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The nightmare on Beale Street

It isn’t anger. It’s a lack of it.

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Memphis Grizzlies Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Anger from a fan base is good.

Well, comparatively speaking.

Wherever you go to get information and analysis about the Memphis Grizzlies, you see that frustration boiling over from supporters of the bears of Beale Street. A team that began the year with such promise has completely crumbled, and in the wake of their formerly winning ways is a team in chaos. The response from fans is a lot like the stages of grief - from sadness, to anger, to acceptance. This roster is flawed, the coaching staff is inconsistent, and the organizational structure, from the outside, is incoherent.

It is natural to be frustrated, or depressed, by these developments. But the longer these issues go on, the more the Grizzlies franchise needs to worry about its greatest enemy and worst nightmare when it comes to fan emotion...

A complete lack of it.

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

Even the mightiest of franchises, with multiple championships on the mantle, can see fan support erode due to the disease that is apathy. The Washington Redskins are a great example of this. They are a team that dominated the 1980’s, that is one of nine NFL organizations that have won three or more Super Bowls, and is one of the highest valued sports franchises in the western hemisphere. Yet they have depreciated their brand so much that now games from out of market teams draw better ratings than them and in their season finale roughly 75-80% of the fans in their stadium were for the opposing team.

Memphis does not have anywhere near that pedigree, and while it takes time to get to the point of depression of a fan base that the Redskins have entered the signs are already showing for the Grizzlies. Attendance numbers are down about 10% from five seasons ago, and have been declining steadily since that campaign-

  • 2018-2019: 85.9% (23rd in the NBA)
  • 2017-2018: 88% (26th in the NBA)
  • 2016-2017: 91.2% (23rd in the NBA)
  • 2015-2016: 92.2% (21st in the NBA)
  • 2014-2015: 95.6% (15th in the NBA)

The average attendance at a Grizzlies game in the 2014-2015 season was 17,329. Now? 15,556. Attendance is down across the NBA currently, as is shown in the fact that the Grizzlies are still ranked 23rd in attendance despite the decline. The ease of television and other factors play in to this. Yet look at pictures from those in attendance at the games and you’ll see sparse crowds that used to fill in by the end of the first quarter that aren’t doing so anymore.

Even more important than the numbers, which can be explained away to an extent, is the energy that is inconsistent at best and seriously lacking at times in the building. We are talking about the Grindhouse, here - a place teams used to dread playing in! An arena that was the house that the Core Four built and posted a regular season record of 196-83 over the span of that era (2010-2011 to 2016-2017), which is a 70% win percentage, now over the past season and a half has seen that advantage collapse to the tune of 27-34, or a 44% winning mark.

There was a time when if the Grizzlies were playing at home, they were probably winning. Today, as they prepare to take on the Bucks, it is a 50/50 proposition at best - Memphis is 4-6 in their last 10 home games. When the team starts to fade in games, you feel the energy get sucked out of the building. No longer is there an unconquerable feeling of “they’re gonna come back”. More and more it is the sound of silence...of acceptance...

Of apathy.

This comes from a coaching staff that, despite the fact the Grizzlies are clearly not competitive, refuses to allow the best rookie they have ever had play through mistakes and missteps. Jaren Jackson Jr. is about as exciting a prospect as Memphis has ever had - he is capable of electrifying even the most sleeps of stadiums.

Jaren Jackson Jr. represents a day when Memphis no longer has Marc Gasol and Mike Conley to lean on, a time when the Grizzlies will be forced to move on from any attempts at Grit and Grind and find a new identity and culture. He is thrilling to watch, when given a chance. Yet a player that would be in the conversation for Rookie of the Year if it weren’t for the brilliance of Luka Doncic cannot even get his own coach to give him an opportunity to fight through adversity of his own creation.

Jackson is ninth among all rookies in minutes played, even lagging behind the likes of Kevin Huerter who (while having a good rookie season) is no JJJ. That is also considering the fact that Huerter have played one less game than Jaren! Jackson is tied for eighth in minutes played per game among all rookies at 25.6 per contest, and his own Coach Bickerstaff has openly admitted to holding Jaren to a high standard when it comes to fouls and mistakes.

