Nobody would’ve batted an eye if the Grizzlies had fallen apart. Memphis was 0-2 and struggling to score when Ja Morant started limping in Brooklyn with an ankle injury that sidelined the reigning Rookie of the Year for weeks. Without Morant to ignite the offense, and without rising frontcourt star Jaren Jackson Jr. and expected starter Justise Winslow as they rehabilitated injuries of their own, it seemed eminently reasonable to wonder whether the Grizz—whose rocket-ship rise from rebuilding to fringe playoff team was one of last season’s most pleasant surprises—might not be able to stay afloat in a brutally competitive Western Conference.
Morant missed three weeks. Jackson and Winslow still haven’t played this season. The team had three consecutive games postponed due to COVID-19 contact tracing; starting center Jonas Valanciunas and reserve guard Grayson Allen remain in the league’s health and safety protocols and have missed Memphis’s first three games back. It hasn’t mattered much, though. The Grizzlies, for the most part, are the ones who haven’t batted an eye; as it turns out, they have more than enough to compete—and they’re doing a lot more than just staying afloat.
Despite a double-digit loss to Indiana on Tuesday, the Grizzlies sit at 9-7, the sixth-best record in the West. They’ve won seven of eight to vault into the middle of the Western playoff picture, jockeying for position amid a slew of contenders, in large part because one of the league’s youngest teams is also one of its deepest, top to bottom.
While the Grit and Grind–era teams of Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol, Mike Conley, and Tony Allen bludgeoned and battered opponents, modern Memphis blitzes and blasts. It’s more explosive, more frenetic—stylistically different, but still exceptionally fun to watch. But even that descriptor damns with faint praise. These Grizzlies are legitimate postseason hopefuls—just shy of a coin flip now, according to FiveThirtyEight’s projections—and a shining example of a simple but powerful truism: You can be pretty damn good when you don’t play any bad players … even if your roster has players a lot of NBA fans might not know too well.
That might seem like a bold claim, but there really isn’t a single player on Memphis’s roster who doesn’t help in some way. No member of the Grizzlies is averaging 30 minutes per game this season, but 12 are averaging at least 15; head coach Taylor Jenkins isn’t afraid to go deep into his bench, because everyone can play.
Most importantly: Just about everybody can defend. Morant is a transcendent talent, an athletic marvel with tremendous playmaking fingertips at such a young age; he’s working his way back into form, but he’s still averaging a tidy 15.2 points and eight assists in 28.5 minutes per game since his return. And while the Grizzlies score at a near-top-five rate with Ja at the controls, their defense has been their calling card all season long: Memphis ranks fourth in the league in points allowed per possession, according to Cleaning the Glass.
Jenkins, who cut his teeth on Mike Budenholzer’s coaching staffs, has carried aspects of Milwaukee’s defensive philosophy to Memphis. The Grizzlies force a ton of midrange looks and sell out to shut off short-corner 3s; only 7.1 percent of opponents’ shots against Memphis come from the corners, the fifth-lowest share in the league. They rank in the middle of the pack in limiting attempts at the rim, and they’re no. 2 when it comes to turning those bunnies into blown layups: Opponents are shooting just 58.3 percent against the Grizz at the cup, with veteran Valanciunas and rookie Xavier Tillman Sr. both providing a stern deterrent in the paint.
Where the Grizzlies really shine, though, is in putting pressure on the ball. Morant (6-foot-3 with a 6-foot-7 wingspan), Tyus Jones (6-foot with a 6-foot-5 wingspan), and De’Anthony Melton (6-foot-2 with a 6-foot-8 wingspan) all have great length at the point of attack and they use it, constantly getting their hands in passing lanes and digging down to spring timely traps on opposing big men.
Most of Memphis’s wings are built like defensive ends; even the smallest Grizzlies wing, former Duke star Allen, is listed at 6-foot-4 and 200 pounds and has active hands and shit-stirring instincts. (Dillon Brooks, in particular, plays with a nasty, physical flourish. He muscles through screens, bodies ball handlers, and gets in elite opponents’ faces; as he recently told reporters, “I like to score and I like to stop people from scoring. It’s the best of both worlds. You can talk sh—I mean, trash—on both ends of the floor.”) The bigs get in on the act, too: Tillman, Valanciunas, Brandon Clarke, Gorgui Dieng, and Kyle Anderson (who is stepping up in more of a playmaking role) are all opportunistic swipers, quick to poke away a lackadaisical dribble and short-circuit a possession before it can even get started.
