For a franchise with only 20 years under its belt, the Memphis Grizzlies boast surprisingly good depth among its alumni. The Vancouver Grizzlies failed to make a dent in the NBA playoff picture from 1995 to 2001, but in Memphis, the team has found a winning style of play and a scarily devoted fan base. Since moving from Vancouver, the Grizzlies have made the postseason in eight of 15 seasons.
The team’s current core is easily the strongest in franchise history, but some great players rocked a Grizzlies uniform before Grit ‘n’ Grind became legend. For this starting five, we’re not going to be overly focused on team fit. Instead, we’ll seek out the Grizzlies’ all-time five best players. Positions matter, but players who notched at least 30 percent of their minutes (per Basketball Reference) at a second position will be considered there as well. Given the two famous brothers who have donned Memphis uniforms, I think you’ll understand why that matters.
PG — Mike Conley (2007-present)
Mike Conley is an easy choice here. He’s the Grizzlies’ franchise leader in games played with 581 — Marc Gasol is next at 517. Conley was drafted fourth overall in 2007 and at the time was best known for being Greg Oden‘s teammate in high school and college. While Oden’s career was a sad parade of knee injuries, Conley’s emerged as the Grizzlies’ most reliable player in franchise history and undoubtedly its best point guard.
In his career, Conley’s averaged 13.4 points, 5.6 assists and 2.9 rebounds on a .442/.375/.803 shooting line. On the surface, those are respectable numbers for a starting point guard, but they don’t show Conley’s true value. He’s a fiend defensively, suffocating opposing ball handlers who cross his path; he’s averaged 1.5 steals in his career and led the league with 174 in 2012-13, the same season he was named to the All-NBA Defensive Second Team.
The scary thing is that Conley’s only 27 years old. He’s really come into his own in recent seasons and should keep performing at peak levels for the next several years. He’s taken on a far bigger role offensively as his game has expanded. After never reaching league average (20 percent) in usage before, Conley has jumped to 21.6 percent, 24.6 percent and 23.7 percent the past three seasons, per Basketball Reference. Even more impressively, Conley’s last two seasons, easily the highest usage, have been his best two in shooting percentage.
Given Conley’s well-known defensive prowess and increased offensive role without sacrificing efficiency, he’s a franchise player. Compared to other point guards in Memphis history, the selection is simple.
SG — Mike Miller (2003-08, 2013-14)
Our first positional cheat of sorts. Mike Miller played 31 percent of his minutes at shooting guard in Memphis, so he passes our (not coincidental) threshold for eligibility at this position.
Miller was a cornerstone of the first teams in franchise history to qualify for the postseason. From 2003-06, the Grizzlies lost in the first round of the playoffs each year. While those teams are easily forgotten to history, it was still significant for a relatively young franchise to build a roster capable of averaging 48 wins over a three-year window. Miller came into his own on those teams and was a rare bright spot on the consecutive 22-win embarrassments that followed.
In 2006-07, Miller averaged 18.5 points, 5.4 rebounds and 4.3 assists on 46 percent shooting and 40.6 from deep. The next year, he averaged 16.4 points, 6.7 boards and 3.4 assists on 50.2 percent shooting and a ridiculous 43.2 from three. The Grizzlies bottomed out and had to trade the swingman for parts, but he was singularly worth the price of admission to many Memphis fans in that time.
Miller cements his spot in this lineup with his memorable 2013-14 stint with a 50-win Grizzlies squad. Miraculously, he appeared in all 82 games for the first time since his rookie year, 2000-01. Miller knocked down a career-high 45.9 percent of his triples and was a key veteran presence in Dave Joerger’s first season.
SF — Shane Battier (2001-06, 2011)
Shane Battier has long been under-appreciated by the general NBA public, but die-hard Grizzlies fans would surely defend his merits to the death. Battier was drafted by Memphis in 2001 with the sixth overall pick of the draft. While he never transformed into the type of high-usage star most teams are craving with high picks, Battier pioneered the modern 3-and-D role and even played some stretch 4 in Memphis.
Along with Miller, Battier manned the wings on the Grizzlies’ first ever playoff teams from 2003-2006. He averaged 10.2 points, 4.8 rebounds, 1.2 steals and one block in 419 games for Memphis. He shot an efficient 45.4 percent from the field and 37.9 from distance.