Yet Jaren is the one capable of taking over games consistently, and he is the one who physically and emotionally can best charge a lineup. He is held to a different standard than any other Grizzly, and most other rookies. That crushes morale - why get excited to watch the future of the franchise play when you know as soon as he gets two fouls in the first quarter, or four in the third, he is going to sit? Why trust in a coach who doesn’t trust in him to learn and play through the errors?

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Houston Rockets Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Better yet, why give the benefit of the doubt to a coach who doesn’t play a wing that the front office gave up two 2nd round picks and two other wings - one of whom being 24 years old - to acquire? Justin Holiday clearly could be of use to a Grizzlies roster without Kyle Anderson, Dillon Brooks, and (to an extent their own doing) Chandler Parsons...well, clearly to everyone but J.B Bickerstaff, who plays others instead and includes Holiday in the “we’re getting blown out so here are some mintues in the 4th quarter” lineup. Why think things will get better when there is such a disconnect between coaching and the front office?

Why find the bright side in a situation where Bickerstaff most likely wanted to deploy Parsons, given their history, once he was cleared but wasn’t allowed to by GM Chris Wallace and company? Wasn’t Bickerstaff hired to do a job - win games? Wouldn’t a “healthy” Parsons, who probably doesn’t exist anymore but could at least play, aid in that endeavor considering the gaping holes in the lineup? And if you’re going to keep Parsons away, why would you be surprised that a coach would be frustrated when he sees he isn’t able to have all resources at his disposal to win?

While falling down the rabbit hole, why believe in a coach who doesn’t have the faith of those who are in large part the reason he is there in the first place?

Marc Gasol and Mike Conley loved J.B. Bickerstaff so much that it was deemed unnecessary to complete a total coaching search. The Grizzlies had found their man, despite the fact there was no real evidence of him being worthy of such unquestioned faith. Now, those two stars for Memphis, especially Gasol, are fading and do not seem to care about the collapsing season surrounding them. Their body language and play - again, especially Marc - tell the tale, and it has become so evident that opposing legends notice-

Brevin Knight went on to say he meant “didn’t”, in that particular game, not “doesn’t”, which would imply overall. But even with the correction, the statement isn’t untrue. Their effort on a nightly basis is suspect, especially as games begin to get away from them in the second half. Where is the fight that this team was once so famous for? If it left with Tony Allen and Zach Randolph, then the Grit and Grind moniker needs to be retired - as of now, there is neither being displayed on a consistent basis by the Memphis Grizzlies.

Clyde Drexler sees it. National media sees it. And most importantly, fans see it.

As the rumor mill starts swirling and potential trades of Grizzlies greats like Gasol get discussed, Memphis must keep in their sights avoiding their worst case scenario. It isn’t another awful season record wise - those will come, now or later, and possibly both. They’re inevitable. It isn’t an eventual Gasol or even Conley trade - fans are more OK with the reality of the team being without them than ever before, even if some anger would come from dealing away two Memphis icons.

The greatest fear, the disaster that they could be on the precipice of, is alienating a fan base to the point where they are no longer angry, or sad...they’re indifferent. They don’t see an organization that is cohesive, a team that is trying, a coaching staff that is capable of helping lead this roster out of the abyss, and they start to tune out. They no longer show up.

They lose hope.

The good news is it can still be saved. Makes moves to grow the team’s future around Jaren. Let him play through mistakes. Solidify the front office and work to restore relationships where necessary. But there is no current evidence to suggest these things will happen...and if that continues, times will only get worse.

For a young fan base in the NBA, apathy can be a death knell. And while it wouldn’t happen for a while, as the lease with FedExForum expires rumors could become reality. Fan passion dissipating doesn’t happen right away - it takes years. While Memphis isn’t there yet, the return of Tiger basketball to relevance and the current slide from the Grizzlies both on and off the floor is revealing cracks in what was once one of the proudest fan bases in the NBA.

Emotion is good from a fan base. If the Grizzlies don’t correct course, the silence that is starting could swell. And our worst nightmares could come true.

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