We all have favorite versions of our favorite players. Aggressive Marc Gasol, or the legendary “Wendigo”, stands our as the best version of Big Spain. The “Super Z-Bo” of 2011 is as great a Zach Randolph as you’ll ever find on the basketball court. “First Team All-Defense” Tony Allen was both dominant and entertaining, whereas “missed open lay-up” Tony Allen was still fun, but in a less good way.
There are many Mike Conleys. “Captain Clutch”. “The Conductor”. The Conley that put up 40 points before leaving Memphis via trade, or the Mike that went head to head with Kawhi Leonard and kept the Grizzlies in the hunt competitively against a Spurs as the sun set on “Grit and Grind”.
The greatest version, however, is Broken Mike Conley. Because that’s where the man became legend. And it is where the greatest Memphis Grizzlies team ever also earned the title of the greatest “what if” in franchise history. If Conley - and another Core Four member to be discussed - were healthy, there’s evidence to suggest that these Grizzlies of “Broken” Conley would have advanced to the Western Conference Finals...and beyond.
NUMBER ONE: The 2014-2015 Memphis Grizzlies
FINAL RECORD: 55-27, 5th seed in the 2015 Western Conference Playoffs. Offensive Rating - 105.7, Defensive Rating - 102.2.
FINISH: Lost to the Golden State Warriors in six games in the Western Conference Semifinals.
Great stories often have tragedy. They also have heroes.
The great story of the 2014-2015 Memphis Grizzlies has both.
For starters, in the second season for the Grizzlies under former head coach Dave Joerger the team appeared to finally - FINALLY - be turning the corner offensively, while at the same time still being elite defensively. The 55-27 Grizzlies of 2014-2015 are the only team during the Grit and Grind Era whose offensive and defensive rating were both better than the league average. While the Grizzlies remained far better at stopping scoring (3rd in the NBA in defensive efficiency, 3.4 points better than average) than partaking in points themselves, the fact they were 13th in the Association in offensive rating is evidence that Memphis had evolved somewhat offensively.
They were also the second best rebounding team of the Grit and Grind Era, with seven players averaging at least three rebounds per game, while being the oldest team of the era as well with an average age of 30.5. That experience paid dividends when it came to executing Joerger’s scheme effectively - it was one that prioritized their strengths, attacking the basket and dominating the space inside the arc. Memphis was 1st in the NBA in made two point baskets and 29th in made threes. It zigged while the rest of the league zagged - Memphis was literally the biggest team in the entire NBA in terms of weight (225 pounds on average) and they used their strength and size to bully the competition around the rim. The played the methodical pace they became infamous for (26th in the NBA) and, also in Grit and Grind fashion, outperformed expectations.
Their expected win-loss record was 50-32. They went 55-27. That takes grit..and a little bit of luck.
It wasn’t just Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol dominating down low. JaMychal Green and Kosta Koufos both played extremely well for the Grizzlies (4th and 6th among Memphis players that logged at least 1,000 minutes in win shares per 48 minutes) and with those two backing up Marc and Zach, teams had to contend with above average to elite bigs all game long. It was another relatively healthy regular season for the Grizzlies, with all of the Core Four playing at least 3/4ths of the 82 game slate. Mike Conley, just as impactful as Z-Bo at this stage, had a capable back up in Beno Udrih, which as most Grizzlies fans know wasn’t always a guarantee (we talked about the likes of Gilbert Arenas earlier in this series) and players like Courtney Lee filled an important role as a wing that can shoot the three and score from the perimeter if needed - he was just needed more often than he actually followed through on.
And then, there’s Jeff Green. Yes, Jeff Green the answer.
While Jeff remains a polarizing figure in Memphis, the truth is (at least statistically) he played some of the best basketball of his career after arriving in Memphis via trade in 2015. Green was a key player in Memphis, whereas when Jeff arrived in Cleveland in 2017 (statistically his best stop) he had a much smaller role. In 98 games with the Grizzlies he played 2,905 minutes, good for 29.6 minutes per game. In Cleveland? 78 games played, 1,828 minutes, or 23.4 minutes per game. Green started 68 games for the Grizzlies, and only 13 for the Cavaliers.
Green was never “the answer”, unfortunately. What Memphis gave up for him is still hurting the Grizzlies literally to this day. But he wasn’t as bad as some remember him to be. He posted a .111 win shares per 48 minutes with the Grizzlies that season, his best stretch of basketball when combining role as a starter/core player with the numbers. He had other years you could argue were better - 2009-2010 with the Thunder he posted a career high Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) - but Green was an upgrade from what Tayshaun Prince had become, and in that short-sighted view of trying to maximize that particular group of Grizzlies you could’ve done worse than Green.
Maybe Jeff shouldn’t have been acquired for what the Grizzlies gave up. But there’s a reason Green’s name brings about such strong reactions. In some ways, he’s terrific. In others, he’s very, very ineffective. He needs to be in an ideal situation to have success. While it wasn’t as much success relative to the cost to acquire him needed to make it worth it the Grizzlies were as close to ideal for his skill set as Green would ever get. He was an athletic slasher that shot 36.2% from three during his 2015 regular season run with Memphis.
