If there was ever a single word that could succinctly describe Mike Conley as a person, it would probably be class. Throughout his entire time in Memphis, he always exemplified class and character, both in his on-court performance (788 games without a technical is incredibly impressive) and in his work with the community.
So it should be no surprise when the time finally came that Conley no longer desired to be in Memphis, he chose to not publicly demand a trade. Instead, he thoughtfully expressed his frustration with the current state and direction of the franchise.
“I honestly think my ultimate goal of winning a championship, I don’t know if it’s going to happen in my next two years here,” Conley bluntly said. “That has nothing to do with the talent we do have, because I think we have a hell of a squad if everybody’s healthy. We can make some noise. But that puts me in the same situation I’ve been in for the past 10 years, just making noise. Do I want to continue to be making noise? I’m 31, I’m kind of past trying to make noise every year.”
In his final days and months in Memphis, Conley acknowledged that he understood what many of us have known for years now: The Memphis Grizzlies were never going to seriously contend for an NBA championship, whether over the last few years or even at the peak of the Grit ‘N’ Grind era.
To be sure, the Grizzlies might seem like they are nearing a breakthrough like they did in 2013 or 2015. They may even make a true contender have a sense of their own mortality before finally succumbing to their superiority.
But at the end of the day, the Memphis Grizzlies, as Mike Conley said himself, were only going to be able to make some noise.
Of course, making noise can be fun, and it has been fun to experience for nearly the last decade of Grizzlies basketball. Some of my most thrilling and joyful memories happened within the raucous confines of FedexForum during the glory years of the Core Four.
Yet there comes a point, as Conley again found himself, where making noise simply isn’t satisfying anymore. After all, no matter how interesting it might be, you can only look at a painting for so long before you wish to see a different design.
If you read the same story over and over again, you may long for a different ending.
And that is exactly why the next era and new age of the Memphis Grizzlies is so exciting. Absolutely no one knows what’s going to happen next. Regardless of what is to come over the next few years and decade, the ending is not predetermined or inevitable as it’s been in the past.
In the short term, a core of Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Brandon Clarke is likely to experience growing pains and stretches of poor play as they develop in the NBA together. It might be ugly at times and not in the nostalgic “we in the mud” type of way.
However, no one knows what the Morant-Jackson-Clarke core could become beyond that. There is no limit to what they can achieve, no heights to which they can not climb. The story of this core hasn’t even begun yet. We haven’t even turned the first page—and we certainly don’t know how this story will end. There’s hope in uncertainty, and there’s a thrill to be found in the unknown.
Familiarity breeds apathy, and that’s the point at which both fans of the Memphis Grizzlies and even Mike Conley himself found themselves by the end of this past season. There seemed to be no real direction, no hope that the Grizzlies’ story would ever end in a place other than their seemingly endless mire of mediocrity. If former general manager Chris Wallace’s parting words “I can’t tell you which direction we’re headed in right now” were any indication, there seemed to be no light at the end of the tunnel.
But it appears the night was darkest just before the dawn, and in just a short few months, the future of the Memphis Grizzlies has never looked brighter. The dawn of a new era—led by a new core and thankfully a forward-thinking front office—is finally here.
Now make no mistake: It is still extremely difficult to say goodbye. It was hard to watch each individual person who had defined Memphis basketball for this generation go their separate ways.
It was hard to see Tony Allen in a New Orleans Pelicans uniform.
It was hard to see Zach Randolph in a Sacramento Kings uniform.
It was hard to see Marc Gasol in a Toronto Raptors uniform, even if he did finally win an NBA championship.
And it will be hard to see Mike Conley in a Utah Jazz uniform next year.
However, Nabil Toussi said that “to say goodbye is to die a little. To say good morning, is a hope for a new sunshine in a cloudy winter.” In saying a difficult goodbye to an especially memorable past, the Grizzlies now have a chance for an even more memorable future.
Maybe this new iteration of the Memphis Grizzlies flames out and never becomes a consistent playoff contender. Perhaps they do become a consistent playoff presence. Or maybe they eventually bring home the Larry O’Brien trophy that the people of Memphis have coveted for so long, which is a real possibility if each member of this new core becomes what many believe that they can.
The possibilities are truly endless, and the future, as hopeful as it may be, is uncertain. But for the first time in nearly a decade, the Memphis Grizzlies have the opportunity to tell a story that eventually culminates in an ending of which so many dream—an ending that would have never been possible in the past.