A team with grit showed its best when it ultimately had the least.
It was a tough season. For everyone. Fans, players, coaches. We all knew it would be a tough one, even before it started, but no one could have foreseen the inundation of maladies that befell the Memphis Grizzlies this season.
It was a tough season for a team known for its toughness. Grit ‘n’ Grind, the embodiment of a hardworking team and a hardworking town, seemed to have died, or at least went missing. Players underperformed to the disappointment of fans, players were traded to the disappointment of teammates, and players suffered injury after injury to the disappointment of all.
The initial issue with this team revolved around a question of enormous gravity: Is this even worth it? Well, before the Golden State Warriors emerged as a candidate as the best team of all-time, running all over their opponents, there was little doubt that Memphis would ever win a championship with the Warriors at their peak. Too old, too slow, too out-of-date to defeat the beasts at the top, critics of the team called for a blow-up that would result in a stronger team in a post-Warriors era. But the team as it was then constructed, though not elite, was not too weak to miss the playoffs.
That begged the question, is it worth it to make the playoffs year after year, knowing you’ll never win a title, to be a basketball Sisyphus—pushing, struggling, legs and back aching from exertion, making enough progress to see the top, only to have the boulder inevitably roll down the mountain to start all over again?
With that question swirling around the city, the team opened the season with uninspired play, losing games by 30, 40, and 50 points to three of the league’s best teams. At full capacity, Memphis couldn’t compete, so when franchise player Marc Gasol suffered a broken foot before the All-Star break, it was as if the floodgates had been opened, unleashing injury after injury upon the team.
After Gasol’s season-ending injury, backup center Brandan Wright sprained his MCL, then point guard Mike Conley was sidelined with a sore Achilles. Backup point guard Mario Chalmers tore his Achilles as well, and subsequently Matt Barnes, Zach Randolph, Chris Andersen, P.J. Hairston, and Vince Carter all suffered injuries that held them out of commission for some time.
At one point, there were seven players on the whole squad, and an NBA record 28 players saw the floor for the Grizzlies at some point this season. By season’s end, a completely different team was out there playing than had begun.
That’s why at the final post game presser last week head coach Dave Joerger broke down and cried. ”This has been really hard,” he said. “They could have quit. Could have quit—not made the playoffs… and every day they came out and fought like crazy.”
An emotional Dave Joerger on the veteran leadership of Matt Barnes & Vince Carter…https://t.co/JZpSbCWNly— NBA TV (@NBATV) April 24, 2016
It was the only emotional release appropriate. It was a coach sticking up for his players. Not just the core guys, though. All 28.
“I can’t tell you enough how proud I am of every guy that is in that locker room and has come through that locker room,” Joerger said. For a moment, Joerger transcended his role as head coach of a basketball team. He became a conduit for what every fan in Memphis felt.
So what they just got swept by the San Antonio Spurs, losing three of the games by 25 or more points? So what they limped, literally, into the playoffs losing 10 of their final 11 regular season games? They could have lied down and taken blow after blow, knowing full well every game the odds were stacked against them.
But they didn’t. They showed a complete 180 from the beginning of the season when they played without fire though they had a full team. With nothing left but the kitchen sink, they showed the most heart.
“We’re coming to a gunfight with spoons,” Barnes said of their first round matchup with San Antonio. Days later he added, “We’re going to throw everything at them, man. Forks, spoons, knives, the sharpening knife. Whatever we’ve got. Can openers. Wine bottle openers. Whatever we’ve got.”
This was a team its fans could root for, though they knew full well its inevitable demise. Fans showing support in the face of sure failure mirrored the team’s 180 degree turnaround. From questioning whether or not making the playoffs would be worth it to throwing full support behind a team stitched together and hanging on by a thread, the enormous question surrounding the Grit ‘n’ Grind era seems to have been answered.
Every player who walked through that locker room, whether in a boot, cast, or crutches, showed they care. That’s all fans wanted to see. That’s all anyone wants to see.
Here’s Scott Van Pelt on SportsCenter using his “One Big Thing” segment to talk about the Grizzlies: https://t.co/PgHVtPENHu— Jon Roser (@Jon_Roser) April 26, 2016
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