With just three wins in their past 13 games and after a fight broke out in their locker room, the Memphis Grizzlies found themselves at something of a crossroads. They could embrace a future built around breakout rookie Jaren Jackson Jr. and bottom out for a second straight season to keep their first-round pick out of the hands of the Boston Celtics. Or they could double down and go all in for a playoff spot, as owner Robert Pera forecasted this past summer. On Thursday, the Grizzlies seemed to make their choice, for better or for worse.
Three weeks after the three-way trade that would’ve sent Kelly Oubre Jr. to Memphis fell apart, the Grizzlies used their wealth of Brookses to trade for a different small forward, Chicago’s Justin Holiday. (Hopefully they realize which Holiday it is they’re getting.) In exchange for the Bulls’ Holiday, Memphis sent the Bulls MarShon Brooks, Wayne Selden, and a second-round pick in 2019 and 2020.
Holiday, 29, won’t have a Jimmy Butler effect on the Grizz’s trajectory, but he may already be their most well-rounded option on the wing. He’s not a great shooter (36 percent from 3 this season), but he’s an upgrade for a team currently in the bottom five of 3-pointers attempted as it tries to strike a balance between Grit and Grind and a more modern approach. He’s not as skilled a passer as Kyle Anderson, but he’s a willing ball-mover. He’s not necessarily a stopper, but he’s another very good defender for an already very good defense. Holiday doesn’t have the same long-term value as the 23-year-old Oubre, given his age and expiring contract (though Memphis would have his Bird rights), but the Grizzlies’ focus appears to be the present, and he certainly helps now. The question is whether that’s such a wise approach in a conference where every team seemingly has the same idea.
Memphis is 18-19 and in 10th place in the West, but with the standings historically tight, it is only 2.5 games back from playoff eligibility. Every team (except for the Suns) is “going for it”; as a result, fewer than six games stand between eighth and 14th place. New Orleans, at 17-22, is currently in 14th, and despite its suddenly dire situation, it has no plans to take a step back as long as it employs Anthony Davis. Given that, there would seem to be an advantage to zagging toward tanking—you’d become one of the few sellers in a buyer’s market and be able to reap the draft benefits, which is especially important for a franchise with a first-round debt still owed to Danny Ainge.
But the Grizzlies are resolute, maybe because they have to be. Marc Gasol is 33 years old and able to opt out of his contract this summer. Mike Conley is 31 and making max money for at least one season after this one. They signed Anderson, another win-now player, for the midlevel this past offseason. And they still have another year of Chandler Parsons’s toxic contract on the books after this one. More than anything, the Grizzlies appear to be seeing through the blueprint they laid out three years ago, when luring Parsons, then a top free agent, to their small market was seen as a windfall.
The good news for Parsons is that he’s healthy—at least according to him. The bad news is he’s played in only three games this season, and recently told the Memphis Commercial Appeal that he’s not sure why. “The most confusing part for me is I’m healthy,” Parsons said. “I’m medically cleared by the people I work with every single day, that are experts at this kind of stuff, so it’s frustrating to watch a team struggle and I’m sitting there on the bench healthy, dying to play. [...] No communication. No nothing. I don’t think it’s from a basketball standpoint. It’s definitely not from a health standpoint.”
Memphis signing Anderson away from San Antonio this past summer effectively ended the Parsons era, but the Grizzlies’ problems on the wing are far from solved. Last Wednesday, after a loss in Detroit, a heated discussion between Garrett Temple and Omri Casspi got physical, according to The Athletic. Temple dismissed the incident with his former Kings teammate as “brothers getting into it.” The fight coming from two veterans and the fight leaking to the media at all is a bad sign for their chemistry. “It’s disappointing. [...] Would obviously prefer that didn’t get out as quickly as it did,” coach J.B. Bickerstaff said the next day.
There have been plenty of bright spots in Memphis, clearly, or the Grizzlies wouldn’t be 10th in a competitive conference. Jackson has been the most thrilling non-Slovenian rookie, and Gasol looked re-energized to start the season. Grit and Grind was back less than two months ago. After a few rough weeks, the Grizzlies seem intent on keeping it alive for as long as they can.