“Grit ‘n’ Grind” — the culture that embodied the Memphis Grizzlies for the last decade. Zach Randolph and Tony Allen, two pillars of the iconic “Core 4,” set the tone for that culture, and everyone followed suit. This era will forever remain as one of the most glorious memories in Memphis history.
This past June, the Grizzlies moved on the final piece of the Core 4 when they traded away Mike Conley. In the process, they were pegged with a tall task: establishing a new culture.
This new culture was to be created with a 34 year-old rookie head coach, a new front office with a young GM, and 20 year-old franchise cornerstones. It’s a feat we’ve seen many teams fail in, as the inexperience ultimately prevents them from setting a good, winning culture.
Meanwhile, the Memphis Grizzlies are thriving. On the court, we know the deal. Over the past month, they’ve been one of the better offenses in the league, as they’re playing an unselfish brand of basketball that’s translating into impressive wins.
“I feel like we got way better since the beginning of the season. I feel like we all getting it and have the same mindset. Just to play unselfish and just compete every night. Give it all on the floor,” Ja Morant told Grizzly Bear Blues. “I feel like we all just bonding right now and getting it together.”
In the midst of the winning, we’re getting a glimpse of the culture brewing within these “nxt-gen” Grizzlies. There’s an infectious energy throughout the team that’s transcended into on-court momentum and written one of the best stories of the NBA season.
“Our culture has been ‘be us, don’t do anything out of character, and getting it together’.” Jaren Jackson Jr. continued. “I just like everybody’s vibe, really. Everyone’s in tune.”
There are a lot of moving parts into building this culture. The veterans have been strong mentors that have been productive on the court, Coach Jenkins has all his players bought in, and the team’s energy and personalities have created one of the strongest, most hard-working cultures in the game.
I’m a firm believer in the philosophy that you can’t have a locker room full of kids in a rebuilding situation. There’s no one in that locker room that could teach them good habits — whether it’s the importance of staying ready, getting to the gym early, playing hard regardless of the outcome, or closing games.
The Memphis Grizzlies did an excellent job surrounding their young talent with good veteran leaders that can actually contribute on the court. Jae Crowder and Jonas Valanciunas have been solid contributors in the starting lineup, as the former has added value as a volume 3-and-D wing, and the latter as a nightly double-double. Meanwhile, Solomon Hill is experiencing a resurgence off the bench, shooting a career-best 37.9% from 3.
In the process, they’ve provided tremendous, unique insight for these young players in the locker room, all pointing towards the process of building a hard-working culture. And, it’s recognized too, as Dillon Brooks and Ja Morant shared with GBB how huge these veterans have been in the locker room.
Crowder expressed the importance of holding each other accountable, regardless of the outcome. He’s set that standard by holding himself accountable as well:
“Obviously, being a leader verbally, but like I said, you have to do work too. You have to put in work, and I’ve been trying to put in extra work to show these guys that it’s tough to win in this league. It’s tough to be sharp each and every night, but you do got to put work in when the lights aren’t on, and I try to hold myself accountable in that aspect. And, it comes easy to me, because I’m so accustomed to having a strict schedule. As a new guy coming to the league, he has to gain that. He has to get that ability. Seeing it, obviously with me, like I did with Vince Carter and Elton Brand — seeing those guys be accountable everyday and have a strict schedule, it helps a lot.”
Valanciunas sees this culture as a “hard-playing” one where they give it their best shots no matter who they face. In sustaining it, Valanciunas preaches to these guys to play hard, whether they’re up or down:
Win, lose, or draw, we got to come in here and work, still got to come in here and be accountable for our wins and our losses. I think our culture is trending in the right direction, and we have a lot of accountability. And we still have a long ways to go, but we try to look at ourselves in the mirror and be accountable each and everyday.
Rebuilding can be tough, especially when the process requires a cultural reset. However, these veterans have been perfect guides for these young players, as they navigate them through the rigors of the NBA and the learning process of winning games.
Taylor Jenkins, the man in charge of rallying everyone and instilling a culture that’ll promote winning habits and sustain for the long run. A tall task for a rookie head coach, right?
Not for Jenkins.
