Life is full of difficult goodbyes.
As my high school career winded down in the spring of 2016, my college decision had basically come down to two schools—the University of Memphis and Union University. And while I was drawn to the ministry side of Union, I simply couldn’t shake my attraction to Memphis.
It was simply home. It was the city where I had been born and raised, and my fondest memories were there. Of course, it has its problems just like any other major city does. And some of those problems make some people want to leave and go elsewhere. But for me, home is where the heart is, and my heart was in Memphis.
However, I deep down knew that Union University was where I was supposed to be, since I wanted to pursue not only journalism but also ministry as a career path, Union was far more suitable to me than Memphis. Call the University of Memphis whatever you want, but it is certainly no seminary.
There’s a part of me that will always wonder the direction that my life would have taken over the last few years if I had chosen to stay home. However, I will never regret choosing to make the decision that was uncomfortable, the one that I thought would force me to grow in greater ways.
It was difficult to leave home (even it was only an hour and 15 minutes away). It was difficult to leave the things that were familiar to me. It was difficult to not be able to go see the Memphis Grizzlies whenever I want. However, sometimes it is the hardest goodbyes that allow us to grow and become better than ever before.
And sometimes, when you choose to take the path of comfort and familiarity as the Memphis Grizzlies have over the last few years, you very well may also be embracing stagnation and mediocrity.
As I watch the Memphis Grizzlies once again collapse in an apathetic, lifeless effort against a far superior team a few nights ago, there is one thought that runs through my head.
What in the world happened?
Over the last decade, the Grizzlies have been defined by “Grit ‘N’ Grind”, an identity that was both cultural and spiritual in how it reflected both the franchise and the city. It was a mentality that not only emphasized beating your opponent, but also making life a living hell for them in the process. Truly, it was about heart and will.
And now, it has become a complete sham, a disgrace.
In the months before this season began, the Grizzlies fired up the spin machine and declared the return of this cherished identity after an offseason in which they prioritized the defensive side of the ball. However, not only was it inaccurate for them to do so, it’s flat-out offensive.
Grit ‘N’ Grind was more than just a physical style of play that emphasized defense; it was about heart. This current iteration of the Memphis Grizzlies has no heart.
Now here is the difficult reality to face: Who are the leaders of this team that are supposed to embody this mentality? Or, to put it bluntly, who are the captains of this sinking ship?
For several years now, Mike Conley and Marc Gasol have represented familiarity and comfort for the Memphis Grizzlies. There was an implicit understanding that the team was never going to truly go anywhere with them, but it honestly didn’t really seem to matter.
As long as they kept making the playoffs and the fun was still there, that would be good enough. After all, it was really all that anyone could expect for the Grizzlies in an NBA in which the Golden State Warriors and LeBron James exist.
But now, the playoffs are but a distant unattainable memory, and the fun is over. A rebuild would seem inevitable, but several factors involved, including Marc Gasol’s player option and the draft pick owed to Boston, make it far more complicated than it initially seems.
As a result, the Grizzlies are perhaps in one of the most unenviable positions imaginable for an NBA team. They are far too bad to make the playoffs, too bad to at least be mediocre enough to convey their top-eight protected pick to Boston, but they have already won too many games to tank for one of the top draft picks.
And at the heart of this bleakness and despair are Conley and Gasol, two beloved Memphis icons who have both been incredible players but have ultimately failed as leaders in the absence of Zach Randolph and Tony Allen. To be sure, those are harsh words, but they have been proven to be the truth. They simply do not have what it takes to fill the void left behind by Allen and Randolph, and they have shown that Grit ‘N’ Grind truly died with their exit.
Of course, you certainly can’t blame all of the Grizzlies’ struggles on Conley and Gasol. After all, it was the front office who built a team that is not suited for success in the modern NBA where explosive offenses reign supreme. However, the front office’s decision to bet everything on Conley and Gasol even as they both exit their primes has handicapped the team.
The age-old adage that a “healthy Mike Conley and Marc Gasol is a playoff team” is no longer true. The Memphis Grizzlies can no longer win at even a mediocre level with them as their two best players, and their ability to rebuild is already delayed by a year. And as Conley and Gasol, especially Gasol, show signs of aging and regression, their values as assets has declined. What is the point in allowing their legacies to be tarnished when they can longer prodcue winning basketball in Memphis?
It should have never gotten to this point.
Jaren Jackson Jr. is a good basketball player with potential to become a legendary one. If you have watched him play in almost any game this year, you are already aware of this fact. However, Jackson is more than just a tantalizing talent or a hope for the future.
He is a reminder.
A reminder that the Memphis Grizzlies are bigger than a Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol, Mike Conley, or Tony Allen. A reminder that Grizzlies basketball will continue anew even after each of the Core Four has moved on to greener pastures.
And when I think about Jaren Jackson Jr. and the future of Grizzlies basketball, I can only imagine what the future could have been if the Grizzlies had not been so complacent. So comfortable.
Perhaps the Grizzlies have Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown after a Marc Gasol trade to help build a core around Jackson. Who knows what moves could have been made when Gasol’s value was at its peak.
But it doesn’t matter now. The Grizzlies are now stuck in a sort of limbo, and they only have themselves to blame because they were unable to say goodbye to one or both of their favorite sons.
Familiarity and nostalgia were the paths that they chose. And if Danny Ainge’s ruthless gutting of the Celtics’ Big Three was any indication, familiarity and nostalgia are not how you win in the NBA.
The Memphis Grizzlies have made the decision to cling to nostalgia over the last few years in the hopes of keeping a burning heart and passion alive. Yet that heart and passion is gone now, with no tangible solution to bring them back.