The first time the Memphis Grizzlies came to Orlando during the 2020 season, they did not resemble much of the team they would become that season. Certainly not the team that appeared during the 2021 or 2022 seasons.
The Grizzlies were 2-5 and Ja Morant was starting to percolate but looked like a rookie.
Playing against a playoff-hungry Orlando Magic team, they put the rookie guard in his place. Orlando won the game by 32 points and held Morant to eight points on 3-for-13 shooting (he still had seven assists but against six turnovers).
That might have been the worst game of his rookie season. Morant was a dynamo the rest of the season. The Grizzlies burst through and made the Play-In Game in the NBA’s bubble after the season was put on hold for the pandemic. They would have been in playoff position if not for the addition of the game.
The Grizzlies continued that upward trajectory making the playoffs in 2021. They continued to break through and develop, earning the second seed in the Western Conference and staking a claim to future contention, even after a disappointing finish in their series to the most experienced and eventual champion Golden State Warriors.
Memphis was one of the youngest teams in the league last year and grabbed their destiny by the proverbial horns. If anything, the Grizzlies showed every young team just how to take their step forward and how quickly the pressure of contention can come.
The Orlando Magic are following the path of the Memphis Grizzlies as they try to grow and develop their team. The Grizzlies leveled up and showed the path to improve as a team.
The Grizzlies’ story is certainly not over. But they have reached a different stratosphere.
So how did the Grizzlies get there? How did they go from shedding one era — trading away Mike Conley and Marc Gasol in quick succession and falling to 22-60 before starting their climb back up?
Some Draft Lottery luck helped. Undoubtedly the biggest boost to any rebuilding team is a transcendent talent.
That is what Morant has come to be. There was probably nothing more transformational for the Grizzlies than that addition with the second pick in the 2018 NBA Draft.
It does not take a deep analysis to understand that through the league, star power is ultimately what lifts teams to contention. There is a reason teams throw away seasons to grab a top pick — especially in strong drafts and that temptation is already sending teams to the bottom ahead of the 2023 Draft.
Morant became the tying bond that helped the Grizzlies turn the page.
Undoubtedly, this has been the thing the Magic have missed for the last decade. And they certainly think — and hope — drafting Paolo Banchero with the top pick can have the same transformative effect for the team.
Talent still wins in this league. And the Grizzlies quickly collected several strong players — drafting Jaren Jackson and Dillon Brooks in addition to adding Ja Morant — helped them stock up enough to make their run and break through.
There is more to it of course. But everything has to start with the players and how they all fit together. And the Grizzlies have found a lot of quality role players to surround Morant.
They have a strong pick and roll partner in Jackson who can roll to the rim and finish above the rim as well as pop out to the perimeter. They have Dillon Brooks and Desmond Bane, two high-level 3-and-D wings who probably exceed that classification.
They had dynamic guards in De’Anthony Melton and Tyus Jones to help off the bench along with a bouncy big in Brandon Clarke. Not to mention the veteran know-how that Steven Adams provided.
This was a deep team full of young players who all seemed to work together. It is hard not to draw the parallels between what the Magic are trying to do and what the Grizzlies have accomplished so far.
Memphis built a young group that seemed tightly knit, played a distinct style tailored to their star player and seemed to really grow and build together. That was apparent when the Grizzlies ran the Magic off their own court and relished in every highlight-reel moment throughout that blowout.
Memphis led the league in vibes — as much as Orlando seems like a team that thrives on good vibes.
There is a lot to learn in how the Grizzlies built.
It all centers around Morant and he is the force that launched the team ahead. But by the same token, they did more than just Morant.
Morant missed 12 games in December and still went 10-2. That stretch more than any probably gave the Grizzlies the confidence to continue their climb up the standings. It was an important moment for the team.
It takes a whole lot more to survive that kind of stretch. It speaks to the deeper understanding and culture that exists with the Grizzlies.
Memphis is built on its defense as exciting as the team’s offensive weapons are. They were seventh in the league in defensive rating in 2021 and then stays in sixth in 2022. Their offense rose from 15th to sixth in offensive rating last year.
This is part of the Grizzlies coming into their own and learning more about what it takes to win. They made the playoffs in 2021 and found themselves in defeat to the Utah Jazz in that series.
Jamahl Mosley has talked about his current Magic team learning to “level up.” What the Grizzlies did last year is what leveling up looks like, albeit maybe a few rungs down the ladder.
Memphis right now represents the young team that is growing the right way going through their peace and learning from each experience. If that is the case, they have to be considered one of the favorites and contenders to win a title this year. Memphis might be learning just how tough it is to reach true contention (and the Western Conference is only getting tougher with the LA Clippers and Denver Nuggets getting healthier).
The Magic are certainly a few steps behind where the Grizzlies are at today. But the Grizzlies provide a clear map for how the Magic are trying to grow and build. The Grizzlies have walked the steps the Magic are trying to walk.
They provide a clear road map for how a team can center itself around a star and build its identity into a playoff team and potential title contender.