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Former executive John Hollinger shares his thoughts on the Grizzlies

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https://theathletic.com/1822576/2020/05/20/former-executive-john-hollinger-shares-his-thoughts-on-the-grizzlies/

With the NBA still very much in the midst of the shutdown, it seemed like a good time to reconnect with an old colleague for a couple of projects. Before taking his current job with us at The Athletic, John Hollinger was the vice president of basketball operations for the Memphis Grizzlies from 2012 to 2019. He certainly can provide insight on the Grizzlies that no one else can offer. Though things have changed quite a bit since his departure last year, the Grizzlies are still very much on his mind — and a handful of players he was involved with acquiring are still on the team.

For the first project, I wanted to ask him a few questions about the current state of the team and cover a few of the potential issues facing the Grizzlies this summer (or fall) during the offseason. Later in the month, John is going to answer many of your questions about his time in Memphis and discuss some of the things that you may have been curious about over the past few seasons. But before we talk about the past, let’s get into things as they are now.

You’re certainly much closer to the situation in Memphis than any other team, having worked in the organization for so long. Is it naturally tougher to look at the Grizzlies dispassionately? Have you been able to “flip the switch,” so to speak, and just analyze the Grizzlies as you would any other team?

It’s situational. It’s pretty easy for me to analyze the Grizzlies like any other team when I’m not watching the game and just writing about them — I needed to do that in my job even when I worked for them. When I’m actually seeing them play live, it’s harder to turn that switch off. One thing that does make it a bit easier is all the roster turnover — Jaren (Jackson Jr.), Jonas (Valanciunas), Kyle (Anderson) and Dillon (Brooks) are the only four guys left from the end of the 2018-19 season, so there are a lot of guys there now to whom I don’t have a personal connection. On some nights I end up doing as much rooting when I watch Utah or Toronto and Mike (Conley Jr.) and Marc (Gasol) are playing.

But the thing people forget is that the attachments aren’t just to the players. I worked with most of the front office, team staff, assistants and others, and want to see all of them have success. And obviously I spent seven good years with that team and city. So, um, there may have been a few “no cheering in the press box” violations this year.

A quick look at the Grizzlies roster shows a team that seems pretty settled. They can put together a two-deep of young players all under contract for at least a season beyond this one. Before we talk about the offseason moves, how good can the core of this team be with internal improvement? Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. can’t even drink legally yet, for God’s sake.

It’s automatically a good core when you start with Ja and Jaren. Both of them have clear All-Star upside, and that’s the format for a good team — two All-Star performers with quality depth around them. Even the “old guy,” Valanciunas, is 27, so they could potentially keep their top eight players as a unit for several years.

Is it a great core? That remains to be seen. We just don’t know what level the two young linchpins can reach over the next three-to-five years. The other players around them all were productive and should trend upward as they get further into their 20s. That said, I doubt any of them become All-Stars, so again, it comes back to Ja and Jaren. Meanwhile, a number of hard decisions will need to be made around them as players move out of rookie deals (like Dillon Brooks and De’Anthony Melton this year) and into more significant contracts.

Specifically on Morant, how have the games you’ve seen from him changed your evaluation, if at all? I continue to marvel at his ability to lead his team at such a young age, to take over in key moments and to get the veterans on the team (such as they are) to buy in. I don’t remember too many point guards as young as Morant with that sort of a superstar “feeling” around them.

The only thing that surprised me with Morant was how quickly he was able to take over. Everybody saw the talent at Murray State, but rookie point guards have a history of getting abused, and Morant was taking a major step up in competition quality.

The Grizzlies actually could probably take things further with him on the shot-creation side. Morant had a pretty low usage rate for a point guard playing as well as he did, and the other Grizzlies perimeter players had fairly high usage despite not being particularly high-percentage propositions. One way to get their offense out of the 20s in the league rankings would be to put even more of it in Morant’s hands, even though elements of that might go against Taylor Jenkins’ preferred playing style.

