In a world standing still, it’s safe to look back more than usual.
Here at GBB we have been talking about the Greatest Grizzly ever, with Zach Randolph winning our recent fan-driven social media tournament. Rightfully so, of course - while he may not be the best player in Grizzlies history (Marc Gasol will always be that in this writer’s opinion), there’s not really an argument against Zach when it comes to combining elite play with connection to the city of Memphis. What made Grit and Grind so beloved was its authenticity - Z-Bo married high level basketball skill with that genuine love and emotion beautifully.
But Grit and Grind was always about the sum of its parts, not one individual man.
After all, without Tony Allen and his now iconic postgame interview all the way back in 2011 after a big Memphis win over the Thunder (in which TA played 40 minutes and slowed down the offensive monster Kevin Durant) there wouldn’t be a “Grit and Grind” era at all. Without Mike Conley and his “Conductor” ways, the end of the run would’ve gotten a lot uglier than it did. If Marc Gasol wasn’t a part of this franchise they wouldn’t have had the elite defenses they did in terms of overall team play. And throughout the stretch of success, there were numerous key cogs in the Grizzlies machine that made moments that, as the late Don Poier once made famous saying, could only happen in the movies and in Memphis.
So, if the “Grit and Grind Era” is defined as starting with the 2010-2011 season (the one with “Super Z-Bo” and TA’s Declaration of Grittiness) and ending with 2016-2017 (the one where Mike Conley stood toe to toe with Kawhi Leonard), there are seven seasons worthy of appreciating a bit more while the 2019-2020 Grizzlies continue to have their season suspended. The next generation of Memphis moments has to wait. So, take a walk down memory lane and reflect on the greatest run of basketball in Memphis history.
NUMBER SEVEN: The 2015-2016 Memphis Grizzlies
FINAL RECORD: 42-40, #7 seed in the Western Conference Playoffs, 105.4 offensive rating, 107.8 defensive rating
FINISH: Eliminated in 1st round of 2016 Western Conference Playoffs in four games by the San Antonio Spurs
Yes, that is Matt Barnes getting up shots before a playoff game that he started for the Memphis Grizzlies. You may have forgotten that ever happened. But...it did. In fact, in the final game of that season - a merciful loss in a Game Four at home in Memphis against the hated Spurs - Matt Barnes played 44 minutes.
Forty. Four. Minutes.
What the hell happened?
Jordan Farmar started at point guard. Lance Stephenson (35 minutes) played roughly three and a half less minutes than Zach Randolph (22) and Tony Allen (16) COMBINED. Xavier Munford played 20 minutes. Chris Andersen (yes, the Birdman) played 23 minutes in a playoff series not because he was good. But because he had to.
The infamous 28 players logged minutes season. A record Memphis holds that probably will never (unfortunately) be broken. Poor Dave Joerger.
It was almost certainly the worst playoff series of Zach Randolph’s career - but who can blame him? He was in the twilight of his prime and had absolutely no help. A 39 year old Vince Carter and Lance Stephenson were the best players offensively next to him. Mike Conley and Marc Gasol were lost to injury, Courtney Lee and Jeff Green (correctly) were traded away once the season was essentially lost, and a prime opportunity for an ending era was lost.
It wasn’t all bad. The team competed better than they had any business doing, even in that playoff series against San Antonio. Memphis lost 96-87 in game three somehow to a vastly superior Spurs squad, hanging tough when they should have been obliterated. They had various regular season showings that followed in that same fashion - the “Hateful Eight” win against LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love, and the eventual NBA champion Cleveland Cavaliers with the following names playing basketball for the Grizzlies stands out -
Mario Chalmers, P.J. Hairston, Tony Allen, JaMychal Green Ryan Hollins, Lance Stephenson, Vince Carter, Jarell Martin
It did indeed happen. Here’s video evidence.
There are silver linings in this dark cloud. It doesn’t change the fact that in a season where the Grizzlies had players named Ray McCallum, Bryce Cotton, Briante Weber, and Elliot Williams play AT LEAST FIVE GAMES for Memphis, things went horribly wrong. The Grizzlies went 8-15 in their last 23 games, limped in to the playoffs, and were put out of their misery by Kawhi Leonard and company. By the end, it was more relief than sadness that was felt when the final horn sounded.
Opportunity lost hurts the most. What may have happened if Memphis had stayed healthy? We will never know.
NUMBER SIX: The 2011-2012 Memphis Grizzlies
FINAL RECORD: 51-25, #4 seed in the Western Conference Playoffs, 104 offensive rating, 101.8 defensive rating
FINISH: Eliminated in 1st round of 2012 Western Conference Players by the Los Angeles Clippers in seven games
It was my first taste of Memphis Grizzlies playoff basketball, and it will never be forgotten.
Game one against the Clippers. Long before GBB and blogging and everything that has come with it, it was my girlfriend and I at the time (now my wife) sitting in the upper deck watching the Memphis Grizzlies kick the hell out of the “Lob City” Clippers. It was a Marc Gasol dunk that stands out in my mind from early in that game - it was an absolute ass kicking. This was, of course, the playoff run the season after the magical 2011 start of it all. This was supposed to be the next step! The beginning of something more. But after a lockout shortened campaign that was dampened by an injury to Zach Randolph the winter before the playoff spring, it just never came to be.
