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Back to the Future in Memphis

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This year’s Grizzlies are winning through a modern roster embracing a nostalgic philosophy.

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Phoenix Suns v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

If the Grizzlies take the court tomorrow (which we certainly hope they can with some positive news), they will hope to continue their winning ways in pursuit of their first playoff appearance in four years. Two weeks ago, few thought that was still possible. Now, after a five game winning streak, this team is winning due to committing to an emerging identity and its best talents returning. As a result, the playoff pursuit is gaining validity by the day.

Ironically, today also marks the tenth anniversary of another pivotal date in franchise history in which the Grizzlies were trying to make the playoffs for the first time in several years. Back on January 21st, 2011, the Grizzlies defeated the Rockets 115-110. At that point in the season, the Grizzlies were 20-23. However, with that win, Memphis started a run that would lead them to the peak of success for the Grizzlies’ franchise.

The Grizzlies would go 26-13 over their final 39 games in the 2010-2011 season, finishing 46-36 and making the playoffs as the eighth seed in the Western Conference. They would proceed to upset the top overall seeded San Antonio Spurs in six games before getting eliminated in the second round. It was best result to a season in the history of the Grizzlies to that point, and was the first in a streak of seven playoff runs for Memphis.

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Memphis Grizzlies Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Obviously, besides the beginning of many playoff memories for Memphis, the 2010-2011 season was also the birth of the Grit N Grind era for the Grizzlies and the city of Memphis. A brand of basketball that was defined by slow pace, physicality, and defense backed by a culture where the players knew they were at their best supporting each other, Memphis was a team no opponent wanted to face, especially in the playoffs. The Grizzlies played a style of basketball that emphasized the strength of their core players, and forced their opponents to play that way as well.

During that time, Memphis focused on production in the paint, turnovers, and consistent defense while the rest of the NBA was continuing to shift its focus to shooting the three and a faster pace of play. For instance, from the 2010-2011 season through the 2016-2017 season, Memphis averaged the most 2PFG and 2PFGA per game in the NBA while also averaging the least 3PFG and 3PFGA in the league per game over that time frame. While the Grizzlies were 27th in PPG over this stretch, they finished in the top ten of the league in points in the paint five times. They arguably were at their best during this time frame when they were scoring in the paint and converting second chance opportunities at rates that were among the best in the NBA.

However, where the Grit and Grind Grizzlies truly shined was on defense. Over the same seven year stretch as mentioned above, Memphis produced the most steals per game and forced the highest amount of turnovers per game in the NBA. They also allowed the second lowest amount of points per game in the league. They finished in the top ten of the league in both Defensive Rating and Rebound Percentage in five of the seven years they went to the playoffs. The formula for the Grizzlies during this era was not only preventing teams from scoring, but preventing their overall amount of chances to score as well.

The Core Four of Mike Conley, Tony Allen, Zach Randolph, and Marc Gasol were the main sources of production for Memphis during this time. While Conley and Allen certainly were amazing in their roles, it was Randolph and Gasol who truly gave the Grizzlies their advantage. Arguably the best duo of bigs in the league during the Grizzlies seven-year playoff run, their consistency and impact in the paint on both ends of the court made the Grizzlies both competitive and successful against anyone in the league.

Without a doubt, this current version of the Grizzlies is certainly different from the Bears of Beale Street that were highly successful last decade . Memphis has made up ground on the rest of the NBA by playing faster and emphasizing shooting from distance more. However, there are many ways that this year’s version of the Grizzlies is quite similar to the Grit and Grind era. For one, the schemes and strategies of Taylor Jenkins and his staff certainly emphasizes the strengths of his players. It is through defense, turnovers, and paint production that this year’s Grizzlies have found their success.

The key difference is that while the Grit and Grind Grizzlies were at their best featuring their prodigious pair of post players in Randolph and Gasol, this Grizzlies team is finding similar success utilizing the depth of its backcourt.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Memphis Grizzlies Pool Photo-USA TODAY Sports

If you have felt a bit nostalgic watching the Grizzlies play this year, it certainly is valid. Similar to the Grit and Grind Grizzlies, this year’s team is far from an offensive juggernaut. Memphis is 25th in Offensive Rating, 26th in PPG, and 27th in 3PFG per game this season. Obviously, missing names such as Jaren Jackson Jr., Justise Winslow, Jonas Valaciunas, and Ja Morant for all or parts of this season is certainly a valid reason for the offensive struggles. As a result, the Grizzlies have needed other sources of success to remain competitive and win.

Without many of their frontcourt options consistently available to start the season, the depth of the Grizzlies backcourt has been heavily relied upon to produce. The Grizzlies’ guards have responded by embracing a style of play that honors the Grit and Grind Era every time they take the court. The Grizzlies are currently first in the NBA in steals per game, fourth in turnovers forced per game, seventh in points allowed per game, and third in defensive rating. They are remaining competitive night in and night out due to consistent effort and execution on defense.

Beyond playing elite defense, the most advantageous characteristics of the Grizzlies’ backcourt this season are nearly identical to the areas of the game where the Grit and Grind Grizzlies excelled. Among NBA backcourts so far this season, Memphis guards lead the league in 2PFG and 2PFGA per game. This is a direct result of Memphis also leading NBA backcourt units in both second chance points and points in the paint per game this season. Among guard groups in the league, the Grizzlies rank second in both total rebounds and blocks per game.

Simply put, if one were to list the best traits of the Grit and Grind Grizzlies, they could simply copy and paste that same list to define this current group of Grizzlies’ guards.

NBA: Los Angeles Lakers at Memphis Grizzlies Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

As seen above, it is clear to see that the Grizzlies are finding success this season in nearly the same exact way Memphis found success during the height of their franchise in the Grit and Grind era. By playing with true grit at all times on defense and grinding out good looks in the paint on offense, Memphis is staying competitive and finding ways to win. The difference between then and now is that, just like the league has become more guard oriented over time, Memphis is creating much of this production through its perimeter players instead of its bigs.

Another key difference for Memphis between then and now is the main reason why this version of the Grizzlies is labeled “#GRZNXTGEN” instead of “#GRITNGRIND”. The beneficial traits of the team identity described above illustrates the strengths of the Grizzlies’ best talents during the Grit and Grind era. While it resulted in plenty of regular season success and a few postseason surprises, the overall success of this brand of basketball was limited.

On this version of the Grizzlies, the identity that they share with the Grit and Grind era accurately defines this roster’s supporting depth. The best talents in the present and future for Memphis are Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr.. This duo has shooting, scoring, and playmaking potential never before seen in the history of the Grizzlies franchise. By supporting arguably the best natural talents in the history of the franchise in Morant and Jackson Jr. with depth that features that same strengths as the Grit and Grind era, the Grizzlies are once again in a great position to reach unprecedented success in the near future.

As a result, while the beginning of this story is nearly the same as the one from a decade ago, hopefully the ending will be best one the Grizzlies’ franchise has ever experienced.

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