I recall having many pre-game talks with you in Memphis about Jaren Jackson Jr. and what he could turn into. In my interview with Taylor Jenkins right before the COVID-19 shutdown, he compared Jaren favorably to Giannis Antetokounmpo and said that, with his continued defensive improvement and diverse scoring ability, he could be an All-Star and an All-Defensive Team member someday. Do you share that optimism? 

“Compare favorably to Giannis” is definitely where I depart the train, but Jaren has all-defense upside because he has big-time shot-blocking skill combined with the quickness to guard players on the perimeter, and he pairs that with a good basketball IQ for his age. The bugaboo remains the fouling; while he fouled only slightly less often than his rookie year (6.8 per 100 possessions, down from 7.2), the eye test said the fouls themselves weren’t as “bad” contextually.

The good news is that at least some of the foul issues will likely remedy themselves as he grows into his body and (a) develops the lower body strength to move opposing big men and (b) figures out what to do with his arms. The strength part, in particular, is a big deal because it directly impacts how often he can play the five and against whom. Ultimately, I think that will be his best position, but he might be 25 before it’s his full-time gig. Again, it’s easy to forget how young he still is.

Well, the 2018-19 season didn’t go so great, so I was really happy to see him get back on track this season. He’s developed into a reliable 3-point threat and a guy they often put on opposing team’s top scorers, but the thing that really pleased me was seeing how he improved as a playmaker. Dillon made passes this season that weren’t in his bag when he got to Memphis.I know you have something of a soft spot for Dillon Brooks, having led the charge to draft him as a mid-second-rounder back in 2017. How has his development compared with your hopes? Did you think his extension was a good decision for him and the team?

One thing I think would help, referencing back to my Morant comment above, is if they put a little bit less shot-creating onus on Brooks off the dribble. He still tends to force tough 2s in these situations, and his usage rate was enormous for a theoretical 3-and-D guy. He’s a good midrange shooter off the bounce relative to the league, but he shot from there a lot (43 percent of his shots were non-rim 2s), and it’s hard to make a decent living from that range. The idea is to let him get his 20 points — and thus the automatic Grizzlies win! — on fewer overall shots by having him bomb away from 3 or attack closeouts.

I liked the extension for both sides; it seemed fair. Certainly, he was going to get offers for the midlevel exception — before the extension, multiple teams had hit me up for intel on him. Memphis went above that number to lock him up. That’s good business for everybody.

You can also see the long-range plan in the extension if you squint. Dropping the number in the final season, when Jaren’s likely exten$ion kicks in, was a helpful piece of cap management. And by going three years rather than four, it gives them some flexibility by 2023 if they end up maxing both Jaren and Ja.

Let’s look at the two pieces involved in the Grizzlies’ trade with Phoenix last summer. At the time, Zach Kleiman and the front office seemed to be higher on De’Anthony Melton than the more-ballyhooed Josh Jackson. Would you have shared that sentiment? What role do you envision Melton playing on a playoff contender? And as a restricted free agent in a tough market, what kind of contract would you expect Melton to be looking at this offseason? 

Jackson was the higher draft pick, but yes, Melton was the more important piece, and I think that bore out on the court. Melton was miscast as a point guard in Phoenix but has been one of the best bench guards in the league this season and could become a starter if his shooting straightens out. He’s undersized at the two but so active and athletic that he makes up for it, especially in a sized-down league.

Here’s the thing for Melton — it’s actually not that tough a market for players like him. A zillion teams have their midlevel exception, and the cap-room teams are all rebuilding clubs that would tend to target a 22-year-old guard.

I expect Melton to get offers for the full midlevel exception; the only question is whether a rebuilding cap-room team like Atlanta, Charlotte or Detroit would have the stones to go beyond that. In either case, the Grizzlies are protected by the Arenas rule, meaning that the first two years of any offers sheet to Melton could only be for the MLE, but the money could potentially increase in subsequent years. The most likely endgame to me is him returning to Memphis on a lesser version of the Brooks deal — something on the order of three years, $30 million.

