The Memphis Grizzlies are an anomaly in today’s NBA. They’re successful but have little to show for it, young but experienced, star-laden but superstar-less, contenders but a notch below the league’s true elite. So they aren’t the Indiana Pacers, a solid team bereft of top-shelf talent. Or the San Antonio Spurs, old hands clinging to the NBA’s upper crest. And not the Miami Heat or Oklahoma City Thunder, the best teams with the best talent that are sure of their place at the top of the mountain.
The Grizzlies are somewhere in between those squads and the others like them, a real threat in the Western Conference but still one we’re not quite sure of what to make. Such is expectation when a youthful team follows up an underdog run to the conference finals with a game seven loss on their home floor in round one, and even more so when that team’s relative “failure” in 2012 might have been due to issues with injury and cohesion.
Zach Randolph, orchestrator of that magical playoff run in 2011, missed most of last season with knee problems and didn’t approach his previous level of play when he returned. Reserve forward Darrell Arthur tore his achilles tendon in the pre-season and was out all of 2012, leaving Memphis without much of the frontcourt depth and versatility so instrumental to their success two summers ago. On top of all that, this team needed to reintegrate Rudy Gay – a potential alpha dog and one of the last cuts for this summer’s Olympic team – into the offense with or without Randolph on the floor and ingratiate new ancillary pieces like Marreese Speights and Quincy Pondexter to the team’s identity.
Considering all that it seems almost surprising Memphis did as well as they did last season, going 41-25 in the regular season and gaining home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. But with talents like Gay, Marc Gasol, and Mike Conley still around and Tony Allen leading the grit and grind charge the Grizzlies were always going to be one of the NBA’s better teams, not title-worthy in all likelihood but a postseason threat nonetheless. Then they laid an egg in front of their home crowd in a game seven and saw their season end sooner than any of them anticipated.
But that was two months ago, and Memphis, perhaps more than any other team in the league, knows how a team and organization’s fortunes and outlook can change so quickly. Gone is O.J. Mayo, the skilled but mercurial bench sparkplug. Fully healthy should be Ranolph and Arthur come training camp. And newly acquired are the talented Jerryd Bayless, Wayne Ellington, and Tony Wroten, while sophomore Josh Selby rounds out the Grizzlies’ quartet of tantalizing reserve perimeter options.
So Memphis, assuming health, is everything they were the last two seasons combined – big, competitive, talented, experienced, deep, young, and ready to win. But this off-season they’ve doubled down on those attributes, gaining depth and assets through health and free agency/the draft and experience and talent through the passing of time.
This season, more than any to date, should be this era of Grizzlies’ best yet. Gasol, Randolph, Gay, and Conley aren’t superstars but close to All-Stars at the very least. Allen remains a world-class perimeter defender and Arthur should regain his form as a top-flight, two-way post reserve. If he doesn’t, Speights can fill in and offer the same floor spacing and rebounding he did last year. Bayless and Ellington will provide the much-needed long-range threats this roster has recently lacked. And Selby and Wroten are raw, precocious wildcards dripping with natural talent that could be called upon when needed or dangled as an asset in a big trade.
This 2012-2013 Memphis team has it all save for that transcendant player history tells us is needed to win a title. They’ve got the depth of the Pacers but more top-end talent, more bench than the Thunder but not Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook. Still, this organization’s ultimate goal is the same as every other’s – hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy come June’s end. But the last two seasons have shown just how much The River City loves this team when it’s thriving, buying into the notion the players exude; that they’re underdogs scrapping their way to unparalleled success as a small-market team that relies on the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.
None of that rings true, though. The Grizzlies aren’t underdogs in the real sense of the word and have both the “whole” and “parts” of a potential if mold-breaking champion, making them that much different than every other squad. With the NBA’s coming landscape looking more wide open than ever beneath the Miami/OKC hierarchy, Memphis’ current position as a wonder of unique talent, depth, age, and identity is one 27 other teams should envy, their success in Springs past and present not withstanding.