It all adds up to an aggressive, attacking defense that leads the league in steals and deflections per game, causing turnovers on 16.5 percent of opponents’ offensive possessions, the league’s third-highest rate. That near-constant disruption allows Memphis’s young athletes to stretch their legs and sprint; the Grizzlies rank first in points per game off of turnovers, fourth in fast-break points per game, and sixth in points scored per play in transition.
Those turnovers don’t materialize out of nowhere, though. They’re the byproduct of a scheme that puts players in positions to succeed and—even more importantly—a rotation chock-full of players who understand how to execute and communicate. The rotations are on time and the closeouts are on balance. The help comes early and in the right spots; the switches are handed off without leaving big gaps where the offense can slip passes or knife to the basket. Take away the easy stuff, and the offense has to try something harder. Take advantage when they do that, and suddenly you’re off to the races—and awfully tough to beat.
It is exceptionally rare for a team with this many 25-and-under pieces to get the nitty-gritty stuff right this frequently; there’s plenty of credit to go around. The front office, led by executive vice president of basketball operations Zach Kleiman, has done an excellent job of identifying, drafting, and signing smart players who are ready to defend—and, in many cases, do other stuff, too—at an NBA level right off the bat. Jenkins and his staff have quickly proved adept at developing that talent into a roster full of two-way contributors. And, most importantly, the players have continued to grow and improve while the basketball-watching world is following higher-wattage, higher-drama stories in marquee markets.
Brooks has struggled with his shot, but he’s also taken a step forward as a complementary playmaker while curbing his foul rate after leading the league in total fouls last season. Jones—one of the league’s best backup point guards, whose absence from the Orlando restart really hurt Memphis—has shaken off a slow start and is back among the league’s leaders in assist-to-turnover ratio. Anderson is suddenly flirting with league average from deep on 4.1 attempts per night, more than triple his previous career high for 3-point tries; Melton, a two-way havoc-wreaker who served as a catalyst for Memphis’s excellent bench last season, is up to 42.1 percent on nearly four attempts per game.
Desmond Bane (2020’s no. 30 pick) and Tillman (no. 35) have been instant-impact rookies despite being taken later in the draft. The latter is stabilizing the interior defense in Valanciunas’s absence and the former is shooting 50.3 percent from long range, more than holding up defending on the perimeter, and showing an advancing off-the-dribble game. Veteran big man Dieng—who is Memphis’s highest-paid player—has been a godsend, replacing some of Jackson’s production as a stretch big (51.6 percent on 4.6 attempts per 36) while rebounding well and helping force turnovers. John Konchar—who has such a weird statistical profile that his closest comparables somehow include Spurs combo guard Derrick White and former Rockets center Chuck Hayes—has gotten some run due to the injuries and COVID-19 absences. The former stat-sheet-stuffing star of the Summit League has promptly chipped in around 11 points, 9.5 rebounds, 3.8 assists, and 2.5 steals per 36 minutes on a .605 true shooting percentage.
It’s just … everyone can play, and they are. That’s put Memphis in a surprisingly enviable position in the standings. It also, however, puts the Grizz in an awfully interesting position when it comes to managing their roster.
Valanciunas, who started all 12 games he appeared in before needing to quarantine, and Allen, who’s averaging 21.5 minutes per game, will likely return from the COVID-19 protocols soon. Jackson is set to “start ramping up basketball activity this month ahead of a possible return,” according to Evan Barnes of the Memphis Commercial Appeal. Winslow, who has yet to suit up in a game for the Grizzlies since coming over from the Heat at the 2020 trade deadline, also hopes to return this month. How will Jenkins, who is already going 10 or 11 deep on any given night, juggle his rotation to make room for their big-name returns? However he does it, somebody who’s been playing really well for a while is going to wind up back on ice. Will that scuttle the good vibes that are brewing? Or can Jenkins keep everyone rowing in the same direction? Alternatively: Might Kleiman and Co. decide to deal from a position of strength and try to consolidate some of that developing depth into a potential difference-maker to pair with Morant and Jackson, as the Grizz did last year in flipping Andre Iguodala, Jae Crowder, and Solomon Hill to Miami for Winslow?
There’s plenty for Memphis to figure out, but also plenty of time, and plenty to love about the current Grizzlies’ product. “We have too many good players to get all of them enough minutes” is an awfully good problem to have—a far cry from the kind of problems we thought the Grizz would have when Ja came up limping and considerably nicer than the ones they’re giving the rest of the league on a nightly basis these days.
An earlier version of this piece stated that the Grizzlies were the youngest team in the NBA.