25 games is appropriate and makes clear that engaging in reckless and irresponsible behavior with guns will not be tolerated.”
It was also made clear in the terms of the suspension that there would be a set of requirements and conditions for his potential return to play during the upcoming year. The young All-Star now faces an uphill climb to not only regain the trust of his team and teammates, but the league as a whole.
Aside from Morant and his upcoming absence from the team, the Grizzlies are still going to deal with question marks surrounding their frontcourt. Jaren Jackson Jr. is obviously a key talent as the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, but Steven Adams missed the final 36 games of the season, not including all of the playoffs, due to a right PCL sprain. Brandon Clarke also missed the final 20 games of the season due to a torn left Achilles and will likely miss a chunk of time to begin the new season.
As good as the Grizzlies have been in the regular season, there are also questions being asked about if they have what it takes to win when it matters most. Memphis has won close to 65 percent of their regular season games over the last two years, yet they have gone 8-10 in the postseason. Whether it is inexperience or lack of management, this will be a big year for the Grizzlies to prove that they are real contenders instead of the pretenders they have been.
The Western Conference features a lot of contending teams right now, which is why general manager Zach Kleiman and this team's front office were aggressive during the offseason. While some of their moves may have come as a shock, Memphis was not afraid to shake up the roster in order to add experience and win-now potential.
Grizzlies offseason additions and departures
Additions: G Marcus Smart (trade – BOS), G Derrick Rose (free agency – NYK), F Isaiah Todd (trade – PHX), G Josh Christopher (trade – HOU)
Departures: G Tyus Jones (trade – WAS), F Dillon Brooks (free agency – HOU)
If we have learned anything from what the Grizzlies did this offseason, it is that Kleiman and this front office are not afraid to shake things up. Even with virtually no cap space, Memphis still found ways to add big names and replace productive players on their roster.
What was intriguing about the Grizzlies' offseason was the fact that they gave up on Dillon Brooks so soon. Obviously, he can be a handful at times due to his outspoken voice on the court and his ferocity on defense. While he definitely put his team in a better position to win some games because of his hard-nosed defensive approach, Brooks was also a major liability at times on offense.
Brooks shot just 32.6 percent from three-point range during the regular season and then declined drastically in the postseason, as he shot just 23.8 percent from deep. All signs pointed toward these two sides splitting, and Brooks agreed to a four-year, $80 million contract with the Houston Rockets in free agency.
Along with Brooks' departure, Tyus Jones leaving Memphis also came as a surprise to some. The Grizzlies had just signed Jones last summer to a two-year, $29 million contract, and he has arguably been the best backup point guard in the league. With Morant being in and out of the lineup, Jones was the guy who held things together and ended up having the best season of his career, averaging 10.3 points and 5.2 assists per game.
The former first-round pick was sent to the Washington Wizards in one of the biggest trades made this summer. In a three-team deal with the Boston Celtics and Wizards, the Grizzlies turned Jones and the 25th overall pick in the 2023 NBA Draft into former Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Smart.
Memphis has always been known for being a superior defensive team and ranked second in the league in defensive rating this past year. Jackson claimed the 2022-23 Defensive Player of the Year Award, meaning that the Grizzlies now have the last two defensive award recipients on their roster. Morant is suspended to begin the year, making Smart's role even more important.
Aside from his contributions defensively, Smart has quietly been a steady contributor on offense. Smart certainly will not lead his team in scoring, but he is not afraid to pull up and knock down shots from three-point range. It is worth noting that he is a strong facilitator as well, averaging a career-high 6.3 assists per game this past season in Boston.
Smart enters the 2023-24 season with the Grizzlies as their starting point guard. What his role looks like once Morant returns is a big question mark that will need to be answered, especially with Desmond Bane at the shooting guard position.
Alongside Smart in the backcourt, veteran point guard and former league MVP Derrick Rose is back in the city he played his college hoops in. Rose will always be remembered for taking the University of Memphis to the National Championship Game in 2008. While he may not be the same player he once was, the 34-year-old brings quality depth to this backcourt. There is no doubt that Rose will be a great mentor for Morant.
