MikeCheck: Kleiman, Jenkins seek sustainable success as ‘hungry’ Grizzlies plot NBA title course

MikeCheck: Kleiman, Jenkins seek sustainable success as ‘hungry’ Grizzlies plot NBA title course

MEMPHIS – After advancing a step farther into the playoffs for a third straight season, the North Star guiding the Grizzlies toward NBA title aspirations is moving closer within reach.

And the Grizzlies are firmly committed to clearing any hurdles necessary to further develop and keep their talented young core intact, according to the team’s top basketball executive.

“The goal is, and continues to be, to win a championship here,” said Zach Kleiman, Grizzlies executive vice president for basketball affairs. “The decision-making North Star continues to be what’s going to maximize our chances of doing so, building in a sustainable way. I’m excited to see what opportunities there are to make us better. We’re going to look at everything on the table . . . to increase our likelihood of getting us to the point we believe we can get to.”

Kleiman’s comments came Sunday afternoon as the team wrapped up exit interviews following one of the best seasons in franchise history. The Grizzlies came up short in a 4-2 series loss in the Western Conference semifinals to the championship-savvy Golden State Warriors.

Despite playing the final two games without All-Star point guard and leading scorer Ja Morant, the Grizzlies initially staved off elimination with a record-setting, 39-point home win in Game 5. But Golden State’s experience and clutch performances from future Hall-of-Famers Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green eventually overwhelmed Memphis in Game 6.

The decision-making North Star continues to be what’s going to maximize our chances of doing so, building in a sustainable way. I’m excited to see what opportunities there are to make us better. We’re going to look at everything on the table . . . to increase our likelihood of getting us to the point we believe we can get to.

Zach Kleiman

Kleiman, coach Taylor Jenkins and several of the team’s core players were encouragingly reflective on a breakout 2021-22 season and eager to come back next season even stronger. The priority is to take the necessary steps to build on a 56-26 season, which tied the Grizzlies’ franchise record and was also the second-best mark in the league this season.

The fact that Memphis accomplished those feats with the second-youngest roster in the NBA was the primary reason Kleiman, 33, became the youngest recipient to be named league executive of the year. With the Grizzlies also guided from the bench by Jenkins, runner-up in NBA Coach of the Year balloting, the direction of the league’s most improved team is clear.

Before arriving in Memphis three years ago, Jenkins was an assistant in Atlanta and Milwaukee. He played a key role in helping to develop the young and rising Hawks and Bucks, respectively, into 60-win teams and – in Milwaukee’s case – an eventual NBA champion.

The blueprint isn’t completely different in Memphis. Neither are the expectations for the Grizzlies, who have advanced farther each season Jenkins has been on the bench. It started two years ago when the Grizzlies lost in the play-in round in the NBA bubble in Orlando.

The following year, Memphis won the Play-In Tournament and advanced to the playoffs for the first time in four years before losing in five games to Utah. And this season, the Grizzlies beat Minnesota in six games to win a playoff series for the first time since 2015.

“We can’t wait to get back to work, sit down with Zach and our amazing staff and get back to work to figure out how we can keep moving forward in this progression,” Jenkins said. “It’s been an unbelievable year, but there are also plenty of ways we can get better. Our guys on this team have never wavered in their ability to adjust and adapt to whatever challenges we’ve faced. And we’ve found success together. After a win, after a loss, no matter, we found ways to stick with our values and get better from it. We take that same mindset into the offseason.”

The team that sent the Grizzlies into the offseason provided the greatest compliment of all. Curry and Green, who have been on three NBA championship teams in Golden State, both said they see plenty of potential in Memphis. They also see a few similarities in the steps the Warriors took to keep their core together, and what the Grizzlies have a chance to do with Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Desmond Bane forming Memphis’ foundation.

It’s been an unbelievable year, but there are also plenty of ways we can get better. Our guys on this team have never wavered in their ability to adjust and adapt to whatever challenges we’ve faced. And we’ve found success together. After a win, after a loss, no matter, we found ways to stick with our values and get better from it. We take that same mindset into the offseason.

Taylor Jenkins

“You’ve got to keep that team together,” Green said of the Grizzlies’ promising future. “That’s a group of young guys that are hungry, they are talented, they are athletic. They’ve got it. It will be good to see their progression over these next few years and where they can take it. Because, that’s an incredible young team. They can be special. They can be really special.”

The Grizzlies enter the offseason relatively healthy, potentially stocked with two first-round picks in the upcoming draft and well-positioned with salary-cap space for free-agency.

Kleiman confirmed the bone bruise in Morant’s right knee that sidelined him during the Golden State series does not require surgery this summer. Morant also suggested Sunday that had the Grizzlies forced a Game 7 against the Warriors back in Memphis, he would have pushed desperately to test the knee to see if he could’ve possibly played in the game.

One of the most important orders of business this offseason sounds like it’ll be an easy one: locking Morant into a rookie max contract extension as soon as he’s eligible. Citing NBA collective bargaining rules, Kleiman declined to talk specifics, but intimated the Grizzlies are committed to Morant for the foreseeable future.

Ja Morant sideline
MEMPHIS, TENNESSEE – MAY 11: Ja Morant #12 of the Memphis Grizzlies reacts from the bench against the Golden State Warriors during the fourth quarter in Game Five of the 2022 NBA Playoffs Western Conference Semifinals. Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images.

Morant also didn’t hesitate when asked about his long-term desire to lead the franchise.

“If your (question) is, Do I want to be in Memphis?” Morant said. “Hell yeah!”

The foundation is set for a team that led the NBA this season in rebounding, blocks, steals, second-chance points, fast-break points and points in the paint. The Grizzlies’ brand also had a breakthrough season as Memphis ranked in the top-10 in NBA merchandise sales while Morant also cracked the top 10 in player jersey sales.

Both on and off the court, the Grizzlies are connected on a mission and a vision.

That vision remains locked on the championship North Star Kleiman first mentioned two years ago. And it’s a target zooming closer into focus now.

“Even at that point, I was confident and hopeful that if we bought into it, were exact and were disciplined in our approach, we’d establish a process for team-building,” Kleiman reflected. “And here we are. There’s a very clear proof of concept of what we’re building. There’s an internal and external buy in to how we’re operating here. We’re thrilled to be at this point now, but we’re not taking anything for granted. We’re not satisfied.”

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Memphis Grizzlies. All opinions expressed by Michael Wallace are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Memphis Grizzlies or its Basketball Operations staff, owners, parent companies, partners or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Memphis Grizzlies and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.