For a team that struggles to get national attention, there has been a whole lot of ink spilled about the Memphis Grizzlies' scorching start to the season (notwithstanding the uncharacteristically sloppy performance in Houston on Wednesday). The arguments supporting the Grizzlies' ascension are all valid, too: Marc Gasol's physical transformation and offensive rebirth, Courtney Lee's two-way impact, and the benefit of an extra year under Dave Joerger's system, among myriad other factors, have all contributed to an unprecedented 15-3 mark that might not even do justice to exactly how dominant this group has been so far. I'd posit another theory, though: while the seeds of a championship contender were planted over four straight playoff appearances, the Grizzlies' realization of their potential took root in training camp.
Training camp sucks. It's the professional athlete's version of CLE or CPE or whatever terrible conference your company requires you to attend in Biloxi every year to get the latest information on life insurance regulations. But with wind sprints.
The very concept of training camp is itself a relic from a bygone era in which players would need time after a lazy offseason to get themselves back into shape; but in the modern NBA, the guys who don't emphasize physical fitness year round generally don't last very long (or they go play backup center for the Clippers). Still, training camp is a fact of life for professional athletes in every sport, and it helps to get everybody back in sync. That doesn't mean it's not a drag, though, especially for a veteran team like the Grizzlies. When you're used to playoff basketball, running 3-on-3 drills is about as exciting as a governmental accounting seminar in Mobile. Moreover, there was a specter hanging over the franchise after the tumult of the summer that saw the team's management turn over for the third time in as many seasons.
"The Grizzlies are a mess," blared a headline from SI.com on May 26. Days earlier, owner Robert Pera had unexpectedly fired the team's CEO, Jason Levien, along with a number of other executives and permitted Joerger to interview for the head coaching position with the Minnesota Timberwolves. The back-office chaos had been immortalized on The Chris Vernon Show less than a week earlier during a now-legendary interview with General Manager Chris Wallace, who valiantly tried to spin the coaching kerfuffle into a case of Joerger being "homesick" much to the amused bafflement of the host. Wallace, who had unexpectedly been tagged as the interim GM after Levien's dismissal, had remained employed by the Grizzlies after the ownership change in 2012, but had been stuck in a kind of basketball purgatory over the past 18 months and retained virtually no role within the organization during that time. With a number of important personnel decisions imminent, there was a lot of speculation that we were witnessing the unraveling of the Grit-N-Grind Grizzlies in real time.
Perhaps most shockingly of all, the chaos sort of ended there: Dave Joerger signed an extension, Chris Wallace dropped the interim tag, John Hollinger got a promotion, Zach Randolph signed a Duncan-esque extension complete with a hometown discount (a franchise first), and the team secured the most high-profile free agent acquisition in team history in Vince Carter* (by catching Marc Cuban with his guard down no less!).
*If you're thinking about saying something about Allen Iverson, just keep it to your damn self.
"I'm just trying to invest in in the culture," said Robert Pera during in an interview with Vernon on June 27 (the lone in-depth interview he's given in his professional career from what I can tell). "You put an extra couple million dollars into player development so you have a top notch training facility, you have top notch technology on the medical side, and you have top notch people on the player development side."
There are very few ways that a team owner can positively influence what happens on the court. Donald Sterling evinced how there was almost no end to the ways that an owner can adversely affect a team, but I noted Pera's comments above because while I assumed he was simply speaking in platitudes, it showed - at the very least - that he "gets it." The constraints of the salary cap leave owners with very limited options as far as finding a competitive edge, so emphasizing these types of secondary or discretionary expenses let me know that he understood the manner in which he could directly enhance the team's chances for success. That might not seem like a lot, but the people of Memphis were operating under the assumption that an insane billionaire lothario from Silicon Valley wanted Mike Miller to be a player-coach thanks to Levien's not-so-covert background intelligence campaign in the media.
