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The Grizzlies and the pursuit of mediocrity

The Memphis Grizzlies may or may not make the playoffs next year, but is simply making the playoffs a worthy goal without a clear plan for the future?

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

On April 6, 2016, Sam Hinkie resigned as the general manager of the Philadelphia 76ers. Under his nearly three-year tenure, the 76ers had undergone the most relentless rebuild in NBA history and had only won 47 games over that time. “The Process” as it had come to be known appeared to have been a complete failure.

However, history is written by the victors, and with the possible dynasty in the making led by Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, Sam Hinkie is now remembered as a contrarian visionary. Although he may have been ahead of his time, Hinkie clearly was a genius because he fully understood something that many people around the NBA either cannot—or will not—accept.

The absolute worst place to be in the NBA is in the middle. And unfortunately, that is where the Memphis Grizzlies aim to be this coming season.

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at Memphis Grizzlies Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Of course, the Grizzlies were not mediocre last year - they plummeted to the deepest, darkest circle of Dante’s hell. And while the goal in the NBA is to win a championship, there is nothing inherently wrong with rebuilding or “tanking” for a season (or for years if you’re Philadelphia) in order to acquire championship-caliber talent. After all, everyone rebuilds at some point...unless you’re the San Antonio Spurs who will still somehow win 50 games with DeMar Derozan and LaMarcus Aldridge shooting ten thousand mid-range shots per game.

But there really is a remarkable similarity between championship contenders like the Golden State Warriors/Boston Celtics and teams who tank like the Phoenix Suns: They both have a clear long-term goal of winning championships. Teams like the Warriors and Celtics obviously already have the means to accomplish that goal, while tanking teams like the Suns are acquiring talent through the draft so that they can reach that level.

On the other hand, teams that are stuck in mediocrity like the Memphis Grizzlies do not have the talent to compete for a championship (or possibly even make the playoffs for that matter), and they aren’t bad enough to acquire generational talent at the top of the draft.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Dallas Mavericks Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Obviously, the Grizzlies were smart enough to tank after Mike Conley was lost for the season last year. As a result, they may have possibly acquired a unicorn player in Jaren Jackson Jr., who would logically be the first piece in building a true title contender.

To be sure, Jaren Jackson could be the type of generational talent that will eventually make the Memphis Grizzlies great again. But what is the long-term plan over the next few seasons to help make that a reality? Unlike the teams in both the Celtics’ and Suns’ respective tiers, the Grizzlies do not have a clear, coherent plan going forward (subjective allusions and references to the “culture” of Grit ‘N’ do not count).

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

They are caught between trying to compete at a high level and a total rebuild, with no real avenue to do either. The fact that they will have to convey a pick to the Boston Celtics within the next three years (top-8 protected in 2019, top-6 protected in 2020, and unprotected in 2021) also inhibits their ability to undergo a full rebuild.

Now allow me to be clear: There are many people who cover the NBA with a “championship or bust” mentality, and they believe that if a team can’t win a championship, then they should blow it up. I am not one of those people. There is much joy and memories to be had with an entertaining, competitive team, even if you know how the story will always end. The lasting relationship between the city of Memphis and the Grizzles over the last near decade has been a perfect example of this.

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

The problem, however, is when simply trying to be competitive becomes your goal. Since they play in a ludicrously loaded Western Conference, the Memphis Grizzlies merely hope to maybe make the playoffs next season. The more likely scenario is that they win 36-40 games and come decently short of accomplishing that goal.

Even if they do sneak into the playoffs, what will happen next? Regardless of what happens next season, there is a chance that Marc Gasol will leave to join a title contender next year in free agency, which would likely end the Grizzlies’ chances of being truly competitive over the next few years. Again, the Boston pick will also remain a thorn in the side of any potential rebuilding effort until it conveys.

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

Essentially, the Memphis Grizzlies are stuck in the middle and have no real plan beyond aspiring for mediocrity this upcoming season.

And that is clearly problematic.

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