The risk for the Grizzlies is if Melton gets a bananas offer sheet, leaving Memphis with a difficult decision on whether to match it or let him walk. Internally, I imagine the front office is determining what the walk-away number would be.

Josh Jackson, meanwhile, seems like such a difficult player to evaluate. He was asked to play for the G League Memphis Hustle for a lengthy stretch of time and did so seemingly without complaint or much controversy. His 18 games with the Grizzlies have been solid without being spectacular. Given the Grizzlies’ roster situation, should they prioritize bringing him back? Does he have a significant market?

Jackson is a very tricky eval. I wrote that he is the Dirty Harry of this year’s free-agent market — do you feel lucky? I have no idea what the right valuation is on him. He had two fairly brutal seasons in Phoenix, but his limited sample for the Grizzlies (just 357 minutes) was pretty good. I still don’t really think he can shoot, but he also played more under control and had far fewer crazy forays to the rim this season. Also, he was really good in the G League — not quite dominant but definitely among the top players in the league. Overall, it paints a very positive picture for a 23-year-old, except that you also have a 156-game sample in Phoenix that was kind of a horror show.

I think keeping Melton is by far the greater priority, but Jackson could make sense on the right contract — something that isn’t too expensive and extends multiple years, giving the Grizzlies a chance for another “win” on a young player. On the other hand, they’re already committed to (Justise) Winslow and Anderson at the three, and the future returns on Jackson are at best uncertain, so it’s hard to call him a must-keep. Additionally, the Grizzlies might not be able to do all three — pay Melton, pay Jackson and use their full midlevel exception if they want to stay under the luxury tax line.

The Grizzlies may not have a choice, incidentally. Because they declined his 2020-21 option, they are limited to offering him $8,930,242 next season. A team that offers the midlevel exception, for instance, would have more money on the table for him. I doubt his market gets quite that high, but I do think one of the rebuilding teams will be strongly tempted to take the plunge on his size and talent at a number that may give the Grizzlies pause.

Where did you have Jontay Porter in your evaluations in 2018? Seems like that second ACL tear was such a killer for his prospects, and yet the Grizzlies have taken a flier on him with an eye toward next season. What did you make of the Grizzlies signing him? 

It’s a reasonable gamble. At that point in the season, the pool of players to take a flier on is, shall we say, not impressive. (Trust me. We signed the entire pool in the spring of 2016.) They could have used the spot to churn through 10-day guys from the G League, but Porter’s upside scenario is likely better since most people rated him as a late first-round pick before the knee injury. (Alas, I was never able to see him in person since he kept getting hurt before I could see him.)

Porter is a different player from his brother (Michael) in Denver — a much better passer and with a better feel for the game, but without the crazy athleticism. Defensively, he may have trouble defending in space. Obviously, they’ll need to see how the knee is doing and what kind of shape he’s really in.

I presume the specific contract they signed was done so that the Grizzlies could decline the second-year option and immediately sign him to another two-year minimum  — we did the same thing with Wayne Selden when we signed him out of the G League in 2017. That effectively gives them a three-year window with Porter if he makes it. (The Grizzlies couldn’t just sign him to a three-year deal from the get-go because they’d used their entire midlevel exception already.)

With the apparent decline, possibly a precipitous one, in the cap and tax figures for the forthcoming season, how do you reassess the February trade for Justise Winslow? 

Tremendous lead-in since I’ve written two pieces about the league’s new cap environment this week. But as for the Grizzlies, it may not change a lot. While most people expect the cap number and tax number both to drop next season, nobody I’ve talked to realistically thinks the league will sign off on a precipitous plunge — there are just too many unintended consequences.

