That’s why Monday’s news that Morant will undergo season-ending surgery to address a labral tear in his right shoulder landed with a thud: The Grizzlies were mincemeat without him and electric with him, and they will play out the remaining three months of a lost season fully aware of the stark difference.
Morant himself supplied a concise and apt summary of the gutting turn of events on social media: “Damn dawg.”
During Morant’s suspension, the Grizzlies went 6-19 and plunged out of the Western Conference playoff picture after finishing last season as the West’s No. 2 seed. With Morant, the Grizzlies went 6-3, posting a better winning percentage (.667) than they had during last year’s 51-win campaign (.622). That’s a small sample size, of course, but Memphis was hitting high notes it never dreamed of during a rocky November.
In Morant’s final game before his injury, a 127-113 road win over the Los Angeles Lakers on Friday, the Grizzlies turned in perhaps their best performance of the season against the team that had coldly eliminated them in the first round last April. Memphis registered 33 assists on its 44 baskets and drilled a season-high 23 three-pointers, and Morant finished with 21 points, seven rebounds and seven assists while orchestrating the show. Jaren Jackson Jr., Desmond Bane and Marcus Smart looked comfortable in supporting roles, and the Grizzlies easily withstood 30-plus-point nights from LeBron James and Anthony Davis with poised play down the stretch.
It was the kind of showing that made one wonder whether Morant and the young Grizzlies could track down the Lakers, the Golden State Warriors or the Phoenix Suns, three wavering veteran teams, and improbably claim a spot in the West’s play-in tournament. Morant’s skills pressuring the rim, finishing in traffic and finding the open man provided the Grizzlies with a clearer offensive identity than many of the teams above them in the standings had. This was a proven formula that works.
But then Morant suffered the shoulder injury during practice Saturday, and now the other shoe drops. Memphis knows what this will look like: It ranked 30th in offensive efficiency during Morant’s 25-game suspension and found it impossible to replace his speed, vision, feel and athleticism. Jackson and Bane will again be tasked with more than they can handle effectively on offense, and Coach Taylor Jenkins must fill the crater in his backcourt rotation with a collection of spare parts.
The deep field of playoff aspirants already sitting atop Memphis in the standings includes several teams, such as the Lakers and Warriors, who figure to be buyers before the Feb. 8 trade deadline. Sooner or later, that means the Grizzlies’ best course will almost certainly be to pull the plug and play for draft lottery ping-pong balls.
Though this year’s draft class is regarded as relatively weak at the top compared with the past few, Memphis has typically excelled in talent identification — landing Morant, Jackson, Bane and other rotation players through the draft. What’s more, the Grizzlies could use another injection of long-term upside as they cope with serious injuries to Steven Adams and Brandon Clarke, and they will find it helpful to have another low-cost rookie deal as they move forward with the core trio of Morant, Jackson and Bane earning more than $95 million combined next season.
The beneficial draft implications are a small consolation. While Morant’s injury effectively nukes Memphis’s season, it also will cost him valuable time that could have been spent repairing his reputation after a pair of self-inflicted gun suspensions and getting back on his superstar ascent. Morant was away from the court for nearly eight months after NBA Commissioner Adam Silver suspended him last summer, and he is looking at another nine-month absence before the start of next season.
That’s an awfully long hiatus. Morant and the Grizzlies can take solace from his brief run because he averaged 25.1 points, 8.1 assists and 5.6 rebounds — nearly identical to his 2022-23 numbers. The rallying cry for Morant’s rehabilitation should be this: He didn’t skip a beat this season, so he won’t need to next season.
Even so, the injury is a monumental mental test for Morant, who underwent counseling during his suspension, expressed gratitude upon his return, eagerly counted down the days until he could play and admitted to feeling “guilt” over the Grizzlies’ struggles without him.
Morant’s goal, he said last month, was to reclaim his spot on the NBA’s stage with his “actions” because “just words probably won’t mean nothing to nobody.” Now, even the actions — the crossovers, floaters, double-clutch layups, alley-oop dunks and whizzing passes — must be put on hold, returning Morant to a ghostlike existence that leaves him, his team, his league and his fans with nothing but an agonizing wait.