Now go look at the roster of Denver Nuggets that took the floor during the 2019 NBA playoffs, when Nikola Jokic was a 23-year-old finishing up his fourth season like Ja Morant just did for the Memphis Grizzlies.
The only players left now are Jokic and guard Jamal Murray. The supporting cast that helped push the Nuggets to the brink of their first NBA title is completely different, and it’s why this is yet again a championship series that can inspire these Grizzlies.
What Denver has done, just like what Milwaukee did a couple years ago, is a path Memphis can (and maybe should) replicate. Though the way the Miami Heat mined the undrafted ranks for the back end of its rotation can be (and may already be) part of the Grizzlies’ calculus, it’s unlikely a market like Memphis will ever be able to attract free agents like Miami did when it executed a sign-and-trade with Jimmy Butler in 2019.
So let's focus on the Nuggets. Like Denver, the Grizzlies have identified the core they want to build around long term. Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Desmond Bane, even after all of the distractions caused by Morant’s off court issues over the past year, are a well-balanced trio based on positions and skillsets. Should Memphis sign Bane to a contract extension this offseason, as General Manager Zach Kleiman indicated would be a front office priority, Memphis will have them all in place for at least the next three seasons.
So this increasingly looks like when the Grizzlies must forge a more urgent course than the past couple seasons.
It’s the last year Bane will be on his rookie deal. It’s also the first year of a new collective bargaining agreement that will make it much harder on teams like Golden State to out-spend the competition. Whether that will also limit how Memphis can spend long term – when Morant, Jackson and Bane all need another contract extension – only exacerbates the need to make sure the right players are around them right now. If we’re to follow the template set by Denver, everything could be changed by the time those three years are up.
That 2018-19 Denver team made the second round of the NBA playoffs with a rotation featuring Gary Harris Jr., Paul Millsap, Torrey Craig, Will Barton and Malik Beasley. Then in the bubble, with Jerami Grant and Michael Porter Jr. added to the rotation, the Nuggets advanced to the 2020 Western Conference Finals and lost to the eventual NBA champions (Lakers).
A year after that, with Murray out due to a knee injury, the Nuggets were swept by Phoenix in the second round. Porter had a more prominent role and Aaron Gordon was in the mix after the trade deadline, but Austin Rivers, Facundo Campazzo and JaMychal Green also had major roles. They lost in the first round last year with Murray still out injured, and Barton, Gordon, Morris and Jeff Green, as well as young guards Bones Hyland and Bryn Forbes played heavy playoff minutes.
This postseason has been spearheaded, in part, by the under-the-radar additions of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Bruce Brown by trade and free agency, respectively. Of course, Jokic becoming a two-time MVP and one of the three best players in the league, in addition to Murray’s successful return from injury, are the most important parts of this evolution. But Denver kept tinkering, in ways that seem entirely plausible for the Grizzlies to tinker.
What we know for sure is that the rotation around Morant, Jackson and Bane wasn’t good enough this season. Whether that was simply the function of injuries to Steven Adams and Brandon Clarke or a systemic flaw to be addressed is up for debate, but Kleiman has been hinting since the trade deadline that the roster as currently constructed won’t cut it moving forward.
The focus of that scrutiny has been on the pending free agency of Dillon Brooks and the likelihood that Memphis won’t re-sign him. Adding a wing that better fits the role Memphis needs from that spot in the starting lineup is paramount. It’s not unlike what the Nuggets elected to do at the 2021 trade deadline, when they acquired Gordon in exchange for Harris, a first-round pick that wasn’t working out (R.J. Hampton) and a future first-round pick.
Gordon, an underwhelming star in Orlando, has since morphed into an elite role player for Denver, offsetting some of Jokic’s weaknesses with his athleticism and defensive versatility. Kleiman’s immediate task is to find the Grizzlies’ version of this transaction in a trade market that feels inflated from the one Denver mined just a few years ago.
It may well decide if these Grizzlies can go from watching the NBA Finals to playing in them some day.
You can reach Commercial Appeal columnist Mark Giannotto via email at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter: @mgiannotto
This article originally appeared on Memphis Commercial Appeal: How the Denver Nuggets made NBA Finals can inspire Memphis Grizzlies