Even with a calamitous drop in the cap, the Grizzlies would have had significant room if they hadn’t done this trade and the Brooks extension (which clearly were connected, and logically so). That said, Winslow might have been about as good as they could have realistically done in free agency, and he has two more years of team control at reasonable money ($13 million per). On the downside, the view from people I talked to in the league was that they let Miami off the hook pretty lightly to dump $40 million in unwanted contracts.

I’m really interested to see how Winslow pans out because that’s obviously the key to this whole thing. A glass-half-full take is that the one thing Memphis definitely needed was a young three to grow with the rest of this core, and Winslow checks that box. A glass-half-empty take is that they struggled to fit in one Kyle Anderson — a good defender who struggles to shoot and plays better with the ball in his hands — and now they might have a second one. I believe Winslow’s shooting will be the swing skill for this trade.

At the margins, Memphis turned James Johnson into a genuinely useful, if overpaid, player in Gorgui Dieng, so the only dead weight it ended up with was the departed Dion Waiters. Clearly, the Griz also wisely thought through the part about extending Brooks, since Brooks’ low cap hold as a restricted free agent was helpful only if they tried to be a cap-room team, and the Winslow trade eliminated that possibility.

Overall, I’d say the jury is still out until we see Winslow on the court in a Memphis uniform. I don’t see a dip in the cap changing the equation.

 

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Hollinger touched on the Winslow situation well, it does come down to his shooting. Last season he shot 37.5% on almost 4 attempts per game. If he keeps that up, he'll fit in fine. He's essentially (in theory) a better version of Jae Crowder. He's as good, if not better on defense (particularly guarding SFs). He will hopefully be more efficient than Crowder was here. He's certainly a better playmaker and ball handler. It will allow Ja to play off the ball a little bit, similar to how he plays with Melton on the court. In turn, it should hopefully allow less of a usage rate for Dillon, like Hollinger also mentioned. That will help cut down on the bad Dillon moments. 

All that being said, I really want to keep Josh as I think he could easily wind up being better than Kyle or Justise. Worst case, he seems like he can be a go to scorer off the bench for us as well, as he averages 10.4 in just 19 minutes. Our bench of Tyus, Melton, Josh, Brandon, and Dieng is lethal, honestly better than a couple teams starting lineups. 

This is getting long winded, but another thing is how much better can this core get with internal improvement. Obviously I think they're perennial playoffs contenders. I think they can move into championship contenders as well with a few things. Ja needs to develop into an MVP candidate. Jaren needs to develop into perennial All-Star talent. Finally, we need to consistent high level scorer on the wing. Dillon or Josh could turn out to be that, but they might be better served being a 6th man off the bench. Getting a guy like Beal or maybe Oladipo in a trade might put us over the hump into legitimate championship contention, but we should be patient and let this core see how far they can go first. 

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2 minutes ago, Rdk4121 said:

Hollinger touched on the Winslow situation well, it does come down to his shooting. Last season he shot 37.5% on almost 4 attempts per game. If he keeps that up, he'll fit in fine. He's essentially (in theory) a better version of Jae Crowder. He's as good, if not better on defense (particularly guarding SFs). He will hopefully be more efficient than Crowder was here. He's certainly a better playmaker and ball handler. It will allow Ja to play off the ball a little bit, similar to how he plays with Melton on the court. In turn, it should hopefully allow less of a usage rate for Dillon, like Hollinger also mentioned. That will help cut down on the bad Dillon moments. 

All that being said, I really want to keep Josh as I think he could easily wind up being better than Kyle or Justise. Worst case, he seems like he can be a go to scorer off the bench for us as well, as he averages 10.4 in just 19 minutes. Our bench of Tyus, Melton, Josh, Brandon, and Dieng is lethal, honestly better than a couple teams starting lineups. 

