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Losing ground to gain it in Memphis

You cannot be tenacious without being willing to trudge

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Memphis Grizzlies v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by Jordan Johnson/NBAE via Getty Images

Most season previews provide storylines that lie ahead for the team that is being broken down. But chances are, if you’re reading this, you already know the set-up for the Memphis Grizzlies. In this corner of the internet, you’ve become accustomed to the questions surrounding this franchise. What will Justise Winslow be for the team? How soon will Jaren Jackson Jr. return to the lineup? How much higher can Ja Morant fly as he continues to defy gravity? Will the rest of the Grizzlies roster be able to help carry the burden left in the absence of two key rotation pieces?

Those queries have been dissected at length by many, including Grizzly Bear Blues, in the lead up to this most unique of NBA seasons. So as we arrive at the precipice of the campaign for Memphis, let’s tackle a larger issue at hand for this Grizzlies franchise.

Zach Kleiman, the Grizzlies General Manager, spoke with the media in the lead up to the season and he said a lot of things that fired up the fan base. Talk of the “North Star” of the franchise being championship contention, how the organization plans to “relentlessly pursue” trophies and banners. Investing in this being a “special group of players” - that this roster, built around Ja, and Jaren, and Brandon Clarke, and even hopefully Justise Winslow, can gel and achieve at a high level because he believes in the potential of the collective.

The funny thing about potential is the need to progress toward it. And that progress is rarely a full blown run - it is oftentimes a trudge. And it also more often than not is not a march in a straight line - it is an obstacle course, full of blockages and barricades that will force you to either change course or plow through - damages and all.

So here’s a question - is Memphis, and their Grizzlies, disciplined enough to stay the course when it winds more than anticipated?

Can a journey for “sustained success” be appreciated if it means playoff gratification will not be instant?

2019-20 Memphis Grizzlies Media Day Photo by Michael J. LeBrecht II/NBAE via Getty Images

The Memphis Grizzlies drastically overachieved last season. Very few - if any - saw them being the eight seed entering a home stretch that was eventually suspended and resumed in a Bubble. If you watched them play, you were able to take in a force of nature in Ja Morant, a unicorn growing up in Jaren Jackson Jr., a historically efficient rookie in Brandon Clarke. You likely enjoyed a team that failed in the Bubble in the literal sense - they lost a playoff spot that was theirs for the taking - but succeeded for having earned the opportunity to compete for such a thing in the first place. You felt that the future was bright...and perhaps things were accelerating at a pace more like a sprint than a marathon.

But the team did not act like a squad that was a player or two away from contention this offseason. On the contrary - they doubled down on players like De’Anthony Melton, who “struggled mightily” in the Bubble (while playing out of position due to the injury to Tyus Jones). They re-signed the polarizing Dillon Brooks before the world changed forever due to the pandemic. They brought back John Konchar, and re-signed prospects like Jontay Porter who haven’t logged a single NBA minute. As Kleiman himself put it, in the first full year of their regime they prioritized asset acquisition. Now, in the sophomore campaign for Kleiman’s crew? They’re gathering data on those that have been brought in to run alongside the cornerstones that they believe are already in place.

Meanwhile, the Phoenix Suns traded for Chris Paul. The New Orleans Pelicans lost Jrue Holiday but got arguably deeper in multiple positions with a healthy Zion Williamson looming large. The Golden State Warriors, while they will miss Klay Thompson, still have Stephen Curry and a cast that should be able to support him on the way to competing for the postseason. Multiple teams improved through trades/free agency. The Grizzlies chose internal improvement and the status quo.

Correctly, they chose the status quo. They saw their circumstances and didn’t allow the actions of others to change how they perceived themselves. But the time to postpone pushing in more chips toward contention is closing. And maintaining the reality of that - and the timing that accompanies it - will require a restraint that is uncommon in this world in 2020.

Memphis Grizzlies v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

Taylor Jenkins and the Grizzlies braintrust has shown time and again they understand the best path to contention in a market like Memphis. Small, calculated risks. Smart usage of assets to acquire players that both fit scheme and systemically align with the climate and culture they are cultivating. Blind luck in the ability to draft a potentially generational talent at the point guard position. That last one makes the front office look smarter than it should, but the totality of their transactions lines up with a team whose goals are to compete...but not for titles right now. To win...but not at “any cost”. To thrive...according to their definition of success.

