Gauging the legitimacy of any NBA team, in a year that will end with the Warriors winning their third straight title, is a broadly pointless exercise. The Celtics are finding their form after a rough start, the Jimmy Butler-reinforced Sixers look pretty great, and the Lakers are better than expected, earlier than expected, but none of it particularly matters re: who’s taking that golden geometric nightmare home at Finals’ end. What this season has provided in sheer watchability—there are at least a couple enticing matchups almost every night; even the Orlando flippin’ Magic are moderately interesting—it lacks in epistemic value. The big question of Who’s In The Hunt came, as it has every year since Kevin Durant joined the Warriors three summers ago, pre-answered and so we’re left to fix our focus on smaller ones, or maybe just give up on answer-seeking altogether for a while, let sports-watching more closely resemble the rest of our living: something that happens continually, moves us in some way or not at all, then passes into memory. Not everything needs to be assigned a value in order to matter.
This is to say I don’t know if the Memphis Grizzlies are genuinely good, but they’re better than they should be, and their games feature a newly enlivened Marc Gasol, a positive for anybody who likes to see gigantic humans smile. Gasol was uncharacteristically irritable last year, raging early in the calendar about the team failing to perform up to its potential, playing some not-insignificant part in getting David Fizdale fired, then slipping into a depression when Mike Conley shut it down for the year and the team started hitting the tank sauce hard. His professional pride got dented. Except for his rookie season, all the Memphis squads he’d ever played on were, at worst, respectable. The 2017-18 edition was outright bad, and they weren’t even trying to win. He moped, despaired, and assembled arguably the worst season of his career.
This year, Big Spain looks like himself again. Conley isn’t cooking every night, and we’ll know in a few months whether he’s knocking off rust or if his Achilles injury has forced upon him some fresh limitations, but he plays point guard with an increasingly anachronistic selflessness and he knows Gasol’s spots better than anybody, so playing alongside him is a comfort. Jaren Jackson is eventually going to succeed Gasol at the five, but until then, the two of them fit surprisingly well together. They both have three-point range—Gasol is shooting a tick over 40 percent from deep; Jackson is just competent enough that opponents can’t lay all the way off him—which allows them to elide the floor-clogging problems traditionally associated with playing two huge dudes at once, and on defense, Jackson is able to guard everyone from bulky bruisers to overgrown wings, so Gasol is free to take the lumbering-est assignment available and stay near the paint.
Watching the Grizz—like an off-brand version of the Spurs before Popovich cranked open the fire hydrant and let ‘em run—scrap and stall and obstinately execute their way to a solid record makes you wish Gasol and Conley were younger, because Jackson is clearly going to be a quite-to-extremely good player in a couple years, and they won’t be at their best as he’s beginning to come into fuller command of his talents, but what exists right now is special, in its understated way. In the modern contend-or-die NBA, where drastic rebuilding projects abound, it’s unusual to see future stars and old, perceptibly fading ones playing together on the same team, especially one with no title hopes. Jackson just turned 19; Gasol will soon be 34. That’s a vast experiential gulf, but they’re all the way in on bridging it.
Because the Grizz are playing with purpose. It’s hard to say why, because the reason isn’t specific. The author Will Self, a wild and not-at-all-faintly ridiculous guy who once got kicked off the British Prime Minister’s plane for snorting heroin in the bathroom, got himself sober in the late 90s with the help of taking really, really long walks. Like: 20, 50, 100-mile strolls, from JFK to midtown Manhattan, from the center of London out into the sticks. He did this, and still does, for the sake of making available some activity that isn’t zooting himself into oblivion, but also just to do it: to see things he’s never seen before, to observe the way people act, the changing landscape as he slowly progresses in whatever direction he’s picked out for himself. In other words, for the ordinary yet mind-expanding experience. You’ve got to do something with the day, and traveling on foot counts. It’s satisfying in a way that’s both tangible and inarticulable.
Here is maybe the simplest way of putting it: the Grizz want to feel, on a nightly basis, like they’ve done their job. That’s what Marc Gasol was missing last season, why he cut such a bereft figure. As fans, because we’re often focused on the long game and because we watch sports rather than live them, we probably underrate how miserable it is to play for one of the worst teams in the league. Everybody’s either checked out or grumpy. A lot of contests are over before halftime but nonetheless must be embarrassingly completed. It’s much more fun to win a little bit, to see how far you can go even if you know it’s not the top. You’ll inevitably get tired; your legs will give out. But you’ve got to do something with the day. This season, playing for the Grizzlies qualifies as such.