There are no easy answers for why Ja Morant has done the things he’s done — or alleged to have done — nor what they do or don’t say about his future. But there is, for better or worse, an easy way to get past them.
And starting Wednesday night against the Houston Rockets, this is what Morant will again attempt to do. His expected return comes as the Western Conference feels as open as its been in at least a generation, as questions about his character and future linger, as a young star wrapped in talent and troubles enters an inflection point in the place he’s perhaps best equipped to succeed — the court.
“Obviously, took that time to better myself, get in a better space mentally,” Morant told media Tuesday. “It’s an ongoing process, a continued process for me. Obviously, I’ve been there for two weeks, but that doesn’t mean I’m completely better. So that’s an ongoing process for me that I’ve still been continuing since I’ve come out.”
That all may well be true. But so is this: Morant returning and leading his team to a resounding playoff success — a Finals appearance, say, if not an outright championship — would be a successful process all its own.
Win, and all will be forgiven and forgotten. Perhaps talent should not trump all, but it does nonetheless. It’s why he’s back, why this brief suspension has felt well-choreographed all around, and why for all the fair questions about Morant the man, it’s Morant the player who has been rushed back to the game.
For Morant and the Memphis Grizzlies, there are now two parallel tracks playing out, and overlapping, that will define the future of the player and his organization.
The first is his own actual personal journey. The attempt, we hope, to grow, to be better, to hopefully show that the immature and troubled young man weighed down by his own bad choices — flashing a gun in the midst of separate gun-related accusations — can be a better version of himself.
Let’s hope he can. We all, in ways big or small, have needed fresh starts and the chances to be better.
But beyond perhaps cutting off the enablers, making much better choices and hoping his family eases him toward calm rather than conflict, trying to psychoanalyze Morant has no value. His off-court problems are of his own making, and I hope he can solve them. We should all hope that. But we don’t know until we know.
But the second path that unfolds beginning Wednesday night will play out on the basketball court. And that path — and its likelihood for success — is much, much clearer. And much more likely to shape the forces that protect him in the years ahead.
Winning solves so many things. Maybe it should, maybe it shouldn’t. But it does. Morant is young and talented and electric and a catalyst for a team that can be good, sometimes very good, without him. But his presence makes this team a potential contender at a time in which there are no clear favorites in the West.
The Nuggets have faded of late, and even at their best questions linger about their often-mediocre defense. The Suns are stacked, of course, but despite the expected return at the end of the month from injury, Kevin Durant is as much a question mark as a difference maker. He’s played fewer than 100 minutes with the Phoenix Suns this season, and with that small sample size — the rough equivalent of two full games and one overtime session — it’s anyone’s guess as to what the team might do.
The Kings are fun, deep and have a wondrous offense, but what would be a historically-bad defense should they reach the NBA Finals. The Warriors can’t win on the road. The Lakers can’t even guarantee they’ll find their way to a play-in game. The Mavericks look like they’re figuring their way out of the play-in, though not in the good way. And it’ll be a tense morning among the Clippers faithful after Paul George’s gnarly looking leg injury Tuesday night.
Yet there’s still a case for each of these teams to come out of the West, though perhaps there’s a better case against each of them.
Enter the Grizzlies, and the return of Ja Morant. They have the game’s best defense, they’re young and athletic, and they have a moxy — too much moxy, the Warriors might argue — to be equally worthy of serious consideration.
What they have often lacked is offensive excellence and consistency. Morant could provide enough spark to change that.
It’s easy to condemn Morant, or to argue without any criminal charges this was all much ado about nothing. Both are wrong.
Morant seems to be a troubled young man, and a great basketball player, and someone surrounded by those who can help and those who have done, and may continue to do, the opposite. It can all be true, all at once. Fame and talent and wealth can attract sycophants, greed, arrogance and empower bad decisions. But they can also serve as wake-up calls.
Some element of Morant’s healing may come in the form of 48 minutes of NBA ball. Without trivializing the seriousness of the allegations, we know it’s not uncommon for sports stars to find refuge from their problems inside the arena in which they compete.
Ja Morant will now have a private path forward, for better or worse, to turn his “ongoing process” into being a person who isn’t allegedly flashing guns or rushing to confront security guards and teenagers.
And while he does that, he will hoop.
If he also wins, the Ja Morant story will change. People love stories of those who overcome their demons to be best versions of themselves — but so much more so when, first and foremost, they’re winners.