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The Grizzlies and the Dying Light

There is a lineup that Coach Fizdale hasn’t tried yet. It’s time to let his Grizzlies rage.

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Memphis Grizzlies Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Do not go gentle into that good night

Rage, rage against the dying of the light

- Dylan Thomas

One of my favorite things about living near downtown Memphis was walking or driving away.

All good times end, of course. One cannot live (in good circumstances, at least) in the bars of Beale Street or inside FedExForum. As games and nights out and around the sights and smells of the city (good and bad) began to fade and the crowds began to head home, I would walk with my wife, or friends, or sometimes on my own, away from the vibrant scene that is the nightlife of Memphis. Often this happened after Grizzlies games - from 2012-2014, I would sometimes walk with a bit more cheer in my step, and other times I would mutter or curse the result of the night.

But as I walked or drove away, I always looked back and reflected on the events of the night. Even when happy/angry with a player or call or decision, or just thinking about the fun time I had, I knew that this group of players, this run of success, and my time in the Bluff City, would not last forever. I knew my chapter in Memphis would eventually conclude, and I wanted to cherish those moments of anger, of agony, of joy, and of jubilation.

Every good time eventually comes to an end. And the fading lights were a constant reminder.

NBA: Atlanta Hawks at Memphis Grizzlies Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Five-game losing streaks can shake the foundation of even the steadiest of locker rooms.

The Memphis Grizzlies are in the midst of one of their most challenging, non-injury related (unless you count Chandler Parsons) stretches of this decade. Ever since the 2010-2011 postseason, the Grizzlies have been expected to compete at a high level by their fan base and the NBA at large. Their arrival was signaled by the rise of Tony Allen and “Grit and Grind”, and the resurgence of Zach Randolph as a force of nature in the paint and on the block. Younger players like Mike Conley and Marc Gasol, while key cogs in those teams, were able to sit back and allow for leaders like Randolph, Allen, and Shane Battier to set the tone of the locker room. They led - Conley and Gasol were able to learn to lead by following.

That playoff run is still looked back on as fondly as an epic night out in Memphis, and those games helped to create one of the most amazing connections between a team and their fans in professional sports. An identity was forged - a blue-collar, aggressive, physical underdog team was born. They reflected the city they inhabited.

Only four players remain on the Grizzlies from that 2010-2011 team:

Mike Conley, Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph, and Tony Allen.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Golden State Warriors Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

A few things have occurred since those days.

Memphis no longer is surprised by playoff victories. They are expected.

The coaching presence for Memphis is no longer connected to Lionel Hollins, the head coach during that 2011 run. After years of Hollins and his assistant-turned-head-man Dave Joerger, David Fizdale has taken the reigns and altered the landscape of the Grizzlies locker room.

The Grizzlies in their primes are no longer Allen and Randolph. Conley and Gasol have assumed that mantle.

And the Grizzlies around that “core four” have changed. Multiple times. From Battier to Tayshaun Prince to Vince Carter. From Darrell Arthur to Marreese Speights to JaMychal Green. From Rudy Gay to Jeff Green to Chandler Parsons. Years have passed, and the roster has turned over and over again.

Yet those “core four” remain.

With the step into a new coaching philosophy comes a new view of those remaining 2011 Grizzlies. No longer is the focus on the bullies on the block and the defensive pressure that “turning off the water” can bring. It’s on the lack of perimeter scoring and the inability to consistently defend the pick and roll they can also represent. Father Time has taken a step or two from The Grindfather and Z-Bo. Their deficiencies now do not always get canceled out by their production.

Because of this? Those cornerstones of the most successful era in Grizzlies history have only played 173 minutes together a season after being on the court for 445 and 716 the two seasons prior. Four massive pieces of Grizzlies history who built this success together have played the 12th most minutes together among four-man lineups according to this season.

Gasol and Conley have seen more time with players like James Ennis, JaMychal Green, and Chandler Parsons than Allen and Randolph. And yet that Conley/Gasol/Allen/Randolph quartet has the 3rd best +/- among foursomes that have played at least 150 minutes together this season at +9.4.

That seemingly doesn’t matter. With Randolph and Allen being free agents this summer, an era may well be coming to an end.

NBA: Atlanta Hawks at Memphis Grizzlies Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

David Fizdale has made it clear he is going to do things his way.

He certainly is entitled to that opinion - he’s earned it. He has learned from some of the best to ever do it, including Pat Riley, Don Nelson, and Erik Spoelstra. He has had his own experiences that have molded his understanding of the game. He believes he knows what it takes to win in the modern NBA...

And the combination of Conley, Allen, Randolph, and Gasol just don’t have “it.”

He doesn’t have to say so - his lineups show it. He doesn’t have to call out Tony Allen for desiring to go back to “the way things were” - his words are pointed enough that we know whom he is referencing. A niche player like Allen and a one-sided scorer like Randolph do not meet the needs of a starting lineup built around Conley and Gasol in his mind, and in fairness there is logic to that. Chandler Parsons as a scorer (if healthy) does. JaMychal Green as a two-way player and versatile defender does.

