Sports

Is Memphis the NBA’s Next Small-Market Success Story?

In the obscurity of his backyard in Dalzell, South Carolina, Ja Morant trained on an outdoor court. He shot over Tee Morant, his unrelenting father, on rims that, even if they weren’t crooked, were plain harder to shoot on than polished ones found indoors. He jumped and reached, and double- and triple-clutched, contorting again and again until improvisation became a skill.

After Game 2 of the Grizzlies’ first-round win against the Timberwolves on April 19, Morant dismissed the pain of a hard fall on his hip, hearkening to his past, “I’m a warrior, man, I played on concrete.”

By Game 5, you believed him. As the third quarter closed on a Wolves run, Morant flung himself into the air and exploded. It looked, for a split second, like he was too far from the rim. But his deceptive 6-foot-7 wingspan made up the distance on a vicious slam that roused the home crowd. “He figures it out. That’s a creative player. … Tee Morant built a creative basketball player, a generational talent,” says Trey Draper, a Memphis native who trains the 22-year-old star.

When Morant is in the zone, like he was in Game 5, everything seems possible. He scored 18 fourth-quarter points, including the Grizzlies’ final 13, to complete a comeback victory. Memphis won the next game to finish off the pesky Wolves. The Grizzlies were also tied 1-1 against a reawakened Warriors dynasty in the second round before Morant suffered a bone bruise that will likely keep him out the rest of the postseason.

But Memphis, like its star, finds a way: It was 20-5 without Morant in the regular season, and in Wednesday’s Game 5, it blew out Golden State by 39 despite being down 3-1 in the series. “It almost seems like whenever somebody thinks we can’t do something,” says Desmond Bane, “we end up doing it. I never want to put a limit on what we can do, because anything’s possible.”

Even if they’re eliminated Friday, a statement has been made: A team projected to maybe make these playoffs looks like the NBA’s next small-market success story.

“You got need, you got opportunity, and you got Ja Morant,” Draper says. “He met us right in the middle. When the city was really at its worst. He’s changed the whole culture of the city.”

The Grizzlies sparked something in Memphis nearly a decade ago, when Tony Allen, Zach Randolph, and Co. bullied their way to a conference finals. These Grizzlies, with their defensive intensity and their offensive rebounding and their ball movement, nod to their Grit and Grind ancestors. But deadeye shooters like Bane and Jaren Jackson Jr. give these Grizzlies a modern flair. And a superstar like Morant gives them a chance to be one of the NBA’s truly elite teams.

Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

The making of the modern Grizzlies began in the 2019 offseason, when Zach Kleiman and Jason Wexler were internally promoted to head the new front office. Two months later, they drafted Morant with the no. 2 pick.

If that would have been all they did, draft night would have been a success. But the Grizzlies weren’t done.

When Brandon Clarke, a tweener big man lacking shooting range, declared for the draft, Kleiman, who was voted the 2021-22 Executive of the Year on Thursday, was one of the first NBA execs to reach out to his agent, Andy Shiffman. “A lot of people looked at what Brandon potentially couldn’t do and wondered where he could fit in,” Shiffman says. “But the Grizzlies focused on everything he can do: athleticism, his reaction timing on defense, his jump, his awareness, his instinct, his feel.” When Clarke fell into the 20s on draft night, Memphis traded up two spots, from no. 23 to no. 21, to snag him.

Like Xavier Tillman, a fellow big man drafted in the second round in 2020, Clarke has the toughness of a Grit and Grind–era player, but also the quick feet, athleticism, and switchability of a modern frontcourt player. When Anthony Edwards destroyed Steven Adams with pull-up jumpers in the first round, Clarke stepped in for him. The duo of Tillman and Clarke held Edwards to 34.8 percent in the series and have kept the Warriors’ shooters from exploding.

Later on draft night in 2019, Purdue Fort Wayne graduate John Konchar had a choice to make. Another team wanted to draft him in the second round. Or he could go undrafted and sign with the Grizzlies.

