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The 2016-2017 Memphis Grizzlies: A Successful Failure

A little living, a little learning, some lessons, and some final little lies.

NBA: New York Knicks at Memphis Grizzlies Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

In 1970, the Apollo 13 space mission took off from Cape Canaveral in Florida with a mission objective to land in the Fra Mauro area of the moon. It was controversial to some - the moon had already been conquered, so why go back? The mission was largely ignored in the United States, until an explosion on board led to the crew’s lives being endangered. Instead of landing on the moon, they orbited it with the eyes of the world watching in awe. They had an opportunity to look at the surface of their goal without being able to achieve it. They saw their lost chance at success floating in the distance as their mission objective changed from walking on the moon to simply surviving reentry in to earth.

From living a dream to simply dreaming to live.

In the aftermath of Apollo 13, people called it a “successful failure.” What was learned in the process of saving the crew and from the accident itself was extremely valuable. From keeping astronauts alive that long in space with limited resources to how to better build parts of the ship, NASA became better for having gone through this disaster.

Perspective, and context, are important to maintain in the face of failure.


A broken version of the Memphis Grizzlies went 42-40 last season. They suffered through so many injuries that 28 players had to suit up for Memphis just to get through the season. That team saw Ryan Hollins and Jordan Farmar play meaningful minutes. They had literally every single man on the roster play outside of their role, whether it be as a starter, role player, or even NBA player. They went into the playoffs like a wounded animal, flailing wildly at the San Antonio Spurs, unwilling to quit but unable to actually succeed.

This season, a version of the Grizzlies much less broken will win 44 games at most. That isn’t to say that injury hasn’t been a massive storyline for Memphis again this season. Mike Conley broke his back earlier in the year and missed several games because of it. Tony Allen, Brandan Wright, and Marc Gasol all have missed contests for various ailments. And then, of course, there’s the 94-million-dollar cloud that has hovered over Memphis the whole year:

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

There isn’t much of a silver lining in the dark cloud of Chandler Parsons’ contract, or at least year one of Parsons as a Grizzly. He was never healthy; he started the season not right, and he never got right. The worst part of the whole thing is just how valuable Chandler would have been as his full self, like the creation off the pick and roll with Marc Gasol, or the openings he would have had playing alongside Vince Carter or Troy Daniels on the perimeter. The mismatches he would have potentially created against the Spurs...

It’s enough to make you cry, to test your faith in the Grizzlies front office or medical staff or make you find your belief in a new way and hope that he can be that guy for Memphis over the rest of his massive contract...or that they can somehow find a way to move off of him.

Parsons’ absence clearly played a role in this season’s struggles. Calling the Grizzlies healthy has never been an accurate depiction of this team, but health is relative after the hell that Memphis went through last year. Losing Chandler impacted the Grizzlies on multiple levels: trying to get him right (still the right decision) cost you time with other (for now) “better” players in that starting spot, his absence led to guys playing outside of role like Vince Carter, the 40 year-old starter, and it blasted the bridge that Parsons was supposed to be between “Grit and Grind” and the modern NBA changes that Fizdale was planning on bringing to Memphis.

NBA: Detroit Pistons at Memphis Grizzlies Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Those changes still came, though. According to basketball-reference.com, the Grizzlies have set a new franchise record for made threes by over 139 shots from beyond the arc. Beyond that, Memphis has taken 365 more attempts from range than they ever have in a season before. Even without his third best player, David Fizdale has been able to update the Grizzlies offense when it comes to perimeter shooting.

He also has empowered his two best players, Marc Gasol and Mike Conley, in different ways. Marc Gasol was already becoming a more perimeter-based player with offense being run from the elbow under former head coach Dave Joerger. So Fizdale had Marc go a few feet outside of that area and average 3.6 three point attempts per game, easily the most of his career.

Mike Conley? He’s been a revelation. Over his last ten games he’s been almost a 50-40-90 player, shooting 49.7% overall from the field, 41.9% from three, and 93.5% from the charity stripe. He’s been asked to be a scorer, to be a decision maker, and be the leader of this basketball team. And he is answering the call.

