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Embracing the unknown with the Memphis Grizzlies

After years of predictability, the Grizzlies all of a sudden have more question marks than any team in the league.

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Memphis Grizzlies Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Whilst perusing the Grizzly Bear Blues website last week, I came upon an article of intrigue by one bcabraham. Within its contents, the author stated a four-pronged thesis in which he detailed several concerns for the Memphis Grizzlies upon the dawn of their 2017-18 campaign.

As I completed the reading and subsequent textual analysis, I concurred with the intrepid laureate’s misgivings; however, I began pondering a few more intangible unknowns that the Grizzlies may well find themselves facing when the season begins anew October 17.

Continuity

This category is important because having established continuity helps with the more subtle aspects of the game. It boosts chemistry, court awareness, and general success when you can predict what your teammates will be doing at any given moment (I suppose Tony Allen, then, is the least likely candidate to provide continuity. At the same time, though, he’s also the most likely candidate. Tony really is just a walking paradox.)

Memphis has seven players on its training camp roster who have never played for the organization, and the team very notably will be missing two of the longest tenured Grizzlies in franchise history. Add in the departure of veteran presence Vince Carter, and this team looks quite a bit different from last year (or many of the years prior).

While there’s been noticeably impactful roster turnover, the team’s chemistry won’t be as poor as one of a tanking team. Memphis’s pillars, Mike Conley and Marc Gasol, have a combined 19 years of solely Grizzlies experience between them. The two have a connection that’s so tight they can communicate non-verbally on the court with success.

Memphis Grizzlies v Atlanta Hawks
Marc Gasol (33) and Mike Conley (11) walk on the court during a January 2015 game against the Atlanta Hawks.
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

After them, though, things get a bit dicier. JaMychal Green may come back for his fourth season, which would be helpful. But after his noncommittal tweet yesterday, his return is by no means signed, sealed, and delivered. Jarrell Martin and Brandan Wright, while having endured two full seasons in Memphis, finished with only 1,597 minutes combined in those two years. Just last season alone 175 players played 1,597 minutes or more.

The threesome of James Ennis III, Troy Daniels, and Mario Chalmers (after a year away) will all start their second seasons with the Grizzlies, bringing some experience to the team. Chandler Parsons will also begin his second season in Memphis, but after his no-show 2016-17 year, he’s effectively playing his first season in the Bluff City again (this may be what the interwebs call a hot take. If so, let it burn.)

The team at least has a few seasoned players, like Tyreke Evans and Chalmers, who can assimilate into the fold at a quicker pace than a rookie or second year player might. But continuity will be something to watch for the first few weeks of the season.

Buy-in

This category is important because having players buy-in to a gameplan or overarching strategy produces upfront, baseline success. In this way, I suppose the Grit n’ Grind (GnG) Grizzlies should not have been successful as they continually bucked the three point shooting, faster paced systems of both Dave Joerger and, to a lesser extent, David Fizdale. However, they doubled down (a.k.a. bought-in) on an already proven and successful mode of playing.

Memphis did shoot much more from deep last season, a stat directly attributable to Fizdale’s vision for more of a “pace and space” team. At Evans, Chalmers, and Ben McLemore’s introductory press conference this summer, the head coach mentioned that he had desperately wanted faster players on his roster. But towards the end of the season and in the postseason, the urge to fall back into comfortable territory, playing two big men at the same time, took back over.

Memphis Grizzlies v Denver Nuggets
David Fizdale’s teacher refuses to call on him in class.
Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

But the foremost fathers of GnG, who are also two notably not-very-fast players, departed this summer. No longer is there a fall back plan if the remaining Grizzlies, for whatever reason, don’t buy in fully to Fizdale’s concepts. If the team fails to believe in Fizdale, the team’s collapse will be imminent and ugly.

Memphis has not for seven years been in a position where it doesn’t have the pieces to play GnG basketball. Playing within the parameters of the modern NBA’s pace and space was always just an experiment that, if the guys weren’t feeling it, could be scrapped for another day.

That day is here. That day is today. There’s no going back now, which is why buy-in is so crucial this season.

Culture

This category is important because it’s basically the sum of the previous two. The equation reads:

Continuity + Buy-in = Culture

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Phoenix Suns
Mike Conley (11) brings the ball up the court as Marc Gasol (33) trails during a January 2017 game against the Phoenix Suns.
Jennifer Stewart-USA TODAY Sports

You don’t need culture to be a good team. But you do need it to be an elite team. The GnG Grizzlies, despite never making the Finals, were an elite team. The 2017-18 Grizzlies, at this point, do not appear to be an elite team.

Memphis is at a crossroads, either on the backend precipice of the GnG era or on the frontier of something totally new (or perhaps an overlap of both). Zach Randolph and Allen captured the essence of GnG—and by proxy the essence of the city—like no other Grizzly ever has or will.

And they are gone, as is likely the team’s longstanding mantra.

So what happens in their vacuum? Will GnG morph, taking on the personalities of Conley and Gasol? Is it even possible for there to be a Conley-Gasol-centric GnG? Will they create something new, cashing in on the currency of some sort of fable about the symbiotic friendship between a bear and a rabbit (surely this exists somewhere)? Could it be Fizdale who takes leadership of the team, steering it in a new direction?

Will the team even be good enough to have a culture in the first place?

Until we see the Grizzlies in action, these are unanswerable questions, but they are pressing questions nonetheless. With so much activity this offseason, it’s natural for Grizzlies fans to be curious, to be hesitant about a new-look team. There’s something both forbidding and romancing about the unknown, and the 2017-18 Grizzlies are about as unknown as they come.

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