Hollinger: How Steven Adams’ injury affects the Grizzlies and NBA’s West

Losing Steven Adams for the season feels like a devastating blow for the Memphis Grizzlies. His absence will be deeply felt, especially considering his significant impact on key categories, particularly offensive rebounding, where the Grizzlies excelled last year. To make matters worse, his backup, Brandon Clarke, is also expected to miss most of the season while recovering from a torn Achilles.

Adams’ injury also raises concerns about the team’s frontcourt depth, an issue that has already plagued the Grizzlies. Although Xavier Tillman Jr. performed well as a starter last season and the team went 18-11 in his starts, his limitations became apparent during the playoffs when the offense struggled. Shifting Jaren Jackson Jr., the reigning NBA Defensive Player of the Year, to play more minutes at center seems like an obvious solution. However, this move is likely to increase his foul rate, which has already prevented him from being on the court as much as the Grizzlies would prefer. The Grizzlies’ only other viable center option is Kenneth Lofton Jr., an imposing offensive player but one who has been limited due to defensive shortcomings.

In addition to the frontcourt concerns, Adams’ injury exacerbates the team’s existing size issue. The Grizzlies are relatively undersized across the board, with 6-foot-2 Ja Morant, who is suspended but will return soon, along with 6-4 Marcus Smart and 6-4 Desmond Bane likely comprising the perimeter trio in crucial late-game situations. If Jackson is deployed at center, it will likely necessitate utilizing bigger wing options like Ziaire Williams or David Roddy at power forward. Another key player in this mix is 6-11 Santi Aldama, who is expected to see a considerable increase in playing time at power forward to allow Jackson to spend more minutes at center.

The Grizzlies have the option to apply for a disabled player exception, which could be worth $6.3 million. However, it can only be used on a player in the final year of their contract. Furthermore, given that Memphis already has a $7.5 million exception from the Dillon Brooks sign-and-trade, the additional utility of the disabled player exception is limited. Additionally, the Grizzlies still have their entire $12.4 million non-taxpayer midlevel exception at their disposal.

Another possibility for the Grizzlies is to make trades without relying on exception money. They could potentially use Clarke or Adams as salary-matching assets. It is worth considering whether the Grizzlies might reach out to the Pelicans regarding their former player Jonas Valančiūnas, who has an expiring $15.4 million contract. They could also explore the Portland Trail Blazers’ interest in Robert Williams III, whom they recently acquired and could be a long-term option. Additionally, the Washington Wizards might be open to discussing Mike Muscala, who has an expiring $3.5 million deal, especially since they have to waive two players with guaranteed contracts by Tuesday.

The loss of Adams has a significant impact on the Grizzlies’ win projection for this season and alters my preseason forecast, which had Memphis finishing with the best win-loss record in the Western Conference. The Western Conference standings are tightly contested enough that losing Adams is a notable setback, resulting in an estimated reduction of approximately four wins from Memphis’ statistical projection. Despite this setback, the Grizzlies are still projected to make the playoffs. Adams is ranked as the Grizzlies’ fifth-best player, highlighting the team’s depth of talent. However, realistically, achieving more than just a playoff appearance would likely require Ja Morant to perform at his peak level for the remainder of the 57 games.

According to my calculations, incorporating Adams’ absence into my formula would drop the Grizzlies from the top spot in the Western Conference to the fifth position. Denver would ascend to the first position, while Phoenix and Minnesota would move into a tie for second, and Golden State would move up to the fourth position. This would further intensify the already fiercely competitive playoff race in the conference. Accounting for the Adams injury, my projections indicate a spread of fewer than five games between the top eight teams in the Western Conference.

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(Photo of Steven Adams: Petre Thomas / USA Today)


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