"I think the Grizzlies are staying at the Grand Del Mar!" I told my wife after reading some of the reports out of training camp, which Pera had decided to move to San Diego not long after his sit-down with Vernon. Nobody had mentioned the hotel by name, but a couple of little clues had popped out to me (and my suspicions were later confirmed by Mike Conley's Instagram). My wife and I spent a couple of nights at the Grand Del Mar last January, and before I get accused of writing a 2,000-word humblebrag, let me just explain a few things: I had to be in San Diego for work, we had decided that in lieu of Christmas presents we would take a trip by ourselves because our son had just turned one, and I found a really good post-holidays package deal that wasn't insanely expensive. It was still borderline reckless for us, but we'd kept our son alive and relatively healthy for a whole year, so we decided to spoil ourselves like criminals for a few days. I could go on, but needless to say, the Grand Del Mar not our typical scene. This place was opulent. It looked like Donald Trump built a desert palace for Pablo Escobar and let Louis XV decorate it, but ya know, classy. We saw actual gangsters there! And Kenny "The Jet" Smith! Mostly, there were a bunch of awkward-looking engineers hanging around with their families mixed in with younger LA scenesters who looked to be members of Maroon 5 and/or on cocaine, but regardless, my wife and I found the whole thing hilarious. It was also awesome. I've never experienced that level of service before in my life. People waiting on you hand and foot like that all the time is a total trip. It's also really friggin' weird - like, almost-makes-you-understand-how-Willow-and-Jaden-Smith-could-be-so-insane weird.
Radio voice of the Grizzlies Eric Hasseltine, who stayed with the team at the hotel during camp, talked to me from Houston about their experience in San Diego earlier this week. "I think everyone was blown away by the hotel," he said. "They were really appreciative of the gesture because we weren't scheduled to stay there originally. Robert Pera stepped in and said he wanted us to stay there.
"I'm a big believer that when you treat your team the right way and take care of them, they recognize that. I've seen it in other stops in the league when ownership doesn't necessarily take care of the players beyond their salary and kind of skimps on certain things. When they see an owner that says, ‘Hey, I wanna give you everything you need to succeed and I'm not gonna cut corners,' it gives the players that extra shot in the arm.
"Not that these guys needed it. They were ready to go after what happened last year, plus the fact that nobody was talking about them. When they came in [after the chaotic summer] and saw just how much ownership was going to be on their side that made a difference for them."
As the week went on, most of the stories out of training camp focused on Vince Carter's assimilation and Michael Beasley's chances of making the roster, but if you followed closely, you probably noticed that this trip bore little resemblance to an episode of Hard Knocks.
"Dave didn't make them go two-a-days every day," Hasseltine explained. "He understood he had a veteran group. The message to the team was ‘Hey, we've got extra coaching, we're gonna put you up in the nicest hotel, we've got the best food, we're gonna get this going the right way and we want you guys to know that we're 100% behind you.' They provided meals for everybody on the team every day and they were outstanding. They were unbelievable. It was just a bonding time. You had players and coaches and management in there for hours at a time just sitting and talking."
Mike Conley, speaking to Jalen Rose on a recent installment of Inside the NBA, also talked about the significance of the team bonding during camp: "Before the season started, we felt like ‘We can do it. We can be playing in June.' Even though nobody else believes it. But the guys in that room, that day of training camp, all made that promise that we're going to do it."
Sure, talking about preseason focus and the hard work everyone put in during training camp is Athlete Speak 101, but considering the craziness that surrounded the team over the summer and the way the team has reacted with their blazing hot start to the season, there is little doubt that something is different about this team. Maybe it's all the new coaches or the added strength and conditioning staff. Maybe it's that fancy new cold chamber that Chris Wallace always talks about. Maybe it's Trevor Moawad, the team's "mental endurance coach." Or maybe it was a fresh start born out of an internal shakeup that empowered a young owner to change the culture of the team to fit his vision. After Rudy Gay was traded, former Grizzlies Coach Lionel Hollins famously grumbled at the new brass: "When you have champagne taste, you can't be on a beer budget." Maybe Pera took that to heart.
"I think that investment in those [discretionary resources] creates incredible value," said Pera in the aforementioned interview with Chris Vernon. "And not only is it going to improve our win-loss, but it's something that's going to pay benefits in the future. Once players have been in this organization, they all talk. The players talk, the agents talk. If you're known as an organization that's very transparent with the players, that puts all of [its] resources behind them to fulfill their potential, then you're creating a culture and an organization that becomes an attraction for players."
A quick postscript: As Mike Conley mentioned, the players gathered together at the hotel and made a promise to each other that they would still be playing in June, nine months after they left. Well, in my experience, good things tend to happen nine months after a stay at the ol' Grand Del Mar. My wife and I welcomed our second son
Cartter Z-Bo on October 8.
I'm not a superstitious man (Ed. Note: Yes, you are...), but I think that's a sign, baby.