MikeCheck: Kleiman’s championship culture takes root as Grizzlies set summer priorities
MEMPHIS – Now that the Grizzlies have wrapped up their first playoff appearance and winning record in four years, the offseason focus shifts to the squad behind the team to continue building on an encouraging foundation firmly in place.
Having signed a long-term contract extension on the opening day of the offseason, Grizzlies vice president of basketball operations Zach Kleiman is eager to maintain productive momentum.
“This is just the beginning,” Kleiman insisted. “I’m excited for what’s to come.”
Indeed, that youthful energy permeates the franchise. The youngest roster to enter the NBA playoffs in a decade, guided by the one of the league’s youngest coaches in Taylor Jenkins, is run by one of the youngest top executives in pro sports in 33-year-old Kleiman.
What this team has accomplished just two years into a reset that’s infused a fresh outlook from the roster to the coaching staff and through the front office has positioned the Grizzlies to carry plenty of momentum into the summer. Kleiman and his staff are primed to pick up just where franchise point guard Ja Morant and Jenkins left off on the heels of a breakthrough campaign.
We want to keep progressing. It’s not always a linear path, but we want to keep pushing forward. We have a massive belief in this core group. I’m excited to be in this seat and have the opportunity to build this out with a long-term goal of winning a championship here in Memphis. And that’s what’s always going to drive our decision-making.
The league has taken notice of a burgeoning Grizzlies team that posted a 38-34 record, won the Play-In Tournament by shocking Golden State on the road and then stunned the No. 1 overall seeded Jazz in Utah for Game 1. Memphis ended its season having gained five games of valuable playoff experience against a vaunted team that finished with the NBA’s top record.
That rapid progress, just three years removed from selecting Jaren Jackson Jr. fourth overall in 2018 and then Morant with the second pick a year later, isn’t lost on Kleiman. Now, the methodical process of strengthening a budding playoff contender is ready for its next step.
Much of the core from this season’s team could remain intact, with as many as 13 players under contract or within team control through at least next season. That list includes all five starters in Morant, Jackson, Dillon Brooks, Kyle Anderson and Jonas Valanciunas. That group anchored a team that ranked among the NBA’s top five in assists, steals, offensive rebounds, second-chance scoring and points in the paint among other categories.
“Those steps and the experience of getting to the playoffs, playing in the playoffs, losing in the playoffs – you can’t get to our ultimate goal without grappling with those feelings of loss and growth,” Kleiman assessed. “We want to keep progressing. It’s not always a linear path, but we want to keep pushing forward. We have a massive belief in this core group. I’m excited to be in this seat and have the opportunity to build this out with a long-term goal of winning a championship here in Memphis. And that’s what’s always going to drive our decision-making.”
Kleiman and his diverse front-office staff, who work collaboratively with Jenkins, face several key decisions and opportunities in the coming weeks.
Key Offseason Dates
- June 21-27: NBA Draft Combine
- June 22: Draft Lottery
- July 29: NBA Draft
- Aug 2: Free Agency negotiating opens
- Aug 6: Free Agency signing begin
- Aug 8-17: MGM Resorts NBA Summer League in Las Vegas
That starts with assessing prospects and needs leading to the July 29 NBA Draft, where the Grizzlies are positioned with the No. 17 pick in the first round and No. 51 in the second round.
Under the current front-office and coaching leadership, Memphis has come away with key contributors in each of the last two drafts, snagging NBA All-Rookie team members Morant and forward Brandon Clarke two years ago and sharp-shooter Desmond Bane and productive big man Xavier Tillman last year. All four players were part of Jenkins’ primary rotation this season.
Kleiman will again lean on the Grizzlies’ scouting department, guided by player personnel director Chris Makris, to extend that recent trend of mining ideal potential fits. The Grizzlies will hold pre-draft workouts in Memphis before and after the late June NBA Combine in Chicago.
“We wouldn’t be in the position we’ve been in these recent drafts if it wasn’t for the work of Chris, identifying some under-the-radar guys, just putting our heads together on that,” Kleiman said. “There’s countless others I can name in the front-office who are making an impact.”
The Grizzlies could also package picks and pursue trades for future draft assets or to target veteran help to fit alongside a rapidly developing young core. That path would theoretically position Memphis to take the next step up the West standings and farther into the playoffs. The front office has used the summer Draft and free agency window to execute the bulk of their trades that have reshaped the roster over the past two seasons.
Working primarily alongside Kleiman in those external evaluations is former player and NBA champion Tayshaun Prince, whose intel and league relationships have been essential. The Grizzlies could maneuver ahead free agency to have as much as $20 million in cap space.
The culture we’re building, the way we want to play, the personalities of Ja and Jaren, players are going to want to play with these guys. We’re building an organization that’s going to compete at the highest level, have the best medical care, the best player development, no state income tax in Memphis, it’s an incredibly comfortable place to live. We’re building something here guys are going to want to continue to be a part of, and I believe something that players are going to be attracted to.
“Tayshaun does an incredible job,” Kleiman asserted of Prince’s role as vice president of basketball affairs. “There are a lot of former players who get into these roles and just want to stay around the game. Tayshaun puts in the work. I’ve never come across anyone – Tayshaun writes scouting reports that are as detailed as anyone, gathers intel as detailed as anyone and just has an incredible mind for the game.”
And then there’s Rich Cho, whose expertise in performance metrics and league minutiae is at the root of the chemistry that allows the roster to connect on the court. Making the numbers work will be a vital task this offseason, with Jackson Jr. eligible for a contract extension of up to five years. Memphis also faces a contract decision on Justise Winslow.
“Rich just plays a massive role with us – the reliability, the experience, he’s been through everything,” Kleiman said of Cho, vice president of basketball strategy. “The cap resource, the analytics resource is something I lean on heavily.”
And Kleiman is determined to keep building the right way this offseason.
“We’ve never had an issue keeping players we want to keep, keeping people we want to keep here,” Kleiman surmised. “The culture we’re building, the way we want to play, the personalities of Ja and Jaren, players are going to want to play with these guys. We’re building an organization that’s going to compete at the highest level, have the best medical care, the best player development, no state income tax in Memphis, it’s an incredibly comfortable place to live. We’re building something here guys are going to want to continue to be a part of, and I believe something that players are going to be attracted to.”
Another season of Grizzlies growth will be followed by a summer of vision and a clear mission.
Five Front Office Facts
- Thirteen Players under contract for ’21-22 Season
- Extensions/Options decisions loom for Jaren Jackson Jr., Grayson Allen, Justise Winslow
- Kleiman signs long-term extension as VP/GM
- Grizzlies pick No. 17 & No. 51 in NBA Draft
- Could generate $20 million in potential free agency cap space
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