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Injury Mayhem in Memphis

The 2023-2024 NBA season arrived with a gray cloud for the Memphis Grizzlies, as the team would be without two-time All-Star Ja Morant for the first 25 games due to suspension. On top of that, Steven Adams underwent knee surgery shortly before opening night, October 25th, that would keep him on the sidelines for the entire season, and Brandon Clarke’s Achilles rehabilitation would also keep him out for the entire season. 


The team was 0-6 to start the season before a November 5th matchup against the Portland Trail Blazers got them on the board for their first win. After the team's fifth loss, Bismack Biyombo was signed, thanks to a suspension exemption that was granted due to Morant’s suspension.

The Grizzlies went 0-3 in the inaugural NBA Play-In Tournament, falling to the Trail Blazers, Los Angeles Lakers, and Phoenix Suns in the West Group A.  In the Play-In finale, newly acquired Marcus Smart and southpaw sharpshooter Luke Kennard went down with injuries against the Lakers.

Kennard suffered a left knee bruise that kept him out for 20 games, and Smart suffered an ankle injury that would keep him out for 18 games. Until December 19th, when Morant was slated to make his season debut, the Grizzlies were 4-14 without Smart and Kennard. 

Jaylen Nowell and Shaquille Harrison joined Memphis on 10-day contracts on November 24th, as the team was granted two injury exceptions. Harrison would appear in three games, and Nowell would be extended to a second 10-day contract and appear in nine games, averaging 8.9 points.

The emergence of Desmond Bane was the main storyline for the Grizzlies on the floor during the 25-game absence of Morant and the injuries to Smart and Kennard. Through December 19th, Bane had eight 30-point games, including a career-high 49 points against the Detroit Pistons on December 6th. 

This feat fell just short of the franchise single-game scoring record set by Morant against the Spurs in 2022. Jaren Jackson Jr. had two 40-point games without Morant on the floor, as he had 41 points against the Dallas Mavericks, and 44 two days later against the Houston Rockets

Another result of the injury-laden season for Memphis was the emergence of two-way players, primarily of the Memphis Hustle in the NBA G-League. Vince Williams Jr. has made the most of his new opportunity with the Grizzlies, as he has appeared in 19 games as a two-way player, scoring in double figures five times. Jacob Gillyard has also made the most of his opportunity as a two-way player for the Grizzlies, as he has appeared in 30 games and started four times.

Morant’s debut against the New Orleans Pelicans was highly anticipated as the contest was the Grizzlies’ first nationally televised game of the season, which aired on TNT. Morant wasted no time getting down to business, as he scored 34 points, including a buzzer-beater as time expired for the 115-113 win on the road. The Grizzlies trailed by as many as 24 points in the contest and trailed by 10 points going into the fourth. 

This is before a 33-17 run in the final 10 minutes put the team ahead for good. The win against the Pelicans would ignite a four-game winning streak as the team took care of the Indiana Pacers in Morant’s first game back at the FedExForum, the Atlanta Hawks, and another win on the road against the Pelicans. 

With Morant, Bane, and Jackson Jr. in the lineup, the Grizzlies compiled a 6-3 record as Morant put together five games of at least 25 points, including two 30-point games. Bane had six games of at least 25 points and added three more 30-point games with Morant on the floor, and Jackson Jr. added six games of at least 20 points, including a 31-point performance against the Lakers on January 5th with Morant on the floor. 

On December 23rd, Memphis released Kenny Lofton Jr., clearing a full roster spot for Williams Jr., who signed a three-year, $7.9 million guaranteed contract. Since inking the three-year deal, he has scored double-figures 10 games in a row up to date and has gone north of 20 points on three occasions, including a career-high 25 points on January 24th against the Miami Heat.

The Grizzlies' hopes of getting back into contention for postseason play took a drastic hit as Morant suffered a season-ending torn labrum injury on January 6th after a training session. In nine games of action, Morant averaged 25.1 points per game and 8.1 assists.

