Quick show of hands: If I’d told you at the end of the 2019 NBA season that your freshly blown up and rebuilding Memphis Grizzlies would narrowly miss the 2020 NBA Playoffs in Orlando by losing an August play-in game to the Portland Trailblazers, would you have believed, Memphis?
And the answer is: Of course not. There’s so much wrong in that last paragraph, you would have been scratching your head – phrases like “NBA Playoffs in Orlando” and “play-in” game? What the heck is a play-in game? But that’s not why you wouldn’t have believed.
The real reason? Rebuilding a roster into a good team, let alone a playoff contender is a dicey proposition. It requires a savvy front office, patience and a whole helluva lot of good luck – and at the end of the 2019 season, there was no reason to believe that Memphis had any of those things.
Literally a day after their 2019 finale (a 132-117 win over Golden State) and only hours after media exit interviews with then-coach J.B. Bickerstaff and then-GM Chris Wallace, both men were ejected from their positions.
That summer, Mike Conley, the last member of the Grit N Grind Core Four, was traded to Utah. A few weeks later, the Grizzlies hired some nobody named Taylor Jenkins as their head coach and drafted some flashy kid out of Murray State with the No. 2 pick.
Truth is, a successful rebuild may depend on luck more than anything else. Ask the New York Knicks, who have been rebuilding for most of the past 20 years. Or the Chicago Bulls.
And prior to becoming a dynasty, even the Golden State Warriors had been a perennial bottom feeder for decades.
I understand why Chris Wallace was skittish about disbanding a successful Core Four before he had to. There’s no guarantee you’ll find your way out of the woods. So many things have to go just right – things which depend on sheer luck.
Lately, your Memphis Grizzlies have been EXTREMELY lucky.
First, it was lucky ping-pong balls that changed the narrative from sending Boston an owed pick to salivating over the possibility of Memphis landing its first true NBA Superstar in Ja Morant. And even though new GM Zach Kleimann had clearly done his homework in assembling the roster, you still don’t know if the pieces will fit together.
Will Jaren Jackson Jr. and Ja Morant get along? Or will they clash over whose team it is?
Will player chemistry help or hurt the team? Would Jenkins be in over his head?
Of course, we know these answers now.
The team jelled faster and better than anyone could have reasonably expected, playing a run-n-fun style of basketball that would have given the Core Four fits in a head-to-head matchup.
Jackson finally gave Memphis a stretch four, Morant was a walking highlight GIF, Jonas Valanciunas quenched our thirst for a big man who posts up on the block. And, yes . . . WINNING!
With the Grizzlies firmly in the No. 8 spot back in March, this season was already a rollicking success before COVID-19 pressed pause on the season. That’s why a disappointing 2-7 record in the NBA bubble is really no reason to be sad – especially considering that injuries sidelined Jackson, backup point guard Tyus Jones and newcomer Justise Winslow, who has yet to suit up.
And in a nationally televised play-in game on ABC, Morant gave tantalizing glimpses of what Grizz fans certainly hope to see for years to come in the playoffs – 35 points, eight assists and four boards; not flinching or choking despite facing NBA Bubble MVP Damian “Dame Dolla” Lillard.
Despite missing Jackson, Jones and Winslow, the Grizzlies had a chance to win until the very end. I can’t wait to see what team does next season when healthy.
Ah, next season. September is usually the time of media days and training camps. This year, it’s Conference championships. The NBA Finals may well be played in October, which is when the regular season would ordinarily start.
Understandably, the league is heavily focused on completing this season; tentatively a new NBA season would start on Christmas Day. But like everything else affected by COVID-19, there’s just no way to say for sure when that will happen, or what it will look like.
Will there be another bubble? Will fans get to settle in at FedExForum and enjoy the show with masks on? There are just too many unknowns.
Let me be clear: Like every Grizz fan, I wanted a Grizz-Lakers matchup in the first round – a playoff baptism of fire that would accelerate the team’s development even further. The eight seeding games certainly simulated the intensity of a late-season playoff battle. The young cubs have added valuable experience to their already precocious talent.
I can’t wait to see how they grow, how they evolve into the league powerhouse we want them to be. I can’t wait to watch them play again.
Whenever that is.