MEMPHIS – Just as Luke Kennard was establishing his rhythm and impact as the quintessential role player to help unlock the Grizzlies’ full potential, the season ended painfully and abruptly.
Kennard was sidelined with a bruised shoulder for the Grizzlies’ series-clinching Game 6 loss to the Lakers a little more than a week ago in the opening round of the NBA playoffs.
That setback completed a two-month whirlwind indoctrination for Kennard, who was acquired at the February NBA trade deadline from the Clippers and quickly became a 3-point shooting icon with his new franchise. Having barely settled into Memphis with his family, Kennard had rapidly established himself in the record book and lore of Grizzlies teammates and fans.
“I haven’t been here too long, but it seems much longer,” Kennard, the NBA’s 3-point shooting leader the past two seasons, said of adjusting to Memphis. “They made me feel right at home . . . like I’ve been a part of this team. They continued to build trust in me, confidence in me and want me to be myself. To be part of something like that, I feel like this is somewhere I can grow.”
The Grizzlies are counting on Kennard to spark that next level of growth with the bench and supporting cast around Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Desmond Bane moving forward.
Forced to adapt on the fly over the final two months of the season, Kennard now embraces a full offseason and eventual training camp to complete his acclimation with his relatively new team. Much like some furniture and a few boxes around his home, there’s still plenty of potential for Kennard to unpack with the rotation combinations the Grizzlies can explore.
Among the challenges that hampered Memphis on the way to a disappointing, first-round playoff exit was a lack of continuity overall among the primary rotation, including the bench.
The Grizzlies had nearly 280 total games missed during the regular season to injuries or other issues this season, which contributed to coach Taylor Jenkins using 26 different starting lineups.
In the offseason process of charting a path toward improvement, there is optimism a supporting cast that includes Kennard, Tyus Jones, Xavier Tillman and Santi Aldama can settle into roles and build on some breakthrough moments from this season.
In addition to the expected development of returning players, Memphis has a first-round pick (No. 25) in June’s draft and the midlevel salary exception in free agency to boost the rotation.
“That’s something we’ll digest more (into the summer),” Jenkins said of what’s needed to keep building around Morant, Jackson and Bane. “My initial gut reaction is I’m going to lean on the guys we have here, who know what we’re supposed to do, to carry that torch. They’re ready to take that next step. You can easily point to that we need to bring veterans in here. I love the group we’ve got. Who knows what comes in the future, but I’m going to lean on those guys.”
In Kennard, 26, the Grizzlies have one of the league’s most impactful shooters under contract through next season, with a team option for the 2024-25 season. He set a franchise record with 10 made 3-pointers in a March 24 win against Houston, and led the NBA this season by shooting 49.4-percent from beyond the arc.
Kennard’s ability to space the floor and impact the Grizzlies’ overall offensive efficiency was undeniable after he arrived. Even during a six-game playoff series in which the Lakers ultimately overwhelmed Memphis, Kennard posted a plus-minus rating of a series-best, plus-36 before he injured his shoulder in Game 5.
As a team, the Grizzlies shot 41.2-percent from 3-point range when Kennard was on the floor as compared to 34.1-percent when he was not in the games. For reference, the Sixers were the NBA’s best 3-point shooting team this season at 38.7-percent during the regular season.
With Kennard and Bane, the Grizzlies had two of the league’s top-five 3-point shooters. That gives Memphis a lethal shooting option at both the starting and backup shooting guard spots.
“Whatever your offseason looks like, whatever cards you’re dealt, do your best with it,” Bane said of further establishing roster chemistry. “It’s going to take one through seventeen (full roster). We’re the driving factors, but you saw it from other guys. They’re going to all have to take a step to get better. I’m looking forward to working with them this summer.”
One of the main problems that haunted the Grizzlies during the playoffs was their inability to sustain the production the bench provided during the regular season.
During the season, Memphis’ reserve unit ranked sixth in steals (3.0), seventh in usage (18.4 minutes per game), eighth in assists (8.5), tenth in field-goal shooting (46.5%) and 15th in scoring (34.8). But against the Lakers in the playoffs, the Grizzlies’ bench was outproduced in five of the six games.
Players shuffling between roles and positions was both a blessing and a burden for the Grizzlies.
For instance, Jones is regarded as arguably the best and most productive backup point guard in the league. But he also proved a reliable fill-in option each of the past two seasons that Morant missed at least 20 games. This season, Tillman emerged from the backend of the rotation to starting a career-high 35 games at center because of injuries to Steven Adams and Brandon Clarke.
The same was the case for Aldama, who opened the season as starting power forward until Jackson returned from offseason foot surgery rehab. Aldama ended the season struggling at times in the playoffs when pressed to shift between the power forward and center positions.
“You just don’t get to see the full potential of what we can really be; you only get a small glimpse of it,” Jones said of the challenges to sustaining success this season off the bench. “You don’t really get an extended look at everything, and it’s not easy. But at the same time, we also used some of that to our benefit. It allowed some guys to have increased roles. It allowed guys to step up in different situations. It allowed guys to grow from those experiences.”
For the Grizzlies, it’s all a work in progress.
For Kennard, the offseason priority is increasing his comfort level with the team and the town.
“That’s the goal,” Kennard confirmed. “For me, it’s just spending time with them this offseason, being around them, being in this city as much as I can. That’s my approach to everything. I’m looking forward to having a full offseason here and continuing to grow around everybody. I know they’re already turning that page to do whatever it takes to get it right for next season.”