The Busy Grizzlies Hire Taylor Jenkins
While it may seem like it has been a quiet few weeks for the Memphis Grizzlies, it has been nothing remotely resembling uneventful. A lot has happened since the season ended on April 10, 2019: a coaching search began and ended, noteworthy front office changes, an unlikely but lucky NBA Draft Lottery, drama surrounding Jonas Valanciunas’ player option, and plenty of Mike Conley trade speculation.
Taylor Jenkins was announced as the new head coach of the Grizzlies on Tuesday, June 11, after being a member of Mike Budenholzer’s staff in Milwaukee last year. While Jenkins was there, the Bucks had a historic season as they played their way to the Eastern Conference Finals behind Giannis Antetokounmpo with the league’s best regular season record of 60 wins and 22 losses, most points per game at 118.1, and the top mark defensive rating with their offensive rating not far behind at fourth in the NBA.
Jenkins had been with Budenholzer for the long run over 6 seasons since 2013 through the highs and lows in Atlanta and the spectacular year in Milwaukee, and he comes to Memphis as the second youngest head coach in the league at age 34, only behind Minnesota’s Ryan Saunders takes the title as the youngest at age 33.
“We are excited to welcome Taylor Jenkins to the Grizzlies organization,” Grizzlies Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations Zachary Z. Kleiman said of the hire in the team’s press release. “Taylor has an excellent coaching pedigree and we are confident he will lay the groundwork of developing the young players on our roster while having the elite basketball acumen and forward-thinking positive vision to be a high-level NBA head coach.”
Jenkins is coming to Memphis hoping to have the same success that other former Budenholzer assistants have had such as Utah’s Quin Snyder and Brooklyn’s Kenny Atkinson, but there’s no clear way to predict how he will do. Especially when there is no clear way to predict the type of team he could have.
The Gasol trade for example. Of the three players, the two who made the biggest impact on the latter third of the season after the trade, Delon Wright and Jonas Valanciunas may not even be members of the team next year with CJ Miles as the only one who is certain and confirmed to remain a Grizzly after this offseason due to Miles has already opting into his $8.7 million player option. Valanciunas also has a player option, while Delon will have a chance at a restricted free agency this summer with Memphis holding his rights.
“It’s tougher as a restricted because you can’t really go wherever you want, but whatever happens, happens,” Delon related during his exit interview. “I’m not really sure what to expect. It’s my first one.”
In 26 games, 11 starts, in Memphis, Wright came away with averages of 12.2 points, 5.3 assists, and 5.4 rebounds across nearly 31 minutes of action per game on shooting averages of 43.4% from the field; however, the three point line was not as efficient for him. He shot a career high 3 attempts from beyond the arc, which resulted in a career low 25.6%. The 6’5” point guard showed his defensive promise and an intriguing all around game with his near 6’7”wingspan by garnering three triple doubles in the short span of the season’s final four games. Fans instantly appreciated how well he played as the primary point guard when Conley was forced to sit out the rest of the season due to left ankle soreness.
“I’ll definitely be happy coming back here,” Delon said of the chance that Memphis matches whatever deal he gets. “When my agent first spoke to me about the trade here, I was happy about the situation.”
If Mike Conley were to be traded, which is a high probability, he’s content with that as well. “That was the whole reason I wanted to get into a better situation,” he said of that possibility. “Showing that I could potentially be that starting point guard. If it is here or somewhere else, I feel pretty much ready for that.”
Jonas Valanciunas, still mulling over his decision with his $17.6 million player option, has until Thursday, June 13, to decide what he’ll do. Valanciunas quickly caught the attention and the gleam of the eyes of the city of Memphis as a dominant force down low.
In his lone 19 games with the team, he posted career highs of 19.9 points, 10.7 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 1.6 blocks, and 14.7 shots from the field in only 27.7 minutes per contest. It seems like a small window, but Memphis fans understand that his hulkish style of basketball and graceful mechanics are tools for success. His contributions to the team helped secure the eighth best odds at Zion Williamson in the NBA Draft lottery. It wasn’t just his playstyle that fans enjoyed, but his comical personality that exuded from him and the stories from his teammates and coaches.
What is Jonas Valanciunas waiting for? He’s made it public that the money isn’t as much of an issue as the “basketball” is. Although, it is still a bit hard to imagine him passing up nearly $18 million in a market that could feature other NBA players with their own player option, such as, Kevin Durant, Al Horford, Tobias Harris, and Demarcus Cousins, just like it would have been hard to imagine Marc Gasol opting out of his $22.6 million, an option that traveled with him to the Raptors.
The basketball that he is looking for was here in Memphis when he played this past season. He had a coach he liked who trusted him, had a point guard up top in Mike Conley who he worked well with, and a role that let him control a lot of what was going on around him on the court. That basketball, however, has changed a lot in a very short time with JB gone and Conley appearing to be on his way out. Valanciunas recently spoke to the media about his player option in Lithuania at a basketball awards ceremony back on June 4.
“It’s still early to say,” he began. “Deeper into the summer, we’ll have a better picture who’s staying and what are the team plans. Firstly, I want to see who’s the head coach. It’s gonna be a huge factor.”
Well, now we know who the head coach is. We also know that the back court situation is slightly murky due to a number of reasons: the NBA Draft, Mike Conley, and a number of talented young guards.
