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The “Last Dance” of Grit and Grind

The 2016-17 season was the final year that Zach Randolph and Tony Allen suited up as Grizzlies, effectively ending the greatest era of Grizzlies basketball. But how did their “last dance” come to fruition?

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

Contrary to Jerry Krause’s Machiavellian manipulations to prematurely end the 90s Bulls dynasty, no one was under the impression that the 2016-17 season would be the proverbial “last dance” for the Core Four of Zach Randolph, Tony Allen, Marc Gasol and Mike Conley in Memphis. In fact, general manager Chris Wallace and the rest of the Grizzlies’ front office took steps to ensure that the team’s playoff contention window would remain open longer.

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

After firing Dave Joerger at the end of the 2015-16 season, Wallace hired David “I’m going turn Lance Thomas into Draymond Green” Fizdale as the head coach at the beginning of the 2016 summer, with Fizdale promising to both unlock a newly-resigned Mike Conley as well as turn Marc Gasol into a volume three-point shooter. He also planned to use newly-signed marquee free agent Chandler Parsons like LeBron James, which in hindsight would have been a miracle on par with Jesus turning water into wine.

Parsons in particular was key to the Grizzlies “running it back” with their same core group. While it was probably unlikely that Conley would have left that summer (although he has publicly said otherwise) since both the Grizzlies offered him the richest deal in NBA history and he himself had convinced his best friend Gasol to re-sign the preceding summer, the signing of Parsons was instrumental in retaining him since it proved to him that the Grizzlies were serious about remaining in contention. The Grizzlies also envisioned Parsons as a wing playmaker and volume scorer who would not only ensure the continued viability of Grit and Grind, but also help bridge the gap between the current era and whatever came next.

Memphis Grizzlies v Detroit Pistons Photo by Brian Sevald/NBAE via Getty Images

After an abysmal season that was defined by injuries and a record number of players that suited up for an individual franchise in a single year, the Grizzlies truly laid the groundwork for a return to excellence with the Core Four for the 2016-17 season and beyond.

To be sure, there was considerable risk in this groundwork; if it all worked out, then the Grizzlies could hypothetically be legitimate contenders in the West once again. However, if some combination of Conley, Gasol, and/or Parsons suffered a significant injury - which was very possible considering their checkered histories - then the season could very well may be a disaster, especially since so many of the team’s role players were quite young (more on that in a minute).

As is usually the case, the truth turned out to be somewhere in the middle.

In many ways, Fizdale was successful in implementing the vision that he had when he was hired. He did in fact unlock Mike Conley and Marc Gasol, as both averaged career highs in points per game and Gasol in particular became a respected threat from beyond the arc, a reality that was universally known around the league after he did a phenomenal McGregor-strut when he made a game-winning three against the Clippers in Los Angeles.

He also managed to assuage the ego of Zach Randolph as Z-Bo transitioned into a sixth man role while JaMychal Green was moved into the starting lineup. Randolph was able to find himself in the sixth man of the year conversation, as he would average 14.1 points and 8.2 rebounds for the season.

And with all of these successes in mind, the Grizzlies were able to return to their winning ways as they entered the all-star break with a 34-24 record, even with Conley missing 9 games in November and December. It was certainly a fun time, as the Grizzlies produced captivating performances such as the aforementioned Clippers game as well as a 24-point comeback overtime win on the road in Golden State.

However, many of the issues that plagued the team for the entire season caused them to gradually lose steam after the all-star break. In many ways, the consistent production of the Core Four helped mask these persistent—and ultimately fatal—issues.

The problems were numerous and were significant to varying degrees.

  • Chandler Parsons’ failing knees: Health was always going to be a concern for this iteration of the Grizzlies, but to say that would imply that each member of the Grizzlies was initially healthy. Parsons sadly was never healthy. It was a major red flag when he wasn’t ready for training camp—and then an even bigger one when he wasn’t ready for the season opener. He would finally suit up a few weeks into the season, but it was clear both then and for the rest of the season that his knees were not allowing him to be what he was, as he shot only 34% from the field and 27% from three. The Grizzlies mercifully shut him down for the season after his 34th appearance, finally accepting that they would have to just deal with a gaping hole in their roster.
  • The missing generation of Grizzlies: If you take a look at the Grizzlies’ roster during this time, you’ll notice a peculiar lack of legitimate rotation players beyond the Core Four. Outside of them, there were only five role players older than 25 on the team outside of Parsons: 40-year-old Vince Carter, Troy Daniels (who was solid in his role), Brandon Wright (who played only 27 games due to injury), and the pair of JaMychal Green and James Ennis who were both still establishing themselves as legitimate role players in the league. In short, the Grizzlies lacked legitimate veteran role players. And you can blame that on the fact that the Grizzlies didn’t retain a single draft pick past their rookie contract from 2008 to 2016. As a result, there was a missing generation of Grizzlies, and they had to significantly rely on young and outright bad players like Wade Baldwin, Andrew Harrison, Wayne Selden Jr., and Deyonta Davis (none of these players are still in the league ).
  • Marc Gasol and David Fizdale’s...relationship: When the Grizzles began to struggle after the all-star break, more than just mere poor play was to blame. Something about the team’s aura and spirit was different, and we would later find out that it was because Gasol and Fizdale had a major falling out. Oh, to have been a fly on the wall when Fizdale reportedly said this to Gasol during a heated locker room conversation: “I get it, you want Gregg Popovich, and I want LeBron James.”
Houston Rockets v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images

Because of the combination of these issues, the Grizzlies would limp through the second half of the season, posting both a five-game and four-game losing streak during that time. They would finish with a mediocre 43-39 record, which was only a one-game improvement over their cataclysmic season the year before. And to make matters worse, Tony Allen went down for the year with a knee injury in the season’s final game, meaning that they would have to face the imposing Spurs without him in the playoffs.

The last image of Allen in a Grizzlies uniform was him limping to the locker room.

Memphis Grizzlies v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images

Of course, it was at this time that there was a growing sense that the Core Four’s time in Memphis was finally coming to an end. Zach Randolph, who was clearly frustrated with his move to the bench even as he put on a good face, and Tony Allen were both in their mid-30s and going to be free agents the following summer. They also didn’t seem to fit the “pace and space” and up-tempo style that Fizdale envisioned going forward.

In more ways than one, that quarterfinals series against the Spurs was the last stand for the greatest core group of players that the Grizzlies have ever known. In retrospect, the symmetry was almost poetic; Grit and Grind took off with the Spurs in 2011, and it was only fitting that it would end with them as well. The series itself served as a microcosm for the great Grizzlies teams of the last decade; they were always overachievers who were able to put every true contender on the ropes, but just were never quite good enough to beat the West’s elite.

The ending wasn’t perfect, but the last few chapters before it were memorable enough. In the six-game series, Mike Conley looked every bit of the all-star point guard he should have been, outplaying even Kawhi Leonard at times on a national stage. Marc Gasol made a memorable game winner at the end of game four, and Zach Randolph even found his way back into the starting lineup to terrorize LaMarcus Aldridge one last time.

Sacramento Kings v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

The final image of Randolph as a member of the Memphis Grizzlies was him waiving his headband to the crowd as the final buzzer of game six sounded. He was tired and probably hurt, feeling the full weight of every single war that he had fought with his brothers in Memphis.

But I have to think that Zach Randolph was glad to have had one last opportunity to shock the world and add to the legacy that he was leaving behind. To rage against the dying of the light as his time in Memphis finally came to a close.

To have one last dance as a member of the Memphis Grizzlies.