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Ranking the Grit and Grind Grizzlies: Part Three - When the best isn’t the best

It was still fun, though.

San Antonio Spurs v Memphis Grizzlies - Game Four Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

If you missed Part One or Part Two, check them out.

The Western Conference Finals run of the 2012-2013 season is the most successful postseason in Memphis Grizzlies history. It featured a wonderful home elimination of the hated Los Angeles Clippers, a beautiful beatdown of the mighty Oklahoma City Thunder, and though it ended in a competitive sweep (if there is such a thing) at the hands of the rival San Antonio Spurs Grizzlies fans had to be proud of all the team had accomplished. It was the best defensive season of the entire Grit and Grind Era, with the squad boasting a very impressive 100.3 defensive rating, good for 2nd in the NBA. It was punctuated by Marc Gasol winning Defensive Player of the Year, the highest honor any individual Memphis Grizzlies player has ever received and basketball in FedExForum in late May of 2013.

It was not, however, the greatest Grit and Grind Grizzlies team.

Here’s why.

NUMBER TWO: The 2012-2013 Memphis Grizzlies

FINAL RECORD: 56-26, #5 seed in the Western Conference Playoffs. 104.9 offensive rating, 100.3 defensive rating

FINISH: Eliminated by the San Antonio Spurs in four games in the Western Conference Finals

Memphis Grizzlies v Oklahoma City Thunder - Game Five Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Marc Gasol’s absolute best season as a member of the Memphis Grizzlies.

He. Was. Dominant.

So as a noted Marc Gasol fan, it is hard to not declare his peak in terms of impact on both ends of the floor for Memphis as the signature season in Grit and Grind history. Marc was not a dominant scorer - he was 4th overall on the team in points per game - but he averaged four assists per contest and so much of the offense went through him and his patented elbow touches in the scheme of Lionel Hollins that more often than not, it was Gasol initiating sets. His whopping 115 offensive rating is evidence of that impact.

On the defensive end, Marc Gasol was every bit deserving of that DPoY nod. It’s lazy to say he didn’t have the raw numbers. A deeper dig in the numbers shows just how much Marc mattered on that end for the Grizzlies.

  • DEFENSIVE RATING - 98.5, 5th in the NBA (1/10th behind teammate Tony Allen)
  • DEFENSIVE WIN SHARES - 5.4, 2nd in the NBA
  • DEFENSIVE BOX PLUS/MINUS- 3.1, 1st in the NBA
  • WIN SHARES PER 48 MINUTES - .197, 7th in the NBA

Combining his offensive acumen with his command of the tremendous team defense of the Grizzlies (Mike Conley led the NBA in total steals, Tony Allen joined Gasol and Conley on the All-Defensive Team) led Marc to being selected to an All-NBA team for the first time, a second team nod for a monster campaign. He disrupted opposing offenses (with help on the perimeter from Conley and Allen) and was versatile enough offensively to create mismatches there as well.

He wasn’t alone, of course. It was a rare season where all four members of the Core Four played over 75 games, and the symbiotic nature of the quartet was on full display. Tony and Mike were able to play the way they did defensively because they knew Marc was behind them to cover for missteps. Zach Randolph could still dominate in and around the lane because Marc and Mike had become greater offensive threats than ever before. That mattered, obviously - those guys played tremendously well together. It was poetry in motion when it was clicking.

That was further confirmed after the infamous Rudy Gay trade. The additions of players like Tayshaun Prince and Ed Davis, while not equitable on paper in terms of return, aided the team in an “addition by subtraction” way. Davis provided needed front court depth and played at an elite level upon his arrival - among players that played at least 35 games for Memphis in the regular season, Ed Davis was second behind Gasol in win shares per 48 minutes. While Ed struggled in the playoffs, without Davis Memphis doesn’t play as well to close out the regular season.

Tayshaun Prince brought a stable presence to an already veteran roster and was a solid choice to replace Gay in the sense that he was able to get the hell out of Zach, Marc, and Mike’s way. Rudy was not able to do that - Prince was happy to facilitate, defend, and rarely be a priority offensively. His limitations hurt Memphis once the Western Conference Finals came along, but if Rudy Gay was with the Grizzlies they may have never gotten past the Clippers in the first round.

The team had depth, won 56 games, eliminated the Clippers at home in one of the most fun games ever, and advanced further than any Grizzlies team ever. So again...why are they not number one?

