News Trending Viral Worldwide

Are Ja Morant And The Grizzlies Ready To Take On The West?

Ja Morant told the world last week that he wasn’t worried about any team in the Western Conference, signaling his belief that his Memphis Grizzlies are ready to chase a title. His performance this season mostly backs that up: 27.1 points per game and career highs in rebounds and assists. As of this writing, Memphis is 21-13, third in the West standings and second in net rating among West teams.

There is, however, a question that needs to be answered: Are the Grizzlies on track to rise above the squads on the other side of the Mississippi and make good on Morant’s fighting words?

Since Morant’s viral quote, the Grizzlies have losses to Golden State and Phoenix despite being at full health. That’s not to mention a double-digit L in Denver on national TV just before Morant gave his interview. The only game during that stretch in which he didn’t put up at least 34 points came on Thursday, when he had a career-high 17 assists to go along with 19 points against Toronto.

These aren’t outlier performances: Morant’s usage and assist rates this year would be, by far, career highs. We don’t know yet what type of player Morant will be at his peak, but considering the ways in which he can control games when he’s feeling his jumper and manipulating passing angles, his destiny seems more evolutionary Jason Kidd than Russell Westbrook. That means he needs to find the right supporting cast, like Kidd did in Phoenix and New Jersey. This season, despite a slight dip in efficiency (especially at the rim), he is backing up his bravado with incredible production.

As for the supporting cast, Memphis’ front office has chosen to be patient in the early part of Morant’s career, surrounding him with versatile, raw prospects to play Morant’s preferred physical, up-tempo style. They’ve gotten great value on those mid-to-late first round picks, from Brandon Clarke at No. 21, to Desmond Bane at No. 30, to Ziaire Williams at No. 11, to this year’s intriguing tandem of Jake LaRavia and David Roddy. The downside to this kind of slow build is it leaves them in a position in which nobody in their rotation is older than 30 — the exception is Danny Green, who is hurt — and most of the bench is made up of players on their first NBA contract.

Of course, this team-building strategy also gives the Grizzlies a higher ceiling. Before missing a month with a toe injury, Bane was playing out of his mind, averaging 24.6 points per game on 46 percent shooting from the field and 45 percent from deep to go along with 4.8 assists. Jaren Jackson Jr. has reached an even higher ceiling as a defender in 2022, ranking first overall in Defensive Effective Plus-Minus and gobbling up nearly six (!) combined steals and blocks per 36 minutes. The Grizzlies’ defense is 9.2 points better per 100 possessions when Jackson is on the floor, according to Cleaning the Glass, and lineups with both Jackson and center Steven Adams allow just 100.7 points per 100 possessions, nearly 10 points better than the top defensive rating in the NBA. If Bane and Jackson can stay healthy (and in Jackson’s case, avoid foul trouble), they are the perfect co-stars — on both ends of the floor — to help lead the Grizzlies where Morant wants to go.

But even in a world where he is healthy for a full postseason run again, Jackson is still developing on the offensive end. The tools are all there, he’s just 23, and he’s having one of the most efficient offensive seasons of his young career. Having said that, Jackson’s high-level scoring touch and ball skills (for a 7-footer) aren’t a huge difference-maker for Memphis yet. Most of the time, his scoring chances come via spot-up threes, attacking closeouts, or quick post-ups against mismatches. More than half — 57.4 percent — of his field goal attempts come without dibbling first, per He’s a solid offensive player who is still dependent on other players to help him score.

More likely this season is that Bane, who will be 25 come playoff time, rises to meet Morant as a championship-level second option. There are few players in the NBA whose development means more than the dead-eye shooter. Bane is getting to the rim more this season and has more than doubled his free-throw rate from last season. He’s also taking 3.9 pull-up threes per game compared to just three last season. These are signals that he is ready to be more of a shot creator for Memphis as opposed to someone who feeds off the gravity Morant creates.

Add in Bane’s very good defensive chops and he is the perfect backcourt mate for Morant, particularly when the postseason runs around and the ability to win games on both ends of the floor becomes all the more important. Lineups featuring both Morant and Bane are outscoring opponents by 17.9 points per 100 possessions, per Cleaning the Glass. If Bane is ready to go toe-to-toe with other elite second bananas like Jamal Murray, Paul George, and Brandon Ingram, the Grizzlies can win multiple playoff rounds without much change.

If there’s one thing Morant’s comments illustrated, it’s that the West truly is wide open. There’s nobody he needed to make an exception for because there’s no obvious favorite. That makes it all the more intriguing to imagine what could be if the Memphis front office shifts into attack mode.

Assuming the Grizzlies get the best out of Morant, Bane, Jackson, and Adams come playoff time, it’s tough to find a fifth player to complete their closing lineup. Dillon Brooks is a dogged defender and never lacks confidence, which is why he’s earned the starting spot as of today. While he is foul-prone and streaky on his worst days, Brooks has come in with better shot selection this season playing the most minutes of his career.

But Memphis can improve upon that spot in the lineup in the short-term, and in the long-term, Brooks will be a free agent in 2023. If Memphis could rely on Williams, who turned 21 in September, to be the player he was after last season’s All-Star break, he’d be a logical option, but he’s 3-for-26 from deep this year and has a sky-high turnover rate. Green is a cagey veteran, but he’s recovering from a torn ACL, so it would be hard to project him being a crunch time player in four months. LaRavia and Roddy are probably too young. John Konchar is solid too, but elite opposing scorers can beat him off the bounce.

Could Memphis, which is flush with young players, draft capital, and contracts they can use to make these sorts of deals feasible, become a logical buyer as the trade deadline nears? They were a fashionable choice to pursue Kevin Durant, even if that seemed to be more of a plausible landing spot based on what Durant wanted than a thing that ever had legs. Local Grizzlies host Chris Vernon has been vocal about wanting OG Anunoby on the team, but Toronto rarely trades its homegrown talent away and Anunoby’s apparent desire to have a bigger role might not mesh with being on the same roster as Morant and Bane. And for all the things they possess in their war chest of players and picks, other teams could outbid them for Durant, Anunoby, and other big-name trade targets, unless they put a player like Bane or Jackson on the table, which runs the risk of upending what is being built.

Still, Memphis is in a position to do something if they so choose. Could they stack the salaries of Green or Brooks plus someone like Clarke, along with some combination of picks, for Kyle Kuzma? Maybe they deal Brooks/Green, a less-heralded youngster like Xavier Tillman, and a pick for Detroit’s Bojan Bogdanovic? Neither is a perfect fit, but it would at least give Memphis a more reliable rotation option for the biggest moments of the season.

In a bad recent home loss to Phoenix (without Devin Booker), the Grizzlies scored just 83.5 points per 100 possessions in the halfcourt, a mark far worse than Houston’s league-worst scoring rate. Memphis is 25th in halfcourt offense overall. At the very least, Kuzma or Bogdanovic would perk up the offense when it struggles in slower-paced moments. That might be all they need to match the Nuggets, Warriors, and other top West teams who’ve bested them lately.

Morant is ready for those moments. He’s out here telling us as much. The Grizzlies are getting there, too. Core players can use the rest of the season to build on strong starts, and if healthy, the team can finally gel after years of injuries. But perhaps most importantly, Memphis’ front office could absorb Morant’s signal and act aggressively, catapulting them from up-and-comers with a shot to the favorites to make it out of the West.