The Memphis Grizzlies are a bit like your non-major course work in college. You pay a fair amount of attention to them and hope they will do well, but at the end of the day, when the assignments in classes that actually matter begin to pile up, your focus shifts to the more fulfilling subjects.
Everybody likes the Grizzlies. Some may be turned off by their glacial pace or their gladiator-themed offense in an era of fast-paced assaults in transition and from beyond the arc, but everyone respects what the Grizzlies have done while operating against the grain. They’ve pushed superstar-laden teams such as the Thunder and the Clippers in the playoffs, they had the lead on the Warriors after three games in the second round last season and they even managed to grind their way to the conference finals in 2013.
Marc Gasol is a star on both ends of the floor. Mike Conley is perennially underrated; he’s one of the most reliable players at a position where only the most explosive performers grab headlines, and he’d be a multi-time all-star if he played in the East. Zach Randolph is a redemption story, a troublesome outlaw turned lovable force. Tony Allen is everyone’s favorite crazy person.
But they’re still just required hours hidden on your degree plan. The Warriors, Clippers, Rockets and Thunder all have superstars. The Spurs play some of the most aesthetically pleasing basketball in the league. Even the Jazz are pulling off the slug-it-out style Memphis popularized in a more entertaining fashion at the moment.
The Grizzlies have lost three games this season by a combined 99 points. They lost by 30 against the Cavs on opening night, the Warriors trounced them by 50 and on Thursday night the Blazers beat them by 19.
This most recent loss to Portland felt like a turning point – and not in a good way. Losing by half a hundred to the Warriors? That’s embarrassing, but Golden State lives to humiliate its opponents like that, and once things start going downhill in Oracle, it really doesn’t matter what the final margin of victory is. That’s a loss a dozen teams will have the displeasure of experiencing this season.
But on Thursday, Memphis got outplayed and outhustled by a team most projected to drop out of the playoff picture in the West. The Grizzlies, no matter how much they might struggle to score on a given night, have established a brand off their fighting spirit. Against Portland, they looked defeated and desolate, allowing 51% shooting from the field, 50% shooting from beyond the arc and 14 offensive rebounds.
Memphis has had one of the most heralded halfcourt defensive units in the league in recent years, but its play to start this season suggests that a team can only grit and grind its way so far and for so many years before the tread on the tires begins to show. You don’t want to overreact after just six games, but you have to if only because Memphis has never been prone to these kinds of breakdowns in character during Lionel Hollins’ or David Joerger’s tenure.
There are no obvious reasons for the Grizzlies to be worse this season. The Grizzlies took a big step forward as a franchise when they successfully held onto Gasol, and they added good rotation players like Matt Barnes and Brandan Wright, giving them a solid backup at most every position. A lot of people might have predicted them to finish lower than they did a year ago, but that had more to do with their challengers than pundits expecting Memphis falling off a cliff.
And yet, falling off a cliff doesn’t seem all that improbable for the Grizzlies right now. Memphis is giving up the fifth most points per 100 possessions this season while possessing the eighth most anemic offense, and things will get tougher before they get easier. The Grizzlies have an incredibly difficult November schedule, with only two games coming against teams that didn’t make the playoffs last season (Utah and Minnesota). The other nine are against the Clippers, Warriors, Blazers, Thunder, Rockets (twice), Spurs, Mavericks and Hawks.
Memphis might very well turn its season around once they get past this brutal stretch. The problem is that turning things around likely means winding up as the No. 6 seed. That’s the nature of the West nowadays. A sturdy, cohesive and competitive Grizzly team that looked like it was on the edge of title contention two years ago is now a significant step behind the likes of the Warriors, Thunder, Clippers, Rockets and Spurs. Whether it was homegrown talent making the jump or betting and winning big in free agency or the perfection of a style the Grizzlies can’t keep up with, those five teams have sped past Memphis literally and figuratively in the past two years.
Of the five contenders in the West, only San Antonio’s core isn’t built for at least three more years of high-level play (and, for some reason, I think Gregg Popovich will do just fine with Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge ushering in the Spurs’ next era). Memphis has two great players in their prime between Conley and Gasol, but Randolph is 34, and the rest of the roster is comprised mostly of role players, and its composition doesn’t exactly fit the time period.
In many ways, Conley’s aforementioned misfortune epitomizes Memphis’ status in the NBA landscape. The Grizzlies are a team whose biggest rival may be geography; in the East, they would have been Miami’s biggest challenge during the Big Three era and now they would be in contention for Cleveland’s crown alongside Chicago and Washington. Instead they are relegated to the West, where even teams destined for the lottery can offer up a 19-point pummeling on a given night, and they are even bound to the league’s toughest division.
Although it is too early to pronounce them extinct, while the rest of the West rises, the gritty Grizzlies seem to be grinding to a halt.