As a young player, Battier was far from the nearly exclusive three-point shooter he became known for. Per Basketball Reference, in Memphis, only 31.2 percent of his shots hailed from deep; 28.8 percent came within three feet, a far cry from the 9.8 percent he attempted there while in Miami from 2011-14.
Because of his role as a defensive-minded glue guy, many of Battier’s contributions are lost in traditional statistics. It’s on-off court impact where he truly shines. The Grizzlies were 8.7 points per 100 possessions better with Battier on the court when he played there, a massive difference. He’s third in Memphis franchise history in Value Over Replacement Player (VORP). Choosing Rudy Gay over Shane Battier here would feel like an affront to modern analytical thinking.
PF — Pau Gasol (2001-2008)
Another positional cheat. Pau Gasol played mostly center in Memphis, but he notched a healthy 33 percent of his time at the 4 so he qualifies here. Plus, how could we justify only picking one Gasol for this team? (Marc has played 99 percent of his career minutes at center).
Pau was the franchise’s cornerstone for the better part of a decade, a member of the 2005-06 All-Star team and the 2001-02 Rookie of the Year. After leading the team to the aforementioned three straight playoff appearances, Gasol was stuck as an in-his-prime star on a putrid lottery team. Memphis made a controversial trade that sent Pau to Los Angeles where he was both properly appreciated (three All-Star appearances) and rewarded with two championship rings.
Of course, the Grizzlies ended up scoring Pau’s little brother Marc in that deal; a punchline at the time and considered a throw-in, Marc has emerged as a maximum contract star player who’s earned his own spot in this all-time lineup.
Although Marc’s Grizzlies teams have been more successful than Pau’s, the elder Gasol was an elite competitor in Memphis. In seven seasons, Pau averaged 18.8 points, 8.6 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 1.8 blocks on 50.9 percent shooting. In 2006-07, Gasol averaged 20.8 points, 9.8 boards and 2.1 blocks on 53.8 percent shooting. He was a bona fide star lacking complementary pieces around him.
Zach Randolph is near and dear to Grizzlies fans and certainly merited consideration for this list, but leaving off the future Hall of Famer in Pau wasn’t an option. When he left Memphis in 2008, he was the franchise’s best player ever by a laughably large margin. Pau is still the franchise leader in points, field goal percentage, total field goals, total free throws, blocks and offensive win shares. He’s second all-time in VORP.
C — Marc Gasol (2008-present)
The current face of the franchise and freshly signed to a new maximum contract, Marc Gasol may already be the greatest Grizzlies player ever. He’s second in games played, third in rebounds, fifth in points, fourth in assists (absurd for a big man), fifth in steals and second in blocks. Most significantly, Marc is the franchise leader in Win Shares, Box Plus/Minus and VORP — an analytical triple crown in this case. (All franchise leaderboards via Basketball Reference).
At 7’1″, Gasol is a massive center who excels at quarterbacking a defense and protecting its back line. He’s also a great shooter and elite passer capable of running an offense for long stretches of games. Gasol is an ideal two-way center who can play nearly any style — though he’s excelled in Memphis’ ground-and-pound identity.
Gasol made his first All-Star team in 2011-12 and his second this past season. Still, 2012-13 may have been his finest achievement when he was named the Defensive Player of the Year. That season, he was also named to both the All-Defensive Second Team and the All-NBA Second Team. In 2014-15, he earned his first career All-NBA First Team selection.
In his career, Marc has averaged 14.1 points, 7.9 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 0.9 steals and 1.6 blocks. He’s been remarkably consistent over the years, but Gasol took his offense to another level last year by notching 17.4 points per game. His previous career high was 14.6 (which he had done three times). Like Conley, he upped his usage to a healthy 24.6 percent after never cracking 20 before 2013-14. Together, Conley and Gasol form a formidable two-way core that nearly every other team in the NBA would take in an instant.
While Marc’s case to be the greatest Grizzlies player ever is already quite strong, he’s well on his way to cementing that legacy. Gasol will be in Memphis for several more campaigns and Grizzlies fans should cherish each one.