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The Memphis Grizzlies and the long road to the NBA Finals

What will it take for Memphis to reach the mountaintop?

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2016 NBA Finals - Practice and Media Availability Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

NBA front offices are always looking for the next best way to build a championship team – to find what it takes to reach the mountaintop. But the way to win a title is ever-changing and ebbs and flows as the league evolves.

Most title teams are not built in a year. Look at the 2011 Miami Heat – despite its big free agency splash, Miami came up short before winning the following year. For teams trying to reach the Finals by making free-agent acquisitions, it may take the perfect summer for its moves to line up. Many teams believe they can land a star in free agency, but more times than not, the player signs elsewhere.

LeBron James Announces His Future NBA Plans Photo by Larry Busacca/Getty Images for Estabrook Group

It can take even longer to reach each organization’s ultimate goal when the team is built through the draft. Before the Golden State Warriors became back-to-back champions and won four titles in eight years, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green faced several playoff heartbreaks. Curry’s first title came in his fifth season and it took years of playoff reps to get over the hump. The Warriors were built from the ground up, but along the way, they added players via trade and free agency like Andre Iguodala, Andrew Wiggins, and, of course, Kevin Durant.

Most title teams are built by acquiring players through the draft, free agency, and the trade market – not exclusively through one strategy. The Milwaukee Bucks became NBA champions in 2021 by using all three avenues of acquisition. They formed their big three by drafting Giannis Antetokounmpo and trading for Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday. They built out the rest of their roster by signing Brook Lopez, Bobby Portis, and Wesley Matthews.

There is not necessarily a formula to building a contender, but front offices certainly follow patterns and trends. In today’s NBA especially, there are specific things teams target with a championship in mind. There are four keys to winning an NBA title – four pieces that each team needs in order to compete for the Larry O’Brien Trophy.

2022 NBA Playoffs - Minnesota Timberwolves v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

The star

The NBA is a star-driven league and without a superstar, NBA teams cannot contend. In baseball, soccer, and football, teams can win championships with well-rounded teams not built around a star, but in basketball, for a team to truly compete, the organization must have the guy.

Stars come in all shapes and sizes. Players like Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar once dominated the league using their size and inside presence. Eventually, the blueprint was guards like Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, and, later, Kobe Bryant and Dwayne Wade. Two-way forwards like LeBron James, Durant, and Antetokounmpo have run the league by using their size and gifted versatility.

But there are always exceptions. Curry, who stands at 6’2” became the first-ever unanimous NBA MVP and won back-to-back awards in 2015 and 2016. Nikola Jokic has dominated the league as a point center winning the last two MVP awards. While two-way wings like Jayson Tatum and Kawhi Leonard might still be the most valuable and desired superstars, the Warriors showed that a point guard can be the best player on a championship team.

If a guard can lead a team to a title, then Memphis is in luck. The Grizzlies just re-signed Ja Morant to a five-year max rookie extension, ensuring that as long as he is healthy, the organization is a threat to win the Western Conference. Morant is one-of-a-kind; despite drawing comparisons to Russell Westbrook and Derrick Rose, there has never been a player of his size that dominates the paint as he does. Any concern of Ja’s playstyle not working in the playoffs was wiped away after multiple legendary performances last season.

With a player the caliber of Morant, Memphis has the most essential piece to winning a title: a bonafide superstar who can take over a game and be the best player on the court at any time.

2022 NBA Playoffs - Memphis Grizzlies v Golden State Warriors Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

The depth

As long as Memphis has a top-10 player, it is a threat to go all the way. But one player does not win a title. Individual, standout performances are important, but no one – not even Jordan or LeBron – has won a title alone. Heliocentric offenses, where the team revolves around one player handling the ball, rarely lead to a title. Despite Luka Dončić’s magic in the playoffs last year, the Mavericks came up short, losing to the more well-rounded Warriors team. Perhaps the greatest example of heliocentric offenses being unsuccessful in the postseason is the James Harden-Rockets. Despite the incredible regular-season success, Houston routinely disappointed in the playoffs.

For a team to be a true contender it must have talent surrounding its star. This does not necessarily mean a team needs a big three to win the Finals. While the Warriors still had their trio of Curry, Thompson, and Green, it was contributions from Wiggins, Kevon Looney, and Jordan Poole that led to another Golden State championship. Everyone remembers the unreal performances from LeBron and Kyrie Irving in the 2016 Finals, but J.R. Smith and Tristan Thompson were essential to the Cavaliers’ historic 3-1 comeback.

Despite trading away De’Anthony Melton and losing Kyle Anderson in free agency, the Grizzlies possess some of the best depth in the NBA. Memphis gained four more potential contributors in the 2022 Draft, adding to their already impressive bench. While their abundance of depth could be used to make a big trade, the Grizzlies can also use the regular season to determine who will crack the playoff rotation.

Without Brandon Clarke and Tyus Jones, the Grizzlies may have watched the second round from the couch and for Memphis to reach and eventually win the NBA Finals, it will need more of these performances. It seems that the Grizzlies know this, as they just re-signed Jones to a 2-year/ $30 million contract.

