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The trickle down culture of the Memphis Grizzlies

Something special is being built in Memphis

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Memphis Grizzlies v Sacramento Kings Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

When asked how the Grizzlies are able to stay resilient and play at such a high level without key guys following last weeks win over the Los Angeles Clippers, Desmond Bane credited the culture.

“It’s culture man, it’s culture...We’ve got a lot of guys who care a lot and want to win. We’ve got a lot of guys who are hungry and trying to win basketball games. It’s been next man up all year”.

It wasn’t the first time Bane, or anyone on the Grizzlies, has credited the team’s culture as a key component for the teams success despite the craziness this season. In fact, the “next man up” mentality has been a growing thing within the Grizzlies ever since Taylor Jenkins’ first season in Memphis 3 seasons ago.

Every team has some sort of culture. Some teams have toxic culture, some are still figuring out, and then there are teams like the Grizzlies who have a set and sound culture that resonates throughout the entire organization. To establish a meaningful culture, you need tone setters. For Memphis those guys are Taylor Jenkins and Zach Kleiman. Both Kleiman and Jenkins have worked together on building a culture with players that fit a certain description. It sounds simple, they want guys who fit the description in the Bane quote above. They want guys who care a lot about winning, who are hungry to win basketball games, and have a chip on their shoulder.

You can’t build a culture without player buy-in, however, and the Grizzlies have a few leaders on the team that help instill that culture throughout the entire roster. At the forefront of it all is Ja Morant. The Grizzlies’ All-Star and potential MVP candidate is the on-court leader of the team. His fearlessness is contagious up and down the roster. Ja is quick to correct you though, that the fearlessness isn’t all from him. Both he and Bane have stated multiple times how the team has an “underdog mindset” and that helps them play with the chip on their shoulder.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Los Angeles Lakers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The Grizzlies roster is filled with guys who have been doubted at some point in their careers. Ja Morant was found in a side gym by a Murray State scout. Dillon Brooks was a second-round pick. Grizzlies fans weren’t particularly pleased with the Jaren Jackson Jr. selection. Desmond Bane, Brandon Clarke and Xavier Tillman Sr.? All slipped in the draft due to being “old” and having “physical limitations”. Not many people had heard of John Konchar coming out of Purdue University Fort Wayne. Killian Tillie’s injury history was supposed to keep him from being a productive player at the NBA level. The list goes on and on where these guys have been doubted. They are far from the first players to make the NBA after being doubted, but it’s something that has brought the team close together. Because they can relate so well to one another, they want to see each other succeed as much as they want to succeed themselves. The players have a “we over me” mentality and it shows on and off the court.

Memphis Grizzlies v Phoenix Suns Photo by Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images

It’s obvious the team cares about one another. I can’t remember the last time a player has been interviewed after a win, and other players didn’t come up and harass whichever player Rob Fisher is interviewing. On the court, they aren’t afraid to put their bodies on the line as they dive for loose balls and make countless hustle plays. The culture allows the team to play with a certain swagger not many other teams have. The swagger for Ja Morant to dunk on anyone or anything. The swagger for Desmond Bane, in just his second NBA season, to not back down from LeBron James. The swagger for Dillon Brooks to make the game of basketball hell for whoever he is guarding. The swagger gives the team as a whole the confidence needed to succeed in the league, and they aren’t afraid to let other teams know. The Athletic’s Mike Vorkunov’s recent piece on Desmond Bane had a quote where one league executive said “they talk the most shit in the league”. The confidence and fearlessness has had the Grizzlies ready for any challenge thrown at them.

Team culture isn’t sustainable, though, with just a few guys bought in. You need it instilled throughout the organization and roster-wise. For the Grizzlies, the closeness of the team has helped them succeed even throughout the craziness the season has brought them with injuries, as well as COVID-19 Health & Safety Protocols. The “next man up” that Taylor Jenkins has been preaching for 3 years has been a key factor in the Grizzlies sustained success. The Grizzlies culture has helped the end of bench guys stay ready for when their number is called. Guys like Jarrett Culver, Killian Tillie, and Santi Aldama among others were not expected to have key roles this season, yet Tillie got himself a new contract and found himself starting some games while both Culver and Aldama have played key minutes in the Grizzlies 10 game winning streak.

