The Memphis Grizzlies put their future and title hopes in the hands of Ja Morant.
With Morant suspended, so are the franchise’s championship plans.
The NBA has sidelined Morant for the first 25 games of the upcoming season. The suspension Friday of Memphis’ franchise player was not unexpected for an organization that has made headlines for players’ off-court issues and on-court antics.
The association still is a league where the best players matter.
Jeff Van Gundy, the former NBA coach and current ESPN and ABC analyst, said there are lot of questions about how much the Grizzlies will matter without their best player.
“Are they healthy? Are they unselfish? Are they driven? And can they make enough right decisions to lead an organization?” said Van Gundy, who believes Memphis has strong leadership in general manager Zach Kleiman and an outstanding coaching staff led by Taylor Jenkins.
But Van Gundy added everything centers around their point guard and that “hopefully for Morant … he makes the right choices.”
He has shown he can on the court.
Morant has been the Grizzlies’ biggest star; he was their first NBA Rookie of the Year in 2020 and the 2022 NBA’s Most Improved Player of the Year. His No. 12 jersey ranked among the NBA’s top 10 best sellers on the league website the second half of this season, and Nike gave Morant a signature shoe deal.
Off the court, there has been a slew of questionable decisions.
Morant, 23, flashed a handgun not once, but twice between March 4 and May 13 all caught on social media video. The second came after an eight-game suspension in March that allowed Morant to be back for the playoffs.
Part of Morant’s latest punishment is dealing with what Commissioner Adam Silver called “destructive behavior.” The Grizzlies issued a terse statement, noting all team personnel are expected to follow NBA and Memphis standards.
With Morant leading the way, Memphis has had regular season success but mostly playoff disappointment for fans and the organization.
They were good enough to be the Western Conference’s No. 2 seed the past two postseasons with only playoff series win. They lost to the seventh-seeded Los Angeles Lakers in the first round in April.
Now what the team will look like by the time next season comes around is unclear.
The Grizzlies have limited flexibility under the salary cap after doling out big contracts to Jaren Jackson Jr., this season’s NBA Defensive Player of the Year, then Morant.
They do have the 25th pick overall in Thursday night’s NBA draft, but Memphis already has decided not to bring back Dillon Brooks as a free agent after he led the league in technicals along with suspensions and fines. Brooks called LeBron James old as the Grizzlies lost in six games to the Lakers. Brooks was suspended for a game in the series and fined for not talking to the media.
Center Steven Adams never returned after hurting his right knee hurt in late January. Key reserve Brandon Clarke tore his left Achilles tendon March 3 — hours before Morant earned his first suspension for livestreaming himself flashing a gun at a Denver-area strip club.
But because Morant has never played more than 67 games in a regular season, the Grizzlies do have experience playing without him.
With Morant, the Grizzlies are 142-106 (.573) in the regular season since he arrived in Memphis. They are 37-24 (.607) without him in the lineup.
Ironically, Morant missed 25 games during the 2021-22 season due to injuries and Memphis went 20-5.
This past season, however, the Grizzlies was just 11-10 without Morant and 40-21 with him.
Van Gundy said Tyus Jones is a big reason Memphis has had success without Morant. With Jones under contract for the upcoming season, that’s a bonus for the Grizzlies.
“He knows when Morant comes back he’s the franchise player and so I don’t think that’ll be a problem,” Van Gundy said of Jones’ understanding he will be just be a part-time starter until the two-time All-Star’s return.
But Jones, like everything about the Grizzlies at the moment, is just a temporary solution.
Their future hinges on Morant — the point guard with “otherwordly talent” — correcting his behavior and responsibly addressing issues away from basketball.
Van Gundy said supporters are hoping for a good outcome, “but the only one in charge of that is Morant.”