The NBA All-Star Weekend typically marks the halfway point in the professional basketball season, coming as a welcomed break to the draining 82-game season. Though this year’s mid-season All-Star Game will arrive a bit early amid controversy, the Memphis Grizzlies, coached by Penn alumnus Taylor Jenkins, will rejoice at the opportunity to regroup before a loaded back half of the season.
With just a few games remaining before the All-Star Game, the Grizzlies are a game under .500. They sit at 10th place overall in the Western Conference, contending with other middle-of-the-pack teams vying for a coveted playoff spot.
At the surface, Memphis seems unexceptional. The Grizzlies are a smidge below average with their record of 13-14. However, the team’s record and their standing in their conference do not paint the full picture. As always, more context is needed.
To begin with the basics, the Western Conference is notably stacked. It requires a seasoned team to be in the hunt for a playoff spot, some of whom could pose a serious threat with the right matchup.
The Grizzlies should also not fret about their record or position in the standings. For one, the team has dealt with a fractured first half of the season.
Due to COVID-19 tracing and positive tests, the Grizzlies have had six games postponed, five of which were in a row. These games were rescheduled for the second half of the season, when the Grizzlies will be set for 41 games in two months.
These interruptions especially matter for a young and gelling team like Memphis. The team is exceptionally young; only one player is above the age of 30. Moreover, much of the group is returning from last season, leaving the possibility for a ‘one-year leap’ as players on the team become fully accustomed to one another.
Case in point, the Utah Jazz, who returned a historic percentage of its team this year. This example is particularly relevant to Memphis, who share a common team composition and gameplay with the Jazz.
For instance, both teams rely upon a steady defensive presence coupled with frequent three-point shooting, pick-and-rolls between guards and finishing centers, and ball movement. Another similarity is each team’s respective star guard: Memphis’s Ja Morant and Utah’s Donovan Mitchell.
Morant, a budding young star in the NBA, missed eight games due to a sprained left ankle and is likely still ailing from the lingering effects. Despite this setback, the guard is averaging about 19 points and eight assists per game, numbers that some believe merited an All-Star Game selection.
Morant’s supposed sidekick, Jaren Jackson Jr., has not been able to make it onto the court yet this season, being plagued by injuries. However, the tandem will have plenty of opportunity to sharpen their on-court chemistry and carve out a large portion of the Grizzlies offense when Jackson Jr. returns shortly.
The Grizzlies’s youth also shines on their coaching staff, as head coach Taylor Jenkins is the second youngest active coach in the NBA (following the Timberwolves firing Ryan Saunders recently). Jenkins is also the only NBA coach to never have played college basketball. He graduated from Wharton in 2007.
During his undergraduate time at Penn, Jenkins’s main connection to basketball was running a youth league in West Philadelphia. That was until Jenkins managed to intern in the Spurs’ front office.
Seemingly impressing the team’s management, Jenkins was invited back after graduating and assigned to a coaching role for the Spurs’ D-League team. After excelling yet again, Jenkins traveled around the league for a decade as an assistant coach in Atlanta and Milwaukee.
Jenkins’ hard work was clearly rewarded, as he was hired as the Grizzlies’s head coach in 2019, his first time in the top coaching role.
The Grizzlies are full of complementary pieces. Though Morant shines out as the team’s athletic dunk machine, the team relies on various contributors in the backcourt such as guards Tyus Jones and Grayson Allen. Moreover, Xavier Tillman, Dillon Brooks, and Kyle Anderson are a solid trio of wings, capable of fulfilling the sought after 3-and-D prototype.
At the center of the team is the Lithuanian Jonas Valanciunas, who is back to posting stellar numbers after getting COVID-19 and missing four games. The big man is averaging 16 points and 11.2 rebounds per game on the 15th best field goal percentage in the league.
Memphis is extremely well-rounded with few major weaknesses at any position. Of course, upgrades are possible for them, but the team currently presents a balance and collaborative offensive attack, ranking third in team assists per game.
For all their passing, however, the team needs to improve their three-point shooting, as they rank 22nd in team three-point percentage. Specifically, Morant needs to improve upon his abysmal mark of 22% from three-point land.
In the immediate future, the Grizzlies will hope to gain some momentum heading into the All-Star break. They face the Clippers in back-to-back games, and in order to rise above the .500 norm for the rest of the season, the Grizzlies need to steal games from better teams.