Last season, we wondered what the rotation would look like with Mike Conley, Andrew Harrison, Shelvin Mack, recently drafted Jevon Carter, Wayne Selden, and Marshon Brooks all sharing the backcourt. It didn’t look great as things quickly changed.
So far it looks like a similar issue is arising heading into the draft and free agency. There’s Mike Conley, who is widely expected to be traded before opening night, Delon Wright, the young defensive menace in Jevon Carter, a resurgent Avery Bradley, and Tyler Dorsey who had an impressive run playing for the Grizzlies and helping the Memphis Hustle clinch their first playoff bid. All of that with another guard (most likely) on the way through the draft in Temetrius Jamel Morant, or more commonly known as Ja Morant.
Ja Morant came away from his sophomore season of college ball at Murray State with an average of 24.5 points and 10 assists. The last time anyone had averaged 20 points and 10 assists in a year of college ball? I couldn’t tell you because going back to 1983, when the NCAA began to record assists, it had never been done. Ja Morant is simply electric. He is an artisan of the pass with not only his creative vision but his ability and strength to complete it. That coupled with his handling and his knack for getting to the rim for a crafty layup or a dunk helped shoot himself up the draft boards by leading the Murray State Racers to the second round of the NCAA tournament.
It has been widely speculated and rumored that the Grizzlies were locked in to pick him with the second overall pick in this years draft. After a trip down the Youtube wormholes of highlight reels of Morant, can you blame them? The idea of pairing a 6’3” athletic point guard capable of throwing lobs and passes accurately from anywhere on the floor -especially around the paint- is tantalizing when you look at the roster assurances and possibilities that could surround Jaren Jackson, Jr.
One player who may not be around to see Morant’s NBA introduction as a Grizzly (if it happens) is the final piece of the Core Four in Mike Conley. He has put the franchise on blast in his own subtle, kind, and considerate way through the Athletic’s Peter Edmiston, and the fans have been quick to support him. It’s fair to say Conley raised valid points concerning his own career aspirations when he said he was “kind of past trying to make noise every year.”
This past season, Conley was somehow able to have an even better season than his praised 2016-17 campaign. I say “somehow” because every possible hurdle was placed on the track in front of him for him to jump through: coming off a flushed year due to a surgically removed heel growth, he is on the wrong side of thirty, his closest friend and pick-n-pop teammate in Marc Gasol was traded away, front office blunders left and right, was placed on the trading block for the first time since his sophomore season, and had to work around a dramatic roster turnover.
If Conley doesn’t want to be a Grizzly, which he does not because he clearly has expressed that he wants to compete for a ring, then the Grizzlies have no real choice but to either convince him that this is where he wants to be and that there is a solid plan or to try to trade him sooner than later.
You might be saying, “Well, why now? We are about to get a new young point guard who can play under him and with him to grow, and it’s not up to him because he signed a contract!”
If the 2018-19 season told anybody anything, it is that when trades loom over the locker room, issues arise. The team chemistry is compromised, and it shows on the court. With the roster riddled of young players and Ja presumed to be on the way to be coached by an inexperienced first year head coach in Jenkins, a dark cloud like that is not ideal.
To better understand the hire of Taylor Jenkins, you need to understand who hired him. Not even three hours after the exit interviews ended, Adrian Wojnarowski dropped the “Woj bomb” that Chris Wallace was no longer the general manager and JB Bickerstaff would be dismissed as the team head coach, and we got this gem of situational irony from the Athletic and Stadium’s Shams Charania.
Chris Wallace was reassigned as a scout, and John Hollinger was moved from Vice President of Basketball Operations to a senior advisory role. Jason Wexler, who was previously only the President of Business Operations, became the president of both business and basketball operations, while Zachary Kleiman was promoted to Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations as the lead guy on everything day-to-day. Kleiman rose among the ranks rather quickly for someone of his experience and age. For him, it’s just another driving force.
“Nobody is going to give me any credibility or credit at the outset,” Kleiman said to the media after his promotion. “I know who I am, I know what I stand for. There are individuals in this organization who have expressed they believe in me for what I would like to think is many years of really working around the clock and showing that I both know what I am talking about and carrying myself the right way, including as it pertains to basketball personnel matters.”
He got his start in an NBA front office during most of the 2012-13 season for the Charlotte Bobcats as an intern under Rich Cho all while commuting to and from Duke where he was finishing law school. Cho, who Kleiman and Wexler went on to hire later as the Vice President of Basketball Strategy along with Glen Grunwald as a Senior Advisor, essentially created the internship for Kleiman after speaking for Duke’s Sports and ENtertainment Law Society that Kleiman ran. Before that opportunity, he worked a separate summer internship with the Knicks in 2008 where Grunwald was his boss.
Kleiman went into this head coaching search with one thing clear in mind outside of making the best move for the team: to prove himself. The young thirty year old has worked too hard and advanced to far just to crash and burn.
“I look forward to proving I’m a sharp, analytical basketball mind and when it comes to personnel decisions, that’s going to be proven,” Kleiman spoke of his opportunity. “It’s not going to be handed to me out of the gate.”
Kleiman and Jenkins are not too different: both are young, both are looking for their chance to prove themselves, and both have worked under individuals that have experience and success. Only time can tell if all of these decisions will be for anything or if we will find ourselves in the same position a year or two later with either a new front office or coach or both.