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Underrated Grizzlies of the Grit and Grind era

Who were the unsung heroes of the golden age of Grizzlies hoops?

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New Orleans Pelicans v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

The Core Four. Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph, Mike Conley, and Tony Allen. These were the architects behind the pinnacle of Memphis Grizzlies basketball. Stretching from 2010-11 (the season in which Memphis upset the one-seeded Spurs) to 2016-17 (Allen and Randolph’s final year with the Grizzlies), the Grit N’ Grind era produced seven-consecutive postseason appearances, three trips to the second round, and a Western Conference Finals cameo in 2012-13.

The Core Four deserves the bulk of the credit for Memphis’ prolonged success during the 2010s, but not all of it. There were several instrumental role players throughout the era who quietly did their jobs at a high level. After all, basketball is a team game, and it takes a great team to make seven straight postseasons, not just four players, no matter how talented they are. It can be easy to gloss over those who played alongside the Core Four because they weren’t legitimate stars, but a number of them impacted winning nonetheless.

Considering it’s officially the doldrums of the NBA offseason, there’s no better time to reminisce about some of the underrecognized contributors of the Grit N’ Grind period. First, a disclaimer. To qualify for this list, players had to have spent more than a single season in Memphis. That means no one-year wonders like Lance Stephenson in 2016 or Tyreke Evans in 2018 (who misses the Grit N’ Grind cutoff anyways). With that out of the way, let’s hop in the time machine and look back at two of the best supporting talents around the Core Four.

Courtney Lee (2014-16 - 177 games)

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Dallas Mavericks Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

In the 2014-15 season, only 15 classified wings in the entire NBA managed to shoot 41% or better from three. Notable members of this exclusive club included Klay Thomspon, JJ Reddick, Khris Middleton, Bradley Beal, and, of course, Courtney Lee. Acquired from the Boston Celtics before the 2014 trade deadline for guard Jerryd Bayless, part of the rationale behind such a maneuver was to plug the hole of perimeter scoring. Just 15.4% of the 2013-14 Grizzlies’ total shot attempts came from behind the arc, the lowest in the NBA by a wide margin (New Orleans was the runner up at 17%).

Lee made his presence felt on the outside almost immediately, but not from the proximity folks predicted. It took Lee a season to truly find his footing from deep (34% in year one with the Grizzlies), although he compensated for this with scoring inside the arc. See, the mid-range was still very much in style, and it’s from this area where Lee truly made his hay as a Grizzly offensively. Across his three seasons in Memphis, he cracked the 90th percentile among wings in mid-range accuracy twice and never finished below the 79th percentile.

Also, Lee attempted more shots from the mid-range than any other area on the floor in his time with Memphis (he ranked in the 81st percentile or better in mid-range frequency all three seasons). When factoring in Lee’s devastatingly effective combination of both usage and efficiency from the in-between area, there’s a legit argument to be made that he was one of the best mid-range snipers ever to wear Beale Street Blue. Further solidifying this theory is that Lee’s peak mid-range shooting year in Memphis, 2015-16, was unrivaled by any wing. Kyle Korver was one of two wings who logged 1,000 minutes to best Lee’s 46% clip, but Korver didn’t even sniff Lee’s usage rate from mid-range as only 30% of his collective field goals fell therein, compared to a sizable 47% for Lee.

A mid-range assassin for three years and a three-point marksman his last two (41% and 38%), Lee performed as well offensively as Grizzlies fans could’ve hoped for in a role player. However, mid and long-range scoring weren't the sole reasons Memphis acquired Lee; if shooting alone was what the Grizzlies were looking for, they could’ve (and likely would’ve) went after someone like Korver instead. Rather, it was Lee’s three-and-d chops that cemented him as an ideal complementary piece with the Grit N’ Grind Grizzlies.

