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Are We Sure … the Grizzlies Didn’t Have the Best Offseason?

Memphis didn’t land Kevin Durant or Kawhi Leonard this summer, but it did manage to save the future of the franchise

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The NBA offseason established a bunch of new story lines that require closer inspection. Throughout the next month-plus, we’re giving second thoughts to the most intriguing ones.

Today’s question: Are we sure the Grizzlies didn’t have the best offseason?

The Grizzlies have never drafted first, despite having the third-worst winning percentage in NBA history. But the franchise has landed the no. 2 pick, on average, once every four years since it was introduced in 1995. The first five times, the rights to the second-best prospect in the field seemed more like a curse than a gift:

  • In 1998, the Grizzlies selected Mike Bibby. He went on to have a solid three-season run in Vancouver before the franchise traded him for Jason Williams just before the move to Memphis. Bibby and the Kings made the Western Conference finals the following season.
  • The year after that, they drafted Steve Francis. He refused to play for the team and was traded to Houston two months later.
  • The year after that, they drafted Stromile Swift. He was quite bad.
  • In 2003, the Grizzlies entered the lottery able to keep their pick only if they jumped to no. 1, with the rights to LeBron James awaiting if they did. Memphis made it into the top two, but the envelope for the 2-spot revealed a cartoon aggro bear—sending James to the Cavs and the no. 2 pick to Detroit. The Pistons went on to draft Darko Milicic, so maybe this one was a blessing in disguise.
  • In 2009, the Grizzlies drafted Hasheem Thabeet. He was also quite bad.

A decade later, the Grizzlies again landed the no. 2 pick. But perhaps as a karmic makeup for their series of duds, this year’s ping-pong balls may have saved the franchise’s future.

After a promising start to the 2018-19 season in which the Grizz struck a balance between the best attributes of their recent past and the modern game, the bottom fell out for good on the Grit and Grind era around the new year. Memphis wound up trading Marc Gasol to Toronto, putting Mike Conley on deck, and winning just 33 games. Another spring of cycling through “Who He Play For?” candidates ensured a spot in the lottery, but the Grizzlies finished eighth-worst in a two-, maybe three-player draft, and still owed the Celtics a first-rounder that becomes less protected by the year. It looked like Memphis would come away with just one rotation player to show for two seasons in the gutter.

But everything changed as soon the envelopes started to reveal the chaos the new lottery system had wrought. The Grizzlies again missed out of the transformative prospect at the top of the draft board—Zion Williamson instead went to the Pelicans, who made a giant leap of their own—but unlike in 2003, they landed the no. 2 pick and kept it, procuring the rights to a potential franchise player in the process.

Ja Morant probably won’t win an MVP, and given his struggles shooting the 3-ball in college, he might be a bit too Westbrookian for his own good. But the Murray State point guard instantly gives the Grizzlies something it takes some teams years to figure out: an identity. After nearly a decade of watching Zach Randolph and Gasol maul opponents in the post, Memphis now has one of the most dynamic cornerstone duos in the league in Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr., last year’s no. 4 overall pick. The team that lived in the mud will be flying up and down the court for the foreseeable future:

Morant also gave the Grizzlies an opening to officially turn the page on their past. When the deadline struck without Conley following Gasol out of town, the party line was that the longtime point guard could be a bridge to the future—a grizzled vet to help rear the young Grizzly cubs. But with Morant in the bag, the Grizzlies quickly dropped the facade and cashed in on the final two years of Conley’s max deal, receiving two first-round picks and a recent first-round pick (Grayson Allen) from Utah. The Grizzlies then used one of those picks, this year’s no. 23, to move up two slots to nab Gonzaga’s Brandon Clarke. The Ringer favorite went on to win MVP and lead the Grizz to a title at the Las Vegas summer league and looks like the perfect inside complement for Jackson’s stretchy, switchy game.

But the successes go beyond the layup transactions. Fortune in the NBA favors the meticulous, as the Clippers and Nets proved in the first week of free agency, and after nailing the draft and the Conley trade, Memphis’s reshuffled front office spent the rest of the offseason stacking minor victories in the same way most of the league’s best-run franchises do. They capitalized on the Warriors’ KD-induced panic to wring out a lightly protected 2024 first in exchange for taking on Andre Igudoala, and are now holding Iggy hostage with the hopes of procuring another first for the rights to his championship know-how. They capitalized on the Suns’ money troubles, too, acquiring as many as two seconds, a potential starting guard, and a free look at a talented but troubled recent no. 4 pick for the low, low price of Jevon Carter and Kyle Korver’s partially guaranteed contract. They signed starting center Jonas Valanciunas to a reasonable deal (three years, $45 million), and changed backup point guards, from Delon Wright to Tyus Jones, while picking up two more seconds along the way.

Memphis’s new roster is almost unrecognizable. Just seven players from last season remain. Dwight Howard somehow ended up here. So did the bad contracts of Solomon Hill and the Plumlee who went to Burning Man—the price for exorcising Chandler Parsons. Iguodala and Jae Crowder (acquired in the Conley deal) are awaiting their inevitable trade to a contender. Even the top brass is new—Zachary Kleiman, the Jayson Tatum of the executive ranks at 30 years old, was promoted to executive vice president of basketball ops, and Taylor Jenkins, a 34-year-old Mike Budenholzer protégé, was hired as head coach.

But squint and you’ll see the outline of something significant. Jackson, Clarke, and Valanciunas form a strong young frontcourt rotation, while Morant, Jones, Allen, and De’Anthony Melton could do the same in the backcourt. The contracts of Hill and Lolla-Plum-looza are eyesores now, but they’ll give way to $25 million in space next year. They might as well change Iguodala’s mugshot on the team roster page to the money bag emoji. The Grizzlies’ offseason haul isn’t in the same universe as the Clippers’ or Nets’, or even the Celtics’ or Pacers’. But it does make them relevant. Considering where there were heading into May’s draft lottery, that might be an even more impressive accomplishment.