The construction of an NBA roster is a puzzle for each front
office to put together, but at the end of each season, only one
franchise ultimately finishes the puzzle successfully — only to
start over again the following summer. Sure, some teams may feel
they have all the pieces on the table and someone was injured or
unavailable, but most teams find themselves looking for the missing
puzzle piece that they just can't find in the heap of pieces
Every franchise also has their own approach to team building.
The Lakers, for instance, rely on the draw of living in Los Angeles
and the allure of past success and legendary predecessors. The
Pelicans shipped off their stars in exchange for assets in hopes of
building something special, while the Nets and Mavericks have
mortgaged their futures in exchange for star players.
Then, there are teams like San Antonio, who has a system and
culture in place that the front office has stuck with and followed
for years. Their talent evaluation and drafting has been superb for
the better part of two decades. Couple that with having one of the
best basketball coaches of all-time, and you become relevant for a
long, long time.
The small markets need to have a combination of exquisite team
building and pure dumb luck with ping pong balls. Milwaukee
correctly identified Giannis Antetokounmpo and put the proper
pieces around him. Portland struck gold with Damian Lillard and CJ
McCollum, just as Oklahoma City did with Russell Westbrook and
Kevin Durant, but they struggled to fit all the pieces
Enter the Memphis Grizzlies.
After the debacle that was selecting Hasheem Thabeet over guys
like Stephen Curry and James Harden, the basketball gods smiled on
the Grizz, allowing them to take Ja Morant with the No. 2 overall
pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, despite having the eighth-best odds to
secure that selection.
The year before that, Memphis was gifted Jaren Jackson Jr. as
the Kings whiffed on Marvin Bagley over Luka Doncic and Trae Young.
After seven-straight years in the playoffs, the Grizzlies parted
ways with the Grit N' Grind era as Zach Randolph, Tony Allen, Marc
Gasol and Mike Conley all moved on, ushering in Grizz: NextGen.
Very few teams can have a seven-year run of success, move on
from the entire core responsible for the success, and be
better than they ever were — all in just four
seasons. The Suns just ended a 10-year playoff drought with last
season's NBA Finals trip, while the Kings are still spiraling on a
15-year run of not making the playoffs.
Fortune has played a role. Who knows what this team would look
like today if Morant had not fallen into the team's collective lap.
However, fortune must be accompanied by a plan, and the plan in
Memphis has been nothing short of remarkable.
Before this current front office took over, Memphis took a
massive swing in free agency in an attempt to find that final
puzzle piece, signing Chandler Parsons to a four-year, $100 million
contract. Despite Parsons' knee issues, it was the risk Memphis
general manager Chris Wallace felt he had to take, being the
smallest market in the NBA and hardly an attractive free-agent
New GM Zach Kleiman has taken a different approach. The front
office has identified a type of player they want to be a part of
this franchise, and they go out and get them. From Desmond Bane and
Brandon Clarke to Xavier Tillman and Killian Tillie, the Grizzlies
aren't interested in draft narratives about age and wingspan —
rather, it's all about what kind of person and player is coming
From Morant down to the Memphis Hustle in the G League, the
Grizzlies organization is deep. It could perhaps be the deepest
team in the league, indicated by their 10-2 record when Morant was
out due to injury this season.
They didn't trade seven first-round picks and pick swaps for a
superstar. They didn't break the bank for a free agent. No, the
Memphis Grizzlies drafted the right guys, snagged guys in trades
(like De'Anthony Melton and Steven Adams), and signed Tyus Jones in
free agency. They got their guys, they executed their plan. Now,
for the plan to work, the players must do the same.
"Welcome to the Dark." That has been Morant's mantra all season.
The dark was the offseason work he put in when no one was watching.
But Ja also knows who is and isn't watching.
If you know Ja, you know he read this and took it personally.
Being ranked the 15th-best player under the age of 25 is not
something he is likely to ignore. Morant takes the court on a
nightly basis to prove that he is "a top-five point guard in the
league," as he's said. He has left little doubt where he stands,
and the 22-year-old has taken the league by storm.
But the dark didn't apply to just Ja. The Grizzlies have
developed from within. Look at the statistical jump that key
contributors have made from last season to now:
Ja Morant: 26.5 PPG (+7.4) 49.3% FG% (+4.4%)
34.4 3P% (+4.3%) 5.9 REB (+1.9)
Desmond Bane: 17.5 PPG (+8.3), 2.8 3PM (+1.1)
3.3 +/- (+3.1)
Jaren Jackson Jr.: 16.8 PPG (+2.4) 2.2 BLK
(+.6) 3.7 +/- (+9.5)
These three players have come together to form the Grizzlies'
new core for years to come. Jackson has already inked his rookie
extension, with Morant due to sign his max deal this summer,
followed by Bane's extension the following year.
The improvement and massive leaps by these three is accompanied
by Clarke's return to his rookie form, as well as the steadiness of
Jones and Adams. Now, headed into this offseason, Memphis has
created the ability to take a massive swing with a trade, all while
Morant has made Memphis a potential free-agent destination.
Kleiman has been the middle man in some deals, such the Andre
Iguodala acquisition and subsequent moves — he has also gained
assets in trades involving players the front office doesn't view as
long-term fits with the team. Memphis got Utah's 2022 first-round
pick for Mike Conley and the Lakers' protected 2022 first-round
pick, sending Jonas Valanciunas to New Orleans. With those assets,
plus expiring deals and future expiring deals in Adams and Dillon
Brooks, the Grizzlies have set themselves up with a slew of assets
to find their final piece.
The development of Bane eliminates
the hunt for someone like Bradley Beal. The development of JJJ
removed Memphis from a Domas Sabonis sweepstakes at the deadline.
The development of Melton turns him into a trade asset. So whether
it is trading the draft capital and few of the young, developed
pieces for a star on the wing this offseason, or shopping the
free-agent market in 2023, Memphis has done it their way, and so
far it's working.
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