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Ja Morant’s Injury Plunges the Grizzlies Further Into Misery

Memphis is all too familiar with the realities of playing without Ja, which makes his season-ending shoulder surgery a particularly devastating blow. Will the idling Grizzlies be able to recover from a season that’s already lost?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Memphis Grizzlies’ season lasted three weeks. Or at least the pertinent portion of it did—the fleeting moment between Ja Morant’s bounding return from a 25-game suspension and the season-ending shoulder injury that stopped the whole franchise in its tracks. Morant has a torn labrum, a fickle ailment that tends to require surgery and nearly half a year of rehabilitation. The good news is that, according to the Grizzlies, Morant is expected to make a “full recovery” in time for the 2024-25 season. But pages don’t turn quite so easily; Morant has a long, painful road back, and the team that has spent the bulk of its season waiting for him will again have to occupy itself as the losses mount.

There was hope, for a moment, in the way Morant jumped straight back into thrill-a-minute superstardom, with each incredible feat bending the long odds of a potential playoff push. The Grizzlies went 6-3 with their star point guard back in the lineup. There was real momentum building, and there were real gains made in the standings. Those playoff dreams are gone now. Memphis can peel off occasional wins (as it did Sunday against Phoenix, a game Ja surprisingly warmed up for to gauge his availability), but this team looked utterly and consistently outmatched during the long haul of Morant’s suspension. Losing as much as the Grizzlies are about to lose will be draining in and of itself. Even more draining, however, is the understanding of how little there is to learn or accomplish from a situation this exact group of players has already slogged through this season.

Desmond Bane has tried his hand at being a first-option scorer. He acquitted himself admirably and grew a bit as a creator, but his limitations in that role are pretty well defined at this stage. Everyone involved has seen enough to know that Jaren Jackson Jr.’s scoring efficiency craters without Morant, in part due to the natural synergy of their games and in part because Morant pushes Jackson into a role that better suits him. When Morant isn’t available, too many Grizzlies have to be something they’re not, from Bane and Jackson to Marcus Smart and Luke Kennard to Ziaire Williams and Santi Aldama. They’ve lived it, we’ve seen it, and now the languishing begins again under even more depressing basketball circumstances. The rest of the Grizzlies aren’t biding their time, waiting for their best player to jump-start their season. They’re playing out the string on a season that’s already lost.

If there were surprises to be found, they probably would have been found already. The Grizz unearthed a useful role player in Vince Williams and bolstered their injury-depleted front line by adding Bismack Biyombo in the fall. Otherwise, there are no stones left unturned for Memphis. David Roddy got so many chances that he played his way out of the rotation. Five-foot-eight point guard Jacob Gilyard has seen some real run for a team absolutely desperate for ballhandling. Aldama is letting it fly more than he ever has, with usage on par with Michael Porter Jr. and Buddy Hield. There’s always a chance that a longer runway could lead to more development, but 25 games of oversized roles and increased responsibility across the roster haven’t left much room for mystery. Another 46 games of it, then, feels like overkill.

If there’s some good to be found in the Grizzlies’ circumstances, it’s that losing so much this season could help to punch up the rotation in ways it clearly needs. So much of the depth Memphis had over the past few years has been lost or consolidated. This roster isn’t loaded with young supporting talent anymore; Grizzlies head coach Taylor Jenkins has spent most of this season scraping together viable minutes from any healthy players he can find, searching up and down for contributors who could simply hold their spot. A top-five pick (or the bounty that comes from trading it) could be a real boon for a team whose rotation has been laid this bare. There are bigger deficits than what Morant can recontextualize away or the eventual returns of Steven Adams and Brandon Clarke could shore up. It has never been more apparent that the Grizzlies need more.

But it’s one thing to know that on a logical level, and another to experience the kind of season that makes a high draft pick possible. And for Memphis specifically: It’s brutal to think that you might be able to save this season after all, only to be snapped back into the practical drudgery of getting through months of games without Morant.

The Grizzlies are idling, without much to play for or to prove this season. The trouble is that the NBA doesn’t really do inertia; even when a team is going nowhere, the people who make up that team keep moving and keep playing, even as their frustrations collide. A Grizzlies player might understand how important Morant is to the whole organization, but that doesn’t preclude them from boiling over from the irritations caused by his absence. Memphis has spent years building toward a breakthrough by tapping into the pride and ambitions of its up-and-coming core. Now those same young stars will have to wait their turn, again, while their rivals define the Western Conference. Knowing where things are headed doesn’t really change the pain points of a situation that no one signed up for. And Morant being out of the lineup, it should be noted, doesn’t stop him from potentially getting involved in some other baffling episode, seeing as his last suspension came from behavior far away from the court.

A season like this tests players in ways they don’t expect. Morant has worked through long-term injuries before, but a season-ending surgery is a different kind of crucible, particularly when it derails a season that, for Ja, was just getting started. Morant’s debut following his suspension was a tour de force—a one-of-a-kind point guard erupting into the moment, delivering 34 points and a game-winning bucket. There wasn’t a fleck of rust in his game that night; if anything, it felt like Morant had been waiting, all his explosive power bottled up as he watched from the sideline for almost two months. He supercharged the Grizzlies the moment he stepped on the floor. Now, both Morant and the Grizz will need to figure out what to do with all that energy, and everything they poured into a season that was supposed to turn for the better.