For most of the 2010s (what a weird phrase to write), the Memphis Grizzlies often found themselves pitted against the Los Angeles Clippers, a team who became their most intense rival. They split two playoff series against them in 2012 and 2013, and whenever they met regardless of whether it was the regular season or playoffs there was a reasonable chance that the game could devolve into a WWE-style smackdown.
However, the rivalry was always somewhat bizarre to me. Sure, there was the obvious tale of contrasts between Memphis and Los Angeles as cities as well as Grit and Grind and Lob City. The Clippers also received glamorous media coverage and were regular picks to reach the Finals, while the Grizzlies persisted as eternal underdogs despite making it further in the postseason than the Clippers ever did. Unfair treatment breeds resentment, and resentment breeds a compelling rivalry (more on this in a minute).
But when you really think about it, there wasn’t much spice to the rivalry beyond the battles between Zach Randolph and Blake Griffin, which were enthralling just as much because of their shared history as it was their differences as players. Of course, Griffin, a hyper-athletic forward who relied more on flash than skill to excel, was an entirely different player from Randolph, a bruising blue-collar mixture of skill and tenacity that couldn’t jump over a dime. Yet it was their history that made their battles even more compelling: The Clippers traded Randolph to the Grizzlies in 2009 after drafting Griffin; they essentially casted him to the side.
The history behind Zach Randolph and Blake Griffin’s battles were what made their rivalry so compelling. And it was their rivalry that defined the one that existed between their teams.
The next great rivalry that the Memphis Grizzlies have will also be one that is defined by two players and their shared history.
In many ways, the Memphis Grizzlies and New Orleans Pelicans are kindred franchises. They are both located in small-market cities that superstars don’t want to play for (see: Anthony Davis). They are both franchises that have been openly disrespected by members of the national media. Like when Stephen A. Smith suggested that the NBA should move the Grizzlies to Seattle after their first losing season in nearly a decade. Or when national analysts speculated that Zion Williamson might return for his sophomore season at Duke so that he wouldn’t have to go to a small market like New Orleans.
But despite the challenges that they each face, the Grizzlies and Pelicans are both now led by tantalizing young talent that could make them title contenders in the coming years. Ja Morant and Zion Williamson, who were AAU teammates on the South Carolina Hornets the summer before their freshman year of high school, are now two of the NBA’s most dynamic phenoms, leading their respective small-market franchises to instant success. What a neat story to make us all smile!
If only sports and fandom were so simple and unifying.
While Morant and Williamson’s paths did converge for a short time in a way that would make a Hollywood screenwriter cackle, their paths throughout the rest of high school would diverge in such a way that would later set the foundation for the budding rivalry that the Grizzlies and Pelicans have now.
After that summer with the Hornets, Zion went on to the Adidas circuit where he exploded as the most hyped athlete of the social media age, culminating in him becoming the most anticipated NBA prospect since LeBron James during his time at Duke. On the other side of the hype train, Ja chose to remain with the Hornets throughout high school and was recruited by just mainly mid-majors. He would later quietly commit to Murray State after a chance encounter that would make a Hollywood screenwriter blush.
It would, of course, take Ja Morant two years to even enter the same stratosphere of hype that Zion Williamson found in one year.
If the NBA were a TV show, then the plot of this storyline was simple: Ja Morant was the overlooked underdog, the rose that grew from the concrete, who managed to become one of the best point guard prospects in recent years. Zion Williamson, on the other hand, was the expected harbinger of greatness, a person that everyone knew was going to take the league by storm one day. And that’s not to take anything away from Zion; it’s just to clarify the different paths that two young men took to reach potential stardom. The distinction is eye-opening and worth celebrating in a vacuum.
However, the distinction has now become an annoyance. Because while Ja and Zion have both come a long way since their high school years, the individual narratives surrounding them haven’t changed to a certain degree. Zion is still Superman, a player who demands attention and adoration from the national media on a nightly basis—a privilege that has now been extended to the previously irrelevant Pelicans as well, evidenced by their franchise-record 30 national TV games. And Ja Morant—and the Memphis Grizzlies by extension—are still overlooked by comparison, even as he has been one of the best rookie point guards of the last 20 years.
The fact that Ja has been transcendently impactful as a rookie while shockingly leading the Grizzlies to the 8th spot in the West didn’t stop national analysts from doing everything that they could to insert Zion into the Rookie of the Year discussion, even though he has only played 19 games this year. He was definitely phenomenal in those 19 games, showcasing a level of dominance as a rookie that hasn’t been seen since Shaquille O’Neal. And it was still absurdly ridiculous that there was even a discussion.
And then there was the stupefying discussion about the different ways the NBA should return to action, which admittedly led to a rather beneficial outcome for the Grizzlies. Don’t get me wrong, the Pelicans deserved an opportunity to make it to the postseason, and they now have one. But everyone knows deep down in their hearts that there would have been no discussion of a play-in tournament if the roles had been reversed for the Grizzlies and Pelicans.
The frustration on the part of fans of the Memphis Grizzlies wasn’t that they weren’t going to be given a free pass to the playoffs. It’s simply that they knew the Zion Williamson-led Pelicans would have if they had been in their position.
Again, unfair treatment breeds resentment, and resentment breeds a compelling rivalry.
Regardless of how this unorthodox season concludes, the Ja Morant-led Grizzlies and the Zion Williamson-led Pelicans will contend for supremacy in both the Southwest division and the NBA as a whole for years to come. And for two kids who once played on an unknown AAU team together, I’d say that is one heck of a story to watch unfold.