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Can You Teach an Old Bear New Tricks?

The Memphis Grizzlies have been dealing with an identity crisis all season long. Turns out modernizing a smashmouth institution is harder than coach David Fizdale thought. Yet, despite the team’s frustrations, how much has really changed?

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Grit ’n’ Grind is a month past its sixth birthday. Given how common a phrase it is, you’d think it was a centuries-old motto established by Memphis’s founding fathers. But it was just something Tony Allen said in a postgame interview after the Grizzlies defensive ace expertly denied Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder in a 105–101 victory back in February 2011. In these six years, the Memphis team ideology has rarely shifted, but its reach has grown exponentially. Grit ’n’ Grind is a modifier; a noun; a mindset adopted by locals, taken out of FedExForum’s confines and into the Memphian vernacular.

Local architecture firm Archimania has hauled in statewide awards over the last year for how its designs have reflected the city’s ethos. It’s done so, most notably, through its incorporation of Corten, a steel alloy that, over time, oxidizes and develops a distinctive patina. It’s a steel that proudly shows you its wear, and, ironically, that layer of rust is also what protects it from further corrosion. Corten broadcasts the effects of time, while staying frozen in it. Archimania was bestowed its latest distinction last week, the Honor Award of Excellence from the American Institute of Architects, and in his writeup, Memphis reporter Thomas Bailey couldn’t help but drop a GnG reference. Who could blame him?

Grit ’n’ Grind has reached critical mass. Its tenets have allowed the team to insulate itself from the rest of the league, doubling down on the familial bonds created by its core four of Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph, Mike Conley, and Tony Allen. The ideal Grizzlies team is powered by trust; the ideal Grizzlies win is cathartic, and is sealed in the final five minutes of a hard-fought game. In victory, success is attributed to playing Grizzlies basketball; in defeat, not playing Grizzlies basketball is at fault. Team style evolves into team culture, which calcifies into team tautology.

It can be a hard chain to break.

“I’m trying to get our team to look at themselves through a bigger lens,” embattled Memphis Grizzlies head coach Dave Fizdale told ESPN’s Kevin Arnovitz in a recent conversation. The franchise has all but locked up its seventh straight playoff berth, the third-longest active streak in the NBA. But the team has spent the entire season in the throes of an identity crisis.

Fizdale was hired to bring the Grizzlies out of hibernation, because insulating oneself to league trends while also staving off the effects of age and wear is a losing battle that can’t just be grinded out. At various points, both players and fans have expressed polarized views on Fizdale’s stylistic changes. On one hand, the Grizzlies are officially at league-average shooting the 3 after wading around at the bottom for half a decade; on the other, their pick-and-roll coverage has slackened due to a shift toward a more switch-heavy scheme that might be asking a bit too much of their floorbound bigs. And yet, what’s really changed? They’re still a middling offense; they’re still a top-five defense; and they’re still one of the slowest teams in the league. From an outsider’s perspective, all the quibbling can seem like the narcissism of small differences.

The Grizzlies have gone streaking in both directions in March. They kicked the month off with a five-game losing streak, the nadir of which was a 122–109 loss at home on March 6 to the Brooklyn Nets, who had won just their third game of 2017. “We’re not stopping dribble penetration, we’re late rotating over to help, and we’re not trusting one another,” Gasol said amid their losing streak. “It takes five guys. That’s the type of defense we used to play here.”

Memphis then went on a four-game winning streak, culminating in a decisive 104–96 victory over the San Antonio Spurs (and, yes, Pop was playing a full deck). The deciding factor that night was the 13 3-pointers Memphis made, which would have tied for the most makes in any Grizzlies game played last season (they’ve hit that figure on 12 different occasions so far this year). The Grizzlies played unselfishly, swinging the ball to the open man, knowing that the 3 was their ally. After the game, Gasol extolled the virtues of sharing. “It gives the team confidence, it organizes the team, it gives you better defensive transition and it’s sharing the basketball,” Gasol said. “It’s giving trust, like, ‘I’m trusting you with that next shot.’ It promotes that unselfishness that is so important going into the next part of the season, especially the playoffs.”

Gasol’s words, spoken mere days apart, reflect diametrically opposed attitudes about the team — one wistful, the other forward-looking — tied together by an intangible concept of trust that he and his nuclear Grindfamily have fought like hell to make palpable. The Grizzlies’ impressive win streak ended the following game, against the Pelicans, when DeMarcus Cousins tore a dimensional rift into his spiritual predecessor Zach Randolph, lighting Z-Bo up on both ends of the floor, and dropping 41 points in a 95–82 Memphis loss. After the game, Gasol claimed the defense lost trust in the third quarter, when the team gave up 32 points and managed to score only 13.

The tension gripping the team probably isn’t going to go away at any point this season, not when every game becomes a referendum on Grit ’n’ Grind’s longevity.

Six hundred and seventy-five minutes. Thirty-four games.

That’s all the Grizzlies got out of Chandler Parsons in the first year of his four-year, $94 million contract. Such limited exposure for Chandler Parsons meant he became more of a plot device this season than an actual contributor, a physical manifestation of Memphis’s autoimmune response to Fizdale’s foreign, modern musings.

