We may remember the 2015-16 Memphis Grizzlies as the last breath of the Grit and Grind era. They’ve installed new leadership, shuffled the roster, and are on the verge of tough decisions about some of the players who are synonymous with Memphis basketball.
Yet, through all the injuries, questions and doubts, the core remains. Mike Conley, Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph will begin the season as teammates once again. They’ll have old friend Tony Allen and a new face joining them from the small forward spot in Chandler Parsons. They have a chance to stay as good as they’ve been or maybe even be better.
The question for them lies in the value of good. Good, far more often than not, doesn’t cut it in terms of championship aspirations. The Grizzlies have been hanging around the outer edge of West contenders for years now, but the hurdle keeps getting higher. The Warriors look unstoppable, so Memphis have little chance of clearing the conference finals, if they get that far. The Spurs (minus Duncan) and Clippers are bringing back similar cores, and the Grizzlies will likely be in a slugfest for the right to challenge the Dubs with those two.
This comes on the verge of a critical decision for the franchise. They can choose to transition now, or be forced to down the line. In a way, the Grizzlies are doing both. They are embracing the coming transition head on but also sort of dodging it.
The best example of how they’re doing this is the addition of Chandler Parsons.
So many of the Grizzlies numbers from last season are muted by a) the complete injury catastrophe and b) the addition of Parsons. He changes the dynamic in a substantial way, and will give the Grizzlies an edited identity. Pointing out where Memphis ranked in three-point shooting isn’t really relevant because that’s almost for sure going to change.
Parsons isn’t a Memphis kind of player. He’s not a gritty defender; he’s a shooter. He’s a personality-oriented guy who recruits players and likes to be in the public eye. That’s not a bad thing. He’s darn good at what he does in the game, and there’re no clear signs his off-the-court life is problematic.
However, it does suggest that Memphis is starting to outgrow the Grit and Grind, for better or worse. They’re realizing that Randolph and Allen do not have much time left, and Gasol is not too far behind. Parsons represents a major acquisition for the next phase of the team. He’s 27 and doesn’t fit their usual ethos. Either Memphis has gone crazy, or they’re entreating the fact that change is coming.
This is how they are adapting. The landscape is all about shooting, a trend that Memphis has rejected up until this point. Now, they’re extending the life of their core with a new player who can play a substantial role. With Parsons there, Randolph and Gasol may not need to combine for 776 post possessions, and even if they do, they’ll have more space. Reducing the load on those two will help the Grizzlies over the short-term.
The downside is that Parsons, after multiple surgeries, is an injury risk. If he can’t stay healthy, Memphis will be in a tricky spot. Even with a higher cap, they owe Parson, Gasol and Conley a ton of money. Unless they’re either willing to let Randolph or Allen walk, or get them at good bargains, things could look bad if Parsons’ body doesn’t hold.
The good news is that Parsons may not be the only one who can bring change to Memphis
The New Faces
Some people ask why Memphis hasn’t broken it up. They can’t clear the conference finals, their style is outdated, their inner workings have not always been kosher and their players are on the older side.
Many people, especially those who cover the team closely, have something of a uniform answer: They can’t rebuild in that city.
The Grizzlies can’t be a premier free agent destination because, in a smaller market, going over the luxury tax is extremely risky from a business perspective. That’s assuming that Memphis, Tennessee would be a hot spot for NBA players, which…no.
Beyond that, the Grizzlies have historically been bad at drafting and player development. Almost none of their rookies from the last several years have stuck around. If the last time your team was rebuilding, they drafted Hasheem Thabeet, would you want to go down that path again?
In 2016, they picked up Wade Baldwin and, via trade, Deyonta Davis. Baldwin was a great pickup, giving Memphis fresh young legs behind Mike Conley. Davis, a very raw big, is a little riskier, but at No. 31 may not prove to be a costly gamble if he doesn’t pan out.
The Grizzlies used the draft well to get project talent who can learn behind a good professional group. Now, this has been true for many years, but the development structure has still fallen short. The key for Memphis is to start making some young guys pan out, and their new coach may help with that.
The biggest new addition is David Fizdale. Since he arrived, he’s talked openly about making some changes to help Memphis keep up with the rest of league in areas such as long-range shooting and pace. He seems ready to have an invested hand in player development. He’s worked closely with the front office on decisions. By all accounts, he has a vision.
Living out that vision won’t be easy over the long-term. The players that have defined the Grizzlies for the last several years can’t stay forever. Time in the NBA catches up to everyone, and every team (besides the Spurs probably) has been faced with a rebuild.
The key for Memphis is that they have a good thing going, one that will be hard to make again. Similar to the Thunder or other smaller market teams, they hold on to what they have because they know they may not get it back. While it certainly seems like Grit and Grind won’t bring a title, it’s still meaningful. It brings at least a slight chance every season, which is more than what many teams can say.
Perhaps this is the end of the Grit and Grind era. Perhaps this is the next stage in its evolution. It certainly looks like they’re trying to adapt and prolong their window as a Western Conference threat.
For a team that has often been bad, being very good is good enough.