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The Blues, the Bears, and Beale: The Past and the Future of the Grizzlies

The Memphis Grizzlies enter the offseason at a crossroads. But as they move forward, it's important to keep an eye to the past and, above all, to remember where they came from.

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If you're looking for pieces of Memphis history, you don't have to venture far from FedExFroum. The National Civil Rights Museum, the historic Peabody hotel, the Gibson guitar factory; all these and more lie within a stone's throw of the arena. But the Forum's address on Beale Street also puts it next to another major Memphis landmark, juxtaposing the house of the bears to the street which gave birth to the city's greatest cultural export outside of a barbecue pit.

It's no wonder, then, that the music of Beale has managed to seep into the very bones of the team that shares its street. Just look at the Grizzlies and it's impossible to miss the parallels between the Grizzlies and the blues. After all, at the very core of the blues lies raw emotion, a soulful melange of heart and sweat and grit.

And, above all, its permeating sense of regret.

For several seasons now, Memphis has existed as a growing anachronism. Even while the league around it has trended toward the over-polished melodies of space and shooting, the Grizzlies have held tight to their twelve-bar brand of clogged paint and suffocating defense. To the point of fault, they've remained stubbornly true to their identity. Like a steamboat heading upstream, fighting doggedly against the current, Memphis has fought an unwinnable battle against inescapable change.

As the years have passed, debate has intensified over just how much longer Memphis can remain true to its strategy of playing "in the mud". Does a team built on this sort of old school principles still stand a chance against teams that've sold their souls to the three point gods? Is there still time for Memphis to pull itself out of the mud, or has it mired itself too deep to keep from getting pulled under by the sands slipping through the hourglass?

Has the mournful wail of the blues faded to a funeral dirge?

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In the modern NBA, ball movement and flow have become the new paradigm. Memphis, on the other hand, plays with all the finesse of a bull in a china shop. There's nothing aesthetically pleasing about the brand of basketball known as Grit 'n' Grind, a style defined by tenacity and toughness and, above all, physicality.

In a city that still carries a strong affinity for wrestling, it's no wonder Grit 'n' Grind has been so universally embraced. Like a bizarro version of the Showtime Lakers of the 70's or the Bad Boy Mets of 1986, Memphis' growlingly unique genre of basketball meshes perfectly with the personality of both its hometown and its denizens. Grit 'n' Grind is a blue collar style that favors hustle and heart over flash, style over substance. And at its core? A tenacious defense designed to frustrate and wear down opponents until the desire to fight back is overpowered by fatigue.

And therein lies the problem. Memphis' preferred style of play turns games into knockdown, drag-out brawls that move at the pace of a herd of turtles stampeding through a field of peanut butter. It's a style of play that wears down Memphis' opponents, though not without a price. That physicality is a double-edged sword, and the Grizzlies often wind up suffering nearly as much as much wear and tear as their opponents.

That fact is exacerbated by a roster that's marching steadily toward its twilight. Each member of Memphis' beloved Core Four (Tony Allen, Zach Randolph, Mike Conley, and Marc Gasol) comes with his own issues. Allen and Randolph, both 34, are fast approaching an imminent battle with undefeated Father Time. Add a serious foot injury to Marc Gasol, and Conley's upcoming free agency and proclivity for injury, and you're left with a foundation that looks ready to crumble at any moment.

The issues posed by the Core Four are really just the tip of the iceberg, too. The rest of the team is an amalgam of unknowns: track record, experience, injuries, scheme fit. Memphis' roster, one that saw an NBA-record 28 players this past season, comes with more question marks than an Edward Nigma suit. Peer into the Grizzlies' crystal ball, and you'll find a future that's as murky and unfathomable as the Mississippi.

It's a future that can be encapsulated in a single Guns 'n' Roses lyric: Where do we go now?

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With the offseason growing ever closer, the Grizzlies finds themselves in the shoes of Robert Johnson, standing at the crossroads and weighing offers from the devil, trying to figure out just how much is too much. How much of the future is worth sacrificing for the here and now?

