It really wasn’t supposed to end this way. This early.
I know how strange that sounds. I mean, we’re talking about the Memphis Grizzlies, the team that waywardly wandered away from Vancouver and seemed as out of place in the NBA as a Grizzly bear in the city of Memphis , but this season was supposed to be different.
Yet here we are – mere weeks removed from the “Western Dark Horse” and “Think About How Dangerous They’ll be With Rudy Gay” talk – and the Grizz are cleaning out their lockers prematurely, again, with plenty of question marks and a 27-point cumulus cloud hanging over their offseason.
Where did it all go wrong? Unfortunately for Memphis’ intensely passionate fans, there’s no obvious scapegoat; no clear target for index fingers, other than the one no team can avoid: fate.
It was obvious that the Grizz were going to have to make some adjustments in welcoming back a dynamic talent like Rudy Gay back to a system that propelled them past the Spurs and to within a game of the Western Conference Finals last spring. But the full-on identity crisis Memphis was set up for when Darrell Arthur, and then worse yet Zach Randolph, went down for large stretches, would ultimately condemn their season.
Like any self-respecting, competitive team, they didn’t roll over; they adjusted, adapted, but hardly evolved. Despite Marreese Speights’ solid efforts to fill the rebounding and scoring voids left in the frontcourt, the team was thinner, weaker; forced to stray from the post-oriented offense and punishing transition game that defined their success.
They were winning games; staying above water for Randolph’s return, but they were also getting comfortable outside their own skin. Grizzlies in sheep’s clothing. Rudy Gay and OJ Mayo were scoring most of their points; Marc Gasol was shouldering more of a load on the glass, facing more attention on defense than he ever had, and fighting off even more bodies for rebounds (and still made the All-Star team); Mike Conley got more comfortable looking for his shot than looking for a man on the block; and the vaunted energy of their bench looked suddenly languid.
In what was already a season of many adjustments for every NBA player and team, the Grizzlies had to re-create themselves yet again when Randolph returned – this time to share the scoring load with Gay – just in time for the playoffs.
That the postseason began with a completely anomalous, unlikely, historic, and utterly soul-crushing collapse (one that was cued by Chris Paul forcing Vinny Del Negro to put him back in the game during the 4th quarter, to be fuelled by series of three-point bombs from Nick Young and gritty hustle from Reggie Evans, two noted playoff assassins) didn’t help matters.
Starting a series with such an epic swing of momentum surely took the wind out of their lungs, but the Grizzlies weren’t ever truly out of it, only they waited until their backs were against the wall, down 3-1, to move their attack closer to the hoop and truly abuse their edge. They managed to force Game 7, but couldn’t close the deal; it wasn’t too little, just too late.
The obvious dilemma going forward will be Rudy Gay’s role and presence on this team. As recently as 18 months ago, he was given a generous contract and pegged as their franchise guy; there’s no denying Gay’s talent. You also can’t deny this truth; the Grizzlies – with largely the same lineup – went a fair bit deeper in the playoffs, against tougher competition, without him last year. And in the games that saved Memphis’ season, Gasol and Randolph carried the bulk of the load.
Logic would certainly point to moving Gay; he’s versatile, he’s athletic, he performed well last season and probably hasn’t hit his cieling yet; but he’s like Memphis used to seem in the NBA: just out of place. His trade value might never be higher again, there’s a ton of money tied up in him, and when you consider what he could bring back: a more functional upgrade at the point, bench scoring that isn’t OJ Mayo (who the Grizz seemingly can’t wait to get rid of), a legit post presence to shore Randolph and Gasol (hell, bring Mayo/Conley into the fold and Chris Wallace could probably get all of the above) it’s hard to ignore.
It would be a dramatic move, but “dramatic” could also describe the 27-point meltdown that arguably could’ve cost Memphis a trip to the Second Round. To quote a sage old man (Jaffar from Aladdin, don’t sleep): “Desperate time calls for desperate measures”. The Thunder aren’t getting much older anytime soon.
So the offseason looms, with much at stake. The return of Darrell Arthur will only help bolster Memphis’ questionable bench and restore the swagger that once took the NBA by storm, but if the Grizzlies want to stop swimming upstream, he shouldn’t be the only thing to change about this roster. Maybe trading Rudy Gay isn’t the way the franchise wants to go; I called Wallace crazy when he gave Pau Gasol away, but that seemed to work out, so who knows what he has up his sleeve.
One thing’s for sure: After a season of adjustments that moved them backwards, it’s time to adjust again, and hopefully continue to move forward.