The other two main additions the Grizzlies made this offseason were Isaiah Todd and Josh Christopher, two recent draft picks acquired at a low price in trades. Both players figure to be nothing more than youthful options that will spend time developing on the bench. Then again, Christopher possesses some length and fits the athletic mold the Grizzlies have looked for in perimeter players through the years, making him is a key name to keep tabs on.
Other than Jones and Brooks leaving, this team basically has the same core group they had a season ago. At full strength, the Grizzlies can once again compete for the top spot in the Western Conference, but it should not come as a shock if Kleiman looks to make more moves. He's one of those general managers who is always looking to improve his team, which could lead Memphis to a blockbuster deal ahead of the trade deadline in February.
Impact of Ja Morant's suspension
Ja Morant has a lot to prove to the city of Memphis and his entire organization. He not only failed them once with the incident involving a gun in a nightclub, but he proceeded to go back on his word and once again put the organization in a bad spot by flashing a gun on Instagram Live for a second time. There are questions being asked about if he can handle the pressure of being the face of the Grizzlies franchise.
The good news is the Grizzlies still believe in their young star. Morant has been working on himself this offseason, seeking the help he needed. This is why we could very well see a new and improved version of him not just as a basketball player, but as a leader when he returns during the 2023-24 season.
The 25-game suspension is a heavy burden for the franchise, though, especially since that is just about 30 percent of the season. Even with all the talent that still remains on this roster, the Grizzlies are going to have a massive hole to fill without Ja on the floor, a vacancy that could throw off the whole balance of the organization. While Memphis has had success without Morant on the court in the past, this is a whole different situation.
Morant being out obviously puts the spotlight on Smart in his first season with the team. His responsibilities as a primary defender and now the team's main facilitator have grown as a result. However, Bane is the one player who should be feeling the most pressure now, especially after agreeing to a five-year, $207 million contract extension this summer.
Memphis obviously believes in Bane's abilities as he has quickly blossomed into a star for this team. He averaged a career-high 21.5 points per game this past year and has shot over 40 percent from deep every season he has been in the league. Bane is now the Grizzlies' top scoring option entering the new year, which is why he needs to continue to step up and put himself in All-Star consideration.
It is definitely a bad situation for the Grizzlies to have to deal with, but Morant's absence could wind up paying off in terms of this franchise's pursuit of their first title. How teams battle adversity is what builds character and, ultimately, this is what builds a championship foundation.
2023-24 season outlook
It is never a bad thing to have too much depth, especially in the backcourt. The Grizzlies now have Morant, Smart and Bane as primary ball handlers on offense, and it is worth mentioning that they have depth at virtually every position.
Luke Kennard was fantastic in his short stint with the organization last year, Santi Aldama stepped up when Adams and Jackson were injured, and the team is still high on what players like David Roddy, Jake LaRavia and Kenneth Lofton Jr. can do in the second unit.
The Grizzlies are a tough-minded team that finally seems to have an identity. They want to wear down their opponents defensively, and it would not be shocking if Taylor Jenkins' group winds up finishing as the best defensive team in the NBA during the 2023-24 season. With Morant sidelined to begin the year, they will need to really limit their opponents' overall opportunities. Every player in this starting rotation is an above-average defender, which is why Memphis is going to have a similar feeling to the “Grit and Grind” Grizzlies from several years back.
Whether or not this team can compete at the highest level possible and break through to win the Western Conference is a whole separate question. Even though Jackson made the All-Star Game last season, there are still questions about his willingness to always play aggressive on offense. He disappeared at times playing for Team USA in the FIBA World Cup this offseason and even struggled defensively with fouls and poor rebounding. While his role was significantly different with the national team compared to his role in Memphis, everything for Jackson goes back to his mindset.
The All-Star big man needs to be better offensively, Bane needs to step into the role of being this team's primary scorer, and the Grizzlies will need to find consistent play from their bench in order to be real title contenders. It's certainly possible for them to achieve, but until we see all of this, the Grizzlies are nothing more than regular-season heroes.