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Blog Entry

Year of the Grizzlies

Posted on: September 20, 2011 1:44 pm
 


By Matt Moore


To say that every franchise has "that year" that changes everything is just not true. Most franchises take time to develop, to blossom from fledgling to regular to up-and-comer to contender to powerhouse. There are titanic events that shape franchises, to be sure, almost always involving the NBA draft. The Spurs, for example, nabbed Tim Duncan to go along with a recovering David Robinson. That was a game-changer for them, literally. But the Spurs had been a playoff team for years, had been contenders in the ABA and NBA, a team that had developed over time. The Miami Heat had the 2006 year when everything came together, but they had also grown in legitimacy through the Alonzo Mourning era. 

But the Grizzlies?

The Grizzlies are having a year that could remake their franchise as a whole. Okay, maybe it's two years. 

It started with re-signing Rudy Gay in free agency for a max deal. The Grizzlies took a world of flak for the decision, since Gay wasn't considered a max player at the time, nor is he now. But it was a shift for the Grizzlies. It was a change in owner Michael Heisley's previous approach, in that it showed he was willing to spend, and spend heavy, in order to compete. Heisley had taken on water as being cheap since trading Pau Gasol (the last player he gave a significant contract to). There were questions of whether the young, talented roster the Grizzlies had been developing together since that Gasol trade would stay together. Heisley breaking out the wallet signified that if nothing else, Heisley was good to his word. He said he wanted to compete, and that if the team competed, he would spend. Re-signing Gay gave them the opportunity to do so.

Heisley followed that up with what I thought was one of the worst contracts in franchise history, and what turned out to be one of the shrewdest moves in frachise history by extending Mike Conley before he could enter restricted free agency. In doing so, not only did he continue to show he would spend to keep the core together, but he also got Conley for a good value relative to his ability, as the young point guard matured into a floor general and reliable playmaker.

When Gay went down in February, the team had already started to rise. That's what's forgotten in the talk that Gay's injury was the cause for the Grizzlies's surge. the Grizzlies had been playing better since January 1st, going 11-6 in January. They had started to gel before Gay's injury and had Gay stayed healthy, it's not like he was keeping a difference maker off the floor. His minutes were absorbed by second-year player Sam Young, who contributed on both ends of the floor, but wasn't in any way better for the overall team structure than Gay, offensively or defensively.

The Grizzlies made a deadline deal to acquire Shane Battier, dumping franchise dead weight and first-round bust Hasheem Thabeet and an additional pick. They nearly made another deal, but fitting the pattern of good fortune, their deal to trade O.J. Mayo to Josh McRoberts fell through. The result was Mayo sticking around and being a huge part of the Grizzlies' playoff run. At the time, though, it seemed more like the kind of thing the Grizzlies tend to screw up as a habit. 

Nonetheless, the Grizzlies then went on one of the best runs in franchise history, even if the numbers don't bear it out. Consider this. The Grizzlies went 9-5 in March. Not great, but good, right? Here's who they played in March of 2011: Spurs, Hornets, Mavericks, Thunder, Knicks, Heat, Clippers, Knicks, Pacers, Jazz, Celtics, Bulls, Spurs, Warriors. That's eleven playoff teams out of fourteen opponents, with the others the wacky Warriors, the Jazz, and Blake Griffin. To survive that schedule around .500 would have been an achievement. To romp through it with success was what put them over the top and into the playoffs, creating a buffer wide enough to hold off the surging Rockets for the eighth spot.

Then, despite tanking to play the four-time champion San Antonio Spurs coming off one of their best regular seasons in years, the Grizzlies pulled one of the most impressive upsets in NBA history, not only beating the top seed but looking impressive doing it. The first franchise playoff win came in their first playoff game of the season, on the road, on the back of a Shane Battier three.  The Grizzlies would go on to push the mighty and revered Thunder to seven games, proving that the young argonauts were mortal after all. Though the Grizzlies fell, it was in the most respectable manner possible, with the real turning point being a triple-overtime thriller that was decided mostly due to various Grizzlies stars fouling out and not having enough energy left for the rest of the series. 

So that's a pretty great year, right? Except things continue to get better. During the playoff run, Heisley also paid Zach Randolph. Keeping the All-Star of the team on the roster has its ups and downs, considering his later-contract-year money vs. age, but it also provides them with the consistency Randolph's shown for years in being a 20-10 guy, and now a team leader.