Conley's free agency decision still looms the largest heading into the summer. Should he eschew the financial security that only the Grizzlies can offer for what he deems a "more favorable" chance at a championship, it may expedite the dismantling of the team that Memphis has come to love so dearly. A Conley departure would likely transform Tony Allen, Zach Randolph, and even "Memphis' own" Marc Gasol from building blocks into trade chips. In short, Memphis losing out on the Conley sweepstakes is a shortcut to a rebuild.

That's a drastic change, to be sure, and one that would grossly alter the Grizz' trajectory, but it's also an outcome that still seems highly unlikely. National reports of the front office's growing nervousness over a Conley departure feel more like media speculation and posturing from Conley's camp than anything. Barring some unforeseen or unlikely scenario playing out come July, it's likely that the Grizzlies will have their General (and Marc Gasol his BFF) back in the fold.

And as for the rest of it?

The hiring of former Miami assistant David Fizdale, the next man to arrange the notes in the Grizzlies' symphony, seems to actually herald the dawn of a new age. One of Memphis' most glaring weaknesses in recent memory has been its lack of player development, as the last two Grizzlies regimes allowed their young assets to languish on the bench, gathering dust, while under-performing veterans soaked up minutes.

No longer. Fizdale's reputation as an expert in player development precedes him, and if the hype is to be believed, it could be a glorious day for fans who suffered through the under-utilization of players like Russ Smith.

That reputation also carries another implication: Fizdale's hire comes from a front office which has its eye on the future. When Grit 'n' Grind is done, when the mud has dried up and turned to dust, Memphis will need to rebuild, and in today's NBA, even with a salary cap that's about to shoot through the roof, the most sustainable way to successfully retool is via the development of cheap, controlled assets. That's even more true for a small market team like Memphis, a team that would often be required to overpay to attract top talent in free agency.

In that sense, the Fizdale hire makes perfect sense. A known commodity like Frank Vogel (not to get into the vagaries behind that specific situation) might have made more sense short term for a team where "win now" is the only viable option, but sometimes the smarter gamble is on the long game, on hedging your bets and biding your time.

Sometimes the best bet is letting one window close so you can find the next open door.

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It's been just over a year since the Grizzlies took the eventual champion Golden State Warriors to six games, but a year is a lifetime in sports. In that time, Memphis' story has shifted from "what if" to "what now", and concerns have grown exponentially over just how this team, with this nucleus, can manage to compete for a championship. A season lost completely to injuries has only served to muddy the waters, and Conley's free agency still hangs heavy over the franchise's future.

But in the face of uncertainty, all that can be done is to prepare for the worst while hoping for the best, and the front office has made a visible effort to salvage what it can. At the trade deadline in 2016, they flipped expiring assets for draft picks (one of which became Deyonta Davis and Rade Zagorac last Thursday). Fizdale's hiring appears equally forward-thinking, the selection of a coach well-suited to developing young players into NBA-level contributors.

And, as the Grizzlies head into the offseason, that's really all you can ask for. There's little certainty that can be found in the world, and that's every bit as true in the world of sports. Things are constantly shifting, changing, moving toward the new and innovative. But that doesn't mean that history doesn't have its place.

Grit 'n' Grind will one day become a part of Memphis' history and lore, like B.B. King and Elvis and so many others before them, but until then, it's important to remember two things: You don't know what you've got until it's gone, and nothing lasts forever. This era of Grizzlies basketball is the most successful the franchise has ever seen, and it should be loved for everything it was, as well as for everything that it was not.

In the same way, moving forward shouldn't be taken as a sign of surrender. NBA teams are forced to manage a delicate balance between the present and the future, the now and the next. In a league that's constantly asking "what have you done for me lately?" it must be remembered that there often aren't perfect solutions. Not every team finds a Tim Duncan to replace a David Robinson. Transitions, more often than not, come with rough patches. The only thing you can do is to try and minimize the valleys while you look for the next peak.

The front office has done as much as it can to ease the team into the transition into the post-Grit 'n' Grind era, and in a world of uncertainty, that effort should be applauded, even if the results leave fans yearning for the old days and singing the blues.

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