In case you missed it, a group of lively mannequins wearing Memphis jerseys were just swept by the San Antonio Spurs. This was to be expected, as their starting point guard couldn’t even average double figures for the Euroleague team he played with as recently as January. But it likely signals the end of one of basketball’s grandest experiments, an attempt to win a championship in 1975 in the 2010’s that came far closer to succeeding than it had any right to. After all, it came together almost entirely by accident.
If things had gone according to plan, Defensive Player of the Year Hasheem Thabeet would be leading the Grizzlies into the second round right now. All Star O.J. Mayo would spend the summer recruiting free agents to join him in Memphis, and the front-court pairing of Rudy Gay and Xavier Henry would become darlings of the analytics community as three-point marksmen with the length to switch onto multiple positions defensively. If things had gone according to plan, the Grizzlies would have spent the last half-decade playing like a normal NBA team instead of one straight out of Rucker.
Every wrong led to a right, and rather than fight for the plan Memphis steered into the skid and let their team grow into what it would eventually become. Thabeet’s lack of development opened the door for Marc Gasol. Letting go of Mayo and Gay gave Mike Conley the ball enough to let him shine. Tony Allen was brought in as a stopgap for Henry who just never left. Trading Marc’s brother Pau created the need for Zach Randolph in the first place.
Randolph was the hinge on which the entire era hung. In lesser hands Gasol would’ve wasted his formative years on a failed Pau-impression, but Randolph’s low-post dominance allowed him to develop as the player he was meant to be. Without that offensive dependability, Mike Conley might’ve resorted to the hero ball he often resorted to in college rather than growing into the pure point guard he is. You could even say he paved the way for Tony Allen to become the Grindfather.
Allen was an afterthought on the Celtics. Kevin Garnett set the emotional tone and grabbed most of the credit. And why challenge him? He’s Kevin Garnett! Former MVP, superstar out of the womb, a lowly bench player like Allen had to blend in because he certainly wasn’t going to stand out. And then he watched his fellow outcast in Randolph whoop it up throughout a first-round upset over the No. 1 seeded Spurs and embraced the attitude. Here was an underdog team filled with underdog players who decided they didn’t have to act like… well… underdogs.
They never did. As the league shifted towards a certain playing style the Grizzlies continued fighting against the grain and were damn proud of it. Even as recently as last summer, they stood their ground and used their mid-level exception on a backup center (Brandan Wright) rather than a shooter. They were going to ride that wave to the end, and it almost won them a championship.
Lost in the shuffle of Golden State’s comeback against Cleveland in last year’s finals was the fact that they had to do the same exact thing against Memphis. The Grizzlies cracked the Stephen Curry code before anyone, letting Allen and Conley bully him on the perimeter and scare him away from the paint.
And then Steve Kerr stuck his center on Allen and forced him to shoot. The Grizzlies never recovered, even into the following season. They experimented with altered lineups to varying degrees of success, mainly bringing Randolph in off of the bench earlier this season when the team was healthier. It increased spacing, but it took away what made Memphis so special.
In the back of our minds we probably knew this team wasn’t going to win a championship. But we needed them to keep trying. Diversity of playing style is growing rarer and rarer in the NBA. The stretch prefix is becoming less and less necessary for the 4-position, the top eight three-point shooting teams all made the playoffs this year and that number will only grow as teams emulate the 73-win Warriors.
There’s nothing wrong with that, but homogenous basketball just isn’t as fun to watch. It’s not that anyone wanted the Grizzlies specifically to win a championship so much as we wanted to believe that they could, that any kind of team could.
And now we know for a fact that they couldn’t, because they didn’t. Mike Conley is going to leave. Randolph is probably going to be traded and Gasol could be as well. The Grizzlies are going to tear their team down and rebuild it in the holy visage of Curry’s Warriors.
And why wouldn’t they? The Warriors won. Why would any team even bother to try what the Grizzlies did when the Grizzlies couldn’t win with it?
That’s what makes their four-game whimper so hard to swallow. We aren’t just losing a team, or a season, but a part of basketball’s very identity. A part we might not ever get back. So if we really are closing that chapter of basketball history, at least let it be known that Memphis went down with the ship. That they tried to do something other teams wouldn’t and should get some credit for it. That deserves more than a footnote.