Image via Joe Murphy/NBAE/Getty Images
The Memphis Grizzlies caught everyone off-guard when they started with a 12-5 record earlier in the season, but the success was short-lived as the team basically collapsed, falling to 23-33 before the trade deadline.
The front office, fully accepting the fact that the a long-term rebuild was necessary, trading franchise cornerstone Marc Gasol to Toronto in exchange for Jonas Valanciunas, CJ Miles, Delon Wright, and a 2024 second rounder.
The Grizzlies predictably struggled before the all-star break but the team went on a hot streak after losing to Cleveland, going 6-4 while upsetting teams like Portland and Houston.
No one has talked about this yet, but it’s time to consider taking the 19-20 season seriously. And here’s why.
The roster will be surprisingly good next season.
The Gasol trade is really an intriguing case because it actually made the Grizzlies a better team (this did not serve the original purpose), and a large part of reasons why is Jonas Valanciunas.
Jonas Valanciunas, currently playing his 7th season of NBA basketball, averaged 12.8 points per game in 30 games he played for Toronto before he got injured. In his 13 games for the Beale Street bears, his scoring numbers skyrocketed to 19.1 and he now plays more than 26 minutes per game, which is about 8 minutes more than he averaged with Toronto.
JV has shown to be a reliable post-scoring machine. Unlike Marc Gasol, who constantly look for cutters and relied on fadeaways in post possessions, the Lithuanian frequently goes to work on the low block, taking full advantage of his size and strength. You can easily see the confidence he has with the ball now as he plays bully ball every single game, outplaying elite defenders like Rudy Gobert and Steven Adams( JV dropped 27 on Rudy Gobert and 16 on Steven Adams).
Jonas is also a terrific rebounder. Securing 6.3 defensive rebounds and 2.2 offensive rebounds, his boarding skills are valuable to a Memphis roster that struggles getting boards( 47.8% total rebounding percentage, 28th in the NBA).
With loads of opportunities handed to Jonas Valanciunas, expect him to pick up his 17.6 million player option this summer( also, many big names in the center position are entering free agency) and to become a perennial 20-10 big the upcoming season.
Jonas Valanciunas is thriving in Memphis. Image via Joe Rondone/ The Commercial Appeal
Another fantastic player Memphis received in that trade is Delon Wright. The 6’6″ point guard playing in his 4th season out of Utah has tremendous potential in him and is talented in creating his own driving opportunities. He puts off a solid 10.2 points per game alongside 4.5 rebounds and 3.6 assists. Delon thrives in fast-break situations and can be a trustworthy backup for Mike Conley, his impressive height also allows him to play a shooting guard role when needed.
Grizzlies will likely resign him and let Avery Bradley( another player revived by Memphis just like Tyreke Evans, he found his rhythm and averages 16.1 points for Memphis in contrast to 8.2 for the Clippers earlier this season) stay for another year.
CJ Miles will likely opt-in.
Also, let’s not forget the return of Dillon Brooks, Kyle Anderson, and Jaren Jackson Jr.
So here’s a look at the Grizzlies’ roster before free agency if everything goes right.
PG: Mike Conley, Delon Wright( will need to resign in free agency)
SG: Avery Bradley, CJ Miles, Dillon Brooks
SF: Kyle Anderson, Chandler Parsons, Bruno Caboclo
PF: Jaren Jackson Jr., Ivan Rabb
C: Jonas Valanciunas
Given the almost surely departure of Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis from the western conference, I’d say that roster( with a few free agents signed) has a serious chance for a playoff spot.
Mike Conley is in his prime
In his 12th NBA season, Mike Conley Jr. is playing better basketball than he ever did. Missing 70 games last season, Mike Conley struggled mildly when it came to shooting in the beginning of the season, but as the season advances, Conley started to heat up, especially in recent games, after the trade deadline.
Conley is 13th in the NBA in scoring through the past 10 games, averaging 26.7 points while shooting the lights out( 50% from the floor, 48.2% perimeter shooting, 85.5% from the free throw line), his hot streak peaked when he overturned an unsuccessful first quarter against the Trail Blazers, finishing with a career-high 40 points while hitting a dagger in the fourth quarter. In that game, the former 4th overall pick only missed 1 of his 7 three-point attempts.
In that week Conley recorded 31.3 points and 7.7 assists while shooting 55.6% from the three-point land. He leads the Grizzlies to a three-game winning streak and won the western conference player of the week, his first.
Everything is just working for him at this point of his career, three-point shooting, pull-up jumpers, drives, particularly good floaters( Mike Conley leads the league in floaters made this season) and perimeter defense are all in his playbook. He’s underrated ( you can’t say this enough) and you’ll never know how good he is unless you watch the Grizzlies.
But personal contributions are just parts of his all-around game. Mike Conley possesses a special power to make big guys around him succeed. From Greg Oden back in the college days to Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph in the GNG era, Mike continues to improve big mans’ game by pinpoint passing and incredible pick-n-roll game. A part of Jonas Valanciunas’ sudden enhancement is because of Mike Conley. Keeping Mike Conley around can only do good to the development of Jaren Jackson Jr. and Valanciunas.
The front office made a wise decision to keep Mike Conley, but they’ll explore trade options for him again in the offseason. This isn’t unwise, but it’s impossible to get same-valued assets due to how underrated Conley is. Simply settle for average players and a first rounder won’t do the team any good.
Also, Mike Conley is the last centerpiece left in Grind City of the legendary grit and grind era. This Memphis team is built up by its grinding mentality and keeping Mike Conley is beneficial for the locker room.
Memphis will not get a player as good as Conley for a very long time, so if they don’t give it a try next year, it’ll be a waste of talent.
You have to say, Danny Ainge is a smart guy.
Memphis owes a top-eight protected 2019 first-rounder to the Celtics, and if they don’t convert the pick to the C’s, they’ll have to give out a top-six protected one in 2020, and if they managed to keep that, the 2021 first-rounder will go to Boston in any case.
With 10 games left for the season, the Grizzlies are the 7th worst team in the NBA, 1 game behind the Wizards and 1.5 behind New Orleans, and keep in mind, Memphis will face the Warriors 2 times, pay a visit to Portland and host the Thunder. So chances are they’ll get a first-rounder this year and will pick around 7th.
Obviously, the worst scenario is giving up the unprotected pick in 2021, so the Grizzlies should try to convert next season, that gives them another reason to take next season seriously.
The Memphis Grizzlies is in an interesting situation right now( and a much better one than 2 years ago), and with loads of talent, the future will be bright.
The team is now enjoyable to watch and has a special connection with the fans, the energy in FedEx Forum is awesome.
Striving for a good record next year is realistic and smart, with all the momentum and absolutely nothing to lose, why not?