Sometimes it is necessary to have another star that can step up when the lead guy has an off night. In the 2021 Finals, Middleton stepped up scoring 40 and 29 points in Game 4 and 5, respectively. Kawhi broke out in the 2014 Finals, leading Greg Popovich, Tim Duncan, and Tony Parker to another title.

Depending on how you feel about Desmond Bane and Jaren Jackson Jr., Memphis already has these pieces in place. Bane just had a breakout season and made a legitimate case that he can be Morant’s long-term second fiddle and backcourt partner. Jackson took his defense to another level, making All-Defensive First Team and leading the NBA in stocks. If you catch him on the right night, Jackson impresses offensively and gives a glimpse of his incredible two-way potential.

With complimentary players like Bane and Jackson and bench studs like Clarke and Jones, Memphis has the surrounding talent to lift itself to the Finals.

2022 NBA Playoffs - Minnesota Timberwolves v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

The leader

While it is a players league, a team does not reach the mountaintop without having an elite coach. Phil Jackson and Popovich may have coached all-time players, but they were critical to their teams’ success. Jackson popularized the triangle offense and helped the Bulls win six NBA titles despite the team’s bumpy ride. Popovich’s cool-headedness was essential to his consistent success and a record-breaking number of wins. Steve Kerr and Erik Spoelstra have played with some of the best the NBA has to offer, but with stars come stress, drama, and conflicts that are often left to coaches to resolve.

Coaches can also help teams find their identities. Look at the 2022 Celtics. Boston was a .500 team in late January before first-year head coach Ime Udoka helped it create a historic in-season turnaround. Udoka was hard on his players but he motivated them and gave them a defensive identity that took them all the way to the Finals. Rick Carlisle coached an overachieving Mavericks team all the way to a championship. Dallas lost Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood but embraced an underdog mentality helping them overcome Durant, Bryant, and Miami’s big three.

Great coaching can bring the best out of players, often elevating them beyond expectations. Nick Nurse helped players like Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam go from unknowns to household names. Taylor Jenkins has had a similar effect since joining the Grizzlies in 2019. Despite injuries and players in and out of health and safety protocols, Jenkins and the rest of his staff created plug-and-play elements that helped the Grizzlies have the second-best record in the NBA. The Grizz were top six in offensive and defensive efficiency, thanks partly to Jenkins’s schemes and coaching.

He also had an influence on the culture and attitude Memphis created last year. The Grizzlies possessed an infectious swagger that often drew detest from opposing fanbases. Jenkins and the Grizzlies were comfortable playing as the underdogs, crowd favorites, or even villains, as long as they played their style of basketball.

Jenkins finished second in Coach of the Year voting last year for his stability in a season that was anything but normal. Despite a few questionable decisions in the playoffs, Jenkins has proven to be an elite head coach and clearly, the Grizzlies believe he will be the one to help lead his players to a title.

The culture

There is more to winning a championship than the 15-man roster. With every championship team comes a unique culture, where each player has bought in and offered something more than their abilities on the court. Titles are won by leadership. Titles are won by team basketball where players accept that the game is bigger than themself.

While it is often the butt of jokes, “Heat Culture” has led to years of success that most teams likely relish. Miami targets certain players to maintain its well-popularized team identity. Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, and Kyle Lowry all fit that bill. The Warriors have developed a selfless culture that allows players to overachieve and excel in their roles. Wiggins was once considered a bust, but since arriving in the Bay he has established himself as a valuable and versatile player.

As previously mentioned, the Grizzlies were the most confident and rowdy team in the league last year and the team’s next-man-up mentality created unbreakable chemistry. Like Miami, Memphis has targeted specific players to fit their vision. Primarily through the draft, the Grizz have picked up players with significant college experience who have a chip on their shoulders. Bane, who played four years in college, was passed on because of his wingspan — and he has made it publicly known that he uses that as motivation.

Dillon Brooks played three years at Oregon and plays like every opponent has personally slighted him. No matter how basketball fans feel about the Grizzlies’ culture, Memphis has an identity, something that is necessary for a team to reach its goal.

2022 NBA Playoffs - Memphis Grizzlies v Golden State Warriors Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

Before a team etches itself into the history books, there is almost always heartbreak. It can take years of disappointing playoff losses before a team wins the title, and for some, it never happens. To have the good moments, there must first come the bad. Players need playoff reps before they work their way to a title.

For the Grizzlies, that work has just begun. Memphis’s core has gotten closer to the Finals every season. It started with a disappointing play-in loss to the Portland Trailblazers in the NBA Bubble. A year later, the young Grizz announced themselves as they took on the No. 1 seed Utah Jazz. And of course last season, after losing Morant to a bone bruise, Memphis came up short in the Western Conference Semifinals. The Western Conference is stacked and the NBA is more loaded with talent than ever before so it is likely the Grizzlies’ ascent hits a pause next postseason.

So, yes, there is likely more disappointment to come for Memphis. That does not mean the Grizzlies are taking a step back or no longer contending. They have the pieces for the puzzle. It may just take time to put them together.

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