But most importantly, this lockout, while harmful towards the franchise's momentum in terms of fan support which has always been tepid in Memphis, could be the best thing of all. A revised CBA could allow for the Grizzlies to keep costs down, stabilizing the franchise's financials and eliminating one of the biggest disadvantages to their efforts, the market inequality that has kept them out of free agency conversations. A revised revenue sharing system would do wonders for the Grizzlies whose television deal pays them a fraction of the larger markets', and even the possibility of shortening the years on existing contracts could help with their long-term financials and flexibility.

There are drawbacks, of course. A hard cap implemented immediately would have devastating impacts on the Grizzlies considering the money they've already shelled out, much less the money necessary to re-sign restricted free agent Marc Gasol. But it's just as likely that a new system could come out favoring the Grizzlies' as much as any team in the league, from a financial and competitiveness standpoint.  

The final piece of the puzzle is Gasol. Re-signing one of the best young centers in the league, who has stated openly his desire to return to Memphis where he went to high school, cementing this core of players that genuinely enjoys playing with one another, could be the component that changes the Grizzlies from newly-respectable to consistent contender, at least for the playoffs. It gives the fans a reason to buy in, a group of players worth getting behind (as the elder Gasol's Grizzlies team never was), and could get owner Michael Heisley off the punchline lists around the league.

There is, naturally, the concern from fans and analysts of the extreme opposite, however. Once the Grizzlies finished their playoff run, my first thought was to wonder if this was similar to the Clippers' 2006 run. The Clippers made a strong showing in the playoffs, advancing to the second round and a close series with the run-and-gun Suns. But the year after, Elton Brand went down and everything tanked. The Clippers became the Clippers again. This is what seems to happen to franchises in the NBA. You're either "there" or you're not. Then again, we thought the latter about the Mavericks for decades until everything changed. Now look at them.

2010-2011 was a good year for the Grizzlies, a great year. 2011-2012 could wind up being the best yet. From ticket sales to on-court performance to the emergence of Gay as a superstar to being respected and feared as a contender, this could wind up being the point in time where the Grizzlies changed the course of franchise history, and forever altered the face of professional basketball in Memphis.  
Comments

Since: Sep 28, 2006
Posted on: September 27, 2011 11:52 pm
 

Year of the Grizzlies

Good stuff. I was sick Twice in the playoffs: the Triple OT game(after which a tree fell on my house - talk about adding insult). and game 7. I Think this Mem-OKC could be quite the rivalry for years to come. Never have I or probably any other Griz fan(or Memphian) looked forward to next season like the One coming up......And then the Owners up a wet dream! Forgive my venom, It just irks me everytime I think about it.



Since: Jun 24, 2008
Posted on: September 27, 2011 2:45 pm
 

Year of the Grizzlies

Nice review of the Grizzlies situation. I think you touched on a serious issue as well. The Grizzlies made three long-term commitments and now have to wait and see if they turn out to be nice signings or contracts that kill the golden goose.



Since: Nov 10, 2006
Posted on: September 23, 2011 11:27 am
 

Year of the Grizzlies

Loved this article and loved watching the Grizzlies in the playoffs. That 7-game series against Oklahoma was epic!  With Rudy Gay coming back, the core locked up, and the addition of Josh Selby, I expect (if there is a season) the Grizzlies to be right in the thick of things come playoff time.  Not even a Memphis fan, but I enjoy good basketball and I like this squad.



Since: Dec 21, 2007
Posted on: September 22, 2011 12:58 pm
 

Year of the Grizzlies

I think Matt hit this one dead on! I sure hope that the league plays this season so the many NBA fans get a treat to see the Grizz play this year with Z-Bo carrying them with his daily dose of double-doubles! GO GRIZZ!



Since: Jun 10, 2009
Posted on: September 21, 2011 3:55 pm
 

Year of the Grizzlies

Also, don't forget how fortunate the grizz were in the draft.  Landing Josh Selby could prove to be HUGE.

Dymanic, gritty PG with leaping ability.  Look out, Westbrook.  Yessirree!



Since: May 22, 2009
Posted on: September 20, 2011 9:35 pm
 

Year of the Grizzlies

Naturally, I'm optimistic.  However, you forgot to mention the recent altercation at Zac Randolph's Oregon home, which, conceivably, could emerge as an off-season distraction and impediment to the supposed maturity of the Grizzlies' star player.  Oh well, we shall see.


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