The 24-year-old entered the 2023-24 season with a 25-game NBA suspension for brandishing a firearm on social media. (Morant served an eight-game NBA suspension last season for a similar offense.)
Morant returned to the Grizzlies on Dec. 19, joining a 6-19 squad already missing center Steven Adams (knee) and Brandon Clarke (Achilles). Morant gave the team an instant jolt, leading Memphis to six wins in the nine games he played and averaging 25.1 points and 8.1 assists over the span.
The injury essentially means Morant can’t accomplish what was already going to be an uphill battle this season: dragging the Grizzlies out of a steep hole — partly of his own making — and into the postseason or play-in tournament.
Such a feat would’ve helped Morant reestablish his place as one of the future faces of the NBA — a position of even greater prominence once the Los Angeles Lakers‘ LeBron James and the Golden State Warriors‘ Stephen Curry retire in coming years.
Morant’s absence not only eliminates a potential heroic effort to lift a struggling and short-handed team but ensures that Memphis will end up in the lottery after consecutive seasons of finishing as the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference.
In all, the injury all but guarantees this will be a lost season for Morant and the Grizzlies, with a reach that could expand beyond Memphis, influencing the weeks leading to the NBA’s Feb. 8 trade deadline and free agency this summer.
— Baxter Holmes
Memphis’ silver lining: Adding a lottery pick to an elite young roster
From the Grizzlies’ perspective, the timing of this injury could have been much worse. Although Memphis’ 6-3 record in the nine games Morant played this season offered hope of a run at the play-in tournament, that flattered how the Grizzlies performed with him in the lineup.
Since Morant’s brief stint included as many losses by double figures as wins (two each, including a 31-point drubbing by the Sacramento Kings at home), Memphis actually performed at about a .500 level with Morant available. It’s unlikely that would have been enough for a team that is still 4½ games back of the 10th and final play-in spot in the West, needing to jump three teams ahead of it in the standings to get there.
Given how Morant’s absence during his suspension was exacerbated by the injuries that hit the rest of the roster over the season’s first two months, it’s possible Memphis will be better than its 7-20 (.259) record this season without him. Still, the Grizzlies are currently sixth in the lottery standings and unlikely to fall behind any of the teams that currently sport better records, all of which have won at least 40% of their games thus far.
What does Grizzlies’ future look like with Ja Morant out for season?
Tim MacMahon reacts to Ja Morant’s impending season-ending shoulder surgery.
The silver lining, then, will be Memphis’ highest draft pick since taking Morant at No. 2 in 2019. The Grizzlies’ rapid ascension into playoff contenders meant they needed to trade up to No. 10 in 2021 to add a third lottery pick (Ziaire Williams, who hasn’t yet developed as they hoped) to their core of Morant and 2018 No. 4 pick Jaren Jackson Jr.
Early in Morant’s career, Memphis was able to compensate by hitting on late picks, nabbing contributors Santi Aldama (No. 30), Clarke (No. 21), Xavier Tillman Sr. (No. 35) and core starter Desmond Bane (No. 30) outside the lottery. That success has dried up lately. Aldama is the only one of the four Grizzlies’ first-round picks in 2021 and 2022 who has rated better than replacement level this season by my wins above replacement player metric. Second-round pick Vince Williams Jr. has surpassed first-rounders Ziaire Williams, Jake LaRavia and David Roddy in the team’s rotation.
With Memphis heading into the luxury tax when Bane’s extension kicks in next season, as Bobby details below, a lottery pick might be the Grizzlies’ best opportunity to add another contributor heading into Morant’s prime.
Morant undergoing surgery now should get him back on the court in time to hone his game this summer rather than spending it rehabbing. The typical labrum repair requires about five months of rehabilitation, as Jeff Stotts detailed on In Street Clothes, and it’s a procedure several of the league’s best players — including Jalen Brunson, Paul George and Pascal Siakam — have returned from to thrive.
Barring any further setbacks, Morant’s injury wipes the slate clean on a Memphis season that was doomed from the outset and allows the Grizzlies to start fresh in 2024-25 with a lottery pick likely in hand.
— Kevin Pelton
How Morant’s injury could impact the trade deadline — and beyond
The Grizzlies’ season to date has been broken up into two parts.
The first encompassed Morant’s 25-game suspension and injuries to Marcus Smart, Clarke, Adams, Luke Kennard, Derrick Rose and LaRavia. Adams and Clarke were ruled out for the season before it started, and the other four players have missed at least five games, forcing coach Tyler Jenkins to use 12 different starting lineups while Morant was out, during which time Memphis easily ranked No. 1 in missed games.
The second part of the Grizzlies’ season includes the past 11 games, when Morant returned, Smart got healthy and Memphis resembled its playoff teams from past years. The Grizzlies went 7-4 once Morant finished serving his suspension, including impressive wins against the New Orleans Pelicans (twice), Indiana Pacers, Los Angeles Lakers and Phoenix Suns (without Morant).
Now, with Morant done for the season, Memphis is likely headed for a bottom-six record in the league. However, that doesn’t mean the roster should be shaken up. The core of Morant, Smart, Bane and Jackson has given Memphis belief that this team can return to the playoffs next season, especially when Adams and Clarke return.
The Grizzlies’ approach at the 2024 NBA trade deadline will be contingent on finances and the ability to open up a roster spot.
With Bane’s extension set to kick in next season, the Grizzlies will be a luxury tax and first apron team if they keep Kennard, who has a $14.8 million team option for next season. The easy solution to duck under the tax would be to decline the option. Injuries have limited Kennard to 13 games this season, but he could still have value in a trade, since teams looking to acquire him have no future obligation beyond this season.
The question then facing Memphis would be whether the Grizzlies are willing to take back salary if it means acquiring a player who can impact the roster now and next season.
The Grizzlies could also look to move Tillman and John Konchar for draft picks. Tillman is on an expiring contract, and Konchar has averaged 16 minutes per game this season. Konchar is under contract through 2026-27 and is an insurance policy if Kennard’s team option is declined.
Memphis has 15 players under contract, and the goal for the front office is creating an open roster spot to convert the two-way contract of Vincent Williams Jr. The wing scored a career-high 19 points in a win in Phoenix, and his defense has earned him playing time.
The Grizzlies also have a $6.3 disabled player exception and could be granted another one ($12.4 million) for the Morant injury. However, to use the exception, Memphis would also need to create a roster spot.
— Bobby Marks