In a recent interview with the Memphis Commercial Appeal, Fizdale discussed Randolph’s high usage rate. He stated he needed Zach off the bench, and that he acknowledges and appreciates Zach’s sacrifice. But throughout this experimentation with starting units even a James Ennis, who can shoot the three and defend multiple positions, or an Andrew Harrison, who has size and ball-handling ability, or a one very good skill player like Brandan Wright has been preferred over starting the “Core Four” together. And none of them have worked.

David Fizdale knows basketball. He has made terrific moves to move this team into a new era. But his pride may be stopping him from fully succeeding in his first season in Memphis. And he needs to realize that fast.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Memphis Grizzlies Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Tony Allen reportedly returns to the starting lineup Monday against the Bucks, meaning Memphis will go back to square one with their starting unit under Fizdale. As the Grizzlies have struggled of late, Fizdale has tried multiple early game groupings. Yet one of them that he has not attempted is Conley, Allen, Parsons, Randolph, and Gasol.

The question is, why? Or better yet, why not?

The Grizzlies have lost their last five games by an average of 13 points. The pieces that, according to him, have Memphis set to get to a higher plain have faltered. Be honest - are Brandan Wright or JaMychal Green or James Ennis or Andrew Harrison going to save this roster with Parsons ailing? If Chandler is going to stay in the starting unit (a decision I agree with for the time being), do any of those players have the capacity to make up for lost production?

Aside from Vince Carter, who is likely better served to be productive as a reserve at this stage, and Troy Daniels, who is a terrible defender and isn’t shooting well right now, you’ve tried almost everything else.

Why not try those pieces who led you to consider this job to be such a good one in the first place?

Sure, the book is out on Memphis. It has been for years. Randolph struggles defending the pick and roll. Allen can’t shoot. Quick skip passes weak side can result in open shots. But the lineups that have been trotted out more than the “core four” have given up those things as well. Allen, Conley, Gasol, and Randolph know each other. They’ve spent 3,870 minutes together on the floor over the past seven seasons. And over those seven seasons, they’ve posted a negative plus/minus for a season once-

Core Four +/-

2010-2011 (722 minutes) +4.5

2011-2012 (169 minutes) +15.6

2012-2013 (1,309 minutes) +8.2

2013-2014 (336 minutes) +6.1

2014-2015 (716 minutes) +10.6

2015-2016 (445 minutes) -1.1

2016-2017 (173 minutes) +9.4

They will play for each other. They care for each other. Marc views Zach as another brother. These guys have been through wars together. Those minutes above don’t even take into account their playoff minutes (870 over five seasons) where they have played at a high level on numerous occasions together.

Time goes on. Nothing lasts forever. And in no way does the philosophy of Fizdale need to be compromised by making this decision. Gasol, Parsons, and Conley remain perimeter players. Marc and Zach can play in a variety of high-low sets. Allen can slash when Marc is beyond the arc and Zach plays at the elbow. Zach and Tony do not need to play 30+ minutes just because they are starters.

Sub them out quickly- especially Zach. He can still lead that second unit while enabling the Grizzlies to start games faster offensively. Defensively, you may be compromised at times, but the Grizzlies defense the last ten games has posted an abysmal 112.7 defensive rating anyway. Why not try a different approach?

One of love?

Gasol and Conley are best friends. Randolph and Gasol see each other as brothers. Allen and the fan base have a relationship that will go beyond this recent run of poor performances. The energy and passion that a starting “Core Four” and Parsons crew could generate would not only awaken those specific players, it would perhaps shake this roster out of their funk. It would allow for role players to fit back into their roles, not having to try their best to be something they’re not. It would certainly reinvigorate the fan base whose faith in this team has been shaken.

Who better to bring belief back to Memphis than the guys who inspired “Believe Memphis”?

Now is not the time to be proud. No one is rationally calling for multi-year extensions for aging veterans for the sake of love. But in this moment, these last potential days of a beloved group of players, why not create genuine emotion and try to ride that as far as it can carry this flawed roster through one last playoff run?

I often find myself thinking back to the fading lights of Memphis. On a job well done, or a night well lived. Now they are memories, moments that will stay with me as long as my mind allows for me to hold them. And while the decision to leave was the right one for my family, I would love another chance to look back on those bright illuminations filling the sky, fading in the distance of the Memphis night.

The Core Four is approaching this time themselves. It will likely be the right decision to move on when that time comes - maybe sooner rather than later. But that time isn’t here yet. There are more moments to create, more memories to allow this fan base to have with their beloved Grizzlies. Play Chandler Parsons - he makes you better as long as you think he can get close to his former self by the playoffs.

But just in case he can’t? It’s time to surround him with fury. And passion. And experience. And presence. And love.

It’s not time yet to let the best era of Grizzlies basketball go gently into the night.

It’s time to let them rage one last time, against the unavoidable dying of the light.

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