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MikeCheck: Kleiman, Jenkins building championship culture as Grizzlies fortify foundation for new season

by Michael Wallace | Grind City Media

Memphis, Tenn. – What’s abundantly clear as the Grizzlies open their 20th regular season in Memphis is that this team literally doesn’t lack for direction.

On the eve of Wednesday’s regular-season opener against the Spurs, second-year Grizzlies executive vice president Zach Kleiman set his “North Star” sights on competing for NBA titles.

Moments later, second-year coach Taylor Jenkins focused his vision a bit lower in terms of “fortifying the foundation” on which the Grizzlies established in last season’s encouraging run.

Know what’s also increasingly clear?

Somewhere between Kleiman’s ultimate skyward ambition and what Jenkins has brewing beneath the surface is a franchise in the midst of a real climate change. Pardon the cranes, the concrete trucks, the dirt piles and all the construction equipment metaphorically lying around FedExForum these days. It’s all part of the process of making incremental progress.

The Grizzlies are building a championship culture. That may sound a bit extreme from the leaders tasked with running the second-youngest team in the NBA entering this season. But it’s impossible to build such lofty things without an organizational belief that it can be done.

Taylor Jenkins standing on the sideline
MEMPHIS, TN - DECEMBER 19: Head Coach Taylor Jenkins looks on during a preseason game against the Atlanta Hawks. Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images.

Kleiman and Jenkins executed a two-man game in Tuesday’s state-of-the-franchise media sessions that precisely laid out exactly where the Grizzlies are at the moment, and yet also set a clear expectation for where this team is determined to be if all goes according to plan.

“We have this group now that we think is genuinely special (and) it’s on me, it’s on us to continue to grow this group, to continue to build,” Kleiman said. “The North Star continues to be competing to win championships over time. That’s what we’re driven by. That’s what we’re going to continue to operate by. We’re going to relentlessly pursue championships here in Memphis, and that’s going to continue to drive us . . . and that’s not going to stop.”

The task now requires the Grizzlies to take another significant but incremental step after proving to be one of the NBA’s most surprising squads during a pandemic-impacted season. Essentially picked to finish last in the West a year ago, the Grizzlies were in the eighth and final playoff position in the conference when the league shut down in March because of COVID-19.

Memphis ultimately lost to Portland in the postseason “play-in game” during the NBA’s restart in Orlando. That capped a season in which point guard Ja Morant was named NBA Rookie of the Year. In addition, both Kleiman and Jenkins finished in the top 10 in executive and coach of the year balloting, respectively, during their first full seasons on the job.

And in many ways, the Grizzlies seem like they’re just scratching the surface of unveiling what kind of team they’re capable of being once they’re healthy and whole.

The North Star continues to be competing to win championships over time. That’s what we’re driven by. That’s what we’re going to continue to operate by. We’re going to relentlessly pursue championships here in Memphis, and that’s going to continue to drive us . . . and that’s not going to stop.

Zach Kleiman

“Everyone in this building is embracing that mentality,” Jenkins said. “What we focused on last year was building that foundation. Now, it’s about fortifying it and really understanding what we can be for the future if we take this priority day to day and try to exceed at a high level.”

Apparently, they’ll still have to make believers out of external doubters and oddsmakers.

Heading into the NBA’s truncated, 72-game schedule, the Grizzlies were listed by at least one prominent site facing 150-to-1 odds to win the NBA title, 80-to-1 odds to win the West and set to finish either last or next-to-last in the Southwest Division. The over-under win total for Memphis was 31½ games, which equates to finishing about 10 games below the .500 mark.

And that’s fine.

So be it. The Grizzlies don’t set their expectations by external beliefs, although they took pride in proving prognosticators wrong before. The DNA of these Grizzlies equips them to approach and defy conventional wisdom the way Morant tends to approach and defy gravity.

But patience and proper perspective will be required as the Grizzlies face a tough opening month of the schedule. They play two games against the defending champion Lakers, two against the reloaded Nets and another against the Eastern Conference finalist Celtics within the opening 10 games on the slate.

And on top of that, Morant will try to lead and lift the Grizzlies early on with two key teammates grounded by injury rehab to start the season. Third-year franchise power forward Jaren Jackson Jr. remains sidelined as he recovers from late summer knee surgery and swingman Justise Winslow also missed all of the preseason as he works back from a hip injury.

Justise Winslow and Jaren Jackson Jr. injured on the sideline
Orlando, FL - AUGUST 9: Justise Winslow #7 of the Memphis Grizzlies and Jaren Jackson Jr. #13 of the Memphis Grizzlies look on during the game against the Toronto Raptors. Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images.

