You could win an NBA championship without a superstar in uniform, but it's not the recommended approach. Over the last 40 years — since the dawn of the Magic/Bird Era — exactly one team has raised the Larry O'Brien Trophy without a certifiable, Grade-A superstar on the roster. (Definition: a player who has earned first-team All-NBA honors at least twice.) Ironically, the 2003-04 Detroit Pistons beat a team in the NBA Finals — the L.A. Lakers — that featured four
such players in its starting lineup.
The Memphis Grizzlies will not win the NBA championship this year. But 43 games into the Ja Morant Era, an NBA title seems less of a stretch than it has since the 2013 Western Conference finals (a sweep at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs). The 20-year-old Morant is well on his way to Rookie of the Year recognition, but his ceiling for stardom goes beyond the numbers he's posted to date (17.9 points and 7.0 assists per game). There's an eye test for basketball superstardom. Whether it's Morant schooling a former MVP (James Harden), dunking with the nearest defender crotch-level, or draining three-pointers with a Curry-esque stroke, the 20-year-old guard has Memphis in playoff contention at least a year ahead of schedule.
Morant averaged 19.3 points over the Grizzlies' recent seven-game winning streak. But then on Martin Luther King Day he seemed to disappear in a loss to New Orleans. The stat sheet says he had 16 points and nine assists, a fine night for mortal NBA guards. But the Griz were down 19 by halftime. That's the catch (for now) with Morant: superstars don't disappear against the Pelicans on national TV.
It's outlandish to discuss Morant among first-team All-NBA candidates, right? With Harden, Russell Westbrook, Damian Lillard, and another wunderkind — Dallas's Luka Doncic — in the mix, such an honor will come hard-earned. But in 2021? Perhaps 2022? In the 25 years since the Grizzlies debuted in Vancouver, only one player has earned first-team honors, and Marc Gasol did so only once (2015). A half-season is but a blip in the NBA career of a superstar, but Ja Morant appears to be fitting himself for a cape.
• A suggestion for the NBA's schedule-makers: Why not find a way for the Atlanta Hawks to visit Memphis for the Martin Luther King Day game in the near future? It would seem to add extra meaning to an already powerful event on the NBA calendar. The Grizzlies have hosted New Orleans the last two years and four of the last seven. Bring some variety to the game. Inviting the team that represents Dr. King's hometown would be a poignant start.
• Look for Isaac Bruce to finally be elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame when the modern-era class is announced on February 1st. The former Memphis Tiger is a finalist for the fourth time (no more than five modern-era finalists are inducted each year). A member of the inaugural class of the Memphis Sports Hall of Fame, Bruce ranks fifth in NFL history with 15,208 receiving yards. The four men ahead of him are either already in the Hall of Fame (Jerry Rice, Terrell Owens, Randy Moss) or still active (Larry Fitzgerald).