How can the Grizzlies survive without Ja Morant, injured vets?

Grizzlies guard Ja Morant, forward Dillon Brooks, forward Jaren Jackson Jr., and guard Desmond Bane-Mandatory Credit: Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports
Grizzlies guard Ja Morant, forward Dillon Brooks, forward Jaren Jackson Jr., and guard Desmond Bane-Mandatory Credit: Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports /

Friday, March 3rd and Saturday, March 4th were two of the darkest days in the Memphis Grizzlies history. First, Memphis completely collapsed in the fourth quarter at Denver, turning a tie game after three quarters into a 16-point loss. Brandon Clarke suffered an Achilles tear during that game that will keep him out for the rest of this season and likely much of next season as well. The Grizzlies fully fell out of the race for the one seed in the West and lost their top scorer off the bench (10.0 PPG) in the span of a couple of hours.

Oh, and Ja Morant pulled a pistol on Instagram Live, days after a Washington Post article alleged he threatened a 17-year-old with a gun over the summer. The next day, the Grizzlies announced he would be away from the team for at least the next two games. It has since been stretched to at least six games.

The bad news didn’t stop there. The Grizzlies dropped consecutive games to the LA teams, twice battling for three quarters before folding in the fourth. After Steven Adams was scheduled to return this week, the Grizzlies announced he received a stem cell injection in his injured knee and would be out for at least four more weeks. It felt like the Grizzlies season was over.

But as they’ve been prone to do throughout the Ja Morant era, and frankly throughout franchise history, the Grizzlies delivered when you least expected it. They crushed the Warriors 131-110 in another edition of the most heated non-rivalry in NBA history. This game showed why Memphis can still win games, even down three of its top seven players. The Playoffs are likely another story. But to hold the 2 or 3 seed, the Grizzlies probably just have to play a little over .500 ball. Here’s what it will take for Memphis to survive sans Ja, Steve-O, and BC.

Live by the three, and hope you don’t die by it

In the 33 games where Ja, Steven, and Brandon have been available, the Memphis Grizzlies average 11.3 threes per game on 33.1 attempts, per Stat Muse. That 34.2% clip sits at 25th in the league. Not surprisingly, those three-point marks almost perfectly match Memphis’ numbers for the season.

But in the first four games this season without those three cornerstones, the Grizzlies play a very, dare I say, Golden State brand of basketball. They attempt 37.3 threes per game, making 15.0 of them for 40.3% efficiency.

Those attempt numbers would rank seventh in the NBA, and those shooting splits would lead the league. If the Grizzlies can shoot like that while missing their guys, they can definitely hang onto the coveted two or three seed in the West bracket.

The caveats here are enormous. First, it’s only four games. Second, the Grizzlies are far more likely to regress to their season norms than continue league-best three-point shooting. Third, even when you do shoot better from three, you’d still much rather have Ja’s paint creation, Steven’s offensive rebounding, and Brandon’s finishing. But Memphis must find paths to victory while those guys are out, and one possible road is to keep letting it fly. You hope that more threes for Desmond Bane, Luke Kennard, Tyus Jones, Santi Aldama, and Jaren Jackson, Jr, arguably your five best shooters, can fill some of the massive offensive gap created by losing three of your best paint scorers.

Grizzlies must let JJJ and Bane cook

There is no immediate silver lining to Ja’s situation. His actions jeopardized the already indelible legacy he’s built in Memphis and highlighted that he is struggling off the court. The only true silver lining is that he is getting the help he needs at such a young age.

But if there is one positive development on the court, it would be the growth of Jaren Jackson Jr. and Desmond Bane as offensive engines. It is no secret that the Memphis Grizzlies have become too heavily reliant on Ja in the clutch. It mostly worked last year, but this year he’s struggled mightily late in games. He’s shooting just 34% in clutch time (margin within 5 points in the final 5 minutes), ramming into defensive brick walls in the paint that know exactly what’s coming – like this late possession against Philadelphia.

Jaren’s interior scoring could stop the Grizzlies’ current clutch time bleeding and provide some relief for Ja when he returns. Quietly, Jaren has grown tremendously as a paint playmaker. His effective field-goal percentage has jumped from 45.0% to 53.8% on post-ups and from 42.5% to 52.0% on isolation opportunities, via Cleaning the Glass.

He can be the second creator the Grizzlies offense has yearned for. He just has to deliver in the final frame as he does throughout the game. He’s shooting just 25% in the clutch this season, light years below his season-long 49.6% from the floor.

Bane is still more comfortable as a secondary option, but he’s added a ferocious driving game to his scintillating three-point shooting. That foreshadows heightened playmaking abilities that can perhaps be unlocked during this stretch where he’s asked to be the Grizzlies’ top scorer.

Even without Ja, Steven, and Brandon, the Grizzlies still have a commendable +4.8 net rating anytime Desmond and Jaren are on the floor together. These two can hold down the fort until reinforcements arrive. If they can also shoulder more of the offensive load as a result, then the Grizzlies become much harder to guard in the Playoffs.

Grizzlies should  give more minutes to Konchar

The Memphis Grizzlies defense still has a solid 113.3 defensive rating (66th percentile) without Adams, Clarke, or Morant on the floor. They force turnovers in bunches and generally hold opponents to inefficient shooting. But the one thing holding them back is their putrid defensive rebounding rate. They’re giving up offensive rebounds on 29.4% of their opponent’s misses. That would be 28th in the league for the whole season.

Since Steven Adams went out on January 22nd, the Grizzlies have been consistently hammered on the glass – particularly the defensive glass. That’s probably because Jaren Jackson Jr., Xavier Tillman, Santi Aldama, Dillon Brooks, and Tyus Jones (five players being asked to do more amidst the absences) are below-average defensive rebounders for their position.

Do you know who the best defensive-rebounder by position on the entire team is? John Konchar. His 13.7% defensive-rebounding rate is 85th percentile among wings. He’s also ranked seventh in the league for overall player net rating. Even with the currently sidelined trio off the court, any lineup involving John Konchar has a fantastic +10.6 net rating.

John Konchar knows who he is not. He’s not a volume scorer or creator. He’s an excellent connective piece that crashes the glass with ferocity and can knock down some open shots. Sharing the floor with players who can score like Bane, Jackson, Tyus Jones, and eventually, Ja, is an ideal role for him. Things can’t get much weirder for the Grizzlies right now. Might as well turn to one of the most bizarre players in the NBA.