Ja Morant needs to grow behind closed doors to be the leader the Grizzlies need

Ja Morant needs to grow behind closed doors to be the leader the Grizzlies need

Ja Morant was suspended 25 games by the National Basketball Association on Friday. The league has made it clear that Ja’s behavior is “destructive” and the union for the players has stated that the suspension was “excessive”. Perhaps there will be an appeal. Perhaps there won’t. Maybe Ja has grounds to win such a process with an independent arbitrator. And maybe the proceedings would end with a legalese version of “you got off easy,” as many nationally would suggest, and the suspension would stick. Some would be angry. Some would rejoice.

None of that matters, because what must come next is Ja Morant going away – for now – to truly learn and grow. Not stay in a Florida facility for a couple days to try to save face publicly.

This is not a think piece equating irresponsible gun wielding on Instagram Live to felony convictions in terms of suspension lengths. And it is also not a space where the value of being a role model to millions of young fans will be disseminated.

It is, though, a call for a reckoning. Because the trudge ahead for Ja away from basketball will carry more significance than the difference between an 18 game and 25 game suspension.

The argument for an appeal is fairly straight-forward, though. Per the Collective Bargaining Agreement between the NBA Governors and the Players Union, a larger portion of a suspended player’s pay can be cut for a suspension of 20 games or more – per ESPN…

“…the per-game amount is 1/110th of his 2023-24 salary. The eight-game suspension during the season cost Morant only 1/145th of his 2022-23 salary per game…”

A quick run of the math tells us that Ja will lose $7.6 million over the span of this suspension on his new $35.3 million salary, whereas the 8-game suspension last season led to Ja missing out on roughly $669K total. That’s almost a $7 million difference – and is not to be ignored. Getting below the 20-game suspension threshold would save Morant over $3 million.

But at what cost? Public perception is already heavily against Ja, at least outside of Memphis. Powerade has limited their public dealings with Morant since March, and while the “Ja 1s” are still fairly popular shoes that sell out almost instantaneously when available online, the rollout of Morant’s first signature shoe with Nike has been scaled back.

Are we really going to believe that Ja Morant shoe supply in Memphis would have been limited before this most recent transgression and suspension? Of course not. That doesn’t make sense … unless there is concern about the current state of the Ja Morant “brand”.

And appealing this suspension – and the millions in the short-term it could indeed save Morant – may damage that public view even more nationally. In the court of public opinion, perception is reality. Maybe in terms of precedent and ambiguity over “terms” for a return to the court there are grounds for a reduction of games. But is the several million dollars now worth potentially skewing long-term opportunities for wealth? It’s not as if this will change the massive 5-year extension Ja just signed – if this all happened a year prior, perhaps the All-NBA and year-end award absence due to games missed would sting more.

An appeal would certainly be welcome news to the Memphis Grizzlies themselves, who have to plan their offseason without their superstar max player in the fold until roughly Christmas – or at least a couple weeks before it, best-case scenario. While Desmond Bane and Jaren Jackson Jr. lead a team with 11 other returning under-contract players not named Ja Morant (although Brandon Clarke is injured and will not be ready for Opening Night in October), Ja’s absence calls into question how they attempt to replace Dillon Brooks.

Losing Ja in the loaded Western Conference also makes the prospect of hanging in the top-4 of the standings a tall one. A reduced suspension would mean having Morant on the floor sooner, which would of course assist the pursuit of home court advantage and preferential seeding.

But how much should that matter, again, in the immediate aftermath of this decision? The Ja Morant relationship with the Memphis Grizzlies organization figures to go beyond just the next six months to a year. He, as stated above, just signed a 5-year contract worth over $190 million. That’s a sizable investment – and Ja’s trade value has never been lower. So it is in the best interest of everyone involved that Morant get the help he needs, take the lesson from these mistakes, and be willing to be accountable for his actions. That matters more than the difference between a 18-7 record and 11-14 through 25 games. Standings matter less than Ja’s growth.

For Ja, who has said time and again he sees himself as the leader of the Memphis Grizzlies, must now watch his team start their season completely without him. No training camp. No practice. No offseason workouts in the team facility. Morant is alone, and will be unable to help the teammates he says he values so much to win.

If he’s truly a leader, that will eat him alive. While 25 games suspended is almost certainly at the high end of realistic punishment when considering precedent, it is not wholly unfair. Acceptance of that reality – and of the weight of what Morant has done for not just Ja financially and personally, but to those around him, is more significant than coming back seven games sooner.

There will be much public posturing in the days ahead. Adam Silver will defend his decision. The Players’ Union will try to convince Ja to appeal (only Morant himself, not the Union, can file the appeal). All across the sports universe thoughts will vary across the hot takes spectrum.

But the focal point of all this is the improvement and maturation of Ja Morant. It is on him to undertake the journey toward metamorphosis into a person none of us – not even Ja – has seen before. To pursue shortening a suspension would take away from that process, opening up Morant to increased scrutiny and questions about his motives and character.

That’s not in the best interest of Ja Morant. But leaving the NBA limelight for as long as it takes, to be ready for the redemption arc ahead so many hope to see – most importantly himself and his family – is. And that, above all else, should be Ja’s focus as he exits the stage – for now.

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