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Will the Grizzlies’ Feel-Good Season End on a Painful Note?

Ja Morant and Co. have blown away expectations this year, but a string of injuries and a long-term move at the trade deadline has taken the wind out of the team’s sails

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Grizzlies, for the most part, are fine. They have Ja Morant, one of the most exciting and polished rookie playmakers we’ve seen in ages. They have Jaren Jackson Jr., a definitional unicorn who gives Memphis a glittering under-21 inside-out foundation. They also have an excellent infrastructure to surround the young duo, starring gentleman masher Jonas Valanciunas, rising swingman Dillon Brooks, and game-breaking reserves Brandon Clarke and De’Anthony Melton.

They’ve already won more games than they did two seasons ago, and only five fewer than last season’s mark, with 25 still to play. They’ve got a three-game lead on the Trail Blazers for the West’s final playoff spot—a sentence that would’ve seemed unthinkable for this still-ripening rebuild just four months ago. In the grand scheme of things, the Grizzlies’ big picture is what Eleanor and Chidi saw when they woke up in the afterlife: Welcome! Everything is fine.

Over the past three weeks, though? Memphis has kind of been in The Bad Place. (Though, admittedly, with fewer butthole spiders and penis flatteners.) The Grizz are 2-4 since the trade deadline, and riding a three-game losing streak since the All-Star break. They’re coming off an emphatic beatdown at the hands of the Clippers on Monday, an absolute pasting in which Morant and Co. never led for a second and trailed by 20 points less than nine minutes in. Cleaning the Glass, which only includes statistics compiled outside of garbage time, stopped counting what happened 30 seconds into the fourth quarter. And honestly, that seems generous.

Memphis has fielded the NBA’s fourth-worst offense since the trade deadline. But wait, you might ask. Didn’t you have Memphis as one of the winners of the deadline, you dingus? Well, that’s hurtful. But yes, I did! I really liked the Grizzlies finding a way to turn Andre Iguodala, a 36-year-old expiring contract in agreed-upon exile, into Justise Winslow, a versatile 23-year-old locked into a great deal for two more seasons. To find it, though, the Grizzlies sent veteran forwards Jae Crowder and Solomon Hill to Miami—a move that, with Winslow out of the lineup as he continues to nurse a bone bruise in his back, has had a corrosive effect on Memphis’s wing rotation and offensive flow.

It’s true that, with the exception of his final season in Boston in 2016-17, Crowder has never even approached a league-average mark from 3-point range; before the trade, he was shooting just 29.3 percent from beyond the arc and only 36.8 percent overall. He did have that one season, though, and through some combination of reputation and Crowder’s eminent willingness to fire away—he was averaging 5.9 3-point attempts per game in Memphis—defenders still tend to stay near him away from the ball, and close out once he gets it behind the line. (Hill, for his part, was hitting a career-best 38.1 percent of his triples, and trailed only Crowder for the team lead in 3-point attempt rate—the share of a player’s shots that came from long distance.)

That ability to manipulate defenses is helpful. It can decongest the court, providing more room for a precocious point guard to probe, and affording more opportunities for teammates to cut off the ball into the paint. And right now, Memphis is missing it something fierce.

On the whole, the Grizzlies’ point differential was better with Crowder off the floor than on it this season. (This owes in part to how excellent Memphis has been when it goes to second units featuring Clarke, Melton, and backup point guard Tyus Jones.) The starting lineup, though, really benefited from that spacing threat, averaging 115.3 points per 100 possessions when Crowder shared the court with Morant, Jackson Jr., Valanciunas, and Brooks. But when Crowder left at the trade deadline, head coach Taylor Jenkins elevated Kyle Anderson into the starting lineup, replacing one of the team’s most frequent 3-point shooters with one who almost never shoots from outside (he’s attempted just 81 3s in 94 games with the Grizzlies, shooting only 23.5 percent).

Add that downgrade to an exceedingly ill-timed cold snap from Brooks, who’s shooting a ghastly 28.5 percent from the field and 17.1 percent from 3-point land over his past nine games, and it’s suddenly a hell of a lot easier for defenses to pack the paint, take away Morant’s driving lanes, and send doubles on Valanciunas’s post-ups. The early returns have been disastrous: The shuffled-up starting five has been blitzed by 44 points in 54 minutes, scoring a putrid 76.5 points per 100 in that small sample. And that was before Jackson Jr.—Memphis’s most frequent and most accurate 3-point shooter—went down for at least two weeks with a left knee sprain.

Jenkins, as expected, slid rookie big man Clarke into Jackson Jr.’s spot. But this, as Chris Herrington of the Daily Memphian noted, put Memphis’s four least frequent 3-point shooters (Clarke, Anderson, Morant, Valanciunas) into the starting five against a Clippers team that was welcoming back Paul George and Patrick Beverley, and already featured Kawhi Leonard. The general vibe was “Roy Scheider tossing chum in the water.”