And Zach Kleiman said he wants to see growth more than anything else. The team will fight. And scratch. And claw for every victory. But the team being better in May and June than they are now matters more than anything. That can happen with the team being on the outside looking in of the playoffs.

The Grizzlies organization is primed to accept that. But are Memphis fans?

We’re about to find out.

The team could very well make the postseason. Even with all the challenges ahead of them with Jaren and Justise out, being in the play-in mix (7-10 seed) should be a fair and realistic goal. But if the Grizzlies show real signs of growth while factors outside of their control (health issues, trades that improve teams also competing around the play-in) force them to miss the playoffs, is the season a failure? Will there really be frustration toward the coaching staff or front office if such a “regression” occurs?

If Kleiman and company decide that Gorgui Dieng, Grayson Allen, and two firsts is theoretically too expensive to both short and long-term assets and cap flexibility to bring in a Buddy Hield or Zach Lavine, limiting their current prospects while prioritizing internal development, will there be enough patience to wait and see what the next stage of this rebuild is to be organically? Is there enough of an understanding of the current state of the franchise to accept that sometimes losing ground is the best way to gain it back and then some in subsequent steps?

In year one, the front office did exactly this when they moved on from veterans like Jae Crowder and Solomon Hill to bring in potential fits like Justise Winslow. It weakened the Grizzlies at the time while improving their long-term prospects in their eyes, ultimately delaying a return to playoff relevance to another date down the line.

2020-21 Memphis Grizzlies Content Day Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

There were rumbles of frustration then, and they’re present here and there now with Winslow recovering from injuries. What happens when this time, instead of trading for a younger piece, they do nothing and wait until this next offseason to perhaps make a major move - which would likely mean another year of purposely (or relentlessly!) practicing delayed gratification?

Will the honeymoon come to an end with a front office group that has become almost universally respected in Memphis? Or will people keep the faith?

To speak of relentless pursuit is inspirational. To execute the tracking of championship contention over the span of years - especially when the supposedly “rebuilding” team is overachieving - is a challenge. In action it requires not just a willingness to sprint, or run, or even walk or crawl through the good and bad times. Relentless pursuit calls for an indomitable will - an unshakable conviction in the importance of what you are chasing. One cannot simply be relentless when it is convenient - it must be maintained across the spectrum of life experience. A constant line of sight far off on the horizon must not be compromised because of a flash of light in the periphery. This level of self-control doesn’t develop the character of an organization and their fan base. It reveals it.

In this likely final season for the Memphis Grizzlies free of playoff expectation, will all stakeholders be able to maintain that stare toward the flicker of light in the distance? It remains to be seen. The front office has shown and said they are capable...but public pressure could mount if the team starts strong (a possibility given the schedule, even with Jaren and Justise out). The team will, and should, play their best for wins on a nightly basis. But with the two best players on the team being 21 years old, the hopes of fans of a return to playoff relevance cannot be accelerated at the expense of the “North Star.” This season should focus on learning more about who is already here in Memphis - not reaching out for something more that has not yet materialized for the Grizzlies.

Who will be by Ja and Jaren’s side when the time to contend is at hand? That is the question that the franchise must be in a better position to answer when this season concludes. Is Kyle Anderson really a new man from beyond the arc? Can Jonas Valanciunas modernize his game enough to remain a factor as the second youngest team in the NBA comes of age? Who among Dillon Brooks, Grayson Allen, De’Anthony Melton, and Tyus Jones is best equipped to maximize the skills of the Memphis stars? Or, if any of these players falter, or the season goes off the rails for whatever reason, do they better serve the tenacious hunt for sustained success in a trade?

That must be become known as the team’s 20th season in Memphis unfolds. If the front office believes that the players already in the fold provide better answers to being competitive than any outside source at this stage, so be it. So much is outside of their control with regard to linear playoff growth - the process of growing the franchise from within and establishing a larger undisputed core beyond Morant and Jackson Jr. is in their reach. That matters more than wins and losses. More than playoffs or Lottery picks. When the weight of presumptive postseason runs returns...what will the Grizzlies standard actually be? And who will represent it, and the city, when title hopes are no longer off in the distance?

When the fire and emotion of Believe Memphis returns, who will be here to ensure that this next generation of the Grizzlies is the greatest ever?

The steady search for that eureka moment is more than worth a hoop dream deferred.

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