"Strive for lasting quality. "Good enough" never is."- John C. Maxwell
This recently completed NBA season has been one of the most interesting and entertaining in recent years. The storylines were truly remarkable; Dwight Howard's arrival in Los Angeles amid media types clamoring of greatness and titles transforming into yet another Dwightmare, injuries to superstar players such as Rondo, Rose and Kobe, the rising of teams such as Golden State and Indiana and the fall of perennial powers like Dallas. Especially for fans here in the Mid-South and Memphis fans around the country (and world), the most remarkable piece of the narrative was the greatest season in Grizzlies history punctuated by the franchise's first trip to the Western Conference Finals. What made it truly amazing was not the ending, but the journey to that achievement; new ownership, the best start in franchise history, the doldrums and unmitigated disaster that was the offense in December and January, the leaked trade talks, "the Trade", and then the rediscovering of what catapulted this team to their first playoff run in 2011; team basketball driven by tenacious defense and an unbreakable will. This team, as has been documented so well numerous times through the playoff run truly is Memphis, and a season in which that bond between team and city was strengthened will never be forgotten.
"The real glory is being knocked to your knees and then coming back. That's real glory."- Vince Lombardi
All that being said, I could not help but find myself as a fan lusting after what was playing out before my eyes the past couple of weeks. There is no doubt that the two best teams in the NBA just put on a series for the ages, culminating in two classic games that will linger in the memories of fans for years to come. However, the Spurs team that represented the Western Conference so well in these Finals and multiple others before had gotten to that platform after defeating our Grizzlies in a misleading sweep. Misleading because while a sweep often indicates domination, two of those wins for the Spurs were in overtime. The path to the Finals for Memphis was closed definitively by San Antonio, but it is not as if the games were four blowouts. The Grizzlies were there, competing, and if the ball bounces differently a couple different times, the story of this Grizzlies season may have had a different ending.
This, however, is not an essay outlining why the Grizzlies were better than the Spurs; they were clearly not. This is a piece about how this Memphis team can take the next step, how they can overtake those other great teams in the league and stand on the podium next to new Commissioner Adam Silver next season and accept their first NBA championship. The Western Conference Finals, while a wonderful accomplishment, cannot not be the peak for this franchise. The Grizzlies' new front office have an opportunity this off-season to better the team and help it grow, and there are no better models to learn from than the two teams that just finished their seasons this past Thursday night. The road will be tougher than it was this past year, but it is not impossible. Three ways the Grizzlies as presently constructed can "Find Their Greatness"...
"The man who has no imagination has no wings."- Muhammad Ali
1. Offensive reinvention. On and off ball screens, variations of pick and rolls, all of these were on display in the Finals. The Grizzlies must apply these and other adjustments more in the coming years. This will be accomplished mostly through a re imagining of the offensive roles of the Grizzlies' two key players. The coaching search has been debated and discussed both here and elsewhere as a defining moment in the future of the franchise. Regardless of the decision, the new Head Coach will have the challenge of reigniting an offense that has been more and more dormant with each passing season. The Grizzlies the past 3 seasons have ranked 12th, 20th and 26th in points per game. That is a disturbing downward trend that needs to be reversed. The new coach must build the new offense around Marc Gasol and Mike Conley and find ways to better space the floor. Zach Randolph, if he stays on the roster, must no longer be the offensive lynchpin. Gasol must have more responsibility in scoring in and around the paint, and Conley must take more of a facilitating role in the offense. Memphis' floor general has never averaged more than 6.5 assists in a season; for the Grizzlies to better compete in a more and more competitive Western Conference, that number must get closer to 8-8.5 assists a game.
“Sometimes a player's greatest challenge is coming to grips with his role on the team.”- Scottie Pippen
2. Spacing Personnel- Part of the lack of assists for Mike is not all Mike's fault; teammates must be in place that can put the ball in the basket more consistently. As Miami and San Antonio showed in the Finals, the 3-point shot is a powerful weapon that the Grizzlies must become more adept at using. This team is squarely up against the salary cap wall, but two things have been made pretty clear in recent weeks; Tony Allen is a priority to this Front Office and they would like to find a way to move into the first round of the NBA Draft. With some minor moves (DA and a 2nd rounder for a late first) that can be achieved and shooting can be found both in the draft and in free agency. Players like Kyle Korver, Dorell Wright and others have been on the minds of Grizzlies fans dreaming of less clogged lanes for Mike, Marc and Zach, but budget players such as Martel Webster (led the NBA in corner 3 %) and Reggie Williams may be more likely given the Grizzlies financials as presently constructed. Shooters such as Ryan Kelly, Erick Green and James Southerland will possibly be draftable options for the Grizzlies who can provide long-range marksmanship as well. Hidden gems on the roster like Jon Leuer can also help with spacing if developed. The team may well make moves beyond those outlined here, but minor changes can assist in creating better spacing, as well as increased minutes for players such as Quincy Pondexter and fewer minutes and a reduced role for Tayshaun Prince.
“Ability may get you to the top, but it takes character to keep you there.”- John Wooden
3. Carrying on with Character- Part of what makes this team so close to true greatness in professional basketball is its character. They are very much like the Spurs in this way. Their ability to fight, claw and scratch, Grit and Grind, all of that truly makes this organization unique amongst others in the Association. While changes are necessary in terms of scheme and role, the identity of this team can take the Grizzlies to the promised land. Now is not the time to remove tenacity in the form of Tony Allen, toughness personified in Zach Randolph, from this roster if at all possible. However, now is also not the time for ego and pride to manifest. Part of character is acknowledging change and adapting with it. Allowing for Conley and Gasol to take more ownership of the team's play while filling necessary roles defensively and in rebounding will lead to further growth for the younger Grizzlies, and their development will only better the chances of Zach and Tony to win a title in Beale Street Blue.
"Failure is success if we learn from it"- Malcolm Forbes
The NBA Finals were inspiring. The Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs showed how amazing basketball can be when played at the highest level. But as a Grizzlies fan it was inspiring because of the fact that while there is work to be done, that level of success is achievable. With offensive rejuvenation, better depth in outside shooting and a commitment to character, this team can and will get to the mountaintop as NBA champions. Take the failure in the Western Conference Finals and learn from it. Grow from it. But, do not become defined by it. As Miami, San Antonio and our own Grizzlies showed us this past season, the journey in many ways is as important as the destination. And when the Grizzlies become champions, however the new ownership and the team gets there, they and us as fans will be better off for having been part of that journey.
"All Heart. Grit. Grind."- Tony Allen