ANALYSIS: With Ja Morant injured and out for season, should the Memphis Grizzlies blow it up?


Just as the Memphis Grizzlies and their fans were starting to believe Ja Morant would lead the team to The Play-In Tournament, news broke on Monday that Morant needs shoulder surgery and will miss the rest of the season.

Morant injured himself over the weekend during practice — which finally explains to fans why he was wearing a sling over his arm as the Grizzlies defeated the Phoenix Suns Sunday night.

It’s shocking, but not surprising. Shocking, because Morant’s return from a 25-game suspension immediately rejuvenated what was beginning to feel like a lost season. The team won four straight upon his return and went 6-3 in games since his return.

It’s also not surprising because . . . it’s an injury. Of course. Why wouldn’t another injury come and visit itself on this snakebitten NBA season? Steven Adams was ruled out during preseason. Brandon Clarke is still healing from an Achilles injury.

Marcus Smart, Luke Kennard, Derrick Rose and Ziaire Williams — all rotation players — have missed serious time this season. So, of course, Ja Morant won’t be able to help put Memphis back in the playoff conversation. That would be too much like right.

For those of you counting at home, the Grizzlies now have only TWO starters from last year’s roster available: Desmond Bane and Jaren Jackson Jr.

The question is: What now? What should you expect from your Memphis Grizzlies going forward? Here are my first three thoughts:

NO QUIT IN THEM: First of all, whether it’s wise or not, this Memphis Grizzlies team is determined to compete, regardless of who’s on the floor. Head Coach Taylor Jenkins has built a culture of hard work and accountability. That “next man up” mentality is real, and he will get his team to play hard most nights. That will win them some games, but in the rough-and-tumble Western Conference, on most nights it may not be enough.

DYNAMIC DUO: Needless to say, Desmond Bane and Jaren Jackson Jr. now become the focal point of the Grizzlies attack for the remainder of the season. An unexpected benefit of Morant’s absences (suspension, previous injuries), is that both players have gotten used to being “the man,” both individually and collectively. They have good chemistry and assuming they get help from the role players, the duo should give the Grizzlies a chance to win on most nights. And when Morant returns, it should mean an even more potent “Big 3” for Memphis. But will the extra workload wear them out?

EXTENDED GARBAGE TIME: As injuries often do, it means more playing time for guys on the bench. We’re already in the midst of a breakout season for Vince Williams Jr., who is helping to fill the defensive hole left when Dillon Brooks departed in the offseason. Nothing helps players develop skills and confidence like minutes in the game. Players like Ziaire Williams, David Roddy Jr. and John Konchar should get some extended run.

This will serve two purposes. Obviously, the Grizzlies want to see who can play well and fit in with the core group of Morant, Bane, Jackson and Adams. But the extended playing time will also help market players in potential deals to shore up the roster for next fall. I don’t expect Memphis to make a HUGE splash before next month’s trade deadline, but look for them to make some minor moves that bring in some young veterans and some draft picks.

TO TANK OR NOT TO TANK: Given the hole that the Grizzlies would have to climb out of just to make the Play-In Tournament — a tall task this season even WITH Morant — it’s a legit question as to whether Memphis should position itself for the NBA Draft. I think it’s a little too early to tell. While Morant’s return get’s all the credit, quietly the team’s recent resurgence coincides with relatively good health — Smart, Kennard and Rose all returned from injury since Morant’s return. Having your best players healthy will help you win games — in fact, Memphis beat Phoenix Sunday without Morant.

I think that between their relative health, and the struggles of teams like the Los Angeles Lakers and Golden State Warriors, Memphis will stay in contention for the Play-In Tournament for the forseeable future. It’s unlikely, but if things fall right, Memphis could make the Play-In.

But there will be a threshold where it makes more sense to try to stack ping-pong balls for the Lottery. With the new weighted system in place — the same one that vaulted Memphis up to the No. 2 pick (and Morant) in 2019 — tanking doesn’t make as much sense as it used to. But if Memphis finds itself out of Play-In Contention by March, don’t be surprised to see less of Bane and Jackson, and more of Santi Aldama and David Roddy — if they haven’t been traded by then.

In any case, Morant’s injury makes this NBA season much less mesmerizing for NBA fans — and even moreso for Grizzlies fans. But don’t take your eyes off of them yet. Bane and Jackson are capable of carrying this team and playing some thrilling ball while doing it.