2019-20 Previews: Memphis Grizzlies

Losses: 28 dudes played for this team last year, and the vast majority of them seemed to pass through like shoppers at a mall looking for some nameless though unfindable thing. Mike Conley and Marc Gasol are gone. Chandler Parsons, mercifully, is gone. Joakim Noah, probably, too. Delon Wright and Garrett Temple are gone. Something new is beginning.

Additions: The young guys: Ja Morant, Brandon Clarke, Tyus Jones, Josh Jackson, DeAnthony Melton, Grayson Allen. But also, the old guys: Andre Iguodala, Jae Crowder, Solomon Hill.

Likely Starters
Guard: Ja Morant, Andre Iguodala (until he's traded, then Grayson Allen?)
Wing: Kyle Anderson
Big: Jaren Jackson Jr., Jonas Valanciunas

Predicted Record: 23–59 | 28th in NBA | 15th in West

When I was a kid, my favorite video game was Mega Man (Mega Man 2 was my favorite iteration of the series, and the one I’ll reference here). You can read about the plot here, but suffice to say that Mega Man is a humanoid robot trying to save the world from Dr. Wily and his band of rogue humanoid robots gone berserk. In the game, as Mega Man, you have to defeat each of Wily’s robots, each of whom has a different special weapon, before you can move on to defeating Dr. Wily himself. As you defeat each robot, you acquire that robot’s special weapon. Flash Man can freeze time around him. Metal Man shoots out circular saw blades. You get the idea.

What’s cool is that the game becomes endlessly replayable, because the order in which you defeat the evil robots determines the order in which you acquire the weapons needed to defeat the next robots. For example, Quick Man’s boomerang shooter makes it much easier to defeat Flash Man, but it is incredibly difficult to defeat Quick Man without first acquiring Flash Man’s time stopper. Dilemmas like this add to the allure of the game by allowing you to create interesting challenges for yourself along the way. Mega Man is a game of matchups.

In Mega Man, nothing exists untethered from context around it. You can’t say which evil robot is the most difficult to defeat, because the answer depends on which robots you’ve already defeated. There’s no perfect way of going through the game; in fact, it all depends on what parts of the game you’re good at or struggle with. Each player of Mega Man is different, and will make her way through the game in her own particular way depending on her own strengths and weaknesses.

In this way, Mega Man is a lot like the NBA. The players on a team together possess a wide set of skills and abilities, and those skills and abilities succeed or fail against other teams depending on how they match up with one another. We tend to think of basketball players as more or less talented as individuals, but the truth is that their ability to play the game depends on the context around them. Just as Time Stopper makes it easier for Mega Man to defeat Flash Man, Jaren Jackson Jr.’s ability to block shots makes it easier for the Grizzlies to defeat, say, the Hornets. 

JJJ, in particular, is a wonderful test case for what counts as a superstar big man in 2019-20. Jackson is an entirely unique combination of size, shooting, and defensive ability. It is instructive to compare him with last season’s #1 overall pick, Deandre Ayton. Ayton posted the gaudier traditional raw stats, but JJJ’s game is evolutionary. He gets to the line more than Ayton. He takes and makes infinitely more 3s. He blocks more shots. He uses more possessions. What all of this means is that JJJ is easy to build around. To go back to Mega Man: having JJJ on your team is like having Atomic Fire AND Air Shooter when you face Wood Man. JJJ’s combination of useful weapons makes it so much easier to play basketball. 

JJJ’s game means the Grizzlies can comfortably draft a guy like Ja Morant, radiating with incendiary talent but still sporting some holes in his overall game. The threat of Jackson’s shooting in the pick-and-pop game should give Ja plenty of room to probe the paint. Jackson’s athleticism rolling down the middle should open up space for Ja to find shooters. Jackson’s defensive ability should allow Ja the freedom to bust up passing lanes and run around like a maniac. My point here is that JJJ’s presence has the potential to unlock the best possible version of his teammate. If Ja had to play with Deandre Ayton instead of with JJJ, many of Ja’s strengths would suddenly be mitigated. Ultimately, it would impact his ability to be great himself. 

One of the great little secrets of any deep and abiding NBA fandom is this: rebuilds are sorta sweet. Sure, the teardown part—the plodding and tortured departures of Tony, Zach, Marc, and finally Mike—sucks, but after that? It’s pretty great. As a fan, you get to cheer the successes and ignore the failures. It’s all youth and promise. Players are defined by their potential and not their failure to live up to it. It’s joyous. It’s almost better than winning.

Eventually, the Grizzlies will likely flip guys like Iguodala and Crowder for more fodder for their rebuild—picks and young guys. Tyus Jones looks like a good level-headed caretaker point guard to pair with Ja (Jones led the whole damn league in assist-to-turnover ratio last year). Brandon Clarke was one of the best players in the country last year at Gonzaga, and he probably should have been drafted much higher than 21st. Ivan Rabb, Grayson Allen, DeAnthony Melton, and, I guess, Josh Jackson are all worth a look on a team at this stage. These things are all peripheral though. At the center of everything is JJJ, and the way his game has the potential to make his teammates better. 

So, Grizzlies fans, you know what? These right here? These are the salad days. By the end of this season, we’ll probably be worrying about Ja’s jump shot. Come to think of it, why isn’t JJJ a better rebounder? Tyus Jones is okay, but maybe $8M/year is too much? The shine of this team, I’m sure, will have begun, almost imperceptibly, to weather. I always hated the end of Mega Man 2. Beating Dr. Wily was a letdown. The end wasn’t nearly as satisfying as the beginning, when I was challenging myself to see if I could do it without the best weapons, when I didn’t know what was fully possible. 

Eventually, the Grizzlies will start winning more games, start cashing in some chips, and in a few years, maybe they’ll be a pseudo-contender. Maybe they’ll even be a real one, and you’ll tell yourself how much you love it, but in the parts of your heart where the truth hides away, you’ll know. It was better when it was going to happen, not when it was happening. 

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