That doesn’t even mention the Sixth Man of the Year campaign from Zach Randolph, which despite his defensive woes is very real and very deserved. Or the development of JaMychal Green into a valuable starting big man in the NBA, or the slow but slightly sure growth of Andrew Harrison as a backup point guard, or the resurgence of Vince Carter. The Fizdale factor has been felt, and the Grizzlies will be better for it. They may well wind up be better for it this postseason

But that feels unlikely.

NBA: Detroit Pistons at Memphis Grizzlies Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Because despite all the good that Fizdale has done, and all the positives that truly have come to the Grizzlies this season, Memphis is again near the bottom of the Western Conference playoff seeding. They will again be taking on the San Antonio Spurs as the seven seed. They again are an underdog, going against Gregg Popovich and Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge and the Spurs machine. They remain inconsistent, having gone 9-14 since the All-Star break after a 34-24 pre-All-Star run of success. They lose to bad teams like the Lakers and the Kings and the Pelicans and Nets, and that’s just in the last month.

The Grizzlies will likely be eliminated in the first round again this season after winning at most two more regular season games than those Broken Grizzlies of a year before. That, by any definition, is a failure for a team which has claimed to have larger goals in the past. It’s not fitting of a squad that has a core of players who have played together for seven seasons, a group that has multiple time All-Stars and the highest paid player in the NBA...

...that is, of course, until you remember Chandler Parsons. Because his injury will be the biggest story coming out of this season and yet it feels as if he’s been pushed to the back burner, probably because of exhaustion on the part of the media and fan base. If you’re willing to acknowledge that Parsons is indeed the third best player on the Memphis Grizzlies when healthy (as he is paid to be), then it helps explain those failures. Because lots of players, like Conley, Gasol, and JaMychal, are playing at or above their best season ever. You can even find it in Tony Allen, who despite not performing particularly well, playing roughly the same as he did last year, and losing a step defensively, has found a way to become a productive rebounder.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Sacramento Kings Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

Allen. Conley. Gasol. Randolph. Green. Five of the best players the Grizzlies have to offer, all playing roughly at or above expectations for Memphis this season. Plus Vince Carter having his best year as a Grizzly. That’s six rotation players doing quite well. Was the Brandan Wright absence that vital? Is Andrew Harrison that bad? Should Troy Daniels’ and James Ennis’ limitations make that much of a difference?

No to all of the above. Once you accept that this team needed Chandler Parsons and the miss on him to this point has crippled them, this season makes much more sense.

And that allows for you to appreciate it more. Because there’s a reason they’re not playing to their full potential. They’re not at full strength. There’s a cause to the issues the Grizzlies are facing despite having career-best or Grizzlies-best seasons from several players. A player they were counting on to be there simply isn’t. In the end, it came down to exactly what everyone said it would - health.

You can’t walk on the moon if you’re physically unable to land on it. And you can’t compete with the best of the NBA if you’re physically unable to put a roster on the floor capable of doing it.

So Memphis is forced to float by the promised land once again, with a regular season that can be deemed a “successful failure.” David Fizdale is the right man for the job. The greatest players on the Grizzlies for the most part did their jobs and the best they can do. The future is potentially bright with Deyonta Davis and other younger players looking good in limited opportunities.

But four of those players responsible for those ok-to-great seasons are free agents. And three of those four are 35 or older. And the bridge to a new era of Grizzlies basketball is still recovering from a knee injury, a different one, and has yet to be healthy since he signed nine months ago.

You can welcome the work that has been done while also being disappointed in what might, and/or should, have been. It’s possible to be thankful for being home safe while still resenting the fact that the original mission was not accomplished.

That’s how this season will be remembered for the Memphis Grizzlies. Positively negative. A last stand that will lead to yet another fall. That belief is necessary, but so is context. You can see some at their best in moments of adversity and still not achieve your ultimate goal.

A realization that you can learn and grow for the future and still mourn what has been lost in the present.

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