Any way you look at it, the Memphis Grizzlies, led by Penn alumnus and coach Taylor Jenkins, are a legitimate threat to win the Western Conference this season.
After a 41-point explosion by Ja Morant to topple the Lakers 104-99, media outlets are having difficulty ignoring a Grizzlies team which is comfortably ahead of the Lakers, the Clippers, the Mavericks, and the Nuggets nearly halfway through the NBA season.
The Grizzlies, still the second youngest team in the NBA, are 23-14 and firmly in fourth place in the Western Conference. Despite this, the Grizzlies are still being overlooked as a legitimate contender to win the conference title.
In the franchise’s relatively short 26-year lifespan, Memphis has only made the Conference Finals once, in 2012-13, in which the team was promptly swept by the Spurs. It’s safe to say that in its existence, the Grizzlies are familiar with being overlooked, rarely making national headlines.
Hardcore NBA fans will recall the Grizzlies as a little blip on the radar last season, managing to knock off the Spurs and then Stephen Curry’s Warriors to secure the No. 8 seed in the West. Only to get easily eliminated, 4-1, by the No. 1-seeded Utah Jazz.
You might even have some vague memory of Grizzlies’ Morant establishing himself as a piece of the NBA’s future, hitting daggers in the first-ever play-in tournament. Across his first two seasons, Morant quickly ascended from Rookie of the Year to become the undisputed face of his franchise — hopefully for years to come.
This certainly isn’t the neat little story that all talented NBA rookies have. Just look at the Pelicans’ Zion Williamson, who is likely going to sign with another franchise this upcoming season. The NBA is a business, and it’s fortunate for the Grizzlies that their star player looks extremely committed to winning a title in Memphis.
Entering this season, the Grizzlies were once again criminally underrated, earning preseason rankings like 16th by ESPN and The Ringer. Really? The Grizzlies were expected to be in the bottom half of the league?
It isn’t just hindsight bias that makes me wonder what people were thinking, given that Zach Lowe, an ESPN writer himself, basically predicted that the Grizzlies would improve dramatically this season.
Morant rightfully gets the majority of the team’s media coverage, and this leaves even dedicated NBA fans — who might never go out of their way to watch a Grizzlies game — to wonder who is instrumental to this team’s success behind the curtains.
The Grizzlies answered this question themselves in the 12 games that Morant missed with a knee sprain. The team did not just meet expectations, but posted a 10-2 record in that stretch and turned the NBA’s least efficient defense into the a highly ranked defense in that 12-game stretch.
Memphis currently has the most fastbreak points per game in the league, which is mostly an indicator toward the team’s effective defense. It’s no surprise that the Grizzlies also lead the league in steals per game by a decent margin.
These stats point to both the culture and the depth in Memphis. With the COVID-19 pandemic basically causing starting lineups to be randomized before each game, the deeper and more well-rounded teams are thriving.
Moreover, it is clear that Jenkins has gotten his team to buy into his schemes, particularly on the defensive end. Is it too corny to call their style “Grit and Grind”? Regardless, the team displays its hunger and passion every night, leading the league in offensive rebounds per game, which is quite often a contest of effort.
The team’s performance, especially defensively, even raised questions about Morant’s place within the team, given that he remains a defensive liability (an issue that will haunt the team more so in the playoffs). Let’s be clear: That’s ludicrous.
However, critics raise valid concerns about his defense, which will become pivotal in the playoff series. I argue that Morant is not expected to be anything more than an average defender, and guys like Dillon Brooks and De’Anthony Melton are capable defenders who can pick up the slack.
On offense, second-year guard Desmond Bane is a legitimate candidate for the Most Improved Player. Described by teammates as a professional scorer on the court, Bane constantly seeks to improve his game off the court as well, asking questions, watching film, or hitting the gym.
Bane’s hard work shows, as he is among the league’s leading shooters in volume and efficiency. This season, he is shooting 41% from deep, which is the second highest in the league for players attempting over 6.5 attempts per game.
Bane has become a fearless shooter and a fierce driver to the rim; both of which are helping Bane nearly double his points per game from his rookie season. Morant is already a superstar in the NBA, and together with Bane, the duo make up a scary backcourt set to dominate the league.
In an impressive road win against the Suns, Morant and Bane as the backcourt scored 65 combined points, the most in franchise history. Morant also hit a game-winner with 0.5 seconds remaining while Bane posted career highs in points scored and three-pointers made.
Moreover, there is a long list of players who have matured their game to fit perfectly into the Grizzlies' game plan. There’s the efficient, backup point guard Tyus Jones, who boasts the league’s best assist/turnover ratio.
Or there’s the defensive specialist Brooks, whose effort, discipline, and conditioning is on full display every time he plays. While in the NBA, good offense beats good defense, Brooks certainly disrupts the rhythm of top offensive guards like Curry or Damian Lillard.
Other smaller roles are effectively filled by centers/forwards Xavier Tillman and Brandon Clarke and guard Melton, who reminds me of a better defending, poor man’s De’Aaron Fox.
Lastly, just as the Grizzlies expected and hoped for, Jaren Jackson Jr. has taken major strides in his isolation scoring, his defensive IQ, and his three-point shooting. In addition, his defensive presence in the paint is obvious from the eye test.
JJJ often acts as the defensive anchor for the Grizzlies, allowing pesky defenders like Kyle Anderson, Jones, Brooks, Melton, Morant, and others to gamble for steals knowing that JJJ is protecting the rim as a help defender.
The long-term dream for the Grizzlies has turned into the present, as the team has a legitimate chance to win the West this season. Continuing its strong play in the regular season will be necessary to secure home-court advantage and a weak first-round opponent.
Expect the Grizzlies to be active in free agency this season and next offseason as well. The Grizzlies are currently set to have around $25 million in cap space in the offseason, fifth in the league.
Moreover, Memphis in all likelihood will acquire three first-round picks in the 2022 NBA Draft. The front office may look to pair Anderson’s expiring contract with one or two of these picks to strengthen the front court with another versatile and lengthy wing defender, or try to land an upgrade at center.
Don't be surprised when you see the Grizzlies as a high seed in this postseason, and don't be surprised if this young team overachieves and captures the West in the next couple years.
NICHOLAS BELGRAD is a College junior from Los Angeles studying philosophy. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.