Being best positioned to take advantage of opportunity does not make you the best. At least it shouldn’t.

This list has become an exercise in “what might have been”. It may feel odd, and perhaps hypocritical, to take the one time Memphis actually had all their best players healthy and say they weren’t the best of the Grit and Grind Era. While they aren’t the top dog on this list, they were able to take advantage of other’s misfortunes for once. There’s nothing wrong with that - plenty of other teams did the same to the Grizzlies.

The Clippers, for starters, claim they weren’t at full strength by the end of the first round - a gimpy Blake Griffin only played 13 minutes in the deciding Game Six and played only 19 minutes in Game Five before that back in Los Angeles, so maybe that’s more true than Grizzlies fans cared to admit at the time. Griffin was in his third season in the NBA and playing the best ball of his career. Blake posted career best numbers to that point in net rating (+12), win shares per 48 minutes, VORP, assist percentage, and other various statistical categories. L.A. certainly missed him.

Still, that final game was fun as hell as the hated “Lob City” imploded to the delight of most of the 18,119 in FedExForum.

Beale Street was a blast that night. An unforgettable scene.

But beyond that “injury-assisted” series victory (Memphis started down 0-2 and then won four straight), the Grizzlies then went on to beat the Oklahoma City Thunder in five games...without Russell Westbrook. Westbrook played 82 games in the regular season and across those contests arguably was the very best he had been to that point in his NBA career. Career best (at the time) offensive and defensive ratings were posted, and the All-Star/All-NBA player also had his best win shares per 48 minutes and VORP to that point.

He was, very much, the 1B to Kevin Durant’s 1A. And then he got injured in the first round series with the Houston Rockets. After that torn meniscus, the rest, of course, is history.

It was another great series win, but another one where you stop and wonder “what might have been” if the Thunder were at full strength. While Marc Gasol continued his stellar play, both Mike Conley and Zach Randolph were also up to the task offensively. Memphis was a legitimate three headed monster through the series, with Tony Allen wreaking his special kind of havoc and guys like Quincy Pondexter (a net +16 rating in the series while posting a team best 67.4% effective field goal percentage) made the most of their minutes and moments. OKC’s second and third best players beyond Kevin Durant were Reggie Jackson and Kevin Martin, and 38 year old Derek Fisher played over 25 minutes a game. While both Martin and Jackson have been noted Grizzlies killers from time to time, with the way Memphis was playing defense the Thunder didn’t stand a chance.

With the one seed Thunder dispatched (with a more valid injury argument than L.A.) Memphis went on to take on a Spurs team that the Grizzlies split the season series with. San Antonio and Memphis were comparable defensively, but on the offensive end the Spurs were simply much too efficient for the Grizzlies to hang with. Tony Parker was by far the best player in the series - 98 total points across four games on 53% shooting from the field overall with only eight three point field goal attempts shows a player that had his way around the rim and in the (now mostly abandoned) midrange game. Between Parker at the peak of his powers, Tim Duncan still being an excellent big at the age of 36, a 21-year-old by the name of Kawhi Leonard making a name for himself, and other key role players like Danny Green, Memphis was outmanned.

You could argue that outside of Mike Conley and Marc Gasol, Quincy Pondexter was the best player in the series for Memphis. Zach Randolph struggled mightily with the way the Spurs defended him, collapsing in the paint and essentially allowing the likes of Tony Allen and Tayshaun Prince to shoot at will. In 2011 Zach was San Antonio’s kryptonite. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich never forgot. The next time he saw Zach in the playoffs, he made sure it didn’t happen twice.

Memphis didn’t have the roster to compete with the likes of the Spurs. Did a healthy Clippers team? Fans of theirs likely say yes...but they’d probably be wrong. What about the talented Thunder team that lost out on having Russell Westbrook? That one makes a lot more sense - Westbrook was a force of nature, especially alongside Durant. Maybe the Spurs limit one of them, but both? OKC was the one seed in these playoffs for a reason, and Westbrook’s raw athleticism probably would’ve given the Spurs fits.

It was an amazing run to the Western Conference Finals. The Grizzlies caught some breaks for once - and it made for an amazing ride in Memphis. But the dream came to a screeching halt once they came across an elite, healthy, team.

Memphis was in the right place, at the right time. And that’s OK - there have been plenty of instances where the Grizzlies were the ones with the “if only we were healthy” excuse.

In the final part of our series, we will discuss the ultimate example of just such an occasion.

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