It's a challenging proposition, making decisions.
We've all had to do it, of course...at least those of us old enough to be on our own. Choices have to be made daily, some larger than others. What am I going to wear today? Do I take the back roads to try to avoid traffic or do I try my luck on the highway? Is my marriage worth saving? Should I move across country for a better job? Where should I go to school? Where should my kids go to school?
What direction should our team go in? That is a question that not as many of us have had to answer. It is, however, a decision that organizations from the little league and prep levels all the way to the pros have to make. Every team reaches this point, much like an individual. A crossroads of sorts; to carry on doing what has worked well, but hasn't achieved a greater level of success that is desired, or shake things up for the good of that greater pursuit.
The Memphis Grizzlies are at this crossroads. They are in a tricky situation, to be sure; on one hand, a five year span of playoff appearances and regular season success unparalleled in the Grizzlies' short NBA existence, all on the backs on some of the most beloved characters in Memphis sports history.
On the other hand? A team with clear limitations and flaws, whose issues have been exposed (especially offensively) not once now, but twice. In the 2013 Western Conference Finals, the San Antonio Spurs collapsed the paint and dared Memphis to beat them hitting wide open jumpers.
They couldn't do it.
Then, in 2015, another team exposes Memphis' inability to score from range. The Golden State Warriors leave an injured Tony Allen wide open outside the lane, welcoming him to as many jump shots as he pleases. He cannot make them pay. Then, once Tony goes out due to that bad hamstring and those shooting issues, those behind him (the Jeff Greens and Vince Carters of the world) could not make Golden State pay either.
Golden State was and is a terrific team; they are in the NBA Finals for a reason. The Grizzlies also had injury issues; a limited Mike Conley and an all-but-absent Tony Allen at the end of the series had a hand in sealing Memphis' fate. Looking back through the history of the Grizzlies' "Grit and Grind" era led by the "core four" of Marc Gasol, Mike Conley, Zach Randolph and Tony Allen, though, the supposed answers to other problems aren't as clear as we thought.
- 2010-2011: The "Super Z-Bo" run of Zach Randolph and company that sparked the current era. An eight seed Grizzlies team upsetting the one seed San Antonio Spurs and then pushing the Oklahoma City Thunder to the brink can hardly be considered a failure. An overachieving team
- 2011-2012: A lockout-shortened season where the Grizzlies set a regular season record for winning percentage and earn the four seed in the Western Conference playoffs but lose in Game Seven of their first round series against the Los Angeles Clippers. At home. With Gilbert Arenas and Hamed Haddadi starting a key Fourth Quarter. Improving the bench is a priority for a team that arguably underachieves.
- 2012-2013: An even better season win percentage wise, but in the stacked Western Conference a 56-26 record gets the Grizzlies a five seed. They get a rematch with the Los Angeles Clippers, whom they beat in six games (with a hampered Blake Griffin, but injuries happen as the Grizzlies know all too well) and then beat the Oklahoma City Thunder in five games who were without Russell Westbrook. Then, a sweep out of the Western Conference Finals at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs. Considering injuries, in hindsight Memphis should have made it that far.
- 2013-2014: The depth problem has supposedly been fixed by this point, as the Grizzlies acquire backup point guard depth in the forms of Nick Calathes/Beno Udrih and a big man in Kosta Koufos over the course of this season. Injuries affect Memphis this time, however, with Marc Gasol missing significant time and Mike Conley missing games as well. The Grizzlies have to fight for their lives just to sneak in to the playoffs with 50 wins as the seven seed and give the two seed Oklahoma City Thunder a fight before losing in seven games (without Zach Randolph, due to a questionable suspension.) An impressive run considering injury issues.
- 2014-2015: Arguably the deepest team in Grizzlies history. They have great regular season success in the form of First Team All-Defense (Tony Allen) and First Team All-NBA (Marc Gasol) accolades leads to the Grizzlies being the two seed for much of the season. Then, the wear and tear of the season apparently takes its toll on Mike Conley and Tony Allen especially (as does the iffy integration of Jeff Green and the health/underachievement of Vince Carter) and Memphis falls to the "five" seed, really the four, hosting the injured Portland Trail Blazers in a first round series that they win in five games. Mike Conley gets further injured against the Trail Blazers with his broken face, Tony Allen has his hamstring issues, the Warriors series happens and the rest is history.
