As we all grapple with this unfortunate reality of no basketball in the present and possibly in the near future, I have found myself thinking more and more about an older era of basketball in Memphis. A foundational period that helped establish my love for the game.
The house that Hubie Brown built.
Even after nearly 15 years, the mid-2000s Memphis Grizzlies that made the NBA playoffs three years in a row are remembered as an incredibly polarizing and paradoxical group. The 2003-2004 Grizzlies of course were the first team in franchise history to make the playoffs, finishing with a 50-32 record as they gave the city of Memphis a taste of tension-filled professional basketball that they had never experienced before. While their regular season success somewhat wavered over the next two years, they still managed to keep making the playoffs during that time.
And not only were the Grizzlies objectively good during this time, they were fun. Now any team with White Chocolate himself in Jason Williams is going to be fun, but the point still remains. Pau Gasol was a unicorn before unicorns, and Mike Miller was an electrifying scorer and shooter. Good role players abounded in players like Shane Battier, Memphis product Lorenzen Wright, and James Posey. And very few teams of that era could say that they had a high flyer and showman like Stromile Swift.
However, the fact that those Grizzlies teams were good and fun doesn’t change the reality that their legacy is failure. Whether that’s fair or not (and it’s not, but I’ll get to that in a minute), failing to win a single playoff game in three straight postseason appearances will certainly leave a sour taste in the mouths of fans and analysts alike. The success of the Grit and Grind era has caused many Memphians to regard that first run of relative success for the Grizzlies as generally irrelevant and disappointing.
But here’s the truth of the matter: The Grit and Grind era could have very well been characterized similarly to the mid-2000s Grizzlies if they hadn’t just been luckier during their playoff runs. Of course, that’s not to say that the GNG Grizzlies didn’t possess a superior level of grit and tenacity to their earlier counterparts, because they definitely did. Yet they were relatively comparable as far as how their overall talent compared to the rest of the league.
Consider this: both the mid-2000s Grizzlies and the GNG Grizzlies averaged 48 wins during their respective playoff runs. Their team profiles were almost identical at different points during their respective runs; the 2005-06 Grizzlies were 27th in points per game (92.2) and 2nd in defensive rating (101.6), while the 2012-13 Grizzlies who made it to the Western Conference Finals were also 27th in points per game (93.4) and 2nd in defensive rating (100.3).
And yet one group is lionized for their postseason exploits while the other is remembered as a total failure. So the question remains: why did the GNG Grizzlies succeed while their earlier counterparts—who had a similar statistical profile to them—failed? No, it’s not because the GNG Grizzlies were “all heart” as compared to their earlier counterparts - here were five players on those mid-2000s Grizzlies teams—Pau Gasol, Jason Williams, Mike Miller, Shane Battier, and James Posey—that would later win titles with different teams.
The fact is that the GNG Grizzlies had far more favorable playoff match-ups during their more successful playoff runs than the mid-2000s Grizzlies ever had.
Let’s take it season by season. The 2011 Grizzlies managed to beat an older San Antonio Spurs team that also had Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobli playing injured. They then fell victim to the more-talented Oklahoma City Thunder in the following round. The 2012 Grizzlies lost a tightly contested first-round series to the Los Angeles Clippers. And the 2013 Grizzlies finally managed to break through to the Conference Finals after beating a Clippers team that had an injured Blake Griffin and a Thunder team that was missing Russell Westbrook.
Now all of this is not to take away from the standard of excellence that those teams set; even true title contenders need some level of luck to advance deep into the playoffs. But imagine if they hadn’t been so lucky. What if they played the Thunder in the first round instead of the second in 2011? And then they inevitably lost to the Clippers in 2012 again? The Grit and Grind era could have very well never even gotten off the ground, and even it eventually did, the butterfly effect from those first round exits could have caused it to look drastically different than it historically did.
The mid-2000s Grizzlies didn’t experience the same luck that their later counterparts did. The Western Conference was certainly tough over the last decade, but it was an absolute bloodbath during the 2000s.
These were the three teams the Grizzlies faced in the playoffs from 2004 to 2006: the San Antonio Spurs whom were led by the greatest power forward of all time in Tim Duncan at the peak of his power along, with the usual suspects of Tony Parker (a young 21 year old Parker back in 2004) and Manu Ginobli, the top-seeded Phoenix Suns who had the most prolific offense in NBA history at the time because of a combination of Mike D’Antoni, Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire, and the 60-22 Dallas Mavericks that eventually made the NBA Finals.
To make matters worse for the Grizzlies during this period of time, there really wasn’t any specific flaw that they could address. The 2003-04 Grizzlies team that were coached by Hubie Brown were stylistically a much different team than the one that was coached by Mike Fratello over the following two seasons. The Hubie Brown Grizzlies were a high-octane, offensively-minded team that was top-ten in both pace and offensive rating rating (and 11th in defensive rating), while the Mike Fratello Grizzlies were the statistical forerunners to the GNG Grizzlies as they were 30th in pace and 27th in points per game during the 2005-06 season.
It would’t be totally fair to say that this change in identity was totally due to Fratello’s philosophy, as the team added several new faces such as Eddie Jones, Damon Stoudamire and Bobby Jackson during that time. But it was clear that Fratello wanted every single game to be in the mud.
Over those three years, the Memphis Grizzlies were always good even as their identity wavered between two extremes. And it just didn’t matter since they had to play some of the greatest teams of that era in the playoffs. They still should have probably won a game at some point during that time, but it’s only natural to wonder what could have been if they had more favorable match-ups.
And it’s also worth noting that the mid-2000s Grizzlies would likely succeed more now than they did in their time period. Imagine Pau Gasol being used as a stretch five that could also defend the rim and the perimeter. Imagine how much more Jason Williams’ ball-handling wizardry would allow him to thrive with the spacing of modern NBA offense. And best of all, Mike Miller would be attempting 7-9 threes per game and would have been a border-line all-star. Shane Battier as a stretch four that could defend four positions would be just a delectable cherry on top.
Of course, we will never truly know how much better if at all the mid-2000s Memphis Grizzlies would be if they were plugged into 2020. But we can reasonably conclude that they were an underrated group that was an unfortunate victim of circumstance and bad luck.