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Are the Memphis Grizzlies going to take a step forward or a step back?

The title window for the Grizzlies may slide shut unless they make a splash trade

Memphis Grizzlies v Dallas Mavericks Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

As this is a Dallas Mavericks site, we mainly stick to covering the Mavericks. But since it’s the pre-season, we wanted to cover what we think about some of the other contending or playoff teams in the league. Now, we have the Memphis Grizzlies.

Without question, the 2022-2023 Memphis Grizzlies are worse than last year’s team, at least to start the season. Even their staunchest supporters can admit that. Kyle Anderson and De’Anthony Melton are gone. Both players were important rotation players that allowed them to weather the storm during Ja Morant’s extended absence. Kyle Anderson, in particular, was integral to their versatility on both ends of the floor. It appears the Grizzlies are taking a long-term approach to their cap sheet but it’s coming at the expense of this year’s team. Rookies, regardless of their talent level, rarely contribute in their first year. It’s possible one of Jake LaRavia, Kenny Lofton Jr., David Roddy, or Kennedy Chandler helps them win games but it’s unlikely. Then, there’s Jaren Jackson Jr.’s injury. It is challenging to find areas in which this team has improved, past seasoning for their remaining players.

The Grizzlies won an absurd amount of games in which Ja Morant was out. They were extremely deep and were able to outlast teams in a season defined in part by Covid-related absences. In addition, the Grizzlies actually cared about the regular season. The young and brash Memphis team was determined to stake their claim amongst the best teams in the Western Conference. They were cocky and didn't care what you or any of the other teams in the league thought about them. They were determined to kick your butt on a random tuesday and trash talk you while doing it. The Grizzlies brought a level of intensity on a night-to-night basis that few teams could match. Most teams were happy to call it quits after going down 20 early in the game. Not Memphis. Their ability to fight back is part of the reason the city of Memphis has rallied around the team in the way it has.

Memphis’s depth and ability to outlast opponents will be tested this season. They are markedly worse without Jaren Jackson Jr. and how long he’s out may define their season. Ja Morant is Memphis’s best player but JJJ is their most important. He is the key to their defensive identity with his shot blocking and ability to defend guards on the perimeter. Offensively, Jackson at the five gives Memphis the best chance of creating space for Ja Morant. With Steven Adams or Brandon Clarke at center, teams are happy to go under on pick and rolls and dare Morant to beat them from three. There are nights he can get hot but it’s not a sustainable model for success just yet. Morant is a superstar and Desmond Bane has been a revelation but they alone cannot carry the offensive burden for a team lacking perimeter threats.

Dillon Brooks will play a huge volume of minutes this season and, for Memphis, that is far from a good thing. His questionable decision-making and shot selection will hurt them. He is a role player that will be handed a star’s usage rate. That is a recipe for disaster. They also won't be catching anyone by surprise this season. In fact, I’d imagine some teams have their matchup against the Grizzlies circled on the calendar. Memphis is going to get most teams’ best effort on a nightly basis and simply giving a damn won't be enough to earn them victories.

Defensively, it goes without saying how much the team will miss Jackson. He was arguably the Defensive Player of the Year. The group of Steven Adams, Xavier Tillman, and Brandon Clarke can’t possibly replicate what he does on that end of the floor. Without Jackson, expect teams to put Morant into an infinite number of pick and rolls with little resistance on the back line. Memphis may well fall out of the top ten in defense early in the season.

When Jackson comes back the Grizzlies will certainly be improve but it still feels like Memphis is a difference maker away from being a threat in the playoffs. Even if Zhaire Williams develops into the 3-and-D wing Memphis envisioned when they drafted him, he isn’t dynamic enough yet on the ball to significantly raise their ceiling. This team, more than any other playoff team, is in dire need of a trade.

They’ve received plenty of praise for their patient approach to team building but it’s time for Memphis to trade for a star. Jackson is best served as your third-best player. Bane is really, really good but is he a star? His development thus far has been impressive and exceeded all expectations but you have to wonder if he’s near his peak as a player.

If I’m wrong and he can take another leap forward, everything in this article could be rendered useless. If I’m right, however, one has to wonder if their championship window closed before it truly ever opened. Progress is not always linear and championship windows in the NBA shut quickly, sometimes without notice. Patience and shrewd team building have gotten them this far, but it’s time they ignore reason and swing for the fences. As this team ages and players start getting paid their market value, it's going to get harder and harder for Memphis to add the type of blue-chip talent it needs to get over the hump.