Lee’s trademark defensive trait was his ability to force steals in various ways. Believe it or not, Lee is 24th all-time in total steals in franchise history with 171; that’s ahead of De’Anthony Melton (for now), Kyle Lowry, and Quincy Pondexter. Whether he was off-ball using pin-point timing to grab errant passes or on the ball picking pockets, Lee was good for one steal per game (approximately his career average in Memphis). Lee’s pick-pocketing skills paid off on the other end, too; he added an average of two points off steal-fastbreak sequences per 100 possessions across his three-season stint.

Lee was a valuable two-way cog and arguably the fifth-best player on those Grizzlies teams right behind the Core Four. During Memphis’ second-round series back in 2015 against the NBA champion Golden State Warriors, Lee finished top-five on the team in points, rebounds, and steals per game while shooting 42.1% from deep. Lee played a pivotal role on arguably the best Grizzlies team in franchise history, a group that at one point held a 2-1 series lead on the eventual champs.

Lee doesn’t receive enough flowers for his contributions during the last legs of the Grit N’ Grind era. Maybe it’s because Lee only spent one full season (2014-15) in Memphis as he was traded to the Grizzlies in 2013-14 and left mid-way through 2015-16. Nonetheless, while Lee’s time with the Grizzlies was brief, it was among the most productive and memorable of all ancillary talents to suit up for Memphis in the 2010s.

JaMychal Green (2015-19 - 271 games)

(Author’s note: Green was a Grizzly up until 2018-19, but I won’t mention his last two seasons here because they came after the GNG period)

NBA: Playoffs-Denver Nuggets at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

During the Grit ‘N’ Grind era, Memphis’ backup big men were a mixed bag. The team spent practically the whole decade looking for the ideal reserves for Gasol and Randolph and experimented with several behemoths (Jarell Martin, Brandan Wright, Hamed Haddadi, Kosta Koufos). Yet, none of them stuck around very long. The bigs mentioned were traditional rebounding and interior scoring threats who lacked defensive versatility and outside shooting chops. However, at least one giant that Memphis acquired was a hand-in-glove fit for the modern NBA: JaMychal Green.

Green’s rookie campaign was uneventful; he suited up in just 20 games as a neophyte and averaged a measly seven minutes per contest. But by his sophomore year, Green was a rotation mainstay due to the all-around skillset he provided. He was third on the team behind only Randolph and Gasol in offensive rebounds per game with 1.8 and pulled down 9.3 total boards per 36 minutes. Green also flashed a promising jump shot with three-point range in year two, though it was a work in progress as he only took 40 attempts on the season. Additionally, fans got a sneak peek of Green’s defensive versatility — he guarded positions 3-5 and made life difficult, particularly at the rim, where opponents shot 2.7% worse than their season average with him on the floor.

Following an impressive sophomore stint, the Grizzlies rewarded Green with a starting job in 2016-17, an opportunity the Alabama native made the most of. Over 77 games and 75 starts, Green achieved new career highs in field-goal percentage (50%), points (8.9), rebounds (7.1), offensive boards (2.2), and assists (0.9). Perhaps most importantly, this season marked the point when he officially worked the long-range shot into his offensive repertoire. After attempting 0.6 treys per game as a sophomore, Green’s frequency tripled to 1.8 attempts in his third year, with his accuracy improving dramatically as well (33.3% - 37.9%).

In just two years, Green evolved from an end-of-the-bench reserve to a starter who was a rock-solid rebounder, switchable defender, and knockdown three-point shooter. Fast forward to the current day, and these abilities, particularly three-point shooting, have allowed Green to carve out a successful NBA career as a glue guy. Shooting 39.5% from deep on 3.3 attempts per game since 2018-19, Green has established himself as one of the better stretch fours in the game. Not to mention he continues to be an ongoing threat on the boards, as he’s corralled at least one offensive rebound per contest every season since leaving Memphis.

Green’s experiences fine-tuning his long-range jumper and playing spot minutes at the small forward in Memphis helped mold him into the swiss army knife type talent he is today. And even though Green was a mere spring chicken during the Grit N’ Grind era, his on-court output was unmatched by any other big man of the period not named Randolph or Gasol, of course.

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