Perhaps we should’ve seen what happened next coming. We didn’t.
Memphis was up 34-16 after one quarter. The Grizzlies had a 21 point lead entering the fourth. Then They got a collective six points from Marc Gasol/Zach Randolph/Mike Conley/Rudy Gay the entire final frame on their way to an epic collapse that I wish I could forget.
Of course, that was only one game. A regular season where you post a 62.1% win percentage - good for about 51 wins in an 82 game “normal” slate - is worthy of celebration. The way Memphis responded after losing their leader Z-Bo was admirable. Rudy Gay, O.J. Mayo, Marreese Speights, Dante Cunningham, Quincy Pondexter...they all stepped up at various points. To hold home court in that Clippers series, along with a returning Zach Randolph after his knee injury, should have meant a series win and a conference semifinals appearance. Just like the season before.
Instead? It meant a Game One collapse and a Game Seven where Hamed Haddadi and Gilbert Arenas started the fourth quarter. That, unsurprisingly, ended poorly.
Lionel Hollins, the Head Coach of the Memphis Grizzlies at this time, does not get the credit he deserves for what he helped build early in the Grit and Grind era. He was a big part of helping establish a work ethic and mentality that permeates the organization to this day. He oftentimes gets far too much blame for the shortcomings of those first few seasons - he clearly didn’t relate well to ownership and that eventually cost him his job.
But really? Hamed Haddadi and Gilbert Arenas, in the final quarter of a season defining game? That’s the best you can do?
Mike Conley played horribly in that game seven. Z-Bo was 3-12 shooting and never really recovered that season from the knee issue. Players take responsibility in this failure too. But Hollins’ ceiling as Grizzlies head coach was on display in this series, which ultimately defined their season. Memphis held a one point lead entering that fourth quarter in Game Seven at FedExForum - another game I was at - and the Clippers won the final quarter 27-16. Season over.
Yet again, might have been. Stupid Nick Young.
Number Five: The 2013-2014 Memphis Grizzlies
FINAL RECORD: 50-32, 106.3 offensive rating, 104.6 defensive rating
FINISH: Eliminated 1st round of the 2014 Western Conference Playoffs by the Oklahoma City Thunder in seven games.
This season ended in a similar fashion to the 2011-2012 campaign; a seven game series that found the Grizzlies out of the playoffs after a first round exit. So why then does a team with roughly the same overall regular season record than the one before it on this list get to surpass those 2011-2012 Grizzlies?
In a word? Fate.
The Grizzlies had OKC on the ropes. Memphis was up 3-2 on the Thunder. They were in the head of that city so badly that they had the local newspaper calling the star of OKC, Kevin Durant, “Mr. Unreliable”.
LeBron nailed that one, didn’t he?
This was arguably the deepest Grizzlies team in history. Memphis endured Marc Gasol being out due to injury thanks to Kosta Koufos. Mike Miller appeared in 82 games for Memphis and was a key floor spacer for the Grizzlies - he shot almost 46% from three this season! On 233 attempts! 13 Grizzlies played in at least 30 games for Memphis, and of those 13 players 10 of them posted a win shares per 48 minutes of at least .100, meaning they were at the league average (if not better) for the length of time they played for Memphis.
Mike Conley had his best regular season to that point as a member of the Grizzlies. He, Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph, and Tony Allen all played at least 55 games. James Johnson became such a folk hero he got a neck tattoo giveaway night. Jon Leuer and Ed Davis played very productive minutes. This was a Grizzlies team that got just about every bit out of their ability that they could.
The referees took opportunity away from them.
The Thunder won Game Seven 120-109. But Memphis, who had been competitive all season and was fielding an deep roster, was not at full strength because Zach Randolph was punished for the sins of his past.
A game that was already decided had an act of physicality (that Steven Adams had also been engaging in) that was interpreted (incorrectly) as a punch. Because of that view by the officials and the league, Memphis was without their leader heading in to a season deciding game.
Unfair? Safe to say, yes it was.
This Grizzlies team overachieved in a lot of ways. Like the era itself, no true star emerged but the pieces all fit together remarkably well. There were six and five game winning streaks, good wins over good teams like the Miami Heat of LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Memphis had every reason to believe that a full strength Grizzlies squad could have competed with the mighty Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Oklahoma City Thunder in a seven game series.
They never got to see that through to its conclusion, though. Because of Steven Adams and piss poor officiating.
These three teams had a lot in common. They played at a snail’s pace. They all protected possessions well, as you’d expect a veteran group to do. They defended at or near an elite level, and they all featured instances of that grit that this core of Grizzlies made famous throughout the fan base and beyond. They all, however, failed to advance beyond the first round of the NBA playoffs.
That has them here, on the outside looking in of the “core four” seasons of the Grit and Grind era. Still loved, but not elite in a era of elite Grizzlies basketball.
Stay tuned. Part II - the final four - is coming soon.