It is over. Finished. Complete.
The rebuild of the Memphis Grizzlies is done. Bury it. Burn it. Shove it in a deep dark place and only remember it when you want to make a Tyler Dorsey joke only a few will understand. It’s likely the roster will continue to change, so that process is ongoing. But on this day, the time of convey debates and lottery ball wishes are no more. The era of “data accumulation” has come to an end.
On this day, May 16th, 2021, after four years of failure and despair followed by change and hope, punctuated by a season of only expecting growth and development that has become a season of more winning than losing despite all types of adversity, expectation returns.
As the Memphis Grizzlies prepare to take on Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, and the Golden State Warriors on national television this afternoon, a moment to reflect is in order. The last time the Memphis Grizzlies had a winning record and were playing for the playoffs it was 2017. Mike Conley and Marc Gasol were leading a spirited battle against Kawhi Leonard’s San Antonio Spurs. It was the final gasp for air of Grit and Grind - an old team on borrowed time, committed to raging against the dying light. It was a time where, perhaps ironically, former Head Coach David Fizdale was telling folks to “take that for data” and we thought - perhaps hoped - that he and Chandler Parsons were helping Marc and Mike continue this run with those two beloved players leading the way.
Four years later, we live in a much different reality. A lot has happened for the Grizzlies since then. Fizdale and Parsons are both out of the NBA entirely. Not a single player who was part of that 2017 playoff team remains on the Memphis roster, and the front office and coaching staff has undergone a radical change as well. And yet, even with so many new faces and approaches, the energy of the city of Memphis still flows through these young Grizzlies. It just manifests itself differently.
Instead of the “blue collar player in a blue collar town” vet like Zach Randolph leading, the swagger of the audacious Ja Morant drips from these players as if they expected to be here when not many others - especially outside of Memphis - did. Instead of Tony Allen displaying his brand of heart, it is Dillon Brooks’ unwavering belief in himself and the willingness to provide the energy necessary to try to back it up inspiring this inexperienced team to better than anticipated results. No, there aren’t the emotional attachments like there were for Marc Gasol and Mike Conley’s successes and their embraces just yet. But the passion, the competitiveness of this group of young men - it reminds you of the earliest days of the Grit and Grind era. You know, the #8 seed that knocked off the #1 seed, surprising the NBA world ten years ago beginnings. That group also knew they weren’t supposed to be there.
They just didn’t care.
They took what they wanted wherever they could, and fought to the bitter end for every inch. They embodied a mentality that persisted throughout their city - one of rebellion against NBA norms and in favor of crashing the establishment party. Those Grizzlies were without fear. They swung up at the sky, those above them be damned and in a lot of trouble if an uppercut landed.
And over the years, with every drop of sweat, and every drop of blood, they earned our cheers...as well as our tears when it was all over. And all the moments and memories in-between remain for those fortunate enough to be a part, no matter how big or small.
There are differences between these two points in the story of the Memphis Grizzlies. Zach Randolph was a veteran of nine NBA seasons by the time he achieved his “Super-ZBo” status in the 2011 playoffs. Jonas Valanciunas is the only current Grizzlies player with that number of campaigns under his belt. And in terms of playoff experience, no one on Memphis’ roster outside of Valanciunas, Justise Winslow, or Kyle Anderson has played meaningful postseason minutes.
But the heart of the city is ready to rise to this opportunity alongside their team. To invest their emotional capital again. The fan base wants to know, so badly, that the time to have faith that coming to blows with the best of the NBA in postseason play isn’t just coming. It is upon us.
They want to see how this next generation of the Memphis Grizzlies will meet the challenge of not just today, but every day moving forward. They long to hear the roar of the crowd, be it in FedExForum, at a bar or watch party, or of their own voice in their own home as growl towels spin through the air. And the personalities of these players and their collective efforts to this point are more than worthy of the investment needed for such noises and sights to carry meaning. They just need the chance to make those moments happen, to build towards their own memories.
They want to feel this place in time, the energy, the slow but steady build to a fever pitch both on the streets and in the fan base’s collective spirit. To officially start this generation’s march toward Memphis immortality- on a hopefully higher plane than the era before.
Last season? Between the pandemic (of course still ongoing, but at its peak this time last year) and the fact that the team was so young, the timing was not right. This season required more information gathering on the members of the organization and roster at hand. But 71 additional games have been played since they lost the inaugural play-in game to the Portland Trail Blazers. More battle scars have been earned. More data has been accumulated.
We have arrived at the gates of a grander pursuit. And ready or not, here we come.
Yes, this game today is a regular season contest. But it may as well be a playoff game. The stakes are that great. Win, and you have two chances to secure your seat at the playoff table regardless of competition. Lose? And you are on “win or go home” alert for the week ahead, with at least one of those games (if you get past Gregg Popovich and his Spurs) against one of Stephen Curry, LeBron James, or Damian Lillard. The odds are better in your favor from the eight seed.
No, it isn’t competing for a Western Conference championship and a ticket to the NBA Finals. But it’s a damn good place to start making those memories for this team - especially for a team that has a 21-year old superstar in Ja Morant and was without their other 21-year old cornerstone, Jaren Jackson Jr., for much of the season.
It is a testament to the work of Zach Kleiman and the Grizzlies front office that they’ve built a roster capable of competing at this level without sacrificing their long-term vision for the franchise. It is a credit to the coaching staff of Taylor Jenkins that they have been able to develop those in their ranks currently to this point, providing ample opportunity to earn the minutes and moments ahead. And so much praise should be given to these players who have grown together, gone through the most unique NBA seasons in history together, and now stand on the precipice of something greater together.
The rebuild is over. Finished. Complete. The first winning record since 2017 confirms it. That’s doesn’t mean titles, or even playoff/play-in victories are needed for this season to be a success now. They’ve already won that war. Now? They chase something more than most bargained for this campaign. They reach for the brass ring, almost certain to fail. But in that stretch they will gain further experience and knowledge for the next time. So they can reach further when the next opportunity comes.
And we should all expect moving forward for there to be more next times.
It is time for two bigs from two different worlds to help lead the way. It’s time for rookies to become veterans. It is time for Ja Morant to accelerate his full ascent to superstar status. The time has come for more to be expected of this group of players and coaches.
For from this day forward, be it today’s game with the Warriors, the play-in tournament, the NBA Playoffs, or next season and beyond, simply accepting that this team is in the midst of a rebuild will no longer suffice. No more waiting. No more explanations and arguments.
Today, they’ve earned our greater expectations. Now is when you help and claw and scratch alongside them to push through the tough times ahead against the NBA’s elite. To cheer and collapse with every possession, to take a deep breath and close your eyes as the game takes you to a place you haven’t been in some time.
Memphis, today the time to have faith. For the postseason hunt for this generation of your Grizzlies is here to stay.
And what a beautiful day it is to, once again, believe.