2023-24 Kia Season Preview

Q&A: Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins faces a critical season

Heading into year 5 at the helm, Taylor Jenkins will lean on his new veterans as he navigates player absences.

Memphis Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins, in a blue team zip-up, watches the action with arms folded.

Taylor Jenkins and the Grizzlies face a critical season in their seemingly inevitable ascent toward championship contention.

For a team that considers itself a title contender, the Memphis Grizzlies sure faced a lot of setbacks last season. And already are steeling themselves for more this season.

Nothing loomed over the Grizzlies’ last season, and remains a dark cloud over this one, more than Ja Morant’s off-court behavior interfering with his and his team’s on-court duties. The All-Star guard was suspended by the NBA for eight games in March after showing up in a social-media video brandishing a handgun in a nightclub. Then it happened again in May, prompting the league to suspend him for the first 25 games of 2023-24. That will have Memphis playing without him at least until Christmas week.

But wait, there’s more: The team was riddled by injuries last season, with its preferred starters and top two subs missing 141 games. There’s carryover there, too, in the form of high-energy forward Brandon Clarke, whose rehab from a torn Achilles will sideline him for much of the new season.

And there are personnel concerns, too, with All-Defensive wing Dillon Brooks and backup point guard Tyus Jones playing elsewhere. For now, Memphis is banking on newly acquired Marcus Smart to plug both holes. He’s a former Kia Defensive Player of the Year and a needed replacement for Morant for two months. But it’s a big lift.

Did Memphis send a 'quiet message' to Ja Morant when it got Marcus Smart -- a leader who'll keep everyone accountable?

Taylor Jenkins begins his fifth season as Grizzlies coach true to form: part unstoppable force, part irrepressible optimist. Jenkins, who turned 39 earlier this month, speaks with the pace and passion of a true believer. He is all about the grind, spackling over any worries with positivity and more work.

In his first four years, Memphis’ offense has boosted its scoring average each season, reaching a franchise-high of 116.9 ppg last season. The Grizzlies under Jenkins have won 34, 38, 56 and 51 games, snagging the West’s No. 2 playoff seed in 2022 and 2023 while earning him runner-up status in 2022 Coach of the Year balloting. Last season, no NBA team was better at home than Memphis, which logged a 35-6 mark at FedEx Forum.

But after taking the traditional playoff steps for three years – Play-In Tournament berth, then first-round exit, followed by a loss in the 2021 conference semifinals to eventual champ Golden State – the Grizzlies got dumped in April by the seventh-seeded Lakers. The clincher, Game 6, was a 125-85 drubbing to seal the first-round loss.

That makes 2023-24 a pivotal season, bringing more skepticism and pressure than Jenkins or the Grizzlies have faced in recent memory. During a break at the recent National Basketball Coaches Association meetings in Chicago, Jenkins spoke with NBA.com about the season ahead.

Editor’s Note: The following 1-on-1 conversation has been condensed and edited.

NBA.com: Your team faces some challenges this season, from Ja Morant’s suspension and the losses of Dillon Brooks and Tyus Jones to lingering injuries and having to blend in some new faces. How do you assess the Grizzlies’ offseason and where things stand heading into camp?

Taylor Jenkins: There are so many things we can take away from this offseason. Obviously, some roster moves that we made – super-thrilled to be welcoming Marcus Smart to the group. Elite player, elite leader, elite competitor. Adding him, I think, is going to take our group to the next level. Excited to get him acclimated and up to speed, but he’s been fully engaged with his teammates throughout the summer, which has been cool to see, building those relationships.

Adding Derrick Rose, a guy that, I mean, just look at that resume. The impact he’s made in the game, what he’s going to do in the locker room and on the floor for us.

We had to make tough decisions, and not having Dillon and Tyus with us were very tough calls. They’re going to get opportunities elsewhere, but adding Marcus and Derrick will be a big boost. And then, just our overall development. We [had] Jaren [Jackson Jr.] playing overseas with Team USA, Santi [Aldama] with the Spanish national team, and other guys have taken advantage of this offseason.

How much did last season’s finish power this offseason?

We know we’ve done some good things in the four years I’ve been there, but it’s not good enough. We’ve got to continue building – regular season, playoffs, offseason – it’s a cyclical thing, 365, that we’ve got to take to the next level.

