2023 Orlando Magic Playoff Lessons: Memphis Grizzlies’ development is no straight line

Jan 5, 2023; Orlando, Florida, USA; Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant (12) drives the ball past Orlando Magic guard Cole Anthony (50) in the third quarter at Amway Center. Mandatory Credit: Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 5, 2023; Orlando, Florida, USA; Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant (12) drives the ball past Orlando Magic guard Cole Anthony (50) in the third quarter at Amway Center. Mandatory Credit: Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports /

The Memphis Grizzlies should be eagerly awaiting this upcoming season.

They just completed a stellar season that saw them earn the second seed in the Western Conference and continue a climb up the standings and into the stratosphere of the conference.

They should be thinking and talking about winning a championship this coming season. They have the Defensive Player of the Year in Jaren Jackson Jr. They have a dynamic scoring guard in Ja Morant. An incredibly efficient sharpshooter and defender in Desmond Bane — 3-and-D undersells him.

They have a defensive mean streak and some physical players on both ends of the floor. They have an offensive spark that can be overwhelming when teams get sloppy or imprecise.

The Grizzlies are a team with a clear culture and identity. They have some interesting offensive pieces to fit around their dynamic young stars. They are a tough team to handle.

So why is nobody talking about them as a title contender? Why is this team not the buzzworthy team entering the season? Why did the Grizzlies feel like they had to reset themselves and make a major move to stay competitive?

The Memphis Grizzlies should be among the young teams moving into contention. Instead, they are a team facing a lot of questions on and off the court. Their growth took a detour.

There are so many answers to all of those questions. It all goes back to what ultimately went wrong. And it goes to the realization that there is no such thing as certainty when it comes to a young team and its development.

The Grizzlies should have every reason to believe they are on the precipice of a long title run. Yet, it feels like the whole thing could get derailed by anything. Last year was a season that should have been celebrated. Instead, it feels kind of disappointing and left a franchise trying to figure itself out.

The Grizzlies were fantastic last season, earning the second seed with 51 wins (a five-win decrease from the 2022 season, so maybe not the progress the team hoped). Then again, the team lost to the Los Angeles Lakers, perhaps exposing the team as paper tigers.

Then again, they are still very young. The Memphis Grizzlies had the fifth-youngest team in the league, just a hair older than the Orlando Magic. That perhaps showed itself on the court as well as off of it.

Memphis had a fantastic season though. They were 11th in offensive rating at 114.7 points per 100 possessions and third in defensive rating at 110.7 points allowed per 100 possessions. This was a good team.

Then again, so much of it came because of Ja Morant’s incredible season — 26.2 points per game and 8.1 assists per game. Of course, Morant missed nine games as part of a team suspension for several gun-related incidents. The Grizzlies still won during that stretch but he was clearly a bit off-kilter with him out of the lineup.

Morant will miss the first 25 games of the season from an NBA suspension.

Volatility indeed.

Some of the Grizzlies’ issues were out of their control. You could argue their loss in the playoffs came because they lost Steven Adams late in the season to an injury, moving Jaren Jackson Jr. to the full-time center. As Team USA is learning in their World Cup run, that can be a difficult thing with Jackson Jr.’s penchant for chasing blocks and early foul trouble.

The team seemingly broke a bit at the seams with the pressure of missing several key players. That is a lesson learned.

The Grizzlies this offseason lost defensive-minded wing Dillon Brooks to free agency and replaced him with veteran defender Marcus Smart, giving the Grizzlies two Defensive Player of the Year award winners for the roster. What effect that will have on the team’s overall progress will certainly be a question.

Then again, so much still revolves around the uncertainty about Morant. He should come into the season with something of a vengeance. And the question the Grizzlies will have to answer is whether Desmond Bane can carry the offensive load.

Perhaps he can. The Grizzlies are betting on that.

Will help them advance? Who knows? But Memphis is still young enough that the front office should be seeking some stability and looking to give the team a chance to improve and develop.

Still, it all comes back to Morant and his level of play and his availability.

The Magic are where the Grizzlies were a few years ago trying to break into the playoff picture. And so the ups and downs they have gone through and the patience and restraint they are showing is something the Magic can learn from.

In Morant’s rookie year in 2020, the Grizzlies made the Play-In Tournament in the Bubble. They broke through into the first round the following year before winning that first playoff series over the young Minnesota Timberwolves in 2022. Last year, the Grizzlies climbed the standings but struggled against a veteran team.

The response to these ups and downs was to trust the young players’ development. They doubled down on veterans and brought in a good defensive veteran in Smart to bolster the team.

The Magic hope Paolo Banchero’s presence has gotten them to the precipice of the postseason like the Grizzlies were in 2020. They hope they can make that break through behind his continued growth in 2021. From there, the team can keep growing.

Orlando is hoping the team will not face the off-court issues Morant has had to deal with. That is an extra wrench in the equation. But the principle is the same. There will be starts and stops and successes and failures along the way. The front office just has to pick the right moment to push their chips in.

dark. Next. Playoff Lessons: Los Angeles Lakers remade themselves at deadline

It is not going to be so simple clearly. The Grizzlies seemed destined to reach contention sooner than later. Yet, the team still seems to be missing something. Perhaps, like the Magic, the Grizzlies are going to spend this year trying to figure out what that something is and move forward from there.