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Ja Morant Is Done For The Season, And So Are The Grizzlies

5:58 PM EST on January 9, 2024

Ja Morant walks with his arm in a sling
Chris Coduto/Getty Images

The Memphis Grizzlies announced Monday night that Ja Morant will have season-ending surgery on a labrum tear in his right shoulder, suffered during Saturday's practice. With that news, a Grizzlies season that had risen briefly from the muck squelched right back into the depths.

Morant hardly had any time to get reacquainted with his old life. On Dec. 19, he returned from a 25-game suspension for waving around guns on live streams. Between the end of that suspension and this new injury, the Grizzlies played 10 games; Morant appeared in nine of those and led his team to a 6-3 record. For comparison, Memphis had gone 6-19 during Morant's entire suspension.

Morant hadn't lost a step during this lengthy self-inflicted exile, and his numbers were eerily close to those of last season. He remains exactly what he was: an inventive slasher and passer who spends much of the game alone in his own layer of atmosphere; a flawed jump shooter; a relentless chirper and motivator; and, crucially, a decent offensive gameplan unto himself. With Morant soaking up at least 30 percent of the usage, this is a lively playoff squad. Without him, it is arguably the NBA's worst offense. Desmond Bane and Jaren Jackson Jr. are fine players, but they are not intended to carry that end of the floor alone.

Now that all realistic ambitions have been kicked down the road, the Grizzlies will have to figure out how to responsibly fritter away the rest of this campaign. The natural answer might be to tank, but the 13-23 Grizz have already been too successful to outdo such prodigious bed-shitters as the 3-33 Pistons, 5-30 Spurs, or 6-30 Wizards. Flattened lottery odds wouldn't necessarily reward a concerted effort at non-effort, anyway.

Another major issue for the Grizzlies is that they can't map out too much of their next campaign based on the current players. They received almost no feedback on their experiments in roster construction around Morant. During the offseason, they spent a 2023 first-round pick in a trade to snag Marcus Smart, whose defensive versatility, on paper, should help shield their tiny and frequently targeted superstar. Smart missed 17 games with a left ankle sprain, returning to the team a few days after Morant did, and ultimately the two wound up playing just 155 minutes together, according to NBA.com lineup data. And the Grizzlies still have no idea how any of this fits around their actual centers. During preseason, Steven Adams was ruled out for the whole season to get surgery on his right knee; he settled down on the bench next to Brandon Clarke, who's still recovering from an Achilles tear last March. For all of Jackson Jr.'s merits, he looks far better when slotted next to a traditional rim-protecting big who frees him up to roam and swat. It's safe to say that the Grizzlies' vision of a glorious future does not involve 24 minutes a night of Bismack Biyombo, but that's where they find themselves today.

Memphis's front office will probably hear out any offers for Smart or Luke Kennard, veterans who could easily be plugged into contending teams, if that would net them a decent prospect or pick. They'll free up a roster slot to make a more permanent home for sophomore wing Vince Williams Jr., currently on a two-way contract, whose development into a defensive irritant was the only good news of this season. Then the Grizzlies themselves will lurch on, going through the motions of basketball games without meaning, neither tanking nor thriving, waiting for Morant to return from another, even longer layoff.

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