The Memphis Grizzlies are a small market team whose sustainability significantly depends on local fan attendance.
Former majority owner Michael E. Heisley was cognizant of this. When moving the team from Vancouver in 2001, he insisted on a clause with the city of Memphis that if paid attendance at the FedExForum fell below 14,900 fans, they would be allowed to move the team.
Fast forward to 2020, a global pandemic and empty arenas. Now, nobody knows how small market teams will pivot if the lost revenues continue.
It was only last year, after the 2018-19 season, that current owner Robert Pera, a billionaire entrepreneur and fanatical fan himself, hired a young executive team of Jason Wexler and Zachary Kleiman. In came new head coach Taylor Jenkins and nine days later they drafted Ja Morant.
While Pera worries about that, his team running basketball operations must continue to plow forward with their plan. The significance of Morant’s success in Memphis cannot be undervalued.
This town along the Mississippi River in southwest Tennessee is famous for legendary music greats such Elvis Presley, B.B. King and Johnny Cash. The Grizzlies however are the only major sports team. Being that Memphis is the most eastern city in all the Western Conference, a rivalry has yet to develop and their product has to be better than most to remain viable. Keeping fans engaged and hopeful is the only way.
That is where Ja Morant’s arrival, especially before a pandemic, may have been a godsend.
The 2019-20 Rookie of the Year is one of the most exciting true point guards to come on the scene in years. He has the chance to do for Memphis what Giannis Antetokounmpo has done for Milwaukee. In other words, Ja Morant at this time is the face and future of the Memphis Grizzlies.
Like the Bucks in Milwaukee, the Grizzlies now have to find the pieces to create the winning environment that will keep Ja in Memphis for many years to come. They have already exercised their option for the 2021-22 season, so these next two years will be critical. Two players that can already be penciled in as starters during that time are power forward Jaren Jackson Jr. and center Jonas Valanciunas.
Jackson was drafted out of Michigan State with the fourth pick in 2018 and is undeniably an incredible talent himself. The hope is that he could still be the second star that Ja needs to help restore the franchise to the contender status they enjoyed when Marc Gasol and Mike Conley were in their prime.
Unfortunately, Jackson, who is still only 21 years old, has already missed significant time in his first two seasons and may start this season still nursing a meniscus tear. He and Morant have had about half a season on the court together. His talent is without question, but if he is going to be the Robin to Morant’s Batman, he needs to stay healthy and learn how to use his big body better in the paint. Someone of his size should not be only pulling down 4.6 rebounds a game.
The one player Ja has had the chance to develop a repertoire with has been Valanciunas. Jonas, who at 28 years old, is an eight-year veteran. Since coming over from Toronto, he can be counted on nightly for double digit rebounds and points. He moves well at 6’11”, can shoot from three, and sets one of the best picks in the NBA. There are those questioning whether the plan may be to deal Valanciunas when Jackson is ready to move to center, but I do not understand why the Grizzlies would want more youth.
Actually, they appear to have an abundance of youth.
Those players may even be their ticket to bringing in the experience Morant and Jackson need to be surrounded with. While they do have Tyus Jones as an experienced point guard backing up Ja, they are carrying many young versatile players at the coveted wing.
Small forward depth includes Justise Winslow, Kyle Anderson and Ja’s fellow rookie sensation Brandon Clark. Clark who has good size at 6’8” and 215 pounds is a quick and bouncy jumper who can also move over to power forward if Jackson is at center. With everyone healthy, the starter appears to be Winslow (though he may begin the year still inactive due to a hip injury that ended his 2019-20 season), with Clark breathing down his neck.
Shooting guards include Grayson Allen, Dillon Brooks, De’Anthony Melton, and this year’s first round pick Desmond Bane. The starter looks like it will be Brooks, who at 6’7” is also versatile enough to play small forward.
All these players have pretty much defined who they are at this point in their careers and are under very reasonable contracts through at least the 2021-22 season. Although they are above average players, none are expected to develop into what can become a big three with Jackson and Morant. The last thing Memphis wants is for Brooks to again lead the team in field goal attempts, while shooting only 40.7 percent. Of the lot, Banes may have the highest ceiling and become a top-notch back court partner player who can complement Ja on offense and defense.
Like most teams, because of the drop in attendance both live and on TV, the Grizzlies have to create renewed fan interest in 2020-21. Luckily for them, they have a young star, many valuable assets under manageable contracts, and new management eager to leave their imprint on the league. Unfortunately for them, this is a business, and they play in a small market that has gotten smaller during the global virus.
While other teams are playing for championships, the Memphis Grizzlies will be counting on young management and Ja Morant for their immediate survival. No pressure.