Grizzlies Returning to Grit-and-Grind Roots in Ja Morant Era

Perhaps no team in the league wreaks more havoc on the defensive end than the Grizzlies.
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Taylor Jenkins knows growth in the NBA isn’t exactly linear. Memphis’s head coach guides his team with a palpable patience in year two of the Ja Morant era, understanding that the path back to the postseason will come with plenty of roadblocks along the way. The Grizzlies ripped off seven straight wins to close January. They lost five of six shortly thereafter. Morant & Co. now enter Monday night at an even 13–13, teetering on the edge of the Western Conference playoff race. Catch Memphis on the right night and you see the outline of a future playoff stalwart. If only that could be replicated throughout 2020–21.

“We know we can hit our stride, especially offensively,” Jenkins says. “We’re shooting with more confidence, finding a real rhythm. ... But the biggest thing is embracing the urgency, the effort that’s needed. The execution, the attention to detail night in and night out. It’s our habits that determine how we perform.”

You can feel Memphis's habits growing in real time in 2020–21. And the process is often a painful one. Not every night can be a breakout effort for Morant. The outline of a dominant defense is present, yet it's rarely fully realized. The Grizzlies defeated Brooklyn in December and Philadelphia in January. They gave the Lakers a scare just over a week ago. Memphis also allowed 144 points against New Orleans last week. They were blitzed by the Suns on Saturday. This is a perfectly normal pattern for a young group. But such inconsistency can sink a team in the crowded Western Conference. 

It’s been a slow build in Memphis in recent seasons. A seven-year playoff streak ended in 2017–18 with a disastrous 60-loss campaign. Morant arrived as the No. 2 pick the next year, bringing Memphis closer to respectability with a 33–49 record. Memphis flirted with a winning record last season, falling just short of the postseason after a narrow loss to the Blazers in the play-in game. As the West remains a gauntlet, we could very well see the Grizzlies land in a similar spot this spring.

The last decade featured a historic era of Grizzlies basketball. A franchise mocked for years as a perennial bottom feeder established itself as a Western Conference power from 2010 to ’17, battering and bruising opponents in the famed Grit-and-Grind era. Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol bullied opponents in the post. Tony Allen locked down opposing wings. Mike Conley served as an efficient floor general, growing from a game manager to a borderline star. Watch this year’s Memphis team, and the similarities are clear. This isn’t just the nostalgia talking. The next great era of Grizzlies basketball could mirror the last.

The metrics in Memphis don’t exactly paint a picture of beautiful basketball. The Grizzlies enter Friday at No. 18 in offensive rating and No. 19 in net rating. They sit in the bottom third of the league in three-point rate and true shooting percentage, and only the Suns and Timberwolves sport a lower free-throw rate. So what’s kept the Grizzlies afloat thus far? It seems as though they’re taking the term “win ugly” pretty seriously.

Perhaps no team in the league wreaks more havoc on the defensive end than the Grizzlies. Memphis leads the league in deflections per game, ranking in the top-five in fast-break points and points off turnovers. The personnel on hand for Jenkins suggests this level of disruption is sustainable. Kyle Anderson is an All-NBA level defender on the wing. De’Anthony Melton (when healthy) provides plenty of length and athleticism in the backcourt alongside Morant. Rookies Xavier Tillman and Desmond Bane have looked anything but overmatched, with Tillman in particular serving a versatile frontcourt complement to lumbering center Jonas Valančiūnas. Memphis is the youngest team in the league, but its defensive prowess often belies its youth. The Grizzlies are an imperfect group, but their defensive commitment and cohesion is a testament to Jenkins and his staff.

“Coach is always stressing the nuances of the game,” Bane says. “Knowing our coverages, our defensive principles. There’s an adjustment to getting comfortable but we’re not asked to do anything we can’t do.”

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The Grizzlies could very well slide into a final playoff spot this year. To jump to contender status, they’ll need a leap from Morant. Such a proposition is in no way out of the question. Morant’s immense talent has been evident from his first weeks in the league as he sported an otherworldly burst and a vision rarely seen from young point guards. Yet there’s a refinement to Morant’s game necessary for him to approach All-NBA status.

Morant is shooting just 25% from three this season and 31.6% on all spot-up attempts. He’s averaging just 0.87 points per pick-and-roll possession, and the numbers for Morant are ugly on the defensive side of pick-and-roll situations. Opponents are comfortably sagging off Morant on the offensive end. He too often finds himself struggling to work through screens as a defender. Memphis’s growth as a team has featured a usual slate of setbacks this season. Morant hasn’t been immune.

We shouldn’t exactly hit the panic button regarding Morant by any stretch. He sports the sixth-best assist percentage of any player in the league, adding a free-throw rate that nears Luka Doncic. Morant gets to the rim at a healthy clip. His jumper should naturally tick up throughout the regular season with greater volume, and he shoots the ball with legitimate confidence. Morant’s struggles thus far are more likely growing pains than symptoms of a long-term problem.

Jenkins and the Grizzlies express their faith in Morant ad nauseam. The adulation isn’t necessarily related to his physical gifts. Morant joined Memphis as a natural leader, with a maturity beyond his years molded by two years at Murray State. Morant isn’t necessarily the most vocal presence. He’s rarely critical. But he earned respect through exhaustive work, and perhaps more importantly, support and empowerment of teammates throughout the roster. Will Morant ever be a dominant three-point shooter? Is an All-Defense selection in his future? Perhaps not. But his talent is immense, and his mentality is that of a true leading man. Jenkins can certainly work with that, even if Morant’s game still needs improvement on the edges.

“I think Ja has done a phenomenal job in terms of leadership ever since he’s been here,” Jenkins says. “This year he’s more vocal. He can see the game at a high level already and he can communicate that with his teammates and his coaches as well. ... In games, in our practice sessions, he’s taking it to another level.”

Memphis may ultimately fall short of the postseason this year, marking somewhat of a disappointment in Morant’s second season. But we shouldn’t miss the forest for the trees here. Morant is without his primary pick-and-roll mate as Jaren Jackson Jr. recovers from knee surgery. Young forward Brandon Clarke is still finding his role in Memphis’s offense. This is a young core that can grow together throughout the 2020s, navigating the various pitfalls that strike young teams on the rise. 

Will Memphis ever break through to the Finals with Morant? There’s little guarantee on that front. But the Grizzlies are primed for sustained success with the Morant and Jenkins leading the way. Conley and Gasol’s departures marked the end of an era two years ago. We could very well see their success replicated in the coming seasons.