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  • Craig Messenger

Morant Frustration with Griz Competence Led to JV Trade

In what seems like an annual NBA tradition, another small market team is finding themselves in the midst of off season gymnastics in an attempt to appease their budding star. Over the course of the past few weeks, the normally sound Memphis Grizzlies’ front office has pulled off a couple of brow-raising moves: jettisoning one of their best players in exchange for marginally better draft capital and then still ending up with neither of their targeted prospects. But diving deeper into the current circumstances facing the Grit and Grind franchise, the motivations behind this losing transaction become clear.


Ja Morant, clearly upset. [Brandon Dill/AP file]

The Grizzlies’ young star, Ja Morant, is an electric talent – capable of otherworldly feats of athleticism as well as technical wizardry usually practiced only by more veteran guards. He’s also a portrait of dedication and perseverance, playing his college ball at Murray State after receiving little D1 attention in high school. These facts sum to the reality that Morant works diligently for everything that he has. He’s not looking for any shortcuts. With these personality traits in mind, it should come as no surprise that despite his normal personna as a model of leadership and humility, Morant has started regularly criticizing the Memphis front office for being too competent. Ja’s remarks usually revolve around how easy it has been for the team to move up the Western conference standings each of his first two seasons, as well as his fears regarding the surplus of young talent that the team has on low-priced contracts.


Ja has noted that perhaps the high water mark of his relationship with the Memphis FO was during his public feud with harmful locker room non-presence Andre Iguodala. Morant stated that ever since Iguodala’s departure from the franchise, a sizable seed of mistrust had been growing inside him regarding the Front Office’s ability to provide challenging and distracting working conditions for the team. Thankfully, as it became more and more clear that Justise Winslow would never contribute at all for the Grizzlies, Ja regained some confidence in the Front Office’s ability to be dysfunctional.


Knowing this, one can imagine the rollercoaster of emotions GM Zach Kleiman felt during the final few days of the regular season. Coming off a dramatic season’s end 12 months ago that saw the Grizzlies nearly make it into the playoffs, Kleiman was poised to see some regression in the team’s performance to assure Morant that even small market Memphis could give him tribulations and disappointments commensurate with a young player of his talent level. A lengthy rehab schedule for Jaren Jackson Jr.’s meniscus injury looked like it might just be able to cap the Grizzlies’ season at a play-in exit, especially after losing the final game of the regular season to their play in opponents, the formidable Warriors.


But some Morant heroics coupled with consistent play from Memphis’s rock solid center Jonas Valuncias pushed the Griz past the Golden Boys in a stunning result that shook members of both franchises. In his walk-off interview after sealing the win, Morant communicated the bittersweetness of the result – his insatiable on-court competitiveness wrestling with his inner toughness that wonders if all these instant spoils will soften his career’s trajectory.


Morant’s Memphis situation comes in direct opposition to the player drafted one slot ahead of him in 2019, Zion Williamson. Zion has been blessed to land at a franchise with a rich history of incompetence. After squandering away two All-NBA talents in a decade, the Pelicans emerged as the perfect proving ground for the bear-sized pogo stick that is Williamson. Two years into his career, WIlliamson could not have asked for a better situation to harden himself in as a basketball player. The Pelicans’ roster has been a hiding place for awkward fits and non shooters for years, and opposing team’s offenses usually leave Smoothie King center with a greater understanding of the city’s moniker as The Big Easy. Williamson has been the beneficiary of 3 coaches in two seasons, and Pelican’s GM David Griffin says that he wants to keep Zion’s Head Coaches to Years of Experience ratio above water for the foreseeable future.


Zion Williamson, unpampered. [Sports Illustrated]

Needless to say, sports media has labeled New Orleans as one of the worst possible fits for Williamson’s young career. Talking heads constantly fantasize about how easy it would be for Zion’s talents to be unlocked on a bigger market team run by a more effective front office regime – a pampering fantasy that Williamson no doubt scoffs at. Zion is well studied in how integral the disastrous mid-2000s Cleveland Cavaliers were in shaping LeBron James into an all time great player, and he surely sees a similar sort of seasoning taking place for him on the Pelicans.


Which brings us back to Kleiman. After learning of Morant’s frustrations, as well as witnessing the stagnantion of the New Orleans Pelicans during the past two seasons, Kleiman knew what had to be done. He set his sights on acquiring one of the causes of the Pelican’s 2021 failures – their non-shooting, extremely buff point guard Eric Bledose. And Kleiman knew exactly who he would have to unload to make it happen: the dastardly consistent Valanciunas.


So before the draft, before the off season was really underway, Kleiman pulled the trigger. Zach couldn’t contain his disbelief, giggling audibly into the phone when the Pelican’s Griffin agreed to the deal. “It was like giving candy to a baby,” Kleiman remarked, in regards to how easy it was letting Griffin swindle him like that. The Pelicans were an especially favorable trade partner not only because of the prospects of picking up a tank commander like Bledose, but because New Orleans also held the rights to a draft pick that was just in the sweet spot of being higher than Memphis’s own, but not high enough to actually be useful. For a franchise looking to shed a reputation of competency, those types of draft picks are NBA gold. With the pick, the Grizzlies wound up selecting Ziaire Williams, an athletic but raw forward whom they hope can compound on Bledsoe’s weaknesses on the perimeter.


With just one off season move, the Grizzlies have reshaped their team and paved the way for Morant to traverse a mucher harder road than his first two seasons presented him with. In a potential sign of further moves to come, Ja was recently seen at the NBA’s Summer League, paying particular attention to bench players with noticeable hitches in their jump shots.