Never a great one-on-one player, he struggled at the Portsmouth Invitational, a predraft showcase for lower-level prospects, and failed to even secure an invite to the NBA or G League draft combines. Despite that, Memphis thought he could fit and develop in its new system, headed by new coach Taylor Jenkins, then a 34-year-old relative unknown. Ultimately, Konchar was swayed to sign with the Grizzlies by their consistent confidence in him.

Over three seasons, Konchar’s minutes have progressively increased. When the Grizzlies emptied the bench in their regular-season finale against Boston a few weeks ago, Konchar got his first NBA triple-double.

“A lot of teams say, ‘Oh, we’re not super high on that player because generally speaking, he might be thought of as someone being picked later than what we’re picking,’” says Shiffman, whose agency also represents Tillman. “That’s never been something that seems to matter to the front office. They have their own internal process that they go through.”

The Grizzlies are tight-lipped about what exactly that process is, but the roster provides clues: Konchar redshirted his first year at Fort Wayne, dedicating himself to the weight room and gaining 30 pounds. An advanced stats darling, he was working toward his master’s in organizational leadership in his fifth year. Tyrell Terry, another draft fascination signed in December after being waived by Dallas, broke a record for a basketball IQ test in predraft interviews and gained 15 pounds during the pandemic. Tillman entered Michigan State 276 pounds; he left three years later, 30 pounds lighter. Morant became a no. 2 pick even though he went to Murray State, an Ohio Valley Conference school playing in the shadow of Kentucky. Jackson, a no. 4 pick out of Michigan State, is their closest thing to a former blue-chip recruit.

Every front office has a type, and when a front office acquires enough of the same kind of player, a culture can organically emerge. Memphis, by hitting on draft sleepers, naturally aggregated players who believed in themselves when others didn’t, who clung tightly to their NBA dreams and worked hard despite not getting recognition. As a result, the Grizzlies have a deep well of players with the skill and versatility necessary for today’s game, but with the mindset of the underdogs who used to lead this franchise.

“The whole notion of Grit and Grind, that started in the Tony Allen, Zach Randolph days,” says Shiffman, “I think that’s carried over to this front office and this coaching staff.”

That old-school toughness reveals itself when Bane, in the midst of a breakthrough second season, stands up to LeBron James. The chip on their shoulder reveals itself when Dillon Brooks takes offense that Andre Iguodala doesn’t want to play for the Grizzlies after being traded there. And when they go down by 26 points, make a comeback, and go down again by 25, they pay the odds little mind and trust the work.

In Game 3 against the Wolves, the Grizzlies completed the fourth-largest comeback in playoff history. Clarke kept attacking the boards while Jackson battled foul trouble. Morant kept driving and Brooks kept boxing out and fronting All-NBA big man Karl-Anthony Towns, a player with at least 20 pounds on him.

“I could see the guys staying connected,” Jenkins said after the win three weeks ago. “The bench fully engaged. Timeouts were super positive. Everyone was locked in, like, ‘How do we get through this? Keep chipping away. One possession at a time.’”

Jenkins was proud of the comeback, but he also stressed the importance of playing with more consistency. After his Game 5 theatrics, Morant echoed Taylor’s sentiments. “It feels good when you win,” he said, “but me, personally, I’m tired of it. Tired of playing from behind.”

To make the next step, the Grizzlies need to strike the balance between playing with the emotion that got them past Round 1 and playing too emotionally.

Memphis Grizzlies v Golden State Warriors - Game Four

Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

In high school, Brooks played on the no. 1 team in Toronto, but most American teams they played at tournaments thought they were soft, talent-thin Canadians.

Brooks always fought against that image. When the intensity in games heightened, he became more engaged. But he also gambled and fouled too much. “That’s been his Achilles’ heel,” says Mark Poyser, assistant coach at Father Henry Carr. “His tenacity will make him pick up some unwarranted fouls, you know?”

