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Why the Grizzlies never won a “Grit and Grind” championship

It’s time for a long-awaited deconstuction of the most successful group in franchise history.

2016-17 Memphis Grizzlies Team Photo Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

In the few days before the start of the 2014-2015 NBA regular season, I wrote a fan post on this website. While I don’t remember exactly what I wrote (beyond the fact that it was probably quite bad), I do know one thing for certain about it: high school Nathan had some hopes and dreams about his favorite basketball team.

I was certain that 2015 was going to be the year the city of Memphis finally had a championship parade on Beale Street. With the playing field appearing to be relatively equal in the Western Conference (the San Antonio Spurs may have won the title in 2014, but they were a year older) and the collapse of the Miami Heat dynasty that summer, the stars appeared to be aligning for the Grizzlies to finally break through and become immortalized as champions.

And for most of that season, I thought my dream was going to be finally realized...until it wasn’t. Mike Conley got hurt in the first round of the playoffs against the Portland Trailblazers. Tony Allen did as well in the following round against the Golden State Warriors. And then it was all over, with that loss to Golden State being the final death knell for not just the Grizzlies’ championship aspirations that season, but also for that core as a whole.

Memphis Grizzlies v Golden State Warriors - Game Two Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

The window was shut, and we didn’t even realize it at the time.

If Mike Conley and/or Tony Allen don’t get injured, could the Memphis Grizzlies have won the 2015 NBA championship? I think so (and so does GBB Site Manager Joe Mullinax agrees), but of course we’ll never know. Even as a biased observer, I’d have trusted the Grizzlies of that time far more than I will probably ever trust James Harden in a playoff series. The Grizzlies were also able to create problems for LeBron James while he was in Miami, so they could have perhaps continued to do so in a seven-game series against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Regardless, it was truly their best-and last-opportunity, and a combination of fate and bad luck ripped it away from them.

However, to believe that the 2015 Memphis Grizzlies could have won a title had fate looked more favorably upon them is not to suggest that they were without flaws. In fact, the flaws of that Grizzlies team were generally the same flaws that kept the Grizzlies from winning a championship during the entirety of the “Grit and Grind” era.

Memphis Grizzlies v New York Knicks Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

So gather around, ladies and gentlemen! Today, we’re going to take a depressing look at all the flaws—and the infamous decisions that led to them—that kept the Memphis Grizzlies from winning an NBA championship over the last decade.

Drafting Hasheem Thabeet in 2009

Orlando Magic v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

Let’s just go ahead and get the obvious one out of the way first.

The reason that drafting Hasheem Thabeet with the second pick in the 2009 draft is the worst decision in franchise history isn’t just because he’s one of the biggest NBA Draft busts. Advanced stats aren’t needed to show you how bad he was. I know it, you know it, and everyone else knows it.

What made that decision even more atrociously terrible was who else was available. Obviously, Stephen Curry and James Harden were the biggest misses out of that pool of available players, but literally anyone else whom was drafted in the top ten would have been a better option. Tyreke Evans, Ricky Rubio, DeMar DeRozan, and even Brandon Jennings would have been very intriguing fits with the Grizzlies’ young core. Even Jordan Hill managed to have an eight-year career as a solid role player.

For what it’s worth, I’m not of the opinion that drafting Curry or Harden would necessarily have led the Grizzlies to one or multiple championships. To be sure, they are transcendent talents, but the fact that they are such means that they would have absolutely altered the team’s identity and makeup in the coming years. With the presence of Curry specifically, the Grizzlies would have inevitably traded Mike Conley.

Maybe the Grizzlies are able to eventually build a true title contender around Curry or Harden, but the truth is that we will never know. But drafting them or any of the other available wing-scorers like DeRozan and Evans would definitely have helped the Grizzlies chances more than Hasheem Thabeet.

Speaking of wing scorers...

Trading Rudy Gay in 2013

Phoenix Suns v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

Before the Memphis Grizzlies traded Rudy Gay in early 2013, there was a narrative among both fans and local media members that the team was better without Gay, and that narrative has persisted to this day.

However, that narrative was a result of some unfortunate groupthink and was proven wrong both later that year and throughout the following years as well. And it is one of the greatest pictures of irony that the Grizzlies spent those following years after trading Rudy Gay trying to find a wing scorer that could fill the exact role he did.

