MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- This past Thursday morning, Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger was live on ESPN Radio’s Memphis affiliate while driving into work. In an effort not to lose the signal, Joerger pulled a U-turn on low-traffic Fourth Street along the eastern wall of the arena as he approached the subterranean garage to FedEx Forum.
Cue police siren.
Joerger politely told host Geoff Calkins and the listening audience he needed to end the interview so that his moving violation could be adjudicated. Concerned about any appearance of preferential treatment for a VIP, Joerger said he insisted to the arresting officer he receive a ticket. A non-issue, Joerger said, because the officer, who had just returned to the United States from abroad, had never heard of Joerger, and knew virtually nothing about the Grizzlies.
Judging from the vibe around town, the patrolman is the exception in greater Memphis. A city that has blanketed itself in "growl towels" the past four playoff runs is now a regular-season NBA hotbed. In a region where pro basketball franchises have to scrap for their share of the market, Memphis’ relationship with its team feels a lot like Portland Trail Blazers South. Grizzly Love is more than just fandom; it’s an expression of urban identity.
In the trendy Cooper Young district, it’s yoga pants and Grizzlies tees. The hub of East Memphis’ stellar culinary scene, Andrew Michael, opened its new bar area over the weekend, in part because its proprietors feel its customers shouldn’t have to choose between haute cuisine and watching the Griz. Local TV ratings are up 30 percent over last season and the average home attendance of 17,200 is the highest in Grizzlies history.
"It's the year. Everybody feels it. We feel it. We've been in the Western Conference finals. We've been that close." Zach Randolph
On Monday night at FedEx Forum, the Grizzlies closed out a 4-1 homestand with a 103-94 win over Orlando. The Grizzlies now stand at 32-12, second place in the Western Conference. Around the team, there’s a collective -- if cautious -- recognition that there’s a chance for the Griz to rise beyond the Grit 'n' Grind novelty act, that if they suspend personal agendas and shore up their weaknesses, something special awaits.
“It’s the year,” Zach Randolph said after Monday’s shootaround. “Everybody feels it. We feel it. We’ve been in the Western Conference finals. We’ve been that close.”
A few hours after Joerger was tagged as a public nuisance, Grizzlies center Marc Gasol was named an All-Star starter. For a franchise that’s rarely booked for national broadcast, Gasol’s selection is a huge affirmation -- and a signal that a star doesn’t necessarily need to look to the coasts during free agency to find broad appeal.
Point guard Mike Conley might not make the cut as a reserve, but he has established himself as everyone’s favorite unheralded playmaker. The Grizzlies compiled five of their 12 losses this season during an 18-day stretch when Randolph was sidelined with swelling in his right knee. He’s enjoying his best season in five years as the team’s bellwether. At 33, Tony Allen is the league’s top-ranked perimeter defender in real plus-minus.
This core, which has been together for five seasons, can rightly claim the mantle of “continuity,” which is holy water for teams with championships aspirations, as fashioned by the Spurs. Memphis’ core understands how to play together, and where each guy’s strengths and weaknesses lie. But after four seasons of hanging tough through mid-May, the Grizzlies are now set on figuring out what more they can be.
The arrival of Jeff Green from Boston has been a catalyst for this current self-examination. When a group has been together as long as the Grizzlies’ core has, staleness can seep into the practice gym. What more can we learn about each other? After nearly five seasons, is there really any magic to getting Z-Bo the ball on the right block or finding driving lanes for Conley from the left slot? At a certain point, preparation becomes rote and a team can resemble an old married couple.
“We’ve been through it so long that we know how each other is going to react and that we can trust each other,” Gasol said. “But the game is evolving and we as players and as a team have to evolve. You have to change things and adjust. We’re the same players and we run the same sets, but -- it’s like the Spurs -- they need tweaks and changes and counters from game to game and year to year in order to evolve.”
So Green’s introduction gives Memphis occasion to re-learn its schemes. Over the lengthy homestand, the Grizzlies held a mini-minicamp of sorts, with the intention of reviewing Grizzly best practices and getting Green up to speed. Because as rosy as things have been in Memphis, the defense has slipped out of the top 10, and the team can run into roadblocks offensively against strong hard shows that cut Conley off from his lanes and second-side options. The Grizzlies know they need to get more aggressive about attacking those coverages -- and avoiding them altogether with early post-ups and drag screens. That’s where the reorientation can help.
Still, Green gives the Grizzlies something they haven’t had since Rudy Gay left town -- a big wing who can create. In a perfect world, Green will get into the lane a dozen times a game and work his way to the line for more than half a dozen attempts. Though Green has always lagged as a rebounding forward, he’s a guy who, theoretically, could work the glass, then push the ball up in transition. Gasol noted on Monday that the Grizzlies have been polishing off some of the better sets they used to run for Gay.
The live integration of Green began last Wednesday against Toronto when he made his first start as a Grizzly, supplanting Courtney Lee. Lee was shooting 47 percent from beyond the arc and laying out defensively virtually every night, often against bigger competition on the wing. He ultimately played 29 minutes against the Raptors, more than either Green or Allen, but there’s personal satisfaction that comes with starting, and for Lee it was a tough beat. But that’s the rub for the Grizzlies -- Lee is essentially a shooting guard disguised as a small forward.
Truth is, no matter who gets the call on the wings for Memphis, there’s always a compromise. Allen is essential to what the Grizzlies want to accomplish defensively each night, but his presence in the half-court offense cramps their spacing. For every wily baseline cut behind the defense, there are possessions in which opponents have insta-help from Allen’s guy. And Green is hardly the second coming. He shoots 30 percent from 3-point range and inefficiently from midrange, rebounds like a shooting guard and his size might be his only real asset as a defender.
In sum, this is still a team with imperfections, whose style bucks league trends and whose roster features a lot of guys who excel at their positions but doesn’t have a ton of versatility (e.g. the Grizz can’t switch defensively). Apart from Conley, Memphis is an emotional group, with live wires (Allen) and slow boilers (Gasol), among others.
Yet in some sense, that’s the NBA. There are no perfect teams, because the salary cap prevents it. The ones who win are those that excel at grappling with those imperfections, that can reduce those weaknesses to small blemishes.
When you observe the Grizzlies, they seem like a team that has become expert at the management of those weaknesses. Since their competitive advantage offensively exists down low and their Achilles heel on the perimeter, they’ve mastered the swing-swing-post entry. Since their shortcoming defensively is a lack of size on the perimeter, Conley, Allen and Lee fly around with abandon. The staff handles individual sensitivities delicately and with trust.
Once they fully incorporate Green into their schemes and culture, they should be at peak self-awareness -- Grit, Grind, with a little more Glow. And there are few things more dangerous in spring than an NBA team that knows what it is.