Some might be tempted to view the Grizzlies as “upstarts” for how they put the Western Conference on notice last season, finishing with the conference’s second-best record (56-26) and then pushing the eventual champion Golden State Warriors to six games in the West semifinals. But upstarts most often are flash-in-the-pan types or momentary overachievers, like Atlanta in the 2021 postseason. This team has the look of something more lasting. And formidable.
Even before the Grizzlies threw down gauntlets at both the Timberwolves and the Warriors as rivals with which to be reckoned in the coming seasons, they thrived and grew. They ranked fourth (114.3) in offensive rating and sixth in defensively (108.9), one of only four teams to reach the Top 10 in both (Boston, Phoenix and Utah were the others). Memphis led the league in shots, rebounds, offensive boards, steals and blocks, as well as in points in the paint, second-chance points and fast-break points. It ranked second in field goals and scoring average, and third in pace.
Doesn’t sound like a fun foe to play, does it? Won’t be this season either, with a talented and deep core, impressive chemistry and a bright young coach in Taylor Jenkins. Then of course, there’s Ja Morant, arguably the NBA’s most entertaining performer and a legitimate contender for Most Valuable Player. The hardest part of that might be topping himself after a 2021-22 season in which the slender, explosive guard was voted Most Improved Player, made his first All-Star Game, was an All-NBA second teamer and finished seventh in MVP balloting.
How do they plug Jaren Jackson Jr.’s spot until he returns? This is both literal and stylistic, based on the foot surgery Jackson had in June that laid out a recovery timeline of four-to-six months. There’s an opening in the starting lineup to fill and a void most dramatically in Memphis’ defense, given his work against opposing bigs and overall rim protection. Some candidates: 2021 first-round pick Ziaire Williams, grinding reserve Xavier Tillman Sr., maybe third-year hopeful Killian Tillie or another surprise selection.
The Grizzlies, in spite of their impressive 2021-22, remain the pesky little brothers among the West’s best teams. That’s a great thing. Their results put several more advanced, savvy contenders to shame. Yet up and down their roster, they have players (and a coaching staff) who feel they still have much to prove. Morant for the heights to which he can soar, Jackson to return and improve, Dillon Brooks, Brandon Clarke and Desmond Bane to earn their own coming paydays and so on. The energy is undeniable. Projection: Playoffs.
1 KEY STAT TO KNOW
+2.4 — The Grizzlies were the league’s best team in the first six minutes of the first quarter last season, outscoring their opponents by 2.4 points per game in the opening six minutes.
— John Schuhmann
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE
Ja Morant: After posting career stats (27.4 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 6.7 apg) and leading the Grizzlies to the NBA’s top ranks, he was rewarded with a five-year max extension that could be worth $231 million.
Desmond Bane: No one in the NBA has been better from the arc (43.5%) since Bane entered the league as the No. 30 pick in 2020.
Dillon Brooks: Injuries limited Brooks to just 32 games, but he did more with less, boosting his per-36 scoring to 24.0 while shooting a career-best 43.2%.
Jaren Jackson Jr.: The All-Defensive first-team pick and NBA blocked shots leader might have been focused on getting his 3-point prowess back to his 2019-20 standards, but now he just needs to get back, period.
Steven Adams: Big Kiwi had trouble getting on the floor in the playoffs but he led the NBA in offensive rebounds and it wasn’t particularly close (349 to runner-up Mitchell Robinson’s 295).
Brandon Clarke: So valuable off the bench, Clarke’s playoff numbers – 12.3 points, 6.9 rebounds, 61.5% shooting and nearly 25 minutes – would be great starting points this season.
John Konchar: Nailed a rotation spot and earned a contract by hitting 44.8 from 3-point range, logging 18 minutes per game.
Tyus Jones: Staked his claim as league’s “best backup point guard” by posting a record 7.04/1 turnover ratio and, ironically, by leading Memphis to a 19-4 mark starting in Morant’s absence.
Xavier Tillman Sr.: Lots of room to improve as a shooter but he has a strong post game and is a physical defender.
Ziaire Williams: Experience in the playoffs (14.8 points per 36 minutes) and Summer League boosts 21-year-old’s case for bigger role.
LAST 5 SEASONS
How the Grizzlies have fared stats-wise over the last 5 seasons …
Last 5 seasons
OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
DefRtg = Points allowed per 100 possessions
NetRtg = Point differential per 100 possessions
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