Parsons was supposed to be the bridge: a versatile, multidimensional forward who could theoretically defend multiple positions, shoot 3s, and initiate the offense as either a primary or secondary playmaker. But he was awful on the court in the precious little time he remained there — tentative, out of rhythm, and lacking anything resembling game shape. Ultimately, a torn meniscus diagnosed in mid-March put an end to his season’s misery. The Grizzlies’ bridge ended up being Vince Carter, the oldest player in the league, who also happens to have the best on-court net rating on the team. Even Carter has found himself turning into a symbol of the strange tug-of-war between old and new in Memphis: Nothing screams futurism like a geriatric NBA starter serving as the team’s foremost statistical darling, even if that geriatric is capable of this:

Fizdale has faced scrutiny over his questionable lineup decisions, none more inexplicable than one that occurred during their five-game skid. Instead of yanking Parsons, who had admitted that “I suck right now,” earlier in the week, for a night, Fizdale opted to swap out Tony Allen and JaMychal Green for little-used Andrew Harrison and Brandan Wright. It happened to be the catastrophic night at home against Brooklyn. In the moment, it felt like a strange response to desperation; in his conversation with Arnovitz, Fizdale defended his decision, claiming that, as a coach, it was in his best interests to accumulate as much data on how certain lineups interact as possible. Parsons’s season-ending injury led the coach to switch things back, but there was a sense that Fizdale couldn’t let go of the idea of what Parsons could’ve been to the team until reality forced his hand.

The fresh-faced player who would actually signal a positive development in the Memphis modernization ended up being Green, arguably the Grizzlies’ most important defender in the pick-and-roll, with an offensive skill set reminiscent of late-period Amar’e Stoudemire. He might be the team’s most functionally athletic player, and his ability to defend three positions has allowed for some leeway as the team’s more tenured players adapt to new defensive schemes. Because for as much as Fizdale has revitalized Gasol’s offense by giving him the green light to shoot open 3-pointers, his tactics on defense have created a noticeable change in Gasol’s tangible impact on that end of the floor — the Grizzlies have allowed fewer points per 100 possessions with their former Defensive Player of the Year off the court than on. But Gasol is still the orchestrator, and, on the whole, the Grizzlies are still one of the league’s best defending teams, in spite of changes in scheme and time. They’re still in the mold of their founding fathers, and it’s something Fizdale has had to accept. “We don’t play any faster,” Fizdale told the Commercial Appeal last week. “I can’t get them to run any faster. Their bodies don’t do it. That’s just not how our team is built. So, it’s not like I’m being stubborn about a style of play.”

Thursday’s matchup with the Spurs — their second meeting in less than a week — was a losing effort, but there were some promising signs of a happy medium being achieved in Memphis. The Grizzlies had guys running straight to the 3-point line and firing without hesitation; nine of the 10 players in the rotation attempted at least one. Late in the third quarter, after Memphis and San Antonio traded momentum-swinging 3-pointers, Spurs announcer Sean Elliott blurted out, “3-point shootout, who would’ve thought?”

Despite the cosmetic adjustments, Memphis appears to operate in the same role in the West it has for years now. The Grizzlies have beaten the Warriors, Spurs, and Rockets twice this season, and the Jazz thrice — those are not only the four best teams out West, but the four best teams in the NBA according to net rating. They are still going to be a tricky out in the playoffs, barring a momentous collapse; they will likely notch that iconic postseason win that will have us all in sentimental embrace, shouting from the rooftops that Grit ’n’ Grind is forever.

There was one play in particular from Thursday’s Spurs game that, in the span of four seconds, captured the bonds that tie Conley, Gasol, Allen, and Randolph together, win or lose:

It was a beautiful display of the kind of telepathy that only comes after nearly a decade of being around one another. But if it isn’t an intrusion of style that separates them, age will. Change is coming, and regardless of what happens in the postseason, we likely won’t know the true trajectory of this team until next season.

In the meantime, Fizdale will stay the course, because it’s in his makeup. His rise to prominence started on Erik Spoelstra’s bench, where he helped conceive a Miami Heat system that maximized their Big Three of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh, turning them into a juggernaut that presaged the league’s current pace-and-space boom. Stay the course was Spoelstra’s personal mantra, a reminder that the turbulence that invariably follows bringing new concepts to a team will eventually settle, as long as the team sticks to its principles. Spo’s biggest challenge was coalescing three megastars. For Fizdale, what was hard for Spo is already over with; these players already love one another. Fizdale has a different task: He is taking apart an operational machine, and performing experimental rewiring. It’s been hard to tell which minor tweak ends up combusting. That’s when panic sets in, when just getting the thing to work the way it did becomes the main priority. “That’s what happens: When you hit adversity, players immediately — in a changed situation — want to go back to what was comfortable,” Fizdale told Arnovitz.

The design that won Archimania the Honor Award of Excellence was its reconceptualization of the Woodard Residence, a plot of unused land in the city’s rustic industrial arts district, sitting next to a railroad overpass. Its angular design reflects a cutting edge that runs in stark contrast to its surroundings. The interior is modern; the exterior is adorned with Corten, giving it a rusty, weathered look. It’s just a little glimpse of how Memphis has internalized Grit ’n’ Grind and reworked its parameters. Now it’s the franchise’s turn to commit.