Ja Morant and Grizzlies’ first-round playoff exit shifts to what’s next – ‘Culture’s going to get tested’

Ja Morant and Grizzlies' first-round playoff exit shifts to what's next - 'Culture's going to get tested'

LOS ANGELES — THE Memphis Grizzlies, falling far short of Ja Morant’s bold, midseason declaration of being “fine in the West,” gave up with nearly an entire quarter remaining in their first-round elimination game.

Morant and three other starters stayed on the bench after a timeout with 9:42 remaining in the fourth quarter of Friday’s Game 6. Jaren Jackson Jr. had to walk back onto the Crypto.com Arena floor to shoot a pair of free throws, committing a foul five seconds later so he could sub out and call it a season.

But Morant spent much of the rest of the 125-85 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers — the most lopsided defeat in Memphis postseason history and by any team in this year’s playoffs — smiling and giggling while slouched between Dillon Brooks and Brandon Clarke on the Grizzlies’ bench.

After so much talk and failing to back it up, the Grizzlies were almost guaranteed to be a playoff punchline, considering their cockiness that seemed so fun a year ago made them the team that many NBA veterans loved to loathe. It was a season in which Morant’s off-court issues made headlines and the rapidly rebuilt Grizzlies struggled when the weight of expectations brought them to a humiliating end.

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The playoff failure sets up what coach Taylor Jenkins called a “pivotal” offseason, as the humbled Grizzlies continue to attempt to build a contender around their talented young core.

The Lakers certainly had a joke ready after they dispensed of the No. 2 seed and advanced to the next round. Loud enough to be clearly heard through the locker room walls, the Lakers chanted the chorus of a song by Memphis-born rapper Al Kapone that has for years served as the Grizzlies’ unofficial victory anthem.

“Whoop that trick! Whoop that trick! Whoop that trick!”

JENKINS’ PREGAME MEDIA availabilities tend to be mundane affairs, so his honesty before Game 4, with the Grizzlies down 2-1 in the series, raised some eyebrows.

Jenkins said the Grizzlies had “definitely faced our fair share of adversity,” noting that much of it came in March in particular. He praised his players for consistently responding and said he had faith that they’d always stay together. Then he acknowledged the elephant in the locker room.

“Obviously, we’re far from where we need to be from a maturity standpoint,” Jenkins said. “This is all experience that you can only gain from. Nothing’s going to change overnight, but when we wear it and we understand what we’re going through — individually and collectively, on [and] off the court, all that stuff — and we sit down and we face that, you’re hopefully going to turn the corner, for sure.”

Ja Morant’s season was mired in controversy, which resulted in an eight-game suspension in March. Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

The discussion of the Grizzlies’ immaturity focuses largely on Morant, the 23-year-old face of the franchise whose off-court conduct emerged as one of the major storylines for Memphis this season.

Those issues became impossible to ignore the morning of March 4, following Morant’s Instagram Live session from the Denver-area nightclub Shotgun Willie’s in the 3 a.m. hour, during which he dangled a handgun.

It was an ill-advised act in the wake of media coverage of multiple incidents with Morant allegedly involving guns, including accusations by the Indiana Pacers that a red laser was pointed at the team’s traveling party from an SUV in which Morant was riding following confrontations with the guard’s friends that started during a game and continued afterward in the loading dock area of FedExForum.

After investigating the incident, the NBA released a statement confirming the confrontation, but the league “could not corroborate that any individual threatened others with a weapon.”

After another investigation in the wake of Morant’s actions in Colorado, the NBA issued him an eight-game suspension on March 15 for conduct detrimental to the league, which commissioner Adam Silver described as “irresponsible, reckless and potentially very dangerous.”

“Honestly, I feel like we put ourselves in that situation with our past mistakes, and now it’s only right that we focus in and lock in on being smarter and more responsible, holding each other accountable for everything,” Morant said during an interview with ESPN’s Jalen Rose after a brief stint in a Florida counseling facility during his suspension, referring to his inner circle.

“I feel like in the past we didn’t know what was at stake. And now finally me having that time to realize everything, have that time alone, I realize that now.

“I realize what I have to lose, and for us as a group, what we have to lose. It’s pretty much just that being more responsible, more smarter and staying away from all the bad decisions.”

The belief within the Memphis organization is that Morant’s realization of what’s at stake — such as the opportunity for an extended run of NBA superstardom and millions of dollars from endorsement deals — will make him receptive to guidance and support.

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Game 1: Heat at Knicks (ABC), 1 p.m.
Game 7: Warriors at Kings (ABC), 3:30 p.m.

Friday’s games
Game 3: Celtics at 76ers, 7:30 p.m.
Game 3: Nuggets at Suns, 10 p.m.

*All times Eastern

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It’s a sensitive subject, and there’s a natural fear of alienating a young NBA superstar if he perceives such guidance from the organization to be interfering with his personal life. But it reached a point at which the struggles of Morant and his inner circle to adapt to the fame, celebrity and potential for excess that come along with his rapid ascent to becoming one of the NBA’s most popular players had to be addressed.

