I’ll admit it: Being here right now is a little odd. And that’s not just because I waited until the end of June to post this. I suppose that doesn’t help, though.
Anyway, when we began our takeover of Straight Outta Vancouver back in February, I knew the Memphis Grizzlies on an NBA League Pass Broadband level. I knew the cast of characters, I knew that on the surface it was a mix of interesting players and talent, but anyone could see that from watching a sporadic dose of quarters a week on a dusty laptop. At the time, that was enough for me as I tried to take in as good a dose of the NBA schedule on a given night as I could.
That, and living in Wisconsin means I receive access to a shit-ton of Milwaukee Bucks games; meaning I’ve sat through a fair share of meaningless games on cold weeknights all winter long, save for two springs ago. Of course you’d rather see contests with some sort of impact standings-wise, or with a deeper meaning riding on the outcome, but there’s something about those games on February 19 between the Bucks and Pistons, with nothing of note on the line except two groups of professionals fighting (sometimes harder than others), or at the least displaying their athletic skills and gifts (some more formidable than others) in an attempt to, for a night, breath a victorious sigh of relief. If you can let yourself get lost in the back-and-forth particularities every game offers, you might not need anything but that game for those couple of hours. It isn’t training yourself to care so much as it is allowing for the possibility.
And that can be enough sometimes. One of the big reasons I wanted to cover the Grizzlies was that it required me to completely dive into this team. Due to recent history, I couldn’t help but prepare myself for the possibility of some quiet nights as winter shifted to spring, but I had to know what the hell was going on regardless, and either way, they had some fun players to watch, in theory. I figured as long as they hung around the playoff race there’d be more than enough to talk about until season’s end. At the least I’d get to know better an already entertaining team. That’s really not a bad consolation at all.
Then of course we – and by "we," I mean us newfound Grizzlies bloggers – got lucky as all hell. The Grizzlies built momentum by honing their perfectly sensible insane style of play by playing with as little care for aesthetic or structure as they could get away with in favor of establishing the feeling of recklessness and lack of cohesion when, of course, that’s the way they wanted a game to appear all along. That seemingly minor wave in the NBA waters finally crested and crashed down over the San Antonio Spurs in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs, and it turns out that what took place over the last few months of the 2010-11 season may not have been a simple flash in the pan. It wasn’t a singular burst of energy that is appreciated as much for its brevity as it is for its impact. This was a team discovering itself. This was an identity forming.
The NBA has its fair share of franchises stuck revving the engine in a tar pit. Teams may have the right team but the wrong scheme, too much of one position or too significant a lack in another. They could be like the Philadelphia 76ers, an easy example in the league today, who sport a player of many talents in Andre Iguodala – an elite perimeter defender, an explosive force in transition, to name a couple – but ties up the payroll to the tune of a franchise savior and is asked to perform the duties of a team’s beacon of light with a skill-set that makes him less than qualified to actually head a team in the growing process.
Sure, the Grizzlies may have overspent when it comes to Mike Conley, Zach Randolph and Rudy Gay, but what they have are pieces that brought them to the national stage this spring (that, and they proved the necessity of restructuring the CBA) and decisions that will shape where they’re headed going forward.
Conley’s rock-solid playoff run as the calm, positive influence on the out-of-control around him probably still won’t earn him his contract in the minds of many, but the Overpaid Oh What A Terrible Contract! narrative is officially stale. There are more pertinent, even basketball-related, things to discuss regarding Mike Conley now. Randolph only became the team’s lifeblood. He is now the movie poster for what the Grizzlies are about: Getting things done in whatever manner necessary, so long as they get done. The shot-chucking, narcissistic description once rightfully attached to his name has been even more deservedly-so written over with bruising, conscientious play that makes few forwards in the league long for a night of a defending him. Marc Gasol will assume the mantle of Last Dinosaur to Walk the Earth: NBA Centers Edition, next season. Intrigue and rumors will swirl around Gay and O.J. Mayo for the foreseeable future. Tony Allen will have lots of time and a Twitter account; a potentially entertaining silver-lining to the impending lockout. I bet all the bench guys get together for a bowling once in awhile, too.
You don’t want to see a team stuck on the fringe. The eight seed, the spot Memphis – the team and the city – made so memorable this season, is not somewhere you want to consistently find your team hanging around. As is the case with smaller market clubs, the choices the Grizzlies make as a franchise in the near future weigh all the heavier in determining their sustainability as postseason threats, not minor ones.
But between now and until we know the parameters of the new collective bargaining agreement – the bookends of a lockout that’s just not worth talking about – there’s really no future to scheme for. We don’t know what the NBA will look like when the time comes for the Grizzlies to face regular basketball operations again. For what it’s worth, those concerns are still enviable to a summer of white space.
What Memphis accomplished this past season – in the second half and postseason especially – in providing the power surge for their own searchlight is what this season and now lockout-induced extended time for reflection is all about. The Grizzlies have their foothold now. The 2010-2011 campaign is far and away the franchise’s most successful to date; paving a path forward while carving out a spot in history all its own.
I’ll remember these Grizzlies as a team that formed itself out of exactly what it had, an act that surprised and was entirely logical at the same time, that made their coloring-outside-the-lines style a success while earning the more traditional black and blue accolades that come with a common cut-out of your everyday rough-and-tumble squad, and that did so throughout with this look that everyone else was just late getting in on the joke, yet they embraced the attention when it eventually came their way with the spirit of an eight seed.
As they found comfort and confidence in bruising up the league people took notice along the way, and by the time their systematic breakdown of the Spurs was in full swing, the question had already shifted from Could they? to Could they win the West? When their run ended in Game 7 in Oklahoma City, the Grizzlies didn’t feel like a team that had reached its peak. Actually, as they went every extra game further in the postseason you could see reasons to expect more. In short, Memphis forced the basketball world to find them, digest, and think about what they were seeing out there.
Whether or not the 2010-2011 campaign turns into continued success is an issue for another day. At least now, out of experience, we know what we’re looking for. And right where we found it.