He’d often double down by arguing with refs and picking up techs. “You’ve got to be responsible,” assistant Rono Miller would tell him. “You don’t want people saying you’re a hot head, you’re not coachable, not accountable.”

For Brooks, the longest-tenured Grizzly and the final holdover from the Grit and Grind days, aggression is power. But it also gets him in trouble.

In Game 1 against the Warriors, Brooks had five fouls. In Game 2, Gary Payton II paid the price for Brooks’s recklessness. He pushed Payton out of the air on a dunk attempt, causing the Dubs’ best Morant defender to fracture his elbow. Brooks was thrown out of the game and suspended for Game 3.

As much as the Grizzlies’ edge has propelled them this season, harnessing that aggressiveness has been a process. Like Brooks, Jackson has struggled with foul trouble this postseason, and as a result has teetered between dominant and disappearing on an almost game-by-game basis. In Game 3, with Brooks suspended, Jackson struggled and normally mild-mannered Kyle Anderson picked up two straight technical fouls, leading to his ejection. Clarke and rookie Ziaire Williams have been reliable stand-ins, but Memphis needs consistency from its best players to take the next step in its development.

It’s taken Brooks five years in the NBA to find the right balance. “My rookie year,” Brooks volunteered before Game 2 of the first round, “I was top five in technicals.” He started studying player and referee tendencies, trying to gain their respect. His fouls dropped to 3.3 a game this season after logging nearly four two seasons ago, but in his comeback in Game 4, he committed five fouls and four turnovers.

“Slowly and surely when I get older and older, I will be able to funnel the passion, and be able to put it into just playing hard,” Brooks says.

The question, both for Brooks individually and the Grizzlies as a whole, is how slowly.

The Grizzlies were disciplined about sticking with their own developmental plan this season, staying quiet at the trade deadline even while the team surged. But a talent like Morant can change everything, including the timeline of the NBA’s fourth-youngest team.

This summer, Morant is eligible for a max extension that would start in 2023-24. Until then, they have yogi-level flexibility to build around him. And though they play in one of the NBA’s smallest markets, their success has caught the attention of people around the league.

Morant’s energy and unselfishness could eventually attract free agents to Memphis. “If he was out in the media,” says Shiffman, “making it all about him, guys don’t want to play with those guys. But Ja’s not that type of person.”

“More and more players tell me,” Shiffman adds, “‘Oh my gosh, I love the way Memphis plays. I love the way Taylor coaches. Everyone looks like they’re having fun.’ Slowly over time, Memphis is becoming more of a destination.”

Memphis will never be Los Angeles or Miami, but it could be like Milwaukee, another small market with another superstar, Giannis Antetokounmpo, that really loves the city. Multiple agents compared the Grizzlies to the champs, who surrounded Giannis with Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday, two low-maintenance stars who can appreciate a basketball-first lifestyle and the sense of community surrounding it.

Memphis has two extra first-rounders and six extra second-round picks to play with. With a roster that has plenty of developmental projects, they could consolidate those assets into a trade. Or they could keep evaluating their core, and use their picks to replace the players they let walk. One agent posited that rather than trade for a third star, the Grizzlies could look for experienced veterans to guide them through the highs and lows of the battle they’re currently facing in the playoffs.

Fusing the egalitarian style they played in Game 5 (Bane, Jackson, and backup point guard Tyus Jones each scored 21 points) with Morant’s unstoppable scoring could be the answer.

With Morant and Brooks missing time, Bane hobbled, and Jackson being in and out of the lineup, it’s remarkable how close this series has been. Memphis and Golden State have traded two blowouts, and the rest of the games have been decided by five points or fewer.

The Grizzlies shattered scouting reports all year, but the Warriors are giving them what they actually need: a proper assessment.

Memphis wanted the smoke. They’re in it now. When it clears, they’ll see themselves more clearly.

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