The date was May 13th. The year: 2013. The Grizzlies had just eliminated the Oklahoma City Thunder from the Playoffs and were advancing to their first-ever conference-finals appearance. They were going to face either the Spurs or the Warriors, but I don’t think the Grizzlies or the loyal fans of Griz Nation were scared of either. We had our eyes on the prize. For the first time in the up-and-down franchise history of the Grizzlies, the Larry O’Brien trophy was in sight. Yet, that dream never unfolded into reality, as the San Antonio Spurs would go on to demolish the Grizzlies and sweep them right out of the playoffs, 4-0. The Grizzlies, players, and fans alike, were shocked, and many wondered whether we would ever witness a run like this from our beloved Grizzlies again. Did the Grizzlies’ brief championship window close shut after that fateful and mortifying sweep? This leads us to our candid question: do the Memphis Grizzlies have what it takes to win a championship in the NBA?
There are multiple recurring traits that one would notice when examining the NBA championship teams of the 21st century, and a pretty clear model for success that emerges from this analyzation. I believe this model is composed of five important characteristics. In other words, I believe that to be a championship team in the NBA right now, your team needs to have the following traits. It is important to note, however, that there is always at least one team who has deviated from each of the following criteria, save for one trait.
Superstar and a Star-Sidekick
This is the first and most obvious trait of a championship team. The Lakers had Shaq and Kobe and then Kobe and Gasol. The Spurs had Duncan and Parker. The Heat had Wade and O’neal and then James and Wade. The Celtics had Pierce and Garnett, and theMavericks had Nowitzki and Kidd. This characteristic, clearly, is one that the Grizzlies lack. While Marc Gasol is an outstanding center and one of the finest in the game, I don’t think he has even approached the bubble of the aforementioned superstars. Well, luckily for the Griz, there have been two championship teams in this century who have deviated from this recurring quality: the ‘04 Pistons and the ‘14 Spurs. The Pistons (who will re-appear multiple times in this article) had some stars on their team, but undoubtedly no superstars. Their best player, Chauncey Billups, averaged only 16.9 points per game in the regular season, yet they managed to almost sweep the star-studded Lakers out of the Finals in 2004, winning 4-1. Last year’s Spurs also didn’t have any superstars on their team. While Duncan is still an exceptional player, he is no longer the superstar he once was earlier in his illustrious career. Their best player, Tony Parker, only averaged 16.7 points per game, yet, like the Pistons, they dominated a star-studded team (the Heat this time) in the Finals, winning 4-1. The Spurs and Pistons keep the Grizzlies’ title hopes alive, and rightfully so.
Dominant Down-Low Presence
This championship-trait may not seem so obvious, but it will when you take a look at the teams who have won the Championship in the past years. The Lakers had Shaq and then Gasol and Bynum, the Spurs had Duncan, the Pistons had the Wallace "brothers," the Heat had Shaq later on in his career, and the Celtics had Garnett. While the ‘11 Mavs and the ‘12 and ‘13 Heat are definitely exceptions, the Grizzlies aren’t in need of their help for this category. The Grizzlies possess arguably the best frontcourt tandem in all of basketball in Gasol and Randolph, and are known to kill opponents in the post. Moving on.
Elite Defense and Great Offense
While it is common perception that the best offensive teams usually end up prevailing in the NBA, the opposite is actually true. The phrase used by coaches, "defense wins championships," is very true in the NBA. While having great offense has also been crucial to winning championships, all of the championship teams of this century, save for one team (the ‘01 Lakers), had top-nine defensive-ratings. Simply put, having an elite defense is an essential trait for a championship team, and we all know our Grit-and Grind Grizzlies definitely embody this characteristic. Over the past three seasons, the Grizzlies have had on average the fifth best defensive-rating rank in the league, and that ranking would be even better if Marc Gasol hadn’t been out with an injury for the beginning of last season. The Grizzlies clearly have elite, championship-caliber defense, but do they also have the great offense boasted by most of the championship teams of the past century? No, they certainly do not, so they’ll have to rely on an exception-team to save the day. That team is once again the ‘04 Pistons. The ‘04 Pistons had a not-so-impressive offensive-rating rank of eighteenth, but a very impressive defensive-rating rank of second. The Grizzlies similarly, averaged out over the past three seasons, have had a poor offensive-rating rank of seventeenth, but an impressive defensive-rating rank of fifth. So we’ll give the Grizzlies a half-a-check on this trait, but the Pistons clearly showed that winning a championship is still feasible with only the elite defense and not the great offense. If that is the case, then the Grizzlies are in okay shape.
