If someone said we’d be adding an eighth Wonder of the World, and that it’d be coming from this year’s NBA campaign, you’d likely have to sit and think a moment about which one of the league’s improbable happenings was added to the list.
Former No. 1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins, written off long ago by most as a low-effort, empty-calories scorer, started in the All-Star game for the Warriors. The Cavaliers, who drafted Wiggins, came into this campaign with some of the league’s lowest expectations, yet may reach the postseason without even needing a play-in game, despite having a ton of injuries. The Mavs—yes, those Mavs, who finished 19th in defense in 2020 and 20th in 2021—play legitimately good defense these days and are going to finish this campaign as a top-10 unit on that side of the ball. The sub-.500 Celtics looked so lifeless near the end of 2021 that analysts were speculating whether it was time to break up Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, only to watch Boston go from outside the playoff picture to first in the East within a three- month span. And despite what just about everyone believed, Daryl Morey held out long enough to trade Ben Simmons for ex-MVP James Harden at the trade deadline.
Any of these could be added as the Eighth Wonder of the World. But if that happened, we’d then either have to replace it, or add a Ninth Wonder. Because the Grizzlies—who clinched the West’s No. 2 seed and have sewn up their division for the first time in franchise history—have somehow gone an astounding 19–2 without superstar Ja Morant this season.
To reiterate: The NBA’s fourth-youngest team has stiff-armed clubs to the tune of a 74-win pace without its best player and MVP candidate, who’s missed a quarter of the season. By now, you’ve heard that it’s among the most dominant regular-season runs ever seen in the league by a team playing without its singular All-Star talent. What’s likely less known outside of the Birthplace of Rock ‘n’ Roll, though, is exactly how the Grizzlies keep winning like this.
So here’s a rundown, laying out four ways in which Memphis has kept things rolling without Morant and a primer on who all deserves to shine beyond the bright Grizzlies star.
Memphis still possesses some Grit ‘N’ Grind tendencies
Earlier in the season, Morant had one of the great quotes of the season when asked about the team’s penchant for trash talking opponents. “There ain’t no running in [Memphis], man. We climb up the chimney. We want the smoke,” he said.
That fearlessness—that almost seeming desire to agitate the opponent through trash talk and physicality—is something embedded in the history of the franchise, dating back to the days when Zach Randolph and Tony Allen patrolled the paint and perimeter, respectively. And while there aren’t as many big bodies as there used to be (aside from Steven Adams, of course), Memphis shows a grit and tenacity every night; perhaps even more when Morant isn’t playing. The Grizzlies constantly dive onto the floor, recovering more loose balls per game (6.8) than any other team, according to NBA Stats.
The Memphis defense turns things up a notch without Ja
For all the leaps the acrobatic Morant has made offensively—a career-best mark from three and a personal-best 70% at the rim among them—his game leaves something to be desired on the defensive end, where his thin build and still- developing instincts hold him back.
They also hold back Memphis as a whole on that side of the ball: The Grizzlies surrender 111.2 points per 100 possessions with Morant on the court—about a league-average rate, which would rank 16th—but just 104.1 points per 100 when Morant is off the floor; a rate that would lead the NBA. The team is far more active, prompting more deflections and more opponent turnovers when backup Tyus Jones is on the floor.
Beyond that, when other guards are at the point of attack, and Defensive Player of the Year candidate Jaren Jackson Jr. can take the liberty of roaming a bit more than usual as a free safety, it takes opposing offenses out of rhythm. Even when he’s anchored to the rim, it’s a good thing for the Grizz: opponents shoot 14.3 percentage points beneath their averages from six feet in and closer when Jackson is there to contest, the NBA’s second-best mark among players who’ve appeared in 50 games and defended at least four shots there per night.
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The offense takes less risks and better care of the ball
Few players, if any, have the audacity to try some of the stuff Morant does during games. The high-flying dunk attempts that make highlight reels even when they miss. The lightning-quick pick-and-roll splits he pulls off from time to time in the tightest of windows. The spin-cycle moves he pulls off while gliding through the air into layup efforts. And so on.
But even if every team in the league would take a dynamic player with Morant’s body control and skill, the aggressive maneuvers backfire sometimes, too, resulting in turnovers that opponents cash in from time to time.
A more ground-bound player like Jones—or a ball-handler like Kyle Anderson, who famously goes by “Slow Mo”—is prone to take fewer risks. And ultimately that works well with this group, which rarely turns it over in Morant’s absence. Take Wednesday’s game, for example, when Jones finished with six assists and no turnovers in the Grizzlies’ one-point victory over San Antonio. It was more or less par for the course for the backup, who’s logged a better than 7:1 assist-to-turnover ratio (307 dimes to 43 miscues) this season—the best rate in the NBA.
So without Morant, the vise tightens with the Grizzlies’ defense. And the Memphis offense grows more protective of the ball in those situations, helping squeeze even more efficiency out of an already skilled group that scores off second chances more than any other club by far. Which leads us to the final point.
Opposing defenses can’t prepare for Memphis’s unpredictability
It might feel safe to assume that there’s a night-and-day statistical difference in efficiency between the team’s offense with Morant and without him. But the reality is, Memphis’s offense without him this season has scored 112.1 points per 100 plays—down almost three points, but respectable, and about the same as what the 12th-ranked Heat have logged this season.
No one guy dominates the ball the way Morant does. Wing Desmond Bane has improved considerably in Year Two, doing more off the dribble while doubling his scoring to better than 18 points per night. And Dillon Brooks, who also averages 18 per game but has missed big chunks of the season due to injury, has been a big two-way presence for the club. Both see their usage rate increase by a couple percentage points without Morant on the floor. And guard De’Anthony Melton has been huge off the bench, dropping 16 points or more in each of the last six showings since Morant exited the lineup.
Yet the starter who’s seen the biggest boost in possessions without the star point guard is Jackson. His usage climbs from an almost perfectly balanced 20.4% in normal scenarios, with Morant, to a star-level 29.2% when Morant is off the floor. And there’s no doubt that what he does with those opportunities speaks to whether the Grizzlies ultimately win or lose.
Simply put: Memphis is 21–5 this season when Jackson reaches the 20-point mark. He’s someone who can roll to the cup and catch a lob, or stay along the perimeter for a pick-and-pop opportunity. His three-point accuracy is mightily down from where he was during the first two seasons of his career. But the tries are worth taking—coach Taylor Jenkins frequently calls screens to get Jackson looks—if only to build confidence as the playoffs draw closer. He hit 11-for-21 from outside over a four-game stretch toward the end of last month.
Perhaps that, as much as the team’s gaudy record without Morant, is what’s most valuable here. The Grizzlies’ role players have gotten incredible experience—more than a quarter of the season’s worth—in playing in Morant’s absence. And after seeing how other clubs like Dallas and Philly have floundered when their superstars take even brief playoff breathers, Memphis has shown it can not only hold its own, but potentially thrive for stretches. It just might be the zaniest thing we’ve witnessed in a completely zany NBA campaign.
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