On October 26th, 2018, I published a piece for Grizzly Bear Blues called “The Memphis Grizzlies are unable to let go”, which in hindsight became a referendum on the state of the Memphis Grizzlies at the time. And all you have to do is read the comment section of that article to know that many of the fine patrons of this site...didn’t take it well to say the least. But in retrospect, I believe the reason that piece enraged many people was because it forced them to confront an inescapable reality about the team at that time: It just wasn’t fun anymore.
Zach Randolph wasn’t there anymore to terrorize Blake Griffin in a scene pertaining more to WWE and NBA basketball. Tony Allen wasn’t there anymore to force a turnover and then point in the other direction like an insane referee. And Mike Conley and Marc Gasol, as solid as they both still were, just weren’t enough to continue the Grizzlies’ run of excellence.
The fun, even as many weren’t willing to admit at the time, was over.
But times have clearly changed for the Grizzlies in a way that is both inescapable and undeniable. Grizzlies basketball is enjoyable once again, obviously because of the presence of what very well may be the most talented young core in the NBA led by Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr., and Brandon Clarke among others. With every thunderous, jaw-dropping dunk from Ja Morant, and every awe-inspiring pull-up three pointer from 6’11” Jaren Jackson Jr., it becomes more and more impossible to not experience the euphoric joy that this team is able to create.
However, this current iteration of the Memphis Grizzlies isn’t fun merely because they bring an enthralling combination of explosive highlight plays and irrational swagger. After all, there were many casual NBA fans over the last decade who believed that eating a bowl of nails for breakfast was preferable to watching the three-point anemic, low post-oriented “Grit ‘N’ Grind” Grizzlies, but we still believed that their contrarian, forceful style of play was fun.
In reality, I believe that what makes the current Grizzlies such a blast is that there’s a relatively definitive level of certainty about their future, which didn’t exist for the end of the last core of Memphis Grizzlies. After all, how “Grit ‘N’ Grind” came into existence was purely accidental and definitely not the result of some master plan in team building. Their ending, until Zach Kleiman entered the picture, was much the same.
The random fat Spanish kid the Grizzlies acquired that was drafted by the Lakers in the second round turned into perhaps the best center of the decade. And then the troubled yet talented young man who had never found a stable home in the NBA ends up becoming an icon. Oh, and that random defensive specialist they signed one summer from the Boston Celtics? He basically becomes the Dennis Rodman of his era and the fixture by which the organization builds the entire marketing department around.
To be sure, this smorgasbord of contrasting but talented personalities created a cultural movement in Memphis and established a level of excellence that the franchise had never seen before. But make no mistake: it just somehow happened, and there was always a level of uncertainty even during their prime years about how much that group could achieve together, and how long they could do it. After all, there’s a reason why the Grizzlies were a frequent pick by national analysts over the last decade to either lose their contender status or fall out of the playoffs entirely.
Yet for the current group of the Memphis Grizzlies, I have found that it’s easier to enjoy the journey when the destination appears to be an inevitably positive one. And I don’t necessarily mean that this group will absolutely win a championship together; you don’t have to look any further than the Oklahoma City Thunder during the last decade to realize that nothing is ever guaranteed.
But when you remember that Ja Morant, who is arguably the best rookie point guard of the last 20 years when taking individual performance and team success into account, and Jaren Jackson Jr., who is already one of the most prolific shooting big men in NBA while also flashing tremendous two-way potential, are both only 20-years-old, it’s impossible to believe that they will become anything other than at least as good as the generation of Grizzlies who came before them.
Maybe Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. will lead the Grizzlies to titles. Or maybe they won’t. But the very fact that it’s a conversation to have when they’re both just 20-years-old tells you all that you need to know about the talent of this group.
As the Memphis Grizzlies playoff hopes faded down the stretch of the 2018-19 season, and the last gasps of the infamously incredible Grit and Grind era came and went, I knew that the fun for that generation of Grizzlies was over. But as Memphis prepares to resume play in a luxury resort while in the middle of an admittedly cataclysmic pandemic, they are somehow more fun than every before. It’s chaotically crazy, and it’s wonderful.
And I’m glad that is the case. The comments were pretty mean-spirited in 2018.