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Can the Grizzlies be the Spurs?

Tim Duncan, shown here giving his patented Foul Call Bug Eyes™, has been a pillar of the San Antonio franchise since entering the league. He's won four NBA titles.
Tim Duncan, shown here giving his patented Foul Call Bug Eyes™, has been a pillar of the San Antonio franchise since entering the league. He's won four NBA titles.

Tonight the Grizzlies, fresh off a big win over the Phoenix Suns, take on the San Antonio Spurs in an important playoff positioning matchup.

Despite the recent growth of a rivalry with the Oklahoma City Thunder, one could reasonably make the case that the Spurs are the Grizzlies nemesis: sweeping the Grizzlies in their first ever playoff appearance, beating the Grizzlies year after year, eventually losing to the eighth-seeded Grizzlies in the first round of last year’s playoffs to give us our first playoff win, our first playoff series win, and putting us within one win of the Western Conference Finals.

As much as we love to beat the Spurs (and complain about Tim Duncan’s legendary Foul Call Bug Eyes), the Grizzlies should look to San Antonio not just as a good team we need to beat, but as a model for how to run a small-market NBA franchise.

Through drafting the right kind of people and the right kind of players, the Spurs have turned themselves into a perennial contender, always a threat to get to the Finals. Since Gregg Popovich became coach during the 1996–1997 season, the Spurs have won 4 titles, been in the Western Conference Finals 6 times, and been in the playoffs every year but that first one. Really, though, the Spurs were good even before that, only missing the playoffs four times since the NBA/ABA merger in 1976.

Of course, it didn’t hurt that the Spurs came into the NBA with George Gervin, were able to draft David Robinson, and then were able to pick up Tim Duncan after one bad year while Robinson was still playing at a high level. The Grizzlies haven’t had that sort of luck, and have had to build mostly through trades and picking up quality guys as free agents (Tony Allen’s awesome contract, anyone?).

Memphis has a solid core of young players right now. The oldest guys on the team are Zach Randolph and Gilbert Arenas (who is five days older than Tony Allen), and everyone else is still under 30. That said, this offseason is probably going to see the departure of OJ Mayo, who’ll be a free agent and who the Grizzlies probably can’t afford to pay. Arenas is only signed through the end of the year. The team will have to make the right roster moves to replace those guys.

Memphis has also had mixed success building through the draft. Sure, that’s how Mike Conley, Rudy Gay, and OJ Mayo got here, but what about before that? And how will anyone ever be able to explain the Hasheem Thabeet pick? Something the Spurs do better than anyone is use their late first round picks (because they’re always in the playoffs, they’re usually picking late) to draft guys that they can afford to spend time developing. It’s something the Grizzlies, as they transition from a lottery team to a playoff team, are going to have to get good at.

The Spurs don’t have rumors floating around about someone buying the team and moving it. They have a local ownership group, and they aren’t going anywhere. I mean, yeah, they originated as the Dallas Chaparrals in the ABA, but let’s be honest, a team that only moved one time in the ABA years could probably be considered a stable franchise. The Grizzlies – no doubt due to their Vancouver origins – seem to always be the first team mentioned when somebody wants to move an NBA team somewhere. If it’s not San Jose, it’s Seattle, or it’s Kansas City, or, hell, it’s back to Vancouver. Those kinds of rumours weaken the local fan base’s belief that the team is here for the long haul, even if it feels like they are. Without a local ownership group, the Grizzlies are always going to feel like they could be snapped up and hauled off at a moment’s notice. It’s hard to underestimate the effect that kind of stability can have on the mindset of a franchise, its players, and its fans.

Another difference between the Spurs and the Grizzlies is the differences in their home cities: according to Wikipedia, San Antonio is actually the 7th largest city in the United States by population. As this great post at Pounding the Rock discusses, "Small market" refers much more to the media market and the size of the city's overall metro area, but the fact that San Antonio is twice the size of Memphis means, obviously, they have a bigger base of citizens to build on, and one with more disposable income, too.

Ultimately it’s up to the Grizzlies whether they can become a well-established NBA power or not. Chris Wallace has shown that he can make excellent personnel decisions, and – with the Pau Gasol trade – that he knows when to blow up a team and start over. The team finally appears to have found a coach for the long haul in Lionel Hollins, someone whose philosophy permeates the locker room, the front office, and the fan base. Michael Heisley has repeatedly expressed his desire to find local ownership, and the team’s newly-formed local advisory board has met several times. Attendance is increasing, and if the team keeps winning, it will continue to do so. The franchise has built up a lot of momentum in the last three years.

It may not be reasonable to expect to match the Spurs' level of success; only the Celtics, Lakers, and Bulls have won more NBA titles. That said, this is a young franchise, one currently writing its early history and still forming an identity. Memphis is a great basketball town at the high school, college, and NBA level. Love of the game flows deep here, and if the team can build for the future based on its current success, the sky is the limit.

That said, the NBA has always been dominated by a small group of teams. Teams like the Hawks, Suns, and Bucks have been in the league for decades now. The Bucks last won a title in 1971, the Hawks in 1958 (in St. Louis, another city that would love to have an NBA team). The Suns haven’t ever won the title. The NBA is full of franchises whose histories involve decade after decade of futility, peppered with small glimmers of hope and brief flashes of greatness.

Hopefully, that’s not good enough for the Grizzlies, and they can be the next Spurs. Only time will tell.