 Shortly after Morant’s final appearance of the season, Smart endured another injury in a January 9th win over the Dallas Mavericks, where he suffered a rupture of the proximal interphalangeal joint in his right index finger. The finger injury has Smart out for at least six weeks. Bane took his turn in the injury-laden season for the Grizzlies, as he suffered a grade three ankle sprain in a January 12th loss to the Los Angeles Clippers.

Since Morant, Smart, and Bane have been out with injuries, the Grizzlies are 4-5. Since Williams Jr. was given a full roster spot, Memphis signed Scotty Pippen Jr. to a two-way contract on January 17th. He has appeared in five games so far, averaging 8.8 points and four assists.

With the varying availability of players from game to game for the Grizzlies due to minor injuries to Zaire Williams, Kennard, and Santi Aldama, the Grizzlies have struggled to get eight players available nightly.

  GG Jackson was the 45th pick in the 2023 NBA Draft and was given a two-way roster spot. Jackson, who turned 19 in December is the youngest active player in the NBA and was initially the #1 recruit in the class of 2023, but he decided to forego his senior year of high school and enroll at The University of South Carolina, where he played his lone year of college basketball in the 2022-23 season. In 20 games so far this season, he has scored in double-figures in 10 games and scored over 20 points on three occasions.

On January 29th, the Grizzlies were granted yet another injury exception in the form of three 10-day contracts as Matthew Hurt, Trey Jemison, and Tosan Evbuowman were added to the roster. Hurt scored his first NBA points and tallied 10 total points on January 29th against the Sacramento Kings. Jemison scored his first NBA points and tallied five points against the Cleveland Cavaliers on February 1st.

On February 7th, the team traded center Xavier Tillman to the Boston Celtics for Lamar Stevens and two future second-round picks. On February 8th at the NBA Trade Deadline, David Roddy was shipped to the Phoenix Suns and in return, Yuta Watanabe and Chimezie Metu along with a 2026 first-round pick swap were sent to Memphis. Watanabe returns to Memphis, where he started his career after going undrafted in 2018.

  The team waived Metu and awarded the open full-roster spot to GG Jackson on a four-year deal after a 27-point and nine-rebound performance against the Chicago Bulls on February 8th. Trey Jemison had his 10-day contract extended on February 9th to a two-way roster spot after Jackson’s promotion to the full roster.

  The Grizzlies had a nine-game losing streak from January 28th through February 12th, their longest such streak this season. The Grizzlies snapped their losing streak against the Rockets on February 14th to avoid a season sweep and upset the Milwaukee Bucks the next night on national TV to head into All-Star Break.  

A lot of debate is going on about whether the team should tank and focus their attention on the 2024 NBA Draft or play the season out. Currently sitting at 20-36 with the seventh-best odds at the #1 overall pick, tanking at this point for the Grizzlies does not offer much to gain.

In the Western Conference, the Grizzlies sit in 13th place, three games ahead of the Trail Blazers and eight games ahead of the San Antonio Spurs for the conference's worst record. In the east, the Pistons, Washington Wizards, and Charlotte Hornets are already ahead of the game in trying to improve draft positioning. 

The Toronto Raptors are 19-36 and are realistically the only team currently behind the Grizzlies in the standings that can pass them. The Trail Blazers could leap the Grizzlies in the west standings, but I don’t think they are hungry enough. With this, it is fair to think that the team will have the sixth-best odds and a 7.5% chance of landing the top pick or the seventh-best odds and a 9% chance of claiming the top pick at the draft lottery in May.

With Bane and Smart set to return in the coming weeks, I am for the team playing to win. The team's push with Morant, Bane, Jackson Jr., and Smart healthy where they went 8-4, ruined any potential substantial draft lottery increase. Now with a heavy rotation of two-way players and short-term contract players, the Grizzlies should focus on development, competing to win, and finishing close games down the stretch. 

In the team's five-game losing streak, on three occasions the squad has been within three points of their opponent with under three minutes left in regulation and faltered down the stretch. The talent and fight are there with the team, but the inexperience in “Clutch time” and not having a true go-to guy are apparent.


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