Surprising Grizzlies ahead of team’s rebuilding schedule
MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — The Memphis Grizzlies’ rebuilding plan is ahead of even the most optimistic schedule,
They have won more games before the All-Star break than predicted and currently hold the No. 8 spot in the Western Conference standings.
“We had high hopes for what this group could become, and I think it’s fair to say that this group has already exceeded I think any realistic expectations that anyone had internally or externally,” Memphis general manager Zach Kleiman said Monday.
Kleiman talked to reporters Monday for the first time since the trade deadline. The Grizzlies are 3-1 in February and have won 14 of their last 18 and are 27-26 overall — a game above what most sports books expected this season.
It’s a quick turnaround from just over a year ago when Memphis was breaking up the final pieces of a group that set a franchise record with seven straight playoff appearances that ended in 2017.
The Grizzlies traded center Marc Gasol to Toronto. Then controlling owner Robert Pera shook up his front office hours after the season, and a 30-year-old Kleiman went from team counsel and assistant general manager to executive vice president of basketball operations. Memphis also had rare draft luck for this franchise, moving up to No. 2 in the lottery which allowed them to get guard Ja Morant.
Kleiman and the Grizzlies then got busy, trading Mike Conley as part of a flurry of moves revamping most of the roster.
Memphis finally resolved the saga of Andre Iguodala, one of the players acquired in the Grizzlies’ summer moves. The Grizzlies traded him at the deadline last week to Miami and acquired Justise Winslow in a deal that also cost Memphis a pair of veterans in Jae Crowder and Solomon Hill.
The Grizzlies also acquired James Johnson and Dion Waiters in the deal, but sent Johnson to Minnesota for Gorgui Dieng and waived Waiters on Sunday. Memphis also extended Dillon Brooks’ deal last week in a combination of moves that sent Bruno Caboclo to Houston and landed Jordan Bell in the negotiations.
“We’re well aware we leveraged our cap space, we pulled ourselves out of the free agent market,” Kleiman said for this summer. “There’s an opportunity cost to doing so. None of that’s lost on us. For us to to be able to add one player who we believe in as a key piece, as a fit to what we’re building going forward that was plan A. That was the deal that we were hoping to get done.”
Kleiman declined to talk about the agreement that Iguodala not report to Memphis, saying only that the Grizzlies were on the “same page” throughout with Iguodala’s representatives.
Memphis sees Winslow, the 10th overall pick in 2015 out of Duke as being a perfect fit with a group led by Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr., Brandon Clarke, Brooks and veteran center Jonas Valanciunas. The 6-foot-6 Winslow doesn’t turn 24 until March, giving Memphis a chance at a group that grows together down the stretch of this season, during the summer and into next season.
There’s a risk in acquiring Winslow.
He has played only 11 games this season for the Heat because of injuries, and he averaged only 11.3 points and 6.6 rebounds for Miami. Kleiman said Memphis is confident Winslow will return this season and are working on a plan for that.
Kleiman also said the Grizzlies expect to send their first-round pick in the June draft to Boston and finally settle a debt from trading for Jeff Green in January 2015. Only moving up in the draft lottery last May kept Memphis from having to give up that pick last year.
Now Morant not only leads the Grizzlies in scoring but all rookies averaging 17.6 points a game as the favorite to win rookie of the year. Kleiman said he’s confident first-year coach Taylor Jenkins and his staff will keep these young Grizzlies growing and learning. Playing games down the stretch that matter while chasing the franchise’s first playoff berth since 2017 can only speed up their development.
“I think the secret’s out on the Grizzlies at this point,” Kleiman said. “I don’t think we’re going to be able to sneak up on anybody the rest of the way here.”