Whatever happens between now and the end of 2019, this year has already seen the Memphis Grizzlies make two of the boldest moves in franchise history. By trading stalwarts Marc Gasol and Mike Conley, they finally said goodbye to the “Grit ’N Grind” era. Although that particular brand of basketball may not have brought them all-conquering success, the hard-nosed, rugged, defensive style epitomised by players like Tony Allen and Zach Randolph allowed the Grizzlies to compete in a stacked Western Conference for the best part of a decade.
Now, in its wake, the franchise is set to embrace a whole new identity, although what that looks like depends very much on how they recruit over the next couple of years. They made a solid start by taking hot prospect Ja Morant second overall in this year’s draft, but there’s much to be done in Memphis and the work has only just begun.
From the off, last season felt like something of a hangover for the Grizzlies. Conley and Gasol were still on the books, but the depleted roster smacked of that of a team in transition. Despite a decent start, trade rumours swirled around the pair from the tip, as their teammates unsurprisingly struggled to help them make an impact in the Western Conference.
On the flipside, the franchise did succeed in making waves in the media, bemusing followers of the NBA and beyond with the ‘which Brooks is it anyway?’ saga, as well as a hilarious sounding locker room scuffle between Garrett Temple and Omri Casspi, of all people. In yet another PR disaster, the Grizzlies also informed the press that their two star players were on the trading block a couple of weeks before the deadline; a couple of weeks before they only succeeded in trading one of them; a couple of weeks before having to welcome the one they didn’t trade back with open arms and egg on face.
Gasol was the lucky one, sent to Toronto (where he became an NBA champion) in exchange for Jonas Valanciunas, Delon Wright, CJ Miles, and a 2024 second-round pick, while the less fortunate Conley stayed put, forced to see out the remainder of the season with a franchise that no longer wanted him.
Fortunately for the Grizzlies, he was healthy enough to make 70 appearances over the course of the year, recording an impressive 21.1 points per game, sparing them further embarrassment. But running pick-and-rolls with Valanciunas just wasn’t the same and the team eventually slumped to a record of 33-49.
If there was a bright spot, it came in the form of Jaren Jackson Jr. The 19-year-old forward averaged 13.8 points and 4.7 rebounds, while shooting 50 percent from the field and 36 percent from deep. He will most probably be a big part of what the team does going forward and the front office will certainly be hoping that with better players around him, his game will continue to grow.
The summer began with more change, as owner Robert Pera dismissed GM Chris Wallace and head coach J.B. Bickerstaff, before hiring Jason Wexler as the new team president and 30-year-old law grad Zach Kleiman as the new VP of basketball operations. As if that wasn’t radical enough, he also brought in 34-year-old former G-League coach and Mike Budenholzer disciple Taylor Jenkins as coach.
The newbies got off to a good start, drafting Ja Morant second overall in this year’s draft. While the Murray State product isn’t exactly Zion Williamson, he has the makings of a more than adequate replacement for Conley, who was mercifully traded to the Utah Jazz for Grayson Allen, Kyle Korver, Jae Crowder, this year’s No. 23 pick and a future first-round pick.
With a prospective cornerstone in place, the Grizzlies went on to make a number of minor moves that saw them add Brandon Clarke via the draft, Andre Iguodala (and a protected first-round pick) via salary dump from the Golden State Warriors, and Tyus Jones through Free Agency. But one of the biggest moves of their offseason saw them acquire former No. 4 overall pick Josh Jackson in a four-player deal involving the Phoenix Suns – a low-risk gamble that could pay dividends if they can get the best out of him.
And thus the transformation was complete. “Grit ’N Grind” gone, replaced in a heartbeat by youth and potential. And while it’s far too early to gauge how successful the transformation is likely to be in the long run, the franchise deserves credit for embracing a new direction and could even be one of the more exciting young teams to watch this season as a result.
1. Embrace the change
After so many years of being so predictably stable behind Conley and Gasol, the Grizzlies finally have a chance to try something new. No doubt it will be tough at times, but the rebuild got a real shot in the arm this summer as the newly constructed front office went about regenerating the roster. It may take fans a while to adjust, but the new look Grizzlies could be a whole lot of fun.
2. Give the kids a chance
The Grizzlies go into the new campaign with nine players who have two or less years of NBA experience under their belt, while the vast majority of players on the roster were born in the mid to late nineties. That means coach Jenkins will be rolling out a lot of young line-ups this season, which may not be a bad thing. It will give him and the front office a feel for who they want to keep around long term, before they start adding experience next summer.
3. What next for Iguodala?
There’s no doubt that the Grizzlies will trade Iguodala, it’s just a matter of when and to whom. They’ll be looking for young(ish), talented players on affordable contracts, which probably puts teams like the Denver Nuggets, L.A. Clippers, and Dallas Mavericks in the frame. Although any number of contenders, and those with an outside shot, will be eyeing him up at this stage, giving the Grizzlies the edge at the negotiating table.
Ja Morant | 24.5 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 10 apg
Ja Morant may have been overshadowed by ‘once in a lifetime talent’ Zion Williamson in this year’s draft, but make no mistake, he has the potential to be a legit franchise cornerstone. There are areas of his game that need work (three point shooting, defense), but he’s an explosive, athletic scorer who knows how and when to get his teammates involved. If you haven’t checked out a highlight reel yet, I suggest you do so immediately.
Josh Jackson | 11.5 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 2.3 apg
It’s easy to forget that Josh Jackson was taken fourth overall in 2017. His two seasons in Phoenix were unremarkable and his game regressed last year. Still, from a Grizzlies point of view, he was well worth taking a flyer on, especially if he can fix his jumper and improve his offensive repertoire. What they will get from the off is solid defense as standard. Quite where his ceiling lies remains to be seen, but Memphis could well have fun finding out.
Grayson Allen | 5.6 ppg, 0.6 rpg, 0.7 apg
There’s no doubt that Allen’s a flawed character, who has a reputation for being troublesome both in college and in the NBA. But as a throw in on the Conley trade, he got a shot at a fresh start with a franchise known for rebranding players (think Zach Randolph). The former Duke product, who was drafted twenty first overall in 2018, didn’t exactly have a great rookie season in Utah. In 38 appearances, he made a limited impact on the stat sheet, but the Grizzlies have a season to see what they can get out of him. If their gamble pays off, they’ve added another former first round pick to their arsenal. If not, they cut him loose and move on.
Jae Crowder | 11.9 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 1.7 apg
On a team that lacks experience, a player like Jae Crowder is essential. He may not be the most vocal guy in the locker room, but he’s a rugged, hardworking defensive-type that has the ability to lead by example on the court. He spent two superb years at the heart of a dynamic, up-and-coming Celtics team on which he averaged almost 14 points per game. His impact wasn’t quite as impressive in Utah, but he seems like a good fit in Memphis and may even be able to bring a little “Grit ’N Grind” to the class of 19-20.
Andre Iguodala | 5.7 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 3.2 apg
Iguodala is a three-time NBA champion and former Finals MVP who does not belong on a rebuilding team. With training camp just around the corner, his many suitors are already eyeing up a potential bench addition who may be able to put their team over the top. At 35 he can still contribute, but surely will be thinking championship or bust at this late stage of his career. The Grizzlies on the other hand will be looking to profit and should be able to further strengthen their roster by trading him to a contender.