Kleiman reiterated Tuesday that Jackson and Winslow, both starters and projected as two of the top four players on the roster, are making encouraging progress in their respective recoveries. But he stopped short of offering a specific timeframe in which either is likely to be available.

“Jaren’s still going to be out for a bit,” Kleiman said. “His progress is absolutely unbelievable. The positivity, his work habits, he’s been such a good influence. The progress he’s making is encouraging, but it’s still going to be a bit. Justise is in the same spot, too. Justise is ramping up. He’s been attacking this head on. We’re not going to rush anything, just ramping up his workload. We can’t wait to have him on the court with us.”

Even during injury-shortened seasons a year ago, Jackson and Winslow accounted for a combined 28.7 points, 11.2 rebounds, 5.4 assists and 2.1 blocks while thriving as impactful contributors on both ends of the court for their respective teams.

The initial challenge for the Grizzlies is to endure a difficult opening schedule and fill the lineup voids as best as possible until the reinforcements arrive. Morant said he won’t try to overcompensate or change his game too much to make up for the missing firepower, but added that his approach will be to stay in attack mode at all times.

His progress is absolutely unbelievable. The positivity, his work habits, he’s been such a good influence. The progress he’s making is encouraging, but it’s still going to be a bit. Justise is in the same spot, too. Justise is ramping up. He’s been attacking this head on. We’re not going to rush anything, just ramping up his workload. We can’t wait to have him on the court with us.

Zach Kleiman

“It’s about staying aggressive out there and doing whatever my team needs at any given time,” said Morant, who averaged 17.5 points and a league-leading 9.8 assists during the preseason. “I’ve always prided myself on being able to adjust my game. But I know my teammates rely on me to kind of set the tone. Especially right now while some of our top guys are out. But we still have to get to our game, do what we have to do, until we can get those guys back.”

So expect this season to play out in layers for the Grizzlies.

Judge their growth in stages.

If Morant, Jonas Valanciunas and Dillon Brooks can lead the way early and keep this team competitive and tread water through the first month or so, that’s a strong start. If this team can then get Jackson and Winslow back, push through some growing pains and adjustments and still keep its head above water through the first half of the season, that’s major progress.

And, eventually, if these NXTGEN Grizzlies can hit a midseason stride and find their groove much like they did in Year One, and avoid significant injury setbacks, then we’re talking growth.

I’ve always prided myself on being able to adjust my game. But I know my teammates rely on me to kind of set the tone. Especially right now while some of our top guys are out. But we still have to get to our game, do what we have to do, until we can get those guys back.

Ja Morant

Perhaps the biggest sign of the championship culture being molded in Memphis was revealed in a story Kleiman shared from draft night last month. Amid the intensity of finalizing a three-team trade with Boston and Portland to move into the first round and draft Desmond Bane, Kleiman dialed up Grizzlies owner Robert Pera to explain the dynamics.

“I call him and say ‘We’ve got this kind of deal where we’re going to be taking on some additional salary, and we’re going to be jammed right up there against the (luxury) tax, but this is a guy we really want,’” Kleiman explained of the phone call with Pera. “From his perspective, that’s a no-brainer. That squares with what we’re trying to build. To have that kind of support, that backing, that pushing from Robert to be aggressive to pursue the things we believe in . . .’”

Consider it more evidence of the top-down investment the Grizzlies have made in building that North Star culture.

And even with two key contributors missing from his rotation, Jenkins is fortifying a foundation in which the Grizzlies ranked among the NBA’s top five teams in preseason points, assists, blocks, steals, three-pointers made, pace, defensive rating and points in the paint.

With Kleiman’s North Star ultimate view and Jenkins’ sturdy foundation, the parameters are in place. With Morant, Jackson, Valanciunas, Brooks and a bonding core locked in, the franchise pillars are set, too.

From his perspective, that’s a no-brainer. That squares with what we’re trying to build. To have that kind of support, that backing, that pushing from Robert to be aggressive to pursue the things we believe in . . .’

Zach Kleiman

And so are the priorities.

Valanciunas saw a similar blueprint take shape in Toronto, where he was drafted and spent his first seven NBA seasons with a franchise that built a championship culture from the ground up.

“We’re the second-youngest group in the league, so we’ve gotta be humble and we’ve gotta be hungry for these games,” said Valanciunas, entering his third season in Memphis. “Last year was the start. Now we know what it takes to go to the next level. It’s on us, how we’re going to do it. I think we’ve got every tool we need. We just have to go out there and prove it.”

And those tools, from top to bottom, have helped break ground on a championship culture.

We can dig it.

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Memphis Grizzlies. All opinions expressed by Michael Wallace are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Memphis Grizzlies or its Basketball Operations staff, owners, parent companies, partners or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Memphis Grizzlies and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

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