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Ja Morant Needs This Time Away

MEMPHIS, TENNESSEE - FEBRUARY 28: Ja Morant #12 of the Memphis Grizzlies during the game against the Los Angeles Lakers at FedExForum on February 28, 2023 in Memphis, Tennessee.
Justin Ford/Getty Images

Less than one year ago, as the Memphis Grizzlies soared into the NBA playoffs with the two-seed, Ja Morant was the toast of the league. His team had announced itself with a reasonably competitive first-round exit the year before, setting up Morant for three killer games against the eventual-champion Warriors that validated the hype and marketing dollars the league invested in him. His game, his style, his persona: All of it was obviously setting him up to ascend into tier-one superstardom. Memphis was his city, and the Grizzlies were his team. Perhaps soon the league would be his. Now, all of those ambitions are in peril.

Given how much Morant has to lose and how defiant he had been in defending his status (that is, before the comparatively contrite statement he released in the wake of his Instagram Live gun incident), it seems impossible to shrug off the uncomfortable conclusion that this pattern of ominous behavior is happening not in spite of but because of Morant's celebrity. The through-line connecting the teen-punching incident, the mall employee-threatening incident, the weird laser pointer-pointing fracas with the Pacers, and, finally, the gun-flashing fiasco is the utter lack of consideration of consequences. It doesn't feel like a psychoanalytical overreach to posit that one wouldn't fight or threaten people that often if one were worried about repercussions.

A less uncomfortable, surer conclusion: Blaming Morant's circle as external drivers of the drama and exculpating Morant himself is a misread of the dynamic in play here. Morant will start a $193 million deal (more on this shortly) next season, and the heft of that amount of money has an obvious warping effect. As Jalen Rose pointed out on ESPN this past weekend, he was the guy waving a gun around on his own Instagram. "As the leader, as the breadwinner, you control the environment," he said. "The people that are around you, you select."

While Morant is serving the second game of his provisional two games away from the team (nobody has used the word "suspension"), he will certainly be off the court for a bit longer. The cops in Colorado are investigating whether or not Morant broke any laws, and the NBA is conducting an investigation of its own, which tends to precede something more serious than a two-gamer. The Gilbert Arenas locker-room gunplay isn't a one-to-one analog here, though the Morant situation is closer to it than it is to, say, Dion Waiters getting six games for pretending to be sick then posting photos from a boat. A lengthy suspension wouldn't just imperil the Grizzlies' season. It could come with some hefty financial consequences, too, as Morant's deal could bump up to a $231 million supermax if he makes All-NBA this season.

It's remarkable, then, how little weight basketball concerns seem to have here. When Morant's teammates and coaches talk about his absence, they don't frame it as We need him to get right ahead of the playoffs. They talk about healing, reconciliation, and the necessity to rebuild trust.

"I mean, this is going be an ongoing healing process," Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins said. "It's really not a timetable situation. ... We're taking this very seriously. There's a supportive element for someone that's got to get better and needs some help. But then there's also accountability to the team that we've got to stand for."

Morant's backup Tyus Jones was similarly serious. "I'm confident that Ja is going to handle his business and continue to do what he needs to do to get himself in the right place," Jones said. "When it's time to continue to play basketball, he'll be ready ... whenever it may be."

This is a stark departure from Morant's pre-suspension swagger, and considered alongside the steady wave of other off-court drama, it's clear that the Grizzlies have known that something has been up for a while now. ESPN's Tim McMahon essentially said as much on The Lowe Post this week.

"There's been a lot of problematic situations, some of which have come to light," he said. "The Grizzlies now have to confront what have long been concerns developing about Ja's lifestyle. ... I think their decision before was keep enabling or risk alienating."

Ultimately, it is for the best that Morant has the opportunity to get his shit right before anything more serious happens. As forgivable as the urge to raise an eyebrow at police reports is, beating up a 17-year-old and waving a gun around a strip club at like five in the morning are situations where someone could get irrevocably hurt. It's not ideal for him or his team that he's stepping away as the Grizzlies' hold on second place in the Western Conference is slipping. But I'd argue that those high stakes underscore how seriously Morant needs to take this process.

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