MEMPHIS – Should all go according to the NBA’s plan, the Grizzlies are less than a month from packing up the league’s youngest roster, traveling to Orlando and rekindling a season in which they’ve emerged as arguably the most surprising squad positioned for the playoffs.
The scene: Disney’s Wide World of Sports Complex, billed as the most magical place on Earth.
The stakes: 22 teams play eight “seeding” games starting July 31 to solidify 16 playoff spots.
The skinny: The Grizzlies (32-33) own a 3 ½-games lead for the Western Conference’s eighth and final playoff seed, and would be on pace for a major breakthrough should they hold on.
Memphis has an inside track to advance to the postseason for the first time in three years. And if so, according to Elias Sports Bureau, the Grizzlies stand to be only the third team in NBA history to reach the playoffs with their top two scorers at age 21 or younger.
Rookie of the Year frontrunner Ja Morant, who turns 21 in August, is averaging 17.6 points to go with a team-high 6.9 assists and 3.5 rebounds. And second-year forward Jaren Jackson Jr., who turns 21 in September , is providing 16.9 points, 4.7 boards and a team-best 1.6 blocks.
The previous two NBA teams to do so were the early Oklahoma City Thunder contenders led by Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, and the late 1990s Timberwolves spearheaded by Kevin Garnett and Stephon Marbury. As far as these young Grizzlies are concerned, not bad company.
Morant and Jackson anchor a Memphis roster that features 11 players between the ages of 20 and 24, which bodes well for the franchise’s future. But the present remains bright, too, especially if the path is cleared for this developing team to continue the solid work it started.
The framework for the NBA’s return-to-play plan was approved last week by the Board of Governors and also agreed to by the NBA Players Association. But there remain plenty of issues to sort through as both sides reportedly finalize details this week to resume a season that’s been suspended since March 11 by the Coronavirus pandemic.
As the projected July 31 restart date looms, the NBA relentlessly pushes along two fronts – complete what’s left of this season and simultaneously set the foundation for the 2020-21 season. How it all shapes up will impact the Grizzlies in the coming days, weeks and months.
Based on the NBA’s revised working calendar, here’s my take on how the Grizzlies approach some reported key dates as the team prepares to resume the season.
JUNE 15: International NBA Players Report
Counting the roster (six) and primary coaching staff (two), very few NBA teams have as strong an international presence as the Grizzlies. But having international players back in market by Monday’s report date isn’t expected to be an issue for Memphis.
Brandon Clarke (Canada), Dillon Brooks (Canada), Gorgui Dieng (Senegal), Marko Guduric (Serbia), Jonas Valanciunas (Lithuania) and Yuta Watanabe (Japan), along with assistants Vitaly Potapenko (Ukraine) and Neven Spahija (Croatia) all remained connected with the team throughout the hiatus. Only a couple among them traveled overseas during that time. In fact, Valanciunas was among the majority who stayed stateside since the season was suspended.
JUNE 21: All Players Report
Again, should be no issue for the Grizzlies to have their complete roster intact when the NBA takes full roll call. At least half of the team’s primary roster spent part or most of the time off in the market, including Morant and Jackson – two franchise catalysts who hardly left Memphis.
When access to FedExForum training facilities was off-limits, a Grizzlies player or coach could often be spotted in Tom Lee Park along the Mississippi River getting in conditioning work. The Grizzlies roster stood at the maximum 17 players, including both two-way contract slots occupied, when play stopped March 11.
The NBA’s suspension has since halted transactions, which ironically left forward Anthony Tolliver on perhaps the longest 10-day contract in NBA history. Tolliver, signed March 2, technically still had several hours left on the last day of his deal March 11 – three months ago.
JUNE 22: COVID-19 Testing Begins/Roster Transactions
According to multiple reports, the NBA and NBAPA have agreed to a testing schedule that calls for players to be examined for COVID-19 every evening once teams convene in Orlando. While it is unclear if that format will be the same as they first gather officially in home markets, teams are expected to take an aggressive approach to testing players and essential staff regularly.
