Friday, September 8, 2017

2017-18: Into the Unknown

Posted By on Fri, Sep 8, 2017 at 9:43 AM

click to enlarge LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski

Everything dies, baby, that's a fact
But maybe everything that dies someday comes back

Bruce Springsteen, "Atlantic City"

It's time to start talking about the 2017-18 Memphis Grizzlies.

If 2017 has taught us anything, it's that empires don't last forever, not even the ones in which we've lived our whole lives. It shouldn't have been a surprise, but eventually the only way to carry the cognitive load of what feels like a total collapse is to tell yourself it'll all end well, that there's no new calamity bearing down on the old order of things. When you've talked yourself into it, you can be surprised by anything. "I had no idea racism was still a problem in America." "I had no idea so much of our infrastructure was so vulnerable to a major hurricane." "I had no idea our entire system of government actually relied on norms that don't have to be upheld." The list goes on.

At times it felt like the old order of things would last forever, to the point that it was impossible to imagine a new state of affairs. And yet, here we are, days after Labor Day, and Zach Randolph and Tony Allen aren't on the roster. The Core Four vanished in about a week (though technically Allen is still a free agent, but his return is extremely unlikely), taking six years of marketing campaigns with it. Vince Carter left for higher-paying pastures, too. The Grizzlies have made the playoffs the last seven years, and it seemed like they'd keep going another seven with the same players playing the same way, with the same strengths and flaws, the same marketing pitch about how hard they play, the same relationship with a certain image of the city of Memphis, the same promotional giveaways and in-game entertainment, the same scoreboard, the same everything.

And yet. What do we know about the 2017-18 Grizzlies right now?

We know about Mike Conley; the Grizzlies are his team now. We know about Marc Gasol, because for all of his uneven output on the court and his underreported difficulty from a coaching perspective, he'll be the same he's always been: flashes of brilliance, flashes of petulance, playing basketball with the temperament of an artist, which demands that the conditions be just so before he can execute to the best of his fearsome abilities. Also he'll probably shoot even more threes.

We know a little bit more about David Fizdale, too. This summer he's been outspoken about the fight to remove Memphis' Confederate monuments, which is only a public-facing glimpse of his outspoken nature in general (as if "Take That For Data" weren't evidence enough). But as a first year coach last year, maybe Fizdale was a bit too blunt, telling Zach Randolph "you're not a starter in this league anymore," or insisting (on Media Day) that Marc Gasol needed to step up and become the leader of the team. Randolph was a professional and went to the bench, but he wasn't happy about it. Gasol chafed against the "alpha" tag and by the end of the year Mike Conley had taken it with gusto. With the young guys, Fizdale will have to prove his reputation as a "player development" coach is deserved, and still finesse Conley, Gasol, and Chandler Parsons (assuming his legs still function, because I'm not ready to go down that dark alley yet) into functioning as a high-level offensive unit at the same time, rebuilding in place while managing three egos who have yet to play together in any meaningful sense. It won't be an easy task, but Fizdale seems up to the challenge, even if he's maybe a little too willing to rub his players the wrong way in pursuit of excellence.

That's it for the knowns. Will Chandler Parsons really be healthy on opening night? Will he ever be healthy again? We don't know. If not, it surely lowers the ceiling of what this group (such as it is) can accomplish. Will the free agents signed this summer be able to contribute enough to fill the gaps left by some of the departed? We don't know. Ben McLemore won't for months, if ever. Evans might if he stays on the court—something he hasn't been able to do in a while. Will the rookies and young guys step up? We don't know. Maybe they will. Wayne Selden looks up to the task, but the rest of them are question marks at best, and not the Mysterian kind. Deyonta Davis didn't look as good as he should have over the summer, and Wade Baldwin and Jarell Martin still look totally out of place on an NBA court—even a Summer League one. At least Tayshaun's back. The Grizzlies could make the playoffs for the eighth straight year, or they could finish well outside of them, and while they have depth, none of it is proven (the roster isn't even close to set, though, which is either fine or not fine, depending on your estimation of the deal-making ability of this front office), and it seems to me that 39 wins is more likely than 49.

click to enlarge LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski

Everything dies. We knew the Grit & Grind era would end, of course. Every passing playoff series gave us a million eulogies, fillers in the content void, a race to have the last say on something bygone that I'm not sure we really yet know how to miss. You can only run it back so many times before it stops working, whether through age, the evolution of the game out from under the "GNG" teams' very firmly planted pivot feet, free agency attrition, or all of the above. But maybe everything that dies someday comes back, right? Will the Grizzlies make the playoffs this