That is three seasons of being in the four/five matchup (2011-2012, 2012-2013, 2014-2015) and two seasons below that (the eight seed in 2010-2011 and the seven seed in 2013-2014.) Even with the improvements of some issues such as depth and the experience that comes with being playoff battle-tested, the history of these Grizzlies says that this is what should be expected of this core group at this point.
Make the playoffs.
Hope for injuries to other teams and to stay healthy yourselves.
Likely see a first or second round exit.
Is that enough?
For some, it may well be. This is an NBA franchise essentially entering its adolescence in Memphis, one whose future in the city was very much in question just two short years ago. Those who have followed the team since its early days in Memphis, when they played in a Pyramid and remember Brevin Knight as a player and don't just know him as a terrific television analyst, remember darker times. This run of success for the Grizzlies has been heaven on earth compared to the hell that this fan base has been through in the past, and it has been done with a cast of characters so beloved in the city that talk of statues outside of the FedExForum is growing and serious.
That means a hell of a lot...doesn't it?
To others, it isn't as meaningful as the pursuit of a championship. After all, in the eternal words of Herm Edwards, "you play to win the game." This Grizzlies team has won plenty of games. 248 of 394 regular season games in this "Grit and Grind Era", equaling a 62.9% win percentage over that time frame, good for a 51.5 wins per season average in an 82 game season. Good, but still not good enough for a division title or a seed higher than four.
In the postseason? A 27-26 record, with four series won and five series lost. One Western Conference Finals appearance, three semifinals showings (including the Western Conference Finals season), two first round exits. Good, but not good enough to fully contend for an NBA championship.
That is the goal...isn't it?
This core is loved for all they have done for the city and for this franchise. They also may well have reached their peak. This possibility will most certainly cross the mind of Marc Gasol in free agency, that if he re-signs with Memphis they will likely run back the same crew of guys who played this season, give or take a role player. Hope that Vince Carter benefits from an offseason to heal, hope that Jeff Green (if he opts in to his final year on his contract) settles in through a full training camp with the team and reaches something closer to his potential. Hope that the team finds a way through the draft and the Mid-level Exception to add shooting, offensive creativity, a big to replace the likely departing Kosta Koufos. Perhaps a trade could help solve these issues...
But a trade of whom? For what? Outside of moving a member of the "core four" like Zach Randolph or Tony Allen, a proposition that most members of Grizz Nation are uneasy about at best, this roster is what it is. A move of that magnitude means moving on from the most successful era in the history of the team and could enrage a fan base who is still putting down Grizzly roots. If it were to fail? Lost jobs, lost revenue, perhaps even worse down the road.
It could also be a step into the future: finding more spacing, more athleticism. It could open up avenues to bring in personnel more fitting of the modern NBA that's built around tempo, ball movement, shooting and efficiency. If this adjustment meant winning? The fans would stay, and would grow in numbers. It could also lead to a more attractive product in terms of play that could develop the fan base regionally, not just locally.
When you stand at a crossroads, you weigh all options. With the future of an organization in your hands, you measure and calculate all risks. You acknowledge the past, study it, analyze the numbers, watch the tape and come to the best decision you can. The history of this version of the Memphis Grizzlies is filled with love and passion, heartache and injury and a roster that has developed, but not one developed enough to win a division, conference or NBA title. The window on this era continues to slowly but surely close, and it may be slammed shut in the coming weeks through the Marc Gasol decision.
But if it isn't? If he stays? Memphis must come to terms with the reality of the situation. A good-to-great regular season team, one that has had playoff success when healthy/others have had injury issues but otherwise is depending on lucky breaks, internal development and hope to reach "Greater" aspirations. Help will more than likely not be able to come from the outside. And the help from within may not be enough to win it all with this legendary assembly of Grizzlies.
Is that OK?
That is up to you to decide, as well. It isn't just the Memphis Grizzlies at a crossroads. What matters to you? Holding on to this historic era with this core understanding the limitations, or risking that for that "Greater" pursuit? That's a hell of a decision to make...
Thankfully we all have had some practice.