The temporal terrain that bridges eras is rarely as smooth as any franchise would like. The post-Jordan Bulls were a wreck for a solid decade before drafting Derrick Rose. The Lakers wasted three years of Kobe’s prime—you could argue that Kobe wasted it himself—in the interregnum between trading away Shaq and trading for Pau Gasol. The Suns are still wandering the wilderness without Steve Nash. The Celtics have cycled through a bunch of iterations, with varying success, since Ray Allen dipped to South Beach in 2012 and Danny Ainge shipped Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to Brooklyn the following summer. The hardest part of these transitional phases is obviously trying to make up for lost talent, but it’s also difficult to assume a new identity after years of knowing precisely who you are: to play faster or slower, to find new spots on the floor to score from, to address fresh defensive concerns.
In certain respects, the Memphis Grizzlies might be better off without Zach Randolph and Tony Allen, who joined the Kings and Pelicans, respectively, this past summer. Z-Bo’s minutes, scoring numbers, and shooting percentages have all declined in each of the past three seasons, and though he’s tried to add a three-point shot to his game, the 36-year-old hasn’t had much success expanding his range this late in his career. Allen isn’t anything like a modern shooting guard, which wasn’t a massive problem a few years ago, when he was still playing some of the league’s most irascibly effective defense, but he’s now an injury-prone—if lovably lunatic—offensive liability who can no longer hound James Harden or Kawhi Leonard like he used to.
It makes sense that the Memphis would want to move on from these two and replace them with younger players like JaMychal Green and James Ennis, but in doing so, the Grizz are putting an end to one period of the history and launching another. Mike Conley and Marc Gasol are still around, and they’ve been more important players for the Grizz in recent years than Z-Bo and Allen, but the two departed old heads embodied the Grit & Grind aesthetic that made Memphis one of the more distinctive and memorable non-title contenders the league has ever seen. Randolph became a Grizz in 2009 and Allen joined a year later, and since then, they have made playing against (and especially in) Memphis supremely unpleasant for opponents: Z-Bo throwing his weight around in the post, planting his butt into other forwards’ laps and warding off guards with his elbows, and Allen clutching cutters and stripping ballhandlers. Many of the Grizz’s most Grizz-like moments have involved either the chubby forward or the maniacal wing: Tony Allen undressing Klay Thompson, then barking first team all-defense! from his belly; Z-Bo telling Chris Vernon I don’t bluff after a late-game dust-up with Kendrick Perkins; the time Allen stared down Michael Jordan toward the end of a meaningless regular season game in Charlotte.
And there is this quote from Randolph, who was a troubled NBA vagabond before he found a home in Memphis: This town has a relationship with me. It’s not the white side, the black side, it’s the whole town. They understand the grind. They’ve been through it. This is a blue-collar town. People work hard… You treat everybody the same because everybody’s got skeletons. Some people just hide them more. Some don’t get brought to light, but ain’t nobody perfect. Nobody.
That is one of the most deeply felt things an athlete has ever said about the city he plays in. It’s Z-Bo speaking to who he was, who he is, and the man Memphis understands him to be. There’s no replacing that sort of mutual affection.
So what do the Grizz become now? If history is any indication, they’ll do a pale imitation of their old selves for a while before finally drastically switching things up, but they do at least have a good coach in David Fizdale, who was already in the process of reforming them last season. The Grizz shot eight more threes per game in 2016-17 than they did in 2015-16, and Mike Conley established himself as more of a scorer than he has been in the past without sacrificing his assist numbers or letting his defense slip. The Conley/Gasol pick-and-roll has always been a productive set for Memphis, but Fizdale has leaned on it harder than his predecessor Dave Joerger and favored lineups that can space the floor and give Conley and the big Spaniard more room to maneuver.
In other words, the Grizz are becoming both more offensively efficient and more like the rest of the league, and they’ll probably continue in that direction now that they’re without Z-Bo and the Grindfather. That’s not a bad thing, strictly speaking—Gasol and Conley are excellent players who should be put in the best position to succeed, and a little extra floor-spacing never hurt anybody—but if last year was the beginning of the end of the Grit & Grind Grizz we’ve grown so familiar with, then this season marks the beginning of something else that won’t communicate an ethos as clearly what came before it did. This is a minor tragedy and also just the churn of time. And it is the relative briefness of phenomenons like the junkyard Grizz that makes them so compelling in the first place. We know they won’t last forever, so we make an extra effort to appreciate them while they last, and canonize them when they expire.
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