One Last Look Back Before The Memphis Grizzlies Clean House

For years, the Grizzlies were a transcendent, elbow-throwing throwback to old-school NBA teams. Now, they just seem old, but there's still a lot to celebrate here.

by Alexander Goot
Apr 8 2016, 3:43pm

Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, the Memphis Grizzlies announced a one-day only "Grizz's Garage Sale" scheduled for Saturday, April 16th. According to the club's official website, the event will feature, "15 seasons of T-shirts, hats, photos, furniture, autographed memorabilia, promotional giveaways and more up for grabs with all proceeds benefiting the lifesaving work done at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital." It goes without saying that any donation to a worthy charity is commendable, as is offering fans a chance to get their hands on official merchandise at a discount, even if that merchandise is a remaindered Stromile Swift jersey. But it is impossible to look at this Grizzlies team, mismatched, marked-down, and secondhand as it is, and not read something into the "Garage Sale" motif.

There is no denying the significance of what Memphis has accomplished over the past half-decade; it has been one of the most sustained stints of overachievement in NBA history. But there is also the sense that the ride appears to be approaching its end. Tuesday night's 108-92 win over the Chicago Bulls snapped a six-game losing streak, but the Grizzlies will fall short of 50-wins for the first time in four seasons. But at the moment, the team is less concerned about thresholds, and more with holding on tight. "I don't even know what the streak was," said Head Coach Dave Joerger, before having his memory helpfully jogged by the gathered media, "We're just starving to get a win... It's been a tough road for us."

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It's tough road that leads to a quite uncertain future. Stalwart point guard Mike Conley will hit free agency at the end of the year, and his return seems far from assured. Zach Randolph and Tony Allen are approaching their late 30s, and at times this season, their decline has been noticeable. Center Marc Gasol, though committed to the franchise by way of a five-year contract signed last July, will miss the remainder of the season following surgery for a broken foot. It's just one in a series of injuries that has left the Grizzlies with a skeleton crew of a roster taking the floor for much of the second half of the season. It's also a reminder that the future health of the team's cornerstone can not be taken for granted.

When Jordan Farmar is on the squad, you know it's the end of the run. Photo by Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

All of which is to say that while the era of the "Grit and Grind" Grizzlies may be winding down, the homestretch has provided some of their most admirable work yet, if not exactly the most attractive. When Gasol's injury first became clear, falling out of the playoff picture altogether seemed a real possibility. Instead, Joerger pieced together some wins from Matt Barnes' tenacity, finding a way to unearth and harness Lance Stephenson's playmaking ability, and somehow squeezing the last bit of life from Vince Carter's once spring-loaded knees. "We just have to do it," explained the 39-year-old eight time all-star, "Every game is pretty big for us now. We put ourselves in that position."

At least, from Memphis' perspective, it's a familiar position. For some time now, these Grizzlies have been known to do things the hard way—down low, where every bucket they score seems accompanied by some variety of contact, but also across their defense, where maximum effort, and frank obstruction are their signature. It has become something of a cliché to say that the Grizz would have been more at home in the bruising of the 90s—it also happens to be true—but there is something equally satisfying about watching them go against the grain, and succeeding through their physicality even as the league becomes defined by finesse.

And it's fitting that a team renowned for straight-line force and ruggedness has found a way to win in perhaps its ugliest incarnation yet. A whopping 27 different players have logged minutes for the Grizzlies this season, and while this patchwork group of misfit swingmen has kept things afloat, it's natural to wonder just how long they can survive. "We've been searching, and we've been desperate," added Zach Randolph, himself just recently returned from injury. "If we come out and play like that every game, we give ourselves a chance to win, even with the circumstances of our team, and what we've got going on."

The question, now, is how much further their signature toughness can carry them. They've fought hard for their playoff spot, but regardless of where they end up seeded, Memphis will confront the same reality that has haunted them for the past five seasons. They are a good team, but they are not quite good enough to beat the West's best. It's the most banal problem in sports, really, and it explains a great deal, across the NBA landscape. It's why Blake Griffin's return to the Clippers is being met with as much trepidation as genuine excitement. It's why questions are already swirling about the future of Kevin Durant. It's why LeBron James is sending cryptic subtweets even as his team battles for a number one seed. The monumental success of the Warriors and Spurs has cast a long shadow, and the Grizzlies are in it.

The Grizzles miss Mike Conley, but nobody misses that sports coat. Photo by Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

The Grizzlies cannot grind one out against time; that's not the way it works. Some day in the not too distant future, they'll be auctioning posters of Conley and Allen playing lockdown defense, selling throwback Z-Bo jerseys at a discount, offering up collectible prints of The Grindhouse in its most fervent state. There may not be a banner to raise to the rafters, but you can get your hands on this framed poster of Shane Battier and White Chocolate.

But if this Grizzlies epoch will, in all likelihood, end without a title, these teams still deserve to be remembered, even cherished. Yes, they kept pounding the post even as the league drifted beyond the arc, but that stylistic stubbornness is less admirable than the simple fact that they stayed in the fight for as long as they did against teams that were more elegant and more talented, even if knocking them out of the playoffs has mostly been beyond their reach.

Of course, the"Garage Sale" isn't the only date circled on the Grizzlies' calendar. Just days before, they'll play two of their final three games against Golden State, a team that, as you might have heard, is chasing down a rather significant NBA milestone. This Memphis team, with all of its adversity, and attrition, may well be the final obstacle in the way of the most brilliant season in NBA history. Expecting them to end the Warriors' march to 72 is probably unwise. But it would make for one hell of a collectible, and a fitting one, the next time the Grizz want to clean out their closet.