Over the past two decades in the NBA, we’ve seen a myriad of strategies that teams have employed to earn a spot in the postseason.
This includes tanking for young talent, big name free agency acquisitions, well executed trades by smart front offices that complement the talent they already have, or simply grooming the talent they possess and drafting until they meet their highest potential.
There’s no real “correct” way of building a playoff contender in today’s NBA, though some methods work better than others — and most only work with savy management at the helm. So to predict just how long we have to wait to see the Grizzlies return to the top of the West we should look at the recent teams that have followed the blueprint the new smart front office seems to be emulating.
One past team in particular (cue click-bait “you won’t BELIEVE who it is!”) shares a surprising amount of similarities with the current Grizzlies roster which, if the comparison holds true, could mean a very bright future for the Grizzlies.
Let’s compare Memphis’ most proven young talent to the first key piece of this ‘mystery franchise’ by peeping some numbers earned by Grizzlies centerpiece Jaren Jackson Jr. and comparing them to the rookie numbers of a star on this alternative team.
Now obviously stats don’t tell the entire story of a player, or account for the different circumstances each player might deal with coming into the league. Though both Jaren and our mystery player played their rookie season at the age of 19 and were both top 5 picks in the draft, few, if any such players, have quality teammates like Mike Conley and Marc Gasol to play alongside in their first season.
It’s somewhat apparent that mystery player was forced into a primary shooter role, which accounts for their higher scoring numbers but lower shooting efficiency. That said, statistically speaking, the only areas mystery player beat out Jaren in was free throw percentage, assists, and personal fouls.
Knowing what we do about Jaren’s defensive abilities and potential, it’s likely that most fans, Grizzlies or otherwise, would choose Jaren over this mystery player.
It’s a fairly reasonable position to take unless you’re aware that ‘mystery player’ is none other than future MVP and NBA champion, Kevin Durant.
I just want to clarify that I am in no way saying that Jaren will definitely reach the heights of Durant, or that their games are identical. Both are near 7 footers that can shoot from 3 on volume, and have guard-like handles that let them create for themselves in iso situations.
Outside of that, not many similarities exist between them. Jaren is more likely to win DPOY than he is the season scoring title, and vice versa for Durant. The biggest thing that makes Jaren comparable to Durant isn’t something you’d find in a box score or any set of measurables. It’s the combination of elite talent combined with a body type that doesn’t necessarily match the skillset.
That uniqueness, or ‘unicorn’ status, tends to be what separates the ‘all-time greats’ from your average allstar level player. A unique player doesn’t even have to be an elite talent to change the game of basketball. Draymond Green doesn’t put up MVP level stats, but his unique ability to guard any player at an above average level changed the entire meta of the NBA, and led to teams all over the league emulating this ‘small ball’ philosophy with varying degrees of success.
Whether Jaren ends up closer to Green or Durant in terms of overall impact remains to be seen, but the evidence suggests that having a ‘Unicorn’ type player can be game changing for a franchise.
With that said, the comparison to the early OKC Thunder doesn’t just stop with a couple unicorns.
The next comparison is fairly easy to guess unless you’ve lived in total isolation since the last game of the 2018-19 season.
At the end of Durant’s rookie season, the Thunder used the 4th overall pick to draft a hyper athletic point guard by the name of Russell Westbrook.
At the end of Jaren’s rookie season, the Grizzlies won the lottery and used the 2nd overall pick to draft hyper athletic point guard Ja Morant.
The player comps for Ja and Westbrook are easier to see than Jaren and Durant, though it remains to be seen how well Ja adapts to the next level. That said, there is a very real possibility that Ja ends up being an even better player than Westbrook. Even if he doesn’t, who knows how far the Thunder would have gone with Durant and Westbrook if he were as selfless as Ja appears to be?
The dynamic duo of Ja and Jaren might prove to be a better fit than Durant and Westbrook, even if both players are slightly less talented individually.
The final player comp of the OKC big 3 of Durant, Westbrook, and Harden can’t really be made until the end of this coming season, though there are a number of talented guards in the upcoming draft class that could easily fill that spot should the Grizzlies keep their draft pick this season (which they will if it is top 6).
Anthony Edwards, LaMelo Ball, RJ Hampton, or someone else could easily be that 3rd piece to complete the squad.
But every big 3 needs an X factor player that while not as talented as their teammates, complements them in a way that lets them maximize their potential. For the Thunder that player was Serge Ibaka.
Though a tiny bit younger (or a lot older if you believe the conspiracy theories) than his star teammates, his combination of rim protection, athleticism, perimeter defense, and his development as a 3 point shooter a few years into his career made him a perfect role player with the Thunder.
It may be a stretch, but could Brandon Clarke be that player for the Grizzlies in the coming seasons? He certainly has looked the part in summer league and pre season, filling the exact same role that Ibaka did with the Thunder while even showing hints of a 3 point shot. They were even drafted a similar spots in their respective drafts (24th for Ibaka, 23rd for Clarke).
As with all comparisons, it is far from perfect, and the limitless variables involved means it is far more likely to be wrong than it is right. The similarities are certainly there, and that could mean a very bright future for the Grizzlies if against all odds the comparison holds true. Just how bright? Russell Westbrook’s rookie season the Thunder won just 23 games.
His sophomore season? 50 wins and a playoff appearance.
His 3rd season they won 55 games and made it to the conference finals.
The next season they competed for an NBA championship.
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