One of my favorite movies of all time is the iconic Gladiator, starring Russell Crowe. There’s a scene in which his character, a gladiator (naturally), defeats like eight dudes in the arena single-handedly. He looks up at the first-age box seats that the riches onlookers have and yells “Are you not entertained?! Are you not entertained?! Is this not why you are here?!” This banger of a quote, now a meme, is what I imagine every GM of a sports franchise yelling as their team conquers all on the court or field.
Well, take those two questions and put them in the context of the Memphis Grizzlies, a sports franchise by definition, but a dysfunctional cast of a knock off MTV’s Real World by practice.
Question: Are you not entertained?
Answer: No I am not entertained, thank you for asking.
Question: Are you not entertained?
Answer: I just said no.
Question: Is this not why you are here?
Answer: Oddly phrased, but yes I am here for the entertainment. And again I say, no I am not entertained.
It’s sad isn’t it? A team that started off 12-5, atop the Western Conference for a couple seconds, that has fallen back to reality so quickly that reality now feels sorry for them. I would say that the Memphis Grizzlies are searching, grasping for something to hold on to, something to be proud of, but I am not even sure that’s true. I don’t think anyone making basketball or organizational decisions knows what to do at this point.
We are a little past the halfway point of the season. In other words, there is still quite a bit of basketball to be played. Yet there seems to be a sense of hopelessness looming around the Memphis franchise, a feeling that what is taking place can’t be overcome. But what exactly has happened? What has gone so wrong?
I am not going to start this review in 2017 when then-coach David Fizdale was fired 19 games into the season. (But please remember that it happened and is still relevant, it was questionable at the very least, and that becomes a theme.) Lets start with the current head coach, J.B. Bickerstaff, taking over as interim on game 20 of the 2017-18 season.
Bickerstaff would finish the season 15-48, plunging the Grizzlies to a lottery spot with flying colors. The team was bad, built poorly, and an injury to Mike Conley set this team on a downward spiral. Bickerstaff is not to blame for any of that. Yet what happened in the following summer is what makes the 15-48 season look a little bit worse. The front office (*cough* Chris Wallace) chose not to have a coaching search and gave (yes, gave) the head coaching job to J.B. Bickerstaff.
The offseason drama didn’t stop with the (lack of a) coaching search. The roster was full of players that could be moved, cut, or bought out. Jaren Jackson Jr. was picked #4 overall, no argument with that logic. Jevon Carter was taken in the second round, still a lot to be determined there. Shelvin Mack, Garrett Temple, and Kyle Anderson were the “blockbuster” signees. There’s a theme with those three if you didn’t notice: aging veteran’s that can’t create their own shot, or shoot at all really, but a defensive presence (maybe). Omri Casspi also joined the team, if you weren’t familiar with him at the time, there’s a reason for that.
Now let’s get to the season. Chandler Parsons, a max-contract player for Memphis, was supposed to be in true form, healthy for the first time since signing with the Grizzlies. Mike Conley was also healthy, poised for a glorious return. This team given an over/under of 34.5 wins, a number that seemed very low to Memphis Grizzlies fans.
I just saw Vegas win total for Memphis is 34.5. That's a really good line, but I'll take the under.— McCarty Maxwell (@McCartyMaxwell) October 17, 2018
The season started well, 12-5 as I mentioned. Yet it turns out, Parsons actually wasn’t healthy. He appeared in the first three games for a total of 46 minutes and has not returned this season, more on that later. The role players were playing out of their minds, Shelvin Mack looked like the best legitimate back up point guard Mike Conley has ever had the luxury of playing with. Yet reality crept in oh so slowly.
12-5 quickly turned to 12-8. Then 15-11. And 16-16, back to 18-16. And then reality grew tired of the slow pace. 18-16 turned to 18-22 in just nine calendar days. Now the record stands at 19-24 with one of the toughest stretches of games on the schedule.
In the midst of reality taking over, Dillon Brooks suffered an injury, came back, and is now having season ending surgery. Marc Gasol tweaked his ankle but won’t sit out for it to heal, so the Grizzlies are now -10 with him on the floor. Chandler Parsons wanted to play, his agent wanted him to play, yet Memphis didn’t want him to. So he left the team, and for normal job holders like myself to be more infuriated: he is making $24 million to sit at home.
Over the last 5 games, the Grizzlies have a minus-10.7 NetRtg with Marc Gasol on court, and even more remarkably, they're a plus-9 when he's been off the court. No one else is even close to that number.— Peter Edmiston (@peteredmiston) January 5, 2019
The Grizzlies previously signed Joakim Noah to get things back on a track from a rebounding standpoint. Just for reference, Noah was cut by the New York Knicks for being bad at basketball, yet he is still making $18.5 million from them this season. That experiment hasn’t worked. Two-way player and former Memphis Tiger, D.J. Stephens was cut, replaced by the undersized and positionless Jarnell Stokes, because why not? Oh wait. Now Stokes is cut to sign Julian Washburn from the G-League. Stokes lasted 15 days.
Grizzlies will cut Jarnell Stokes in order to sign small forward Julian Washburn (Austin Toros) to a two-way contract.— Chris Herrington (@HerringtonNBA) January 15, 2019
“Brooks” and Wayne Selden Jr. were going to Phoenix, Kelly Oubre was coming to Memphis, and then none of that happened. Because Memphis has two “Brooks” and someone couldn’t get the first name right. So instead we sent MarShon Brooks, Selden, and two second round picks to Chicago for Justin Holiday, a semi-shooter that can’t figure out his role on the team because no else knows their role.
Oh, and Omri Casspi and Garrett Temple reportedly got into a physical altercation in the locker room following a loss.
Are you not entertained? Is this not why you are here?
The whole point of this summary is to breakdown just how concerning and important this season is. For seven years, the Grizzlies entertained the city of Memphis. The city understood the Grizz brand of basketball, they accepted the Grit-N-Grind era and embodied what that phrase meant. The players knew who they were and what it took to win. Outside of the play on the court, the only noise was the roar of the Memphis faithful, because they knew why they were there. Sure, there was a coaching carousel that few understood, yet the organization knew how to maintain focus on what was most important: basketball.
Last season was the first true test of the new generation of fans. Fans, including myself that are a product of Memphis and the teams playoff success in the last decade, had not dealt with a losing season or lottery expectation. So we persevered. Jaren Jackson Jr. was the 19 year old savior, given the responsibility to bring this franchise back to old glory. But its not possible for him, or anyone, to save this franchise from utter disarray with the distractions of the front office and coaching staff.
There are so many layers to what has transpired this season, many that the general public will never know. But what is obvious on the surface is that this organization has more problems than a losing record and slow pace on the floor. For this franchise to get back to winning ways, there has to be serious organizational change, starting with the front office and their approach to basketball. A close second is the coaching staff, figuring out players strengths and quality rotations is a good start.
I am not entertained. And what I am seeing from this organization is not why I’m here.