This is getting long winded, but another thing is how much better can this core get with internal improvement. Obviously I think they're perennial playoffs contenders. I think they can move into championship contenders as well with a few things. Ja needs to develop into an MVP candidate. Jaren needs to develop into perennial All-Star talent. Finally, we need to consistent high level scorer on the wing. Dillon or Josh could turn out to be that, but they might be better served being a 6th man off the bench. Getting a guy like Beal or maybe Oladipo in a trade might put us over the hump into legitimate championship contention, but we should be patient and let this core see how far they can go first. 

I don't really want to take the ball out of Ja's hands but I get your point -- secondary play making helps.  That would be one benefit we get from Winslow but we actually need him as a primary wing defender, secondary scorer and an extra 3 point shooter.  IF he doesn't really shoot well for us, well then we just have another mediocre shooter/floor spacer.

Between Melton, Winslow, and Josh I think we keep two -- but I am not sure which two.

In terms of going after "another guy" I think we should look to move up in drafts OR package picks to try to DRAFT our extra guy.  The Warriors' future first and the Jazz' future first might end up having lots of value, but they may have PEAK value before they actually convey on draft night (down the road).  Luckily, I think this current draft is fairly deep so even though we are only picking at 40 (with the Suns' pick) there should still be some good players left on the board.  I also think we should look at buying a late second round pick then drafting a player to keep overseas aka Euro Stash.  We can then let another team develop a potential utility player for us OR we can package the player's rights in a future deal.  Borisa Simanic is a 7 footer who can shoot 3's and dunk (my favorite offensive combo.  Bonus points since he blocks a few shots in his highlight clips).  Leandro Bolmaro is a trendy Euro at the moment.  Theo Maledon has (a bit) of name value.  Paul Eboua "looks" like an emergency backup 4.  I am sure there are other potential draft/stash players out there, even though I have Aleksej Pokusevski as a high lottery pick (I think the Celtics make a play to get him).  

With the imploding salary cap I really wouldn't want to sign a bunch of guys.  It may be hard enough just trying to resign Ja/Jaren/Clarke/future draft picks.

The 2021 draft looks heavy at the top and some of the players I like in this year's draft (Matt Mitchell, Luka Garza, and a few more may go back to school).  That might be the draft to get aggressive -- move up/package picks/buy picks.

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15 minutes ago, ALT GRIND said:

I don't really want to take the ball out of Ja's hands but I get your point -- secondary play making helps.  That would be one benefit we get from Winslow but we actually need him as a primary wing defender, secondary scorer and an extra 3 point shooter.  IF he doesn't really shoot well for us, well then we just have another mediocre shooter/floor spacer.

Between Melton, Winslow, and Josh I think we keep two -- but I am not sure which two.

In terms of going after "another guy" I think we should look to move up in drafts OR package picks to try to DRAFT our extra guy.  The Warriors' future first and the Jazz' future first might end up having lots of value, but they may have PEAK value before they actually convey on draft night (down the road).  Luckily, I think this current draft is fairly deep so even though we are only picking at 40 (with the Suns' pick) there should still be some good players left on the board.  I also think we should look at buying a late second round pick then drafting a player to keep overseas aka Euro Stash.  We can then let another team develop a potential utility player for us OR we can package the player's rights in a future deal.  Borisa Simanic is a 7 footer who can shoot 3's and dunk (my favorite offensive combo.  Bonus points since he blocks a few shots in his highlight clips).  Leandro Bolmaro is a trendy Euro at the moment.  Theo Maledon has (a bit) of name value.  Paul Eboua "looks" like an emergency backup 4.  I am sure there are other potential draft/stash players out there, even though I have Aleksej Pokusevski as a high lottery pick (I think the Celtics make a play to get him).  

With the imploding salary cap I really wouldn't want to sign a bunch of guys.  It may be hard enough just trying to resign Ja/Jaren/Clarke/future draft picks.

The 2021 draft looks heavy at the top and some of the players I like in this year's draft (Matt Mitchell, Luka Garza, and a few more may go back to school).  That might be the draft to get aggressive -- move up/package picks/buy picks.

