MikeCheck: As season opener looms, growth-minded Grizzlies preparing to ‘protect the culture’
CHICAGO – They’re more than mantras.
Consider them more like guideposts and guardrails to keep the Grizzlies on track. At the start of each of his three seasons in Memphis as coach, Taylor Jenkins set a clear and definitive tone for the team’s mission from the outset of training camp. Year one’s task was to ‘build the right way’ as Jenkins took over as a rookie head coach a few months after changes took shape in the front office and a retooled roster was developing.
Going into his second season last year, Jenkins and the Grizzlies set out to ‘fortify the foundation.’ And after delivering the franchise’s first winning record and playoff berth in four years – with the NBA’s youngest playing rotation – the next objective is in place.
“Protect the culture,” Jenkins surmised as he looked ahead to the start of his third season with the Grizzlies. “There’s growth in a lot of areas, and the chemistry within this team is showing a lot. Coming into Year 3, you’re wondering about retention areas from one year to the next. But I feel guys are accelerating a lot with some of the things we ended the season with last year. Our guys are more quickly getting to the things we need to as we get closer to opening night.”
The Grizzlies entered the weekend having concluded their six-game preseason slate with Friday's loss in Chicago against the Bulls. Behind them is a productive and encouraging three weeks of training camp and exhibitions that showed strides made in key areas as well as some challenges that will be addressed moving forward.
There’s growth in a lot of areas, and the chemistry within this team is showing a lot. Coming into Year 3, you’re wondering about retention areas from one year to the next. But I feel guys are accelerating a lot with some of the things we ended the season with last year. Our guys are more quickly getting to the things we need to as we get closer to opening night.
But more than anything else, there’s a sustainable culture in place. And Jenkins has seen franchise cornerstones in Jaren Jackson Jr. and Ja Morant work to protect what’s been established. Along the way, newcomers such as veteran Steven Adams and rookie lottery pick Ziaire Williams have seamlessly stepped into that culture as ideal fits for the present and future.
After regrouping through the weekend, the Grizzlies will gear up for Wednesday’s season and home opener at FedExForum against the Cavaliers. Then comes a difficult four-game West trip with matchups against the Clippers and Lakers on a back-to-back set and ends with another two-games-in-as-many-nights slate against the Blazers and Warriors.
In all, eight of the Grizzlies’ first nine games this season are against teams that made the playoffs last season or were in the NBA’s play-in tournament. But even as they maintain a methodical development approach overall, the Grizzlies emerged from the preseason with the postseason mentality to pick up where they left off six months ago.
“We have a lot of guys returning, and the mindset is the same,” Jackson said of capitalizing on the lessons that culminated in last season’s first-round series against the top-seeded Jazz. “We reached a point last year where we achieved some of the things that were our main goals, like getting to the playoffs. And that was good. But once you get to that, you’ve got to build off it with other things. We’re not satisfied with that at all. We have a lot going on here.”
The Grizzlies made progress in several key areas through their preseason preparation.
Morant’s leadership, intensity and production set a tone from the outset. His intentions were clear when he responded to top basketball executive Zach Kleiman’s assertion on Media Day that Morant would be a certified NBA All-Star this season.
We reached a point last year where we achieved some of the things that were our main goals, like getting to the playoffs. And that was good. But once you get to that, you’ve got to build off it with other things. We’re not satisfied with that at all. We have a lot going on here.
“I feel he’s telling you all the right thing,” Morant said through a sheepish grin. “Stay tuned.”
Morant then turned in a near-flawless preseason stretch in which he averaged 22.3 points on 63.4-percent shooting in 24.7 minutes. He also led the NBA in fast break scoring and points in the paint entering Friday’s preseason finale. Finding ways to mesh with Adams while also rekindling his connection on the court with Jackson were priorities for Morant.
The result was a two-game stretch in the preseason that saw the Grizzlies obliterate Charlotte and Detroit to lead by as many as 39 points with Morant, Jackson and Adams all in action. Morant insists the encouraging sample sizes were a result of the chemistry the group built over weeks of informal workouts when many players got together on their own well ahead of camp.
Injuries and attrition slowed the process of Morant and Jackson sustaining the on-court bond the franchise hopes will lead to success well into the future. But they’re ready to blossom now.
“If we all stay healthy, there’s nothing we can’t do,” Morant vowed. “I’m speechless being able to play alongside a guy like J.J. – it’s good for me. Both of our goals this summer was to work on our bodies. That’s why we were together so much this summer, to build our chemistry.”
Jenkins sees the results of the initial work put in to protect the culture.
“The guys are super motivated, super locked in,” Jenkins said. “We know it’s a long season and there’s a ton of work to do. But our guys have that mentality of, ‘We know what we’re capable of doing.’ We know what we’ve got to get better in, and the priority is to understand where we’re at and the self-motivation needed to approach the rest of the season.”
I’m speechless being able to play alongside a guy like J.J. – it’s good for me. Both of our goals this summer was to work on our bodies. That’s why we were together so much this summer, to build our chemistry.
For the Grizzlies, it’s a culture of chemistry.
It’s a culture of incremental progress.
It’s a culture of competitive growth.
The proper pillars are in place to protect it.
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