Memphis was 29-16 in the regular season after the Jeff Green trade. They went on a 13-3 run between Jeff’s first game and the All-Star Break (featuring an All-Star Game that included Marc Gasol being the first Grizzlies player to start that event). Jeff was supposed to be at best the fourth best player on the Grizzlies, an option to score if Conley, Gasol, and Randolph were off and/or limited. That, in theory, should have been enough with the Core Four healthy compared to what Tayshaun Prince had become.
But it wasn’t. When the Grizzlies entered the playoffs at 55-27, after a regular season where Gasol’s greatness was flanked by very good years from Conley and Randolph and a solid core of role players, he had to eventually be more than what he is capable of being.
Who is to blame?
In part, CJ McCollum.
The 27 year old Conley was entering his prime and looked ready to break out in the postseason. In the first three games of the series against the Portland Trail Blazers (all Grizzlies wins) Mike averaged roughly 16 points a game in 26 minutes played on 50% shooting (37.5% three point shooting). He was Gasol’s right hand man in the pick and roll, helping create for himself and others through facilitating the Grizzlies offense and keeping Memphis on pace. He wasn’t as good as Gasol, but he was a worthy 2nd in command alongside Z-Bo.
Then McCollum broke Mike’s face. It was an accident. But the impact would be felt for a very long time.
It’s still being felt. Because even as tough Mike eventually returned against the Golden State Warriors, and even though Conley was an absolute stud in his first game back while rocking the mask - a seven point win in game two of the Western Conference Semifinals against the eventual champion Golden State Warriors - it would change the course of the entire Grizzlies season.
We can still enjoy it though, right? That game was awesome.
Conley, after that legendary return where he was the best player on the floor - 22 points on 12 shots, 50% shooting (3-6) on three pointers - shot an ice cold 31.25% from the floor in the remaining five games of the series, well below his regular season average. He was not the same (understandably so), fighting through what had to be remarkable pain just to be there for his teammates.
It was admirable to watch. But it was also tragic.
These Grizzlies could have competed with the Warriors. They were built to do just that. They were the polar opposite of the perimeter-dominant Golden State team - they were Warriors kryptonite. Their size, their focus on the paint offensively, their experience and ability to consistently slow the pace to a mud-like state...it all made for an opportunity to knock off Golden State. They had a starting five that paired the greatness of the Core Four with a compatible wing shooter and slasher...Courtney Lee.
Jeff Green was the sixth man. Not a starter. And he was...not playing great in the Portland series. But Green off the bench against the Warriors was a stud! In Game Three Green led Memphis in plus/minus, posting a +23 in a 10-point win. Green against Golden State was a factor because the Warriors reserves didn’t have an answer for him. While Mike wasn’t at his best, his loss was absorbed by Nick Calathes and Beno Udrih to an extent. That, combined with strong Zach Randolph performances and the bench being impactful, made it possible to hang with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson and Draymond Green without Conley at full strength, at least for a little while.
Then Tony Allen went down. Bum hamstring that had been bothering him for a while but really got worse around Game Three against Golden State. And that was that. One Core Four member? The greatest Grizzlies team of all-time could potentially overcome, being up two games to one on Golden State heading in to Game Four. But two?
That means Jeff Green, and other Grizzlies like Lee as a scorer that isn’t just a luxury but a need scorer and Calathes as a key reserve, outside of their ideal roles. And being absent a still elite defender against the Splash Brothers. That meant Golden State feeding on a roster featuring weakened Conley and an absent Allen. Allen only played roughly 16 minutes in Game Four, and sat out Game Five, and only played five minutes in Game Six after giving it a go to no avail.
Green played over 30 minutes in two of the three games between games four and six, and started Game Five. It also doesn’t help when you’re fighting for your life and these things happen.
There were no superstars in the Core Four. If Memphis was ever going to pull a Detroit Pistons and make the NBA Finals, they were going to need Zach, and Marc, and Mike, and Tony all together and healthy for the duration. They were going to need wings like Lee and Green in the proper roles alongside them. They were going to need bigs like JaMychal and Kosta to reinforce that zig to everyone elses’ zag. Memphis needed a little bit of luck, but even more than that they needed health and strength in numbers. They had the latter in 2015. They unfortunately lacked the former.
If Memphis had found a way to knock off Golden State? The Grizzlies were 2-2 against the Rockets in the regular season. A realistic shot existed to get to the NBA Finals, one that didn’t include having to get through the Spurs and their Grizzlies killing ways. From there, an NBA Finals against the mighty Cavaliers may have been a struggle...but who knows? Golden State, of course, eventually went on to defeat Cleveland. A Grizzlies win could mean an opportunity to knock off the Cavs in a seven game series, where controlling tempo and physicality are more impactful in a playoff series than in the regular season. Although the Grizzlies lost by double digits in both games to Cleveland, when Memphis makes the NBA Finals, you roll the ball out there and see how things play out.
But that never happened. Because of CJ McCollum...and hamstrings.
And Jeff Green...through little actual fault of Jeff Green.
When the statue of the Core Four is erected outside of FedExForum and all four retired numbers hang in the rafters of the building, no one will look at these events and items and think those guys failures. They’ll reflect on the real emotion they felt. The chants and the mask, the moments and the memories of the greatest stretch sustained success in Grizzlies history. They’ll reflect on how much they loved those guys. They’ll tell their kids about it, and how much the Core Four legitimately seemed to love the city back.
The era itself will stand the test of time. Regardless of the playoff “struggles” and the forever “what if” that accompanies it.
Stats provided by basketball-reference.com.