NBA Draft

Ja Morant’s absence could hurt the Grizzlies more than we think

The Memphis Grizzlies have won the Southwest Division the last two seasons but their reign at the top could be coming to a close in 2023-24. The Western Conference is looking strong and last year’s second seed looks weaker on paper. The defending champion Denver Nuggets are bringing back their core group, the Sacramento Kings can lean on their All-Star duo after snapping the league’s longest playoff drought, the Phoenix Suns have added Bradley Beal to an already star-studded roster, the Golden State Warriors have acquired an elite playmaker in Chris Paul to complement their unrivaled outside perimeter scoring, and Kyrie Irving has had a full offseason to mesh with Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks’ recent acquisitions. Memphis, on the other hand, appears to be in limbo with a ragtag group that hopes to stay above water while Ja Morant serves a 25-game suspension to kick off 2023-24.

The NBA laid down the law on the Grizzlies point guard because of his off-court issues following last season’s conclusion and his team tried its best to adjust its roster to account for his absence in the aftermath. Memphis added the 2022 Defensive Player of the Year in Marcus Smart but also lost valuable role players Tyus Jones and Dillon Brooks to free agency. Then there’s Brandon Clarke, who’s battling back from an Achilles injury that ended his last campaign early. Jaren Jackson Jr. and Desmond Bane will be the engines that power the Grizzlies through the first quarter of the season. Several other positions are questionable, though.

Smart will likely step right in as a defensive anchor and playmaker at the point guard, but the Grizzlies’ lack of depth at the position will be apparent whether the former Boston Celtic is healthy or not. Derrick Rose appears to be slotted to step in as the backup, but the 34-year-old regularly logged DNPs with the New York Knicks last season. He averaged just 5.6 points on 38.6 percent shooting over 27 games and was knocked down the depth chart by Immanuel Quickley. Jones was widely regarded as one of the league’s most reliable backups last season, but it’s unclear what Rose has left in the tank at this point. An inefficient shoot-first guard won’t do much for a team with championship aspirations. 

While Brooks has always been a bit of a shot-chucker at times, he was also a second-team All-NBA defender last season. His effort, strength, and versatility helped Memphis have one of the league’s most effective defenses last season. John Konchar or Luke Kennard will be Brooks’ most likely replacements. Konchar has proven to be serviceable on both ends and exerts plenty of energy on defense. However, neither he nor Kennard can take on the likes of LeBron James, Jayson Tatum, Jimmy Butler, Kawhi Leonard, Lauri Markkanen, Michael Porter Jr., and other big wings as tweeners moonlighting as small forwards. Memphis will face all of those opponents more than once this season. The Grizzlies’ shortcomings against opposing small forwards seem likely to become a glaring weakness before long. Even with the presence of a premier rim protector in Jackson.

The Grizzlies weathered the storm without Morant in 2021-22 and posted a 20-5 record without their starting point guard. They lost that magic last season and went 11-10 without him. Only four of those wins came against teams that made the play-in or playoffs in 2022-23. ESPN’s strength of schedule rankings from last year placed Memphis at 30th, but that won’t be the case this time around. The Grizzlies will face the new-and-improved versions of the Mavericks and Suns a total of five times before Morant’s target return date of Dec. 19. They’ll also face the Celtics and Heat once apiece in two of the three Eastern Conference matchups they have scheduled during that 25-game stretch.

Saying that the Grizzlies will face an uphill battle seems like an understatement at this point, as Morant will undoubtedly need some time to warm up after missing so much high-level competition. Don’t be surprised if Memphis needs to shake things up in a major way to get back on track. Memphis remains the favorite (+150) to come out on top in the Southwest Division, but it wouldn’t be surprising if the Dallas Mavericks (+185) surged to the forefront before long. 

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