Memphis opened the game 1-for-7 with three turnovers in the opening four minutes … at which point Clarke, moving very gingerly, exited the game for good with what the team termed “right-hip soreness.” Things got worse from there, but this snapshot of one of those early-game possessions summed up the state of play for the Grizzlies right now: five Clippers forming an almost perfect circle around Morant as he entered the paint, barely concerned at all with anything—or anyone—else around them.

The Grizzlies announced Tuesday night that Clarke actually suffered a right quadriceps injury that, like Jackson Jr.’s knee sprain, will require at least two weeks on the shelf. Losing him would severely tax the Memphis frontcourt, which is already down Jackson Jr. and just now starting to integrate trade-deadline addition Gorgui Dieng. The former Timberwolf does offer some stretch—Dieng’s a career-best 50-for-129 (38.8 percent) from 3-point land this season—and might be the most sensible replacement for Jackson Jr. alongside Valanciunas in the starting lineup. That pairing feels a bit slow-footed, though, and risks leaving the second unit without stabilizing forces on either end of the court. Then again, if neither Jackson Jr. nor Clarke is available for a bit, and if Winslow’s return isn’t imminent—Herrington reports that “mid-March” has been the general target range—then the Grizzlies might not have much of a choice.

Another thing Jenkins probably should (and will likely have to) take a longer look at: smaller lineups featuring Josh Jackson at either the 3 or even as a small-ball 4.

The no. 4 pick in the 2017 NBA draft decidedly did not make the leap in his sophomore season in Phoenix. He fell behind 2018 draftee Mikal Bridges in the rotation early in the season, and struggled with inconsistent shooting, playmaking, and defense throughout the campaign. He then fell out of favor entirely, thanks to a pair of off-court issues—an arrest at a Miami music festival, followed by accusations that he’d gotten his infant daughter high. The Suns were eager to cut bait on his guaranteed $7 million contract and create the salary cap space to sign veteran point guard Ricky Rubio.

For much of this season, Jackson has essentially been cast as the cost of doing business to land Melton—the high fee the team had to assume to import the player they really wanted. He began the season with Memphis’s G League affiliate, as part of a plan to “allow the forward to restore his reputation.” Save for a one-game suspension, reportedly for missing a team meeting, Jackson apparently toed the line off the floor and produced on it, averaging 20.4 points, 7.5 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 1.6 steals, and 1.5 blocks in 31.2 minutes per game.

When reserve swingman Grayson Allen went down with a hip injury—incidentally, he’d also be useful to have around right now, as a 36.3 percent 3-point shooter—Jackson got a call-up and a shot at the rotation. He’s averaging 20.5 minutes per game over his past nine appearances and has been a rare bright spot in each of Memphis’s past three losses, showing flashes of the two-way talent that made him such a tantalizing prospect coming out of Kansas.

Heavier doses of Jackson won’t solve every problem Memphis faces, but he could offer some of the long-distance brashness that went out the door with Crowder—he’s attempting 5.5 3-pointers per 36 minutes thus far with the Grizzlies—and possibly match or exceed the production. Jackson’s shooting only 27.6 percent from deep with the big club so far, but he knocked down 38.2 percent of his long balls in the G League.

He also brings the kind of versatility that could help Memphis wring more value out of its offense during a period in which it’s probably going to struggle to generate much in the half court. Jackson can run a pick-and-roll, slide up a spot to defend power forwards so that Jenkins can get another wing on the court, and get into passing lanes to force turnovers that create transition opportunities. At his best, he’s a chaos agent and shot of adrenaline, which might be just what the doctor ordered. The sample size is small, but it’s still worth monitoring since Memphis has outscored opponents by 7.6 points per 100 with Jackson on the court.

Relying on “in case of emergency” options isn’t where Memphis would like to be, but Jenkins might have to smash the glass until Jackson Jr. and Winslow get healthy, and until Brooks thaws out. The Grizzlies face the toughest remaining schedule for the rest of the season, while the teams breathing down their necks—the Blazers (26th), Pelicans (29th), and Spurs (25th)—all have friendlier roads. That’s a big reason multiple projection systems (FiveThirtyEight, in both its RAPTOR- and ELO-based forecasts; Basketball-Reference.com; and ESPN’s Basketball Power Index, among others) are fading the Grizz in the race for no. 8. (The other big reason might be Zion Williamson.) If they can’t find a way to generate some buckets, and fast, they’re going to have an awfully tough time holding on to the lead they’ve built, and seeing their surprising postseason push through to the end.

And again: Falling just short of the playoffs wouldn’t be the end of the world for the Grizzlies. Nobody expected anything even remotely close to this; everything they’re doing right now is the cherry on top of what’s been a lovely sundae of a season. Even so: If they don’t get right soon, a late-season meltdown could make a mess of things and leave a bitter taste in a lot of mouths.