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The golden years of Marc Gasol and Mike Conley

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Mike Conley and Marc Gasol have one final battle to face in Memphis.

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

Have you ever seen the movie Unforgiven?

As perhaps the only twenty-year-old alive who loves westerns, this 1992 film starring Clint Eastwood and Morgan Freeman is one of my favorites. I have always appreciated the romanticized revisionist history of the old American West, and Unforgiven presents that in a thrilling, unforgettable fashion.

The film follows William Munny (Eastwood) and Ned Logan (Freeman), two reformed bandits whose best days are behind them. Munny and Logan both have a memorable past as great gunfighters, but they are now happy to just be repentant farmers who live in blissful irrelevance and obscurity. When a young man called the Kid seeks Munny to help him kill a group of dangerous criminals for a $1,000 award, Munny refuses. He in particular has no desire to return to the dangerous life that he has left behind.

However, Munny’s farm is failing and the future of him, his children, and everything that he has worked for is falling apart as well. Although he has escaped the cycle of violence, he sees no other option than to return to it for the needed money. So he decides to help the Kid track down the group of criminals, and he recruits Logan to help him.

Munny and Logan, two men who are both past their primes in what they do, now have one final chance to live up to their legacy and save everything for which they have worked.

Do Munny and Logan remind you of any duo in particular?

NBA: Brooklyn Nets at Memphis Grizzlies Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

While Zach Randolph and Tony Allen were more responsible for the culture of the Memphis Grizzlies, Mike Conley and Marc Gasol were more instrumental in building the legacy of the team. Randolph and Allen remained good players, but it was obvious as early as 2013 that Gasol and Conley were the two best players on the team.

It was Marc Gasol, a former Defensive Player of the Year and three-time All-Star who at one point had a case to be the best center in the league every single year. It was Mike Conley (or “Captain Clutch” if you really prefer to make my ears bleed with bad nicknames) who was annually one of the NBA’s best point guards, only kept out of an All-Star Game because of a historically loaded Western Conference

And it was Conley and Gasol together that formed the engine that propelled the Grizzlies to seven straight playoff appearances. They may have had help along the way, but it was them that brought excellence to the Memphis Grizzlies.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Detroit Pistons Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

But the consistent success of the Grizzlies turned into obscurity and irrelevance last year, and it is uncertain whether it will return anytime soon.

“But Nathan!”, you cry with indignation, “The only reason the Grizzlies were so bad last year was because they were tanking! When Conley returns fully healthy next year, the Grizzlies will have a good shot at making the playoffs! They also added really solid players in Jaren Jackson Jr., Kyle Anderson, and Garrett Temple!”

NBA: Summer League-Philadelphia 76ers at Memphis Grizzlies Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

Ever since 2011, the Memphis Grizzlies have always made the playoffs when Mike Conley and Marc Gasol were mostly healthy, so it does make some sense to believe that they will next year if they do remain healthy, especially since they have added some quality pieces during the offseason.

However, what does a “healthy” Marc Gasol and Mike Conley look like in 2018?

Let’s ignore the question for a second of whether they can even remain healthy at this stage in their careers, which is a big question in and of itself. Do you really expect that Conley is going to come in and average 20 points and 6 assists in the 12th year of his career after missing most of last season with achilles problems?

Additionally, you can make the argument that Gasol was dragged down by the inferior talent around him and will bounce back next year when he plays with more actual NBA-caliber players. Yet it is undeniable that he showed clear signs of regression last year, especially in his shooting percentages.

Now let’s just make make this clear: The Grizzlies have maximized their opportunities this offseason, but that doesn’t change the fact that it will all fall apart if either Gasol or Conley cannot be at their best. And unfortunately for Memphis, it is likely that both Conley and Gasol’s best days are behind them.

NBA: Houston Rockets at Memphis Grizzlies Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

So it really does come down to this. Mike Conley and Marc Gasol have been in many wars together, but they still have one more battle to fight. They likely have just one final chance to lead the Memphis Grizzlies from the NBA’s basement back to the playoffs. They will also have to accomplish this outside of their primes. To make matters worse, the Western Conference will be historically deep and talented.

And yes, this will be the final chance that Conley and Gasol have. If the Grizzlies don’t make the playoffs next year, it will likely become, as our own Greg Ratlif has written, time for a total rebuild around Jaren Jackson Jr. Gasol has a player option for the 2019-2020 season, and it’s hard to imagine that he wouldn’t opt out to join a contender if they fail to make the postseason. The Grizzlies would also likely try to move Conley under this scenario even though his contract is probably immovable.

Regardless, there is no plausible scenario where a Conley-Gasol led team makes the playoffs again if they don’t make it next year.

All of this does not seem ideal.

If there is a bright side, the Grizzlies don’t need to make the playoffs next year. The first-round pick that the Grizzlies owe the Boston Celtics will have to convey by 2021. Since many scouts consider the 2019 draft class to be relatively weak, perhaps 2019 would be the best year to give up the pick. Even if they don’t make the playoffs, the Grizzlies’ future in Jaren Jackson Jr. is still very bright.

But that’s not the point.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies-Media Day Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

Mike Conley and Marc Gasol are more than just players in Memphis—they’re icons and heroes. People do not want to watch their heroes go gentle into that good night. They want to watch them go out in a blaze of glory just like the heroes in an old Western.

Whether they are successful or not, the final chapter of Mike Conley and Marc Gasol with the Grizzlies should be a thrilling one. The road ahead will not be easy.

It never seems to be in Memphis.