For the past two weeks, Basketball Insiders has taken a look at the teams who have been eliminated from playoff contention and what they should do in order to get themselves back into the playoffs. Next up in the series is the team with the stickiest situation of all the eliminated teams – the Memphis Grizzlies.
The Grizzlies’ intentions were to be as good as they could possibly be so they could complete two tasks.
1. Milk Grit-and-Grind to the very last drop.
2. Give the Boston Celtics the pick that they traded to them four years ago in order to acquire Jeff Green.
By no means has this season been a disaster for the Grizzlies – the same could not be said for some of their previous turnouts in recent years – but things didn’t go exactly the way they wanted to.
The team is going to miss the playoffs for the second consecutive season, and they haven’t really had anything close to playoff success since 2015. Still, there’s plenty of positives both for this season and going forward.
What Is Working
One name, three initials: JJJ. From the ashes of the Grit-and-Grind era comes a new generational talent for the Grizzlies to start over with. The man’s name being Jaren Jackson Jr.
Grind City struck gold when they took Jackson fourth overall in the draft. The Michigan State alum has all the making of the prototypical big in the modern NBA. Though his rookie season was tragically cut short because of a quad injury, Jackson’s three-point shooting and rim protecting abilities have got to make Memphis feel good about its future.
Jackson finished with an average of 1.41 blocks a game, which was good for 16th overall in the NBA, fourth among power forwards and second among rookies behind only Mitchell Robinson. His blocks per fouls average of 0.37 is actually not too good, but with more experience, that shouldn’t be too much of a problem as his career progresses.
Even though his shooting form looks a bit funky, Jackson proved himself to be a respected floor spacer, shooting almost 36 percent from three, a figure that puts him 14th overall among power forwards and seventh among rookies who have played at least 50 games.
With the rebuilding phase on the horizon, it’s only going to get tougher for JJJ from here on out. Thankfully, bringing him in as the Grizzlies are only just beginning their rebuild means their future is in good hands.
It’s also not like Jackson is the only sole young talent on the team. Dillon “Not MarShon” Brooks had an injury-plagued second year following a promising rookie season. Delon Wright has not been very efficient, but is putting up career-high numbers. Bruno Caboclo has shown some signs of being a possible diamond in the rough, but that’s getting ahead of ourselves.
The youth movement is in full swing just yet, but when Memphis turns to them entirely, at least they already have a foundation. It’s just too bad they couldn’t get their hands on Kelly Oubre.
What Needs To Change
It’s clear as day what changes need to be made in Memphis, but again, it all really depends on whether or not Memphis is able to give its pick away to Boston. If Memphis keeps its draft pick, then next year’s plans get a little foggy. If the pick conveys to Boston, then they need to blow it up. That all starts with Mike Conley Jr.
Though Memphis has tried its best to keep itself relevant during Mike’s prime, the cruel reality of the Grit-and-Grind being yesterday’s news has hit them hard. Had it not been for the disastrous Jeff Green trade, Chris Wallace and co. probably would have traded Conley a while ago.
The team pretty much already gave up on both the season and its most prosperous era when they traded Marc Gasol. The reason why they opted to trade Gasol and not Conley was because of the very real risk of losing Gasol – who had a player option – in the offseason for nothing. Having the pick land ninth or higher would be perfect because:
a. It would go to the Celtics, flashing the green light for Memphis’ complete rebuild
b. They’d lose the pick during a draft that isn’t considered very deep
Conley should have plenty of suitors with the reputation that he has. He’s had a long-lasting rep for being the best player that’s never been to the all-star game – He’s really just a victim of circumstance in that regard – and has a lot of playoff experience on his resume.
Sure, he’s overpaid at $32 million and will be 32 before the next season starts, but getting an All-Star caliber point guard with plenty of good basketball left in him. What’s left to be determined is whether Memphis wants to get the largest quantity of young value back or get money off the books.
The Grizzlies still have Chandler Parsons’ albatross dragging down their salary cap. Using Conley to get off his deal would open up so much cap flexibility yet at the same time not fetch back nearly as much young assets if they traded Conley alone.
It’s very likely that the teams who were in the running for Conley at the trade deadline – Utah, Indiana, and Detroit – i.e. playoff teams looking to improve their standing – will probably be calling again. Those teams don’t exactly boast the most exciting young talent that would realistically be traded in a deal for Conley – not unless Indiana is willing to part with Domantas Sabonis – but nonetheless, Memphis has the perfect opportunity to start a good bidding war.
Memphis also has some decisions to make with Jonas Valanciunas – who is averaging a near 20/10 line since his arrival – should he opt to stay with the team this offseason and Kyle Anderson, who signed a long-term deal hoping to be part of a playoff team, but is instead on a team one step away from a do-over.
There is no strategy that can save the Grizzlies the way they are. Their best option is to blow it up.
Focus Area: Draft
Much has already been made about what Memphis should do if they wind up giving their pick to the Celtics. That’s what they would prefer, but if that doesn’t work out for them, it’s not like a top-eight pick in the draft ever hurt anyone.
The Grizzlies currently have the seventh-worst record in the league. Where the team stands now, the Grizzlies would have a 7.5 percent chance of getting the No. 1 pick in the draft while also having a 32 percent chance of getting in the top-four if the season ended today.
Even if they achieve their goal of falling out of the top eight, that’s no guarantee that they won’t receive a top-four pick. If that winds up being the case, Memphis should be thankful because as they rebuild, they’ll need the best young talent no matter where they land. It’s true that besides Jaren Jackson Jr., they have a decent crop of young talent, but they most definitely need more at just about every position.
Dillon Brooks, Delon Wright and Bruno Caboclo are all decent talent but none scream future All-Star. If they manage to keep their pick, Memphis should just take the best player available. No matter who they get, that should help the roster long-term.
If they are able to get Zion Williamson or Ja Morant, that would make the future so bright that perhaps it wouldn’t matter as much to them in regards to giving Boston a better pick as Brooklyn did.
There is a lot riding on where Memphis ends up in the draft, but it’s not the end of the world for them if they wind up keeping their pick.
Focus Area: Free Agency
It’s hard to see Memphis being players in free agency in the state that they are in. They’re most likely not going to be in a position to win anytime soon regardless of what happens in the draft. Even worse, looking at their history, they may be wise to save the cap room that they will be building up over the next year or so.
The last free agent that they invested tons of money into was Chandler Parsons. Even though Parsons’ play has picked up lately, Memphis has paid him $20+ million per over the last three years for him to sit out with his knee injuries. It goes without saying that he was not a smart investment.
The last free agent addition that panned out well – and it panned out better than anyone could have imagined – was Tony Allen, but that was almost a decade ago.
This offseason, it’s more likely than not that Avery Bradley – who’s had himself a mini-rebirth in Memphis – will probably be waived seeing that he has a non-guaranteed contract. It’s been brought up that Jonas Valanciunas has a player option that he’s probably going to pick up. The same goes for CJ Miles, who hasn’t had the best year overall.
If the Grizzlies are going to sign anyone, it’s more than likely going to be a young player looking to rehabilitate his image. Guys like Jabari Parker and Jahlil Okafor might consider going to the Grizzlies in the hopes of establishing themselves in the league.
Overall, it’s not a pretty sight in Memphis, but it’s not entirely hopeless. A lot of what happens this summer depends on where their pick lands. All they can do now is just play the waiting game.
Please stay tuned for future installments of Basketball Insiders’ “Fixing” series.