I guess the point isn't taking it out of Ja's hands, more of giving him the same off ball opportunities while taking the ball out of Dillon's hands more. His usage is only 1% behind Ja. That's a no from me. 

As for the draft, this is the one to skip imo. There still should be value with the second rounder we have with either a stash guy or maybe 2 way. 

And as far as keeping Melton and Josh, Hollinger is right, Melton will get around the MLE (which we will match). I think you sign Josh on a 1 + 1 deal with a team option for the second year. Cut Marko, sign Konchar and the team is set. Plenty of depth at every position, plenty of versatility. All pretty young. 

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22 minutes ago, Rdk4121 said:

I guess the point isn't taking it out of Ja's hands, more of giving him the same off ball opportunities while taking the ball out of Dillon's hands more. His usage is only 1% behind Ja. That's a no from me. 

 

Ja needs more shots.  The Ja/Konchar back court looked interesting.  Ja and Melton were really fun to watch but neither is a great 3 point shooter, and both guys kinda need the ball.  

Long-term I think our big man rotation of Jonas and Jaren starting with Clarke off the bench is the way to go.  Maybe we add another young big man (for extra rebounding and rim protection).

We need more shooters.  Not more non-shooters who need the ball.  

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36 minutes ago, ALT GRIND said:

Ja needs more shots.  The Ja/Konchar back court looked interesting.  Ja and Melton were really fun to watch but neither is a great 3 point shooter, and both guys kinda need the ball.  

Long-term I think our big man rotation of Jonas and Jaren starting with Clarke off the bench is the way to go.  Maybe we add another young big man (for extra rebounding and rim protection).

We need more shooters.  Not more non-shooters who need the ball.  

I don't really think Melton needs the ball. His usage is similar to Clarke's, who i would not call a high usage player at all. He needs to be a better shooter to become more effective. Konchar also needs confidence from out there. He's shooting well on low attempts, i would like to see how it works out with more attempts. 

The big man rotation of Jaren and JV will at least be like this for one more season, while we still have Dieng. It's clear Jaren isn't quite ready physically to be a center full time, but he'll continue to play it to close games. For me personally, for our team to reach its full potential, Jaren will need to be a matchup nightmare at the 5, and Brandon will need to start at the 4. For right now, the current rotation is working. It might take Jaren even longer to be physically ready to play the 5, and that's okay. 

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8 minutes ago, Rdk4121 said:

I don't really think Melton needs the ball. His usage is similar to Clarke's, who i would not call a high usage player at all. He needs to be a better shooter to become more effective. Konchar also needs confidence from out there. He's shooting well on low attempts, i would like to see how it works out with more attempts. 

The big man rotation of Jaren and JV will at least be like this for one more season, while we still have Dieng. It's clear Jaren isn't quite ready physically to be a center full time, but he'll continue to play it to close games. For me personally, for our team to reach its full potential, Jaren will need to be a matchup nightmare at the 5, and Brandon will need to start at the 4. For right now, the current rotation is working. It might take Jaren even longer to be physically ready to play the 5, and that's okay. 

I don't think Clarke is big/long enough to be a starting 4 long-term.  Jaren isn't big enough to be a 5 (as of right now).  I think the league will trend bigger again.

Jonas/Jaren gives us so much upside as a big man combo.  I wouldn't mess with that.  Clarke off the bench gives us some punch on both sides of the ball.  I STILL want to see some rotations with a Clarke/Jaren/Jonas MONSTER front line.

Whichever NBA team can put together a high-level MONSTER front line first, WINS.

On offense, Jaren would space out and shoot 3's with Clarke on the baseline.  Jonas picks his spots (low post or high post).  On defense, Jaren defends 4's and Clarke defends wings (and passing lanes).  

Jaren/Clarke going small ball inside should be used as a change-of-pace lineup.  I don't see it working for 30-plus minutes a night.  

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