OK, the Memphis Grizzlies crash-landed; no getting around that. Still, assessing the 2022-23 campaign for the NBA title requires taking note of the good, the bad and the focus going forward.
Memphis claimed the Western Conference’s second seed in the playoffs despite the weight of key players missing extended periods because of injuries. Jaren Jackson Jr. missed the first 16 games and still won the league’s Defensive Player of the Year award from the power-forward slot
Shooting guard Desmond Bane was out for 17 games with a grade 2 sprained right big toe and sesamoid injury. Center Steven Adams and backup big man Brandon Clarke each missed the last two months of the season with injuries.
And two-time All-Star Ja Morant’s high-profile, eight-game suspension must be coupled with his right hand and wrist injuries going into the ill-fated series against the Los Angeles Lakers.
All of that is part of the mix in looking at the good, the bad and what comes next.
The Grizzlies may have found the consistent shooter they long have been looking for in Luke Kennard. After a mid-season trade, he quickly became a crowd favorite, making big shots in key moments. Kennard led the NBA in three-point scoring percentage (49.4).
Reserves David Roddy and Santi Aldama emerged and developed. Roddy, the rookie, contributed throughout the season, shuffling from the Grizzlies to the Memphis Hustle. His role expanded with the injuries to Clarke and Adams. Powerful going to the basket, he was reliable from three-point territory.
Aldama, the second-year player from Spain, began the season as a starter subbing for the injured Jackson. He developed confidence that carried through the season.
Jackson’s Defensive Player of the Year award reflects his maturation as a player. Off the court, he was elected vice-president of the NBA Players’ Association. On the court, he led the league in blocks per game (3.6), averaged 18 points and make the All-Star team for the first time.
Bane had his best season for the Grizzlies. He averaged 21.5 points, 4.4 assists and 5 rebounds. The time he missed early in the season cost him a shot at earning All-Star status.
The second youngest team in the NBA, the Grizzlies lost their darling status with much of the national media. Morant’s national television declaration that “We are fine in the West,” which largely was received as the Grizzlies would not have problem with any team in Western Conference seemed to signal the tide turning.
Not long after, Adams (a rebound magnet) went down with what devolved into a season-ending knee injury. A few games later, Clarke’s season was done. Then came Morant’s live-streamed brain lapse complete with him flashing a gun while dancing in a club after a loss in Denver.
And while the wheels did not come off the team, it clearly was not the same group that put together an 11-game winning streak.
At the post-season wrap-up, reflected on want comes next regarding walking the walk and becoming a better player.
“I feel like being available is the number one thing for me,” he said. “There were times this year where injuries had me out. The incident where I got suspended. Even playing with injuries. I want to be healthy and available.”
Morant embraced the good aspects of the team “being young” and took what he could from the team’s success in recent seasons.
“Not how we wanted it to end (the season just passed), but we have to be even more locked in during that time in the playoffs. We have to get back to being the hunters like in previous years.”
The Grizzlies have to get better on the road. They had the best home record in the NBA (35-6) and had a losing record on the road (16-25). They did not win on the road in the playoff series.
And then there is the matter of the trash talking. While the biggest practitioners maintain it has no negative impact, the team bears the rep of being big talkers unable to back it up when it counts most.
Next season, new focus
The time may be now for the front office to go all-in for a run at a championship. At the All-Star break, Grizzlies General Manager Zach Kleiman said the team soon would be faced with some hard decisions about the talent level. Later, backup point guard Kennedy Chandler was released and Kenny Lofton Jr. netted a regular season contract.
“We built around a sustainable championship contender,” Kleiman said, explaining how the team was constructed for the concluded season. “As you do that, you have to determine where the group is. When you reflect on the season, there were things we were encouraged by, but a bitter ending that don’t sit well with anyone.
“You want to build out a group that is going to be best positioned to compete in the playoffs. You have to be intentional to how we push the group forward.”
Noting the team’s injury status and the disappointing end to the season, Kleiman said, it was important not to overreact adding, “It is important to react. I don’t want to sit here and say, if we had Steven Adams and or Brandon Clarke, we would have won the series. I would have loved to have seen how this group would have looked like with that. It doesn’t mean we can’t learn without them.”
With the NBA Draft less than six weeks away, more tough decisions may loom. Some players dear to the fanbase may be heading to other teams as the front office seeks to shore up for a championship push.