There were two reasons why the vast majority believed that the Grizzlies were better off without Rudy Gay. The first is simple: the Grizzlies won a playoff series without him after he missed the second half of the season in 2011, and then proceeded to lose their only playoff series with him against the Los Angeles Clippers in 2012...only to beat the Clippers the following year without him and eventually make the Western Conference Finals. So at best, he appeared to be expendable, and at worst, he appeared to be actively making the team worse.

Now this argument is mistaken for several reasons but primarily so because of match-ups. The 2012 Clippers were far more talented than the geriatric 2011 Spurs, who had yet to begin the revitalization of their identity as well as add Kawhi Leonard. If you were to add Rudy Gay to the 2011 playoff Grizzlies, you can almost guarantee that they would have still won the series—and perhaps done so with more ease. Inversely, the series with the Clippers in 2012 was always going to be a toss-up, but I can also be reasonably certain that they would have still lost without him (it’s also worth noting that Gay was quite good in that series, averaging 19 points and a shade under 7 rebounds).

Memphis Grizzlies v Golden State Warriors Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

I don’t have the courage to suggest the 2013 Grizzlies did anything other than straight-up bully the Clippers in their rematch, but they did have the added advantage of a severely hobbled Blake Griffin in the last two games of that series. So to use that series as a justification for why the Grizzlies were better without Gay is disingenuous. And the Grizzlies with Rudy Gay would have absolutely still beaten the Oklahoma City Thunder who were without Russell Westbrook in the following round.

As for the second reason, Gay was simply perceived to be a poor fit with the Grizzlies’ roster construction, an inefficient shot-chucker who took away looks from the more efficient duo of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. To be fair, it certainly didn’t help Gay’s case much that he was in the midst of the worst shooting season of his career during the 2012-13 season—only for his shooting numbers to begin progressing to the mean quickly after they traded him to Toronto.

Yet there’s really no statistical evidence to suggest that Gay’s approach and game offensively was ever hurting the team or even inefficient. Before the 2012-13 season, he had never shot below 45% or averaged less than 18 points per game outside of his rookie season. Instead, he generally proved to be a relatively prolific wing-scorer who took pressure off of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph.

San Antonio Spurs v Memphis Grizzlies - Game Six Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

If you don’t believe me, then look no further than the Western Conference Finals in 2013 against the improved and reenergized Spurs. Or the 2011 semi-finals against the Thunder. Or literally any other playoff series the Grizzlies lost during the last decade.

Without Gay or a perimeter creator/three-level scorer who could fill his role, the Grizzlies were increasingly easy to defend against elite teams with superb defenses, whether it was the Spurs in 2013 or the Golden State Warriors in 2015. Teams like them were able to effectively pack the paint, and the Grizzlies lacked someone like Gay who could make them pay for it.

And that is why I believe that trading Gay in 2013 was arguably as negatively impactful as drafting Thabeet was in 2009. While Thabeet will always be the horror story with more clout, both of these decisions prevented the Memphis Grizzlies from ever becoming true title contenders.

Maybe the Grizzlies are able to advance to the NBA Finals in 2013 with Gay since the Spurs would have had to drastically alter how they defended them.

Unfortunately, the fallout that Rudy Gay left behind still persists to this day. Because while the Grizzlies’ decision to trade Gay haunts their past specifically, their desperation to replace him over the following years (*coughs* Jeff Green) still haunts them to this day in the form of a soon-to-be-missing draft pick.

Other Unpleasantries

Dallas Mavericks v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

The most significant failure by the front office of the Memphis Grizzlies wasn’t failing to make the team great. Even with the terrible failures of trading Gay and drafting Thabeet, the Grizzlies were still undeniably great for most of the Grit ‘N’ Grind era. In reality, they failed to make the team as great as it could have been.

I could go on and on about all the minor mistakes that prevented the Grizzlies from true title contention over the last decade. They were never able to add adequate playmakers and shooters to properly supplement the Core Four, and even when they did, they turned out to either be a polarizing fit (Jeff Green) or to have knees made out of panty hoes (Chandler Parsons).

The fact that the Grizzlies did not retain a single draft pick past their rookie contract from 2008 to 2016 (I typed this through the vomit on my keyboard) also meant that there was basically a missing generation of Grizzlies that could have supported the Core Four both in their primes and as they entered their twilight years.

2016-17 Memphis Grizzlies Team Photo Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

And that’s the true tragedy of the “Grit and Grind” Memphis Grizzlies. They deserved to be champions and were arguably good enough as a unit to make that a reality. But even though they were memorable and awesome, poor decision-making over many years prevented them from becoming immortal.

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