The Grit and Grind Era of the Memphis Grizzlies resonates with so many that bore witness to it. It wasn’t a time that you could really explain to someone that wasn’t there - you just had to “feel” it. At its peak, FedExForum and the 18,119 that sold out the place were a symbiotic creature, a monster of epic beauty and terrifying presence. From chanting “Z-BO” walking down the stairs after a dominant 2011 performance to nodding your head along with Tony Allen as Future’s “Go Harder” blared through the loud speakers in the fourth quarter of a game and everything in-between, so many moments are now etched in the memories of those who were fortunate enough to have the Core Four to rally behind and believe in.
So when you are bold enough to say that, despite the greatness of those players and that stretch of success, the greatest Grizzlies team is yet to come? It takes some stones.
After all, the Memphis Grizzlies made a Western Conference Finals appearance in 2013. Memphis reached the playoffs for seven straight season. Multiple All-Star and All-NBA selections, countless clutch chances that led to victories on both ends of the floor all add up to there being multiple worthy selections when it comes to being the “Greatest of All Time”. The eclectic personalities and stories behind the players only add to the allure.
So why not simply say the 2013 team, or the 2015 team that fell a couple injuries short of potentially shocking the mighty Golden State Warriors, is the best ever and move along?
Because the future is so bright, it’s blinding our hindsight...and at this point, rightfully so.
It’s hard to look too far back when the view off in the horizon is so beautiful. No disrespect toward Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph, Tony Allen, current unlikely Grizzlies villain Mike Conley, and the other key cogs in that Grit and Grind machine. Their run was truly remarkable, largely because of how improbable it was. Now for these Memphis Grizzlies, there were bound to be expectations at some point due to the talent on the roster. But for them to exceed everyone’s hopes - to be the only play-in team to win two games to make the postseason despite being the youngest team in the NBA to be a playoff participant in 10 years - and succeed at this current level despite all the logical reasons for them to fail?
Dreams of championships dancing through heads in the years ahead naturally come to light. And that means looking to the future - instead of longing for the past. Even in the face of likely elimination from the 2021 NBA Playoffs at the hands of the Utah Jazz.
Which is hard to admit for even the most hardened Grit and Grind truther.
The Grizzlies under Mike Conley never had the audacious potential that Ja Morant possesses - potential that has been realized over these last three games at a historic rate as Morant blooms in to a superstar before our very eyes. Memphis with Zach and Marc couldn’t play both the glass and the perimeter the same way that the duo of Jonas Valanciunas and Jaren Jackson Jr. can - and no one in Grizzlies history has the skill set that Jaren Jackson Jr. possesses. The indomitable will of Dillon Brooks matches that of Tony Allen in many ways, even with Brooks’ sunglasses fashion choices perhaps conflicting with the color wheel of The Grindfather, but Brooks is much more calculated than the controlled chaos of TA (and much more of a force of nature offensively as well). Up and down the roster, throughout the coaching staff and reaching up to the front office, there has never been this much continuity and common vision. This much optimism about the direction the franchise is going in is so rare - in the past, it felt as if the Grizzlies were living on borrowed time.
Now? Dawn hasn’t yet broke on what this Memphis Grizzlies team can, and will, be. Considering the current state of their postseason lives, this is remarkably impressive. This new current Core Four is helping establish the next definition of what it means to be a Grizzly through their swagger and tenacious style of play.
So perhaps it would be better if we took this moment to reflect on what is, as well as what was. It would surely help us appreciate just how wonderful the short stint out of the playoffs - four years - is compared to other toiling franchises struggling through rebuild after rebuild. To be on the brink of something so special, in the “fun stage” before expectation officially sets in starting next season, you need to know what special feels like. And Memphis surely knows how the Grizzlies version of “special” can resonate.
Starting with this playoff series, the Next Gen Grizzlies got their first shot at writing their chapter in the history of this beloved Memphis franchise. They had the opportunity to feel the energy in the arena, the heat of the pyro matching the fire inside to continue to compete as they have for much of this season, the sheer emotion of thousands of Growl Towels making a sea of yellow as the city attacks the game with a passion all their own. They saw a higher-in-number group of fans as the country continues to slowly come out of this terrible pandemic and fed off the roar of the crowd - even though it didn’t lead to a victory, it did leave its mark on their young collective psyche. They heard thousands of Grizzlies fans, longing for this new unique cast of characters to give them the impactful moments they crave. And despite the outcome, those early memories made will remain forever. Cherished reminders of what was, and what can be, from generation to generation.
The greatest Grizzlies team of all time is almost certainly not playing right now. That will come later for Memphis. Chances are, despite the remarkable fight and will, the Utah Jazz eliminate the Grizzlies - perhaps as soon as Wednesday night. But beyond the remarkable talents of Ja Morant and his crew, the mental toughness and desire to meet conflict with a resolve and will beyond their NBA years is what matters most. Because that mentality is what builds a winning franchise. That willingness to endure, to fight against the end, to never allow for your circumstances to dictate your response to them - that is what endears you to this city and fan base. And what will stick with us long after this generation’s time passes - just as the one that came before has. For as Mike Conley himself said to Jaren Jackson Jr., just as the stars of the previous generation told him - forever is real for this team, and this town.
And forever isn’t too far away for this new installment of the Memphis Grizzlies. The pursuit of the greatest team in Grizzlies history is ongoing. And for the first time in years, we can see a reality where they exist.
For the first time the Next-Gen Grizzlies are seriously competing in not just one game in a Bubble, not just a Play-In Tournament against similarly mediocre to above average competition, but a best of seven series against one of the very best teams the NBA has to offer. They are outmatched, but they are unconquered. They lack the talent and depth necessary right now to finish games against this Jazz team, but it will not always be that way. What they do not lack is the gumption to stand toe to toe with them to make them earn their ticket to the next round.
Memphis is playing with house money right now in this particular season...but the Grizzlies do not particularly care about how the outside world perceives them in good times and in bad - and they never have. All they have is one another, and like the Grit and Grind Grizzlies of old that will be all they need. For these modern Grizzlies are driven by the idea that this is their shot to announce to the basketball universe that they have arrived back on the NBA postseason stage. They have no plans on leaving it from season to season any time soon.
And that the Greatest Memphis Grizzlies team of all time is yet to come.
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