The NBA Bubble has been a fun ride for many fan bases.
The Suns, who have often struggled despite young superstar Devin Booker putting up more-than-impressive numbers, have gone undefeated in their first seven games. The Blazers—with the help of Damian Lillard and his seeming inability to miss in clutch moments plus the added bonus of Carmelo Anthony, who many had given up on, and his killer corner threes—are becoming a potential 8-seed threat that many higher seeds in the West are beginning to fear facing up against come playoff time.
The Grizzlies have not had as much fun.
But the loss of fun and excitement has not been a quick, sudden feeling, like a gut-punch or a slap in the face. It has come in stages, just like grief.
Stage 1: Denial
When news broke right before the action started that Justise Winslow—an injury-ridden acquisition who had the ability to step into a key role for the Grizzlies offense—would be missing the remainder of the Orlando bubble with an injured hip, hope was not lost. Though adding a potential offensive threat who could play alongside playmakers like Ja Morant and Tyus Jones was an exciting prospect, the Grizzlies had gone all season without him. It was more of a bummer than a heart-wrenching loss.
Last night during a scrimmage, I experienced a contact injury in my hip that unfortunately will keep me out until next season. I was excited to join my brothers on the court & will be supporting them throughout. I’m focused on coming back 100% towards a full recovery. pic.twitter.com/s4ds2CNSNC— Justise Winslow (@IAmJustise) July 21, 2020
Even weeks later when it was announced that key backup PG Tyus Jones would be sitting with a knee injury, the candle of promise still flickered, though less prominently. Tyus was about as solid of a backup point-guard as you’ll see, and losing him would force wings who were less promising at the point to step up into his role.
After games of struggling to find momentum without a consistent backup PG who could keep up the flow and pace of the game when Ja was off the floor, it still appeared that this pattern of stacked-up losses could turn around and that new rotations could begin to win the Grizzlies some games. Of course, it was quickly discovered that Melton was not going to be the ideal backup point guard for Ja, and Morant was therefore pushed to play more minutes than he had all season.
However, players like Grayson Allen were stepping up. Grayson’s sharp-shooting behind the three-point line ignited a struggling team, giving them the extra points to compete throughout difficult ball games.
And the Grizzlies still had Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr., with Brandon Clarke as an obvious key third guy.
The candle still flickered, and the fans had not lost hope or excitement yet. There was still that feeling that this team can win a few games. They can keep that eighth spot, and then Tyus can come back in time for the playoffs and maybe this young, energetic team can irritate the Lakers enough to make a series interesting.
Stage 2: Anger
The guy who had fans enthused about earlier in the season—who seemingly glided into an impressive 3-year, $35 million contract extension in February that appeared indisputable and well-deserved at the time—has fallen from grace. Though fallen is a bit of a gentle, heroic term that implies a sort of elegance to it: In all honesty, he has tumbled.
Brooks has shot below 50% in 19 of 21 games since signing his contract extension on February 6th. He’s shot 39% overall, 26% from three.
After an even deeper dive into numbers, one can note that Brooks has virtually as many shot attempts per minute and actually more three-point shot attempts per minute than Devin Booker (emphasis on Devin Booker). Booker shoots 49% overall and 36% from three, which is what you would expect from a guy who is confident enough to attempt shots at this magnitude.
And to make matters worse, Brooks’ performance in the bubble has been…less than ideal. And that’s putting it rather nicely.
Brooks has had some of the most frustrating, lackluster games that you’ll see from an NBA starter fresh off of a new contract. Grizzlies fans’ relentless frustration lies in the fact that he refuses to accept his role as a catch-and-shoot guy and fierce defender. He is overly aggressive on both ends of the court, forcing shots that he has proven he cannot make while selfishly taking control of possessions that take away open looks from other, more reliable players.
Grayson standing wide open in the corner pic.twitter.com/yjuL9ejcg4— not clever (@fetal_giraffe) August 9, 2020
And then there are the fouls. Specifically, *that* foul.
On Sunday, August 2nd, the Grizzlies faced the San Antonio Spurs after a 0-2 start to the Orlando season. Jaren Jackson Jr. hit a brilliant corner three to tie the game at 106 with just seconds to go, but the celebration was short-lived when Dillon Brooks fouled DeMar DeRozan just moments later with just one second left on the clock. After two made free throws, the Grizzlies lost 108-106.