Rio Grande Valley Vipers v Memphis Hustle Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

The culture doesn’t stop with the Grizzlies. The culture is so close knit that it spills down into Southaven with the Memphis Hustle. To start the season, the Hustle were expecting to get heavy minutes from Sam Merrill, Jarrett Culver, Killian Tillie, Yves Pons and Santi Aldama. The 5 “assignment guys” were supposed to use assignment days to get reps in while out of the Grizzlies rotations. Instead, the Hustle have gotten very little help from the assignment guys, with Yves Pons being the lone guy to play more than 5 games with the Hustle.

The Hustle have been shorthanded for most of the season. They’ve barely had the assignment guys, and have had more than a few of their players out due to injuries. At times, Jason March is lucky to have 8 guys healthy enough to play on any given night. That hasn’t stopped the Hustle from being competitive. It hasn’t translated to the amount of wins the Grizzlies have gotten, but it’s allowed them to hang in games they really have no business being in. Just earlier this week, the Hustle had to face off against the Santa Cruz Warriors.

The Warriors assigned Moses Moody and Jonathan Kuminga to join two-way player Quinndary Weatherspoon with Santa Cruz for the game, while Jason March had just three guys from his opening night roster play more than 12 minutes in the overtime loss. It was a close game that the Hustle would have won if it wasn’t for an untimely foul with seconds left that allowed the Warriors to send the game into OT.

Lakeland Magic v Memphis Hustle Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

Shaq Buchanan and Ahmad Caver are the culture setters down in Southaven. The 3 year-vets have been critical for Jason March. March has been highly complimentary of them throughout their careers, bragging about their competitiveness and how you know what you’re going to get from them every night. They are the leaders, and Jason March says they are the “heart and soul” of what the Hustle do. March has talked multiple times about how he loves the group he has in the locker room and Ahmad Caver and Shaq Buchanan are the two guys who lead the group.

The “next man up” also applies to the Hustle as well. Due to the injuries and lack of availability from the assignment guys, the Hustle have had to make a few additions to the roster. Most notably, Cameron Young came in basically off his couch and has scored 20+ points in 6 of his 9 games with the Hustle. Tyler Hagedorn joined the team at shootaround in Vegas and dropped 20 points earlier this week. Even Josh Nzeakor, who hadn’t even really practiced with the Hustle yet, scored 6 points and 7 rebounds in his G League debut and nearly forced a game-winning turnover. Jason March credits the Grizzlies and Hustle culture for guys being able to walk in and find success.

“It’s just the culture that we’ve built throughout the Grizzlies and the Hustle,” March says. “Our front office has done a great job finding guys that fit our culture. Every guy we are looking for is the type of player that is going to give us whatever you have whenever your number is called.” March credits the leadership in the locker room with everyone staying together and the culture they are trying to build.


Memphis Grizzlies v Phoenix Suns Photo by Michael Gonzales/NBAE via Getty Images

The culture set by the Grizzlies organization has allowed the team to surpass outsiders expectations for the 3rd season in a row. It is something that will continue to grow as Taylor Jenkins grows as a coach and as Ja Morant, Desmond Bane and others grow as players.

The most consistent teams in the NBA have had strong cultures. The San Antonio Spurs were contenders for nearly 20 years in large part due to the standard set by Gregg Popovich and key players like David Robinson, Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. The Golden State Warriors, to use a more recent example, have been contenders for nearly a decade with the culture set by Steve Kerr, Steph Curry and Draymond Green being a key component, particularly with their ability to turn things around and stay relevant after Kevin Durant left and Klay Thompson missed nearly 1,000 days with injuries.

We don’t know what the future holds for these Memphis Grizzlies yet, but if history repeats itself, they are here to stay and will remain a force to be reckoned with thanks to the strong culture in the organization from top to bottom.

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