I was optimistic on the hire, as I saw the success of Mike Budenholzer and of other branches off of his coaching tree — Utah’s Quin Snyder and Brooklyn’s Kenny Atkinson — and thought Jenkins could emulate a similar culture and system. However, I didn’t see the fruition of the process happening this quickly.
“I feel very fortunate. I’m blessed to be in this position,” Coach Jenkins said. “I work with a great group of people — from our players to our coaches to our performance staff. It’s everyone. Everyone has taken our message from the beginning of the season. It’s organically developed, not just on the floor, which everyone sees, but hopefully everything that’s going on behind the scenes. It’s also a reflection of what you guys are seeing every single night, and the growth and the competitiveness every single day. I’m super proud of these guys, our entire staff — front office, coaching staff, medical staff. And that’s the truth.”
We’ve seen the reflection of growth throughout the season, and it’s a product of the hard-working culture that’s brewing within this team. Throughout the season, we’ve continually seen Jenkins empower his players to expand the horizons of their games and let it fly. Brooks has become a more dynamic offensive weapon, as he serves as the Grizzlies’ no-conscience gunner, while evolving as a playmaker and serving as a perimeter stopper. Jaren Jackson Jr. is hitting 3s at a clip and volume that’s unprecedented for big men. He’s also brought out the best versions of young bench players such as Tyus Jones, De’Anthony Melton, Brandon Clarke, and Grayson Allen to form a top-10 bench unit.
“Coach Taylor made it known that we’re going to compete, play together, and be unselfish,” Dillon Brooks told GBB. “[Coach Taylor] instills a lot of confidence in each of us, and challenges us as well. That good healthy dose of both.”
The coaching hire this past summer was always going to be a big one. As this hire was the first major decision for this front office, it was important for them to hit it out of the park. Halfway through his first season though, Jenkins is proving himself to be a good young coach to invest in. He’s created an unselfish system that’s fun to watch and producing wins, while promoting a hard-working culture that everyone’s buying into.
One of the coolest things about this process is, the young guys are getting a chance to establish a culture that’s going to stay on this team through their primes.
“It’s really cool, especially when you’re doing it with a lot of young players around you,” Jaren Jackson Jr. said, “Everyone’s really kind of locked in and committed to just getting better. No one’s overthinking anything.”
This process dated back even to the pre-draft process. Once the Grizzlies got the 2nd pick, and when it became inevitable that Ja Morant would be a Grizzly, he and Jaren Jackson Jr. would tweet each other frequently. You could also see the team’s culture grow throughout Summer League. The players that weren’t on the roster — Jackson, Morant, De’Anthony Melton, Kyle Anderson, and Dillon Brooks — made it out to Las Vegas to support the team through their title run. In the process, they hyped up each and every player from the bench and on social media. I haven’t seen social media activity within a team, like the one we see from the Grizzlies, at all.
That same energy has transferred to the regular season. There’s a genuine excitement and support for each player on the team, as everyone is bought into this unselfish culture.
“It’s super cool,” Brandon Clarke told GBB. “It’s really, really new to me and other rookies, but it’s something that’s fun, and something we’ve been doing every night.”
This team has been a lot of fun to watch thus far, and the product on the court is just a part of it. It’s been awesome to see these young players grow and play with an infectious energy that makes even Tuesday night games in January fun as hell.
Through all this, one thing has become abundantly clear:
“Grit ‘n’ Grind” is still here. It’s not just a style of play where you drag opponents into a tortoise pace. It’s a mentality predicated around hard work and relentless improvement.
“GNG will always be in Memphis. It’ll never go away.” Dillon Brooks continued, “...We’re creating something new. It’s great for the city of Memphis. The city of Memphis will always be known as Grit ’n’ Grind.”
The Memphis Grizzlies weren’t supposed to be here. The rebuild wasn’t supposed to be this quick; in fact, most rebuilds don’t roll this quick. The on-court product has been brilliant, but the hard work shown throughout the first half of the season has made playoff conversations into a legitimate one.
“We have a chance to shock the world”, Dillon Brooks told GBB.
He’s right. The Grizzlies have a chance to shock the world. And if each player trends towards and beyond their trajectories, and the team stays bought into this hard-working culture, this run is just the beginning of something special.