Because our season ended early, guys took a couple weeks off, then dove right back in. We had a bunch playing in the Summer League. Guys have been in and out of Memphis, training from afar, staying in contact. It’s an important camp for us, an important season.

Does a player with Smart’s reputation walk in as a leader or does that role have to happen organically once he’s in-house?  

Yeah, I’m big on ‘organic.’ Marcus, I think, wants that to be the case. I don’t want to press anything on him. He and I have had dialogues about, ‘Who are your teammates? Who do we have on the roster?’ The relationships he’s already building with guys on this team, what its needs are, he’s going to do it his way. He’s going to do what he does naturally to be great, and I’ll even push him to be better.

Being without Ja for at least the first 25 games, how frustrating is that? You endured it in March and here you guys are again. How do you, he and the other players get through that – and avoid feeling sorry for yourselves?

We always talk about our standard as a team. It’s not about one individual. Obviously, Ja being out for 25 games, he and I and the other players and [GM Zach Kleiman] have talked about what that’s going to look like. But nothing’s going to change about being prepared. Everyone on the roster, Ja included when his time comes to get back with the group, has got to stay ready. Just like the other 17 guys, whether you’re in the rotation, not in the rotation, dealing with an injury – it’s ‘next-man-up’ mentality.

That’s easier said than done. But if you look at our team the last two years, guys have missed significant amounts of time for various reasons. We talk about the standard that we play at, how we work every single day.

Has it been determined if Ja is permitted to be at the team’s facility for workouts and practices during his suspension?

There are still details being figured out. Our anticipation, our hope is that he can be around the team as much as possible. But there’s more dialogue [with the NBA] to be had.

Can you give us an update on Brandon Clarke, who was such a valuable player off your bench?

BC’s timeline really hasn’t shifted since he had the surgery. He’s progressing well right now, it’s just a long process.

Typically, that injury takes a full year for recovery, doesn’t it?

Yeah, there are positive projections and then the ‘Ooh, let’s be more conservative’ projections. We’re just taking it one phase at a time. Here shortly, there are some follow-up tests where the doctors can see where he’s at energy-wise and strength-wise. And when he can ramp up. But he’s still a ways away.

In January, Steven Adams* strained the posterior cruciate ligament (PCL) in his right knee and was done for the rest of the season and the playoffs. How is he feeling now? 

Steve-o is doing great. From all indications, from what he’s been doing in the offseason, with stability in the legs, strength in the legs and the knee in particular. Hopefully, he should be a full ‘go’ for training camp, though we’ll see over the next [week].

With Morant’s suspension and so many injuries, do you dream at night about having your full roster for 82 games?

It’s just an unfortunate reality of our sport. These unbelievable athletes go out there and compete, and one of the side effects is injuries. As a coach, all you really can focus on is keeping those guys who are dealing with injuries in great spirits, surround them with great staff and teammates who can support them through that process [and] give them every resource possible to get back healthy as soon as possible. But then keep plowing ahead.

Our goals don’t change when someone’s out with an injury. Our standard doesn’t change if someone’s in or out. The usage may change when someone’s out but how we expect to carry ourselves – in practice, in our workouts, in games – that doesn’t change at all.

Is there one area in which you want the Grizzlies to take a big step this season?

We’re going to dive into the X’s and O’s and turn over every rock to figure out ways we can become more efficient on offense and more disciplined defensively. For me, the overarching thing is an appreciation for what it takes to compete and win at the highest level. We’ve had some tastes – in the playoffs the last three years, getting bounced in the first round [twice and] getting to the second round two years ago.

For us, it’s what are you going to work on not just when the postseason rolls around but in the preseason, the regular season every day? What are you doing to make sure you’re as prepared as possible?

Given Morant’s absence, will the In-Season Tournament hold less value or more value to the Grizzlies?  

Our guys love to compete, so it’s another opportunity to have something of meaning and consequence. You fine-tune your skills. Teams all have their different philosophies of building up for the postseason. Now you have something else you can attack earlier in the season and get your championship-winning habits started sooner. Hopefully, our guys are really going to be dialed in.

* * *

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Warner Bros. Discovery.