“I’ve just got to be better with my decision-making,” Morant said Friday night when asked to evaluate himself as the Grizzlies’ leader this season. “That’s pretty much it. Off-the-court issues affected us as an organization pretty much. Just [need] more discipline.”

Morant, whose suspension could impact his ability to earn an All-NBA selection that would bump his contract extension to a supermax deal (a $38 million difference), is the headliner of arguably the NBA’s most talented young core. Jackson, 23, earned his first All-Star selection and the Defensive Player of the Year award this season. Shooting guard Desmond Bane, 24, averaged an efficient 21.5 points per game to set himself up for a nine-figure extension of his rookie contract this summer.

Those are the players Jenkins has in mind when, even after such a rough first-round exit, he says that the Grizzlies are “building something really special in Memphis.” But it’s not hard to figure out who he most hopes will receive the message as he continues to answer questions about how the franchise’s culture must change for Memphis to fulfill its championship aspirations.

For the Grizzlies to truly open a window as a title contender, Morant sits squarely in the center of the conversation.

“I think we have a great culture and your culture’s going to get tested,” Jenkins said Friday night. “There’s going to be opportunities that are going to see how strong you are, how together you are, how resilient you are, how disciplined you are. And then are you really building something day in and day out to ultimately try to win a championship? It doesn’t happen overnight. Nothing is going to be a straight line.

“We’ve had a lot of success in our first [four] years, and in my opinion, this is probably that moment in time that’s going to be the ultimate wake-up call.”

Jenkins emphasized the importance of preparation and steering clear of off-court issues that can get in the way.

“It’s not supposed to be easy, any of it,” Jenkins said. “So are we going to take it lightly and take it for granted, or are we going to take a real hard look in the mirror?”

The Grizzlies have a massive decision to make on forward Dillon Brooks, center, who will be a free agent this summer. Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

BROOKS IS THE longest-tenured player on the Memphis roster, sticking as a second-round pick six years ago, developing into one of the league’s premier wing defenders and becoming a tone-setter for the franchise’s snarling swagger.

It remains to be seen whether Brooks, 27, who will be an unrestricted free agent this summer, will be part of the franchise’s future.

The Memphis front office has already made attempts to replace Brooks, the lone player in the Grizzlies’ rotation who isn’t under contract for next season. League sources told ESPN that the Grizzlies offered a package that included four first-round picks to the Brooklyn Nets in an attempt to acquire Mikal Bridges before the trade deadline in February. Memphis also showed significant interest in small forward O.G. Anunoby but wasn’t able to get the Toronto Raptors to engage in serious discussions, sources said.

The Grizzlies have also used three first-round picks on forwards in the past two drafts. They traded up to get Ziaire Williams in the 2021 lottery and Jake LaRavia at No. 19 in 2022. They gave up De’Anthony Melton, a key contributor to a franchise-record 56-win campaign last season, to get David Roddy at No. 23.

Williams, LaRavia and Roddy have all shown glimpses of potential. However, none can be considered remotely ready to replace Brooks in the starting lineup in case Memphis moves on from him.

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Whether the Grizzlies have his replacement ready or not, their front office must determine whether keeping Brooks is in the franchise’s best interests.

As much as Brooks means to Memphis’ defense, which ranked third in the league this season with him routinely defending the opponent’s best scorer, he hurts the team on the other end. He’s a poor shooter — 39.6% from the floor, 32.6% from 3-point range in the regular season and worse in the playoffs — who frequently frustrates the coaching staff with his shot selection.

Brooks’ antics that earned him the moniker, Dillon the Villain, too often reach into ridiculous territory. He successfully picked a verbal squabble via the media with Golden State’s Draymond Green, and attempted to pick a similar squabble with “old” LeBron James this season, which could be perceived as desperate pleas for attention and almost inarguably backfired.

After gleefully boasting, “I poke bears,” Brooks became upset at the backlash to his verbal shots at the all-time leading scorer and melted in the spotlight of his own making, consistently clanking shots when the Lakers intentionally left him wide open, killing the Grizzlies’ spacing.

Brooks left the arena Friday night without speaking to reporters after the Grizzlies were eliminated, making it the third time in the series he opted against fulfilling his NBA-mandated media responsibilities.

Brooks was suspended three times this season — twice for his technical fouls count (a league-high 18) and once for hitting Cleveland’s Donovan Mitchell below the belt. He was also suspended for a game in last year’s Western Conference finals for a flagrant foul that injured Golden State’s Gary Payton II.

That sort of chaos is hard to stomach from a player who has created controversies and shot the Grizzlies out of games in their past two playoff series.

Brooks has been an essential element in the Grizzlies’ culture as the franchise went through a rapid rebuild to become a perennial playoff team.

But the big question this summer in Memphis becomes: How much does the Grizzlies’ culture need to change now?

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