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Tuesday, June 25, 2024

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ANALYSIS: What the Memphis Grizzlies Traded Away

Editor’s Note: Since this column was written, the Grizzlies also traded away Xavier Tillman Sr. to the Boston Celtics; and David Roddy Jr. to the Phoenix Suns.

“Noooooooo!!!!!!” I blurted out, when I saw the news pop up on my phone.

“What?” my frat brother Darryl said, when he heard the tone of my voice. “What happened?”

Realizing that without context, he probably thought someone had died, I felt a bit like an idiot when I had to say the truth with a straight face.

“The Grizzlies traded Steven Adams,” I said sheepishly.

It’s not the Adams trade by itself that got me down, it’s what the trade represents — the end of an era. Specifically, an era when the Grizzlies were clear-cut title contenders.

Since the Adams trade, Memphis also dealt Xavier Tillman Sr. to the Boston Celtics for a couple of second round picks, as well as a deadline deal sending David Roddy Jr. to Phoenix.

Lee Eric Smith

I’ll admit: When they traded Jonas Valanciunas to New Orleans for Adams in 2021, I was skeptical. I saw Valanciunas as a mashup of two other Grizzlies favorites: He had the height and skills of Marc Gasol, but the rebounding prowess and scoring mindset of Zach Randolph. At the time, I didn’t understand how Adams would be an upgrade over that.

And he wasn’t. But he didn’t need to be. Like any true contender, the Grizzlies needed to surround their young stars with role players, preferably elite ones. And in that role of elite role player, Adams excelled.

His first season was 2021-22. That’s the 56-win season. The “Is Memphis better without Morant” season. Dillon Brooks was still chucking ill-advised shots. Kyle Anderson, DeAnthony Melton, Tyus Jones and Brandon Clarke all became fan favorites. 

The Grizzlies pulled a pre-deadline day deal, sending longtime backup center Xavier Tillman to the Boston Celtics for a pair of second-round picks. (File photo)

The chemistry was palpable and the team was a joy to watch. Steven Adams was literally at the center of it all. Wiping the glass. Setting brick wall screens. Blocking shots. Scoring on putbacks. Zipping passes to cutters. And doing all of it without demanding the rock or the spotlight. 

Sure, it was Ja jumping over people on his way to a jackhammer dunk. But it was also Steven Adams who set the pick that got him open for the attempt.

Great role players DOMINATE specific areas of a game, and Adams’ gift was on the glass. Adams averaged 10 rebounds a game in his first season with Memphis, and more than half of those were on the offensive glass. In total, Adams grabbed 349 offensive rebounds (4.6 per game) that season, tops in the NBA. Those extra possessions were critical to team success that year.

So was his passing. Adams averaged about 3.4 assists per game in 2021-22. The only other Grizzlies players to average more were point guards Morant and Jones. Certainly, a number of those assists came after some of those offensive rebounds. 

This was the promise of that iteration of the Grizzlies. Not only having up and coming stars in Morant and Jackson (and eventually Bane), but having elite level role players who accept the role. Adams was dominant on the glass. Brooks was already a premier defender. Jones was a luxury, a starting-grade point guard who was just fine playing behind Morant. Everything just . . . meshed.

And then came the 2022 NBA Playoffs against their perpetual playoff nemesis, the Golden State Warriors. The Warriors won the Western Semis 4-2 en route to the NBA Championship, but fans who watched and remember that series know that if 4-5 possessions go the other way – a missed Morant layup here, a key rebound there – it could well have been the Grizzlies in the Finals that year.

Ah, woulda, coulda, shoulda. They didn’t win the series. And slowly the pieces began to shift. Melton was traded to the Sixers, Anderson signed with the Wolves. Those are changes around the edges. Both of those moves paid off by creating the minutes and space for Desmond Bane to blossom. 

For the first third of the 2022-23 season, the team built on its success. Somehow, Adams had upped his rebound average to 11.5 per game, 6.5 on the offensive glass. Memphis hovered at the top of the Western Conference and racked up an 11-game winning streak in January. Going into a fateful Jan. 22 matchup with Phoenix, they were sitting at 31-15.

Then Adams went after that loose ball, knee-first against the Suns. I remember watching that play, and thinking the worst. But he got up and finished the game. I thought he’d be fine. 

But he wasn’t. He was ruled out for the remainder of the season. And then the wheels began to pop off. The first Ja Morant gun incident (and suspension). The Lakers series. Dillon Brooks talking ish. The second Ja Morant gun incident (and suspension). 

The front office made moves in the offseason, anticipating another run, presumably with a healthy Adams. Out with Jones and Brooks; in with defensive ace Marcus Smart and veteran point guard Derrick Rose. Sure, it was different, but with Adams back, it would all make sense. All they had to do was hold it down until Morant’s suspension was over in December.

And then, presumably as penance for their sins against the game, the basketball gods frowned on the Grizzlies, giving us this injury-fueled implosion of a season, where trading Adams actually makes sense.

Look, I get it. At this point, after everything that’s happened, Adams’ contract was most valuable as a trade asset. And the team is not done making moves; they will surely be busy this offseason.

When Morant returns from injury, the trio of he, Bane and Jackson are going to be a problem. If GM Zach Kleiman and his team can put the right role players around them, they’ll be a threat to win the whole thing again – if healthy.

Is the Adams trade a step forward? A step sideways? Time will tell. That’s why they play the games. But for a franchise and fan base that enjoyed a few fleeting years as true contenders and league darlings, it certainly feels like a step backwards.

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