This game—this foul—was the true beginning of the end. This game—this foul—was when denial turned into anger.
To put things less nicely, but more realistically, Grizzlies fans were coming for his head.
fire dillon brooks into the sun— jacob boughter (@jacob_boughter) August 2, 2020
What did I JUST say ?????? Dillon Brooks is AWFUL ... Just cost us the game smh ... https://t.co/AapS0CIo0h— DeShun P (@Her_Fantasy) August 2, 2020
Stage 3: Bargaining
This was easily the shortest phase.
It lasted all of about one day, and consisted of many aimless what-if’s. What if Taylor Jenkins punishes Dillon for his despicable performances and decision-making and plays other guys in his minutes? What if *that* foul finally knocked some sense into him, and after some long discussions with coaches and players, Dillon is forced to accept his limited role and calm down, if even just a little bit?
But alas, no such luck. The Grizzlies fell to the Pelicans in a brutal loss, and though Dillon’s performance did not prove to be the downfall for the Grizz this time, there were no signs of any adjustments made to his coach-designated role or his in-game choices.
Stage 4: Depression
After a frustrating loss to the Pelicans, the Grizzlies were 0-3 in the bubble. Things were grim. Things had to get better, fast. I mean, things had to get better, right? They surely couldn’t get worse.
Well, they could, and they did.
Losing Jaren Jackson Jr. to a knee injury was never part of the plan.
When Woj announced that the Grizzlies’ star forward would be missing the remainder of the Orlando season due to a suffered meniscus tear in his left knee, fans were met with immediate gloom.
Life is pain and pain is all I know. Get well Jaren. Next year is our year pic.twitter.com/wuaDJkBzXn— Ja Morants (Bright Future Grizzlies) Burner (@BurnerJa) August 4, 2020
Any remaining shred of hope appeared to be lost. Without Jaren, how would the Grizzlies snap out of a four-game losing streak and gain back the confidence to land in the 8 seed? And even if they managed to do so, without Jaren, there was little to no hope of putting up any real fight against the Lakers in the 1st round.
Without Avery Bradley and Rajon Rondo, Grizzlies fans felt like a Lakers series with Morant, Jackson and the squad might be something they could potentially invest in. Now, it felt as if there was nothing really to look forward to.
That Tuesday afternoon, there were tears split and alcohol poured throughout Memphis as fans dwelled on what could have been.
Stage 5: Acceptance
It was the strangest sensation, because Grizzlies fans are known to be die-hard and emotionally charged when it comes to their team. But suddenly, as the Suns and Blazers surfaced as the Grizzlies’ clear opponents for the 8th seed in the West, acceptance felt like the only healthy option.
Because at the end of the day, the Grizzlies have lost their fire, meanwhile Portland and Phoenix are dancing in the flames. Seeing both teams playing peak basketball with healthy rosters, it began to dawn on Grizzlies fans that this was simply not their time.
Is ok from a Memphis perspective to not want the Grizzlies to make the playoffs? Play-in series? Sure. But I think I'd rather see the Ja & Jaren Grizz make their playoff debut with, y'know, Ja *and* Jaren, with actual home games and not in a surefire sweep. Plus: Dame vs. Lakers.— Chris Herrington (@ChrisHerrington) August 12, 2020
It’s Thursday now, and the Grizzlies face the Bucks in a game that will determine their fate. Of course, acceptance does not mean that fans will not fiercely root for their team to win, but it means that some - and perhaps most - will not feel like they have been punched in the stomach if they don’t.
Without three key pieces in the mix and a season that already has been a miraculous triumph in light of preseason expectations, it has become clear that the bubble is simply not this team’s moment.
And that’s OK, because despite the unsettling weeks fans have experienced watching their team dwindle in this new setting, there should be nothing but excitement for what is to come.
To reference Hamilton (you know I had to do it): Grizz Nxt Gen is not a moment, it’s a movement. These guys have nothing but time.
The fact that this team is even in this conversation right now despite losing their second best player and two other key guys only emphasizes the unbelievable success they had in the regular season.
Let the rest of the league keep sleeping on the Grizz. The real fans know that when this team is fully healthy and continues to improve with age and time, they’ll be in for a rude awakening.