When asked specifically about COVID-19 cases with his team and staff last month, coach Taylor Jenkins indicated there were no cases of the virus impacting the Grizzlies. Team president Jason Wexler declined to discuss COVID-19 testing specifics last week, but said the Grizzlies would continue to rigorously follow the league’s and county’s health and safety protocols.
ESPN is also reporting the NBA is looking at allowing teams to begin some extent of roster transactions June 22. That could present an interesting option for Memphis, for example, with Tolliver’s spot. If the Grizzlies allow his 10-day to expire, they’d have an open slot to potentially address current or future needs.
JUNE 30: Training Camps Begin
Sticking with Tolliver for just another moment, he was likely headed for a second 10-day deal back in March, or a contract that allowed him to finish the season with Memphis. But now with both Clarke and Justise Winslow presumably healthy and available at the forward spots, the Grizzlies are much deeper and better positioned to address the void Tolliver filled back then.
In fact, a full three-and-a-half months gave the Grizzlies – and most other NBA teams that will meet in Orlando – what amounts to a full offseason worth of time to heal wounds. Clarke (quad), Jackson (knee), Winslow (back) and Grayson Allen (hip) were at varying stages of recovering from injuries when the season was paused. All have progressed, with Jenkins mentioning that Jackson, Winslow and Clarke would be ready to go when practice resumed.
The question now is at what stage is Allen’s health after he was ruled out for the season back in late January with the hip ailment? With or without Allen, the Grizzlies are positioned to resume camp deep at big guard, with De’Anthony Melton, Josh Jackson and John Konchar all in tow. Also, how might Jenkins adjust his lineups? Working in a key contributor and franchise priority such as Winslow could significantly impact the starting lineup, bench and playing style.
Yet, what the Grizzlies had when the season stopped certainly wasn’t broken. They owned the league’s most productive bench, were led by January’s Western Conference Coach of the Month, were fueled by a three-time Rookie of the Month, and won 15 of their last 19 at home.
JULY 7: Teams Travel to Orlando
Indeed, it will feel and look a lot like NBA Summer League action. And you know what happened the last time the Grizzlies competed on a league-wide level with NBA teams all camped together in one neutral-site location?
They walked away with the gold trophy. Yep, the Grizzlies won the MGM Las Vegas Summer League around this exact same time a year ago when teams got together like this. Yes, there’s one big difference: LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo and other All-NBA talent actually will be available and the games will count toward the quest for a legit NBA championship.
But the Grizzlies have a couple of things going for them. Many of their players are only a couple of seasons removed from competing in similar national team, AAU or summer league environments. There’s no homecourt advantage for the experienced, veteran teams. Upsets are bound to happen, especially early in the process as teams gets adjusted to campus/bubble life.
JULY 30: Restart of NBA Games
The Grizzlies and the league’s 21 other teams are expected to have about three weeks to grow acclimated to the Wide World of Sports Complex, resort living, training, COVID-19 testing and safety protocols before the eight-game schedule opens.
Provided all goes well to this point, it will be very intriguing to see how Memphis reemerges from what will by then have been four-plus months removed from its previous game. Which was a disappointing home loss to the Orlando Magic way back on March 10. The Grizzlies would match their win total from all of last season with their next victory. And backup point guard Tyus Jones also stood one Grizzlies victory from triggering an $858,000 contract bonus, but in light of the hiatus the league is expected to convert from win totals to a percentage-based formula in awarding such player contract incentives. The games in Orlando will only count towards playoff seeding purposes.
The NBA has yet to release each team’s eight-game “seeding” schedule, but reports indicate the league would likely keep intact the next eight opponents on a team’s original schedule, in some fashion, when play resumes. All eight of the Grizzlies next foes – Blazers, Jazz, Spurs, Thunder, Bucks, Pelicans, Pelicans and Celtics – are among the 22-team field set for Orlando.
A lot can and must happen between now and when proposed NBA games commence again.
Merely resetting a calendar with meaningful dates for the Grizzlies is a significant start.
The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Memphis Grizzlies. All opinions expressed by Michael Wallace are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Memphis Grizzlies or its Basketball Operations staff, owners, parent companies, partners or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Memphis Grizzlies and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.