It’s not hard to see why having a great coach is important to winning a championship in any league. The coach runs the show, draws up the schemes, and is responsible for molding his team into the best team that they can be. The past championship-winning coaches of this century have been Phil Jackson, Gregg Popovich, Larry Brown, Pat Riley, Doc Rivers, Rick Carlisle, and Eric Spoelstra. All of those men (with the exception of Spoelstra) are amazing - and some, even legendary - coaches. Now, this is the spot where the Grizzlies’ championship hopes run into a little trouble. Second-year CoachDave Joerger is a very solid coach, but by no means an amazing one. The exception of Spoelstra doesn’t really help them because Spoelstra had LeBron James leading his championship team, and in my opinion, didn’t have to be such an amazing coach. To Joerger’s credit, he did improve a lot as the 2014 season went on, but that still doesn’t put him anywhere near the aforementioned coaches. However, as evident by Spoelstra’s case, that at the end of the day, the team’s success depends on the players and not the coach.
Experience and Team Chemistry
This is a pretty obvious trait of a championship team and is the only trait out of the five I have given which has no exceptions. It is a known fact that in order to win a championship, you need experience, and with experience comes team chemistry. While some teams have more experience and better chemistry than others than others, all of the championship teams had been in the playoffs multiple times beforehand and have developed great chemistry. The Grizzlies definitely have the experience needed for a championship team, and have also definitely built the chemistry required for a championship team. Pretty much every player on the Grizzlies’ roster is selfless, there are no big egos, and everyone puts the team before themselves. The chemistry the Grizzlies have built over the past years and the invaluable experience they have gained over the last few years gives them a big check for this category.
So, while the Grizzlies unfortunately do not have all the traits that it takes for a championship team in the NBA, they certainly do have some of them. I would give them a three out of five on this test. Luckily for the Grizzlies, the hope of a championship still lives on thanks to the success of the 2004 Detroit Pistons. The similarities between the ‘04 Pistons and the current Grizzlies are striking. Both teams lack a superstar, but have great, selfless, and gritty players who buy in to the system. Mike Conley puts up similar numbers to that of Billups, and has very similar qualities. Marc Gasol is no Ben Wallaceon defense, but definitely makes up for it by being dominant on both sides of the court.Tony Allen is very similar to young defensive-stopper Tayshaun Prince (yes, Tayshaun was a really good player at one point). Tough power forwards Rasheed Wallace andZach Randolph have almost identical stories, both having come onto their respective teams and proving that they are far better than their reputation. There are two problems, however, with this comparison. One is that Dave Joerger is no Larry Brown, whose harsh and reprimanding personality really helped the Pistons reach their full potential. In fact, Dave Joerger has the complete opposite personality, as he is calm and laid-back. The second problem is that while Courtney Lee and Vince Carter are nice offensive players, none of them fall even close to the offensive talent of ‘04 Pistons guard Richard Hamilton.
So can the Grizzlies win a championship? Well, common sense would say no, but the case of the 2004 Pistons would say perhaps yes. Now, I’m not so sure that I would actually venture to say that our beloved Grizzlies are on the same level of the ‘04 Pistons, but I would venture to say that if the Grizzlies are given the right matchups in the playoffs, they could take home the trophy. I’m not saying it would be easy and I’m not saying it’s likely, but I am saying that it is possible. I would not doubt the Grizzlies, though, because they have continuously proven our doubts wrong. As the great Greek philosopher Epicurus once astutely pointed out, "Remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for." Not too long ago, I would have laughed if you’d have told me the Grizzlies would be an above 50-win team, that they would beat a number one seed, and that they would make it to a Western Conference Finals. But alas, the Grizzlies have exceeded our expectations and become one of the best teams in the league, something we never could have dreamed of five or six years ago. Who says they can’t exceed our expectations one more time?