From my Christian perspective, humanity is both fatally flawed yet also infinitely loved beyond imagination. Whether in politics, war, or just everyday living, we exemplify our brokenness time and time again, but that does not change the unrelenting love that God has for each of us.
My intention with this lede is not to preach, but rather to reflect on how I think we can see minute aspects of what I believe to be this truth in the ordinary world around us. In the realm of the NBA specifically, the relationship that Jonas Valanciunas has with the fans of the Memphis Grizzlies reminds me of it.
From the time that he has entered the NBA, very few have excelled as a traditional big man like Jonas Valanciunas. For this season, he was second in the league in rebounding (12.5) and third in the league in paint points (11.0). His combination of imposing physicality as well as feathery touch and skilled foot-work remind you of a time in which players of his archetype were the focal points of championship teams. In that same vein, he has in many ways become the spiritual successor to Zach Randolph — much like Dillon Brooks has become that to Tony Allen.
In an NBA that now focuses on pace and space, Jonas Valanciunas is a living and breathing love letter to the Grit ‘N’ Grind era that Grizzlies fans cherish so much. For this season in particular, he was arguably the Grizzlies’ best player, as he averaged a Randolph-esque 17.2 points and 12.5 rebounds while shooting 59% from the field. In a city that loves its blue-collar stars, Valanciunas has been the hard-working everyman who reminds Memphians of a bygone era in which just a little bit of grit and a little bit of grind were often enough to win the battle.
However, he has also unfortunately reminded us of the brokenness of that era of Grizzlies basketball. That while grit and grind could win many battles, it ultimately could never win the war. You can choose to not go gentle into that good night, but the night is still inevitable when you don’t have the tools to get through it.
Jonas Valanciunas simply does not have the tools at his disposal to be the starting center of a championship-contending Grizzlies team. Because as admirable and undeniably impactful as his contrarian style to the modern NBA may be, it has proven to ultimately consume him in the postseason against teams that aim to attack him defensively at every single opportunity.
To be fair, Valanciunas is not a “bad” defender. In fact, in drop coverage which is pretty much the only defensive scheme that the Grizzlies use him in, he was actually quite solid this past year, which I discussed in detail a few months ago. But the problem with his defense is found in the middle portion of the last sentence. Because of his lack of his lateral mobility and agility, drop coverage is the only defensive scheme that the Grizzlies can consistently use when he’s on the court.
And in the playoffs when you’re facing off against phenomenal teams with elite shooters and shot-creators, like the Utah Jazz with Donovan Mitchell, Mike Conley and Jordan Clarkson, drop coverage cannot be the only shield that you bring to bear.
To say that the Jazz annihilated the Grizzlies’ defense when Valanciunas was on the court would be a vast understatement, and the numbers play this reality out. The Jazz had a 128.3 offensive rating with him on the court and a 117.4 rating with him off, and their eFG% was 60% with him on the court and 54% with him off. Some this can be attributed to the fact that Jaren Jackson Jr. was actually fairly solid at backup center in the series, but the truth is that the Grizzlies were getting absolutely slaughtered by simple ball-screens, and they just couldn’t adjust their scheme to try to take away open pull-up threes because there was no real adjustment that could be made due to Valanciunas’ physical limitations.
Could Taylor Jenkins have been a bit more creative and tried something crazy and inventive such as placing Valanciunas on Royce O’Neal to try to keep him out of ball-screen situations, much like Steve Kerr slapped Andrew Bogut on Tony Allen in 2015 so that he could freely roam the paint? Sure, but a coach shouldn’t have to go to such extremes to compensate for supposedly one of his best players.
To be a true championship contender, you can’t have a player in your starting lineup that you have to bend over backwards to compensate for in postseason situations, no matter how valuable or impactful certain aspects of that player’s skillset may be over the course of a long regular season. Valanciunas is immensely impactful in the areas in which he’s skilled, but his fatal flaws in his current role will ultimately keep the Grizzlies from reaching the ambitious heights that they aspire to reach if he remains there long-term.
However, his tenacity and penchant for dominantly physical play only make his brokenness all the more redemptive. Because while his limitations and flaws may keep him from being a focal point on the next truly great Grizzlies team, Memphians will always love and cherish him because of the blue-collar identity that he so explicitly embodies.
Much like the Grit ‘N’ Grind Grizzlies before him, Jonas Valanciunas may never quite be enough, but that will never affect his legacy in Memphis because of the love and appreciation that fans of the Memphis Grizzlies have for him.
And while we as people may never be enough because of our own flaws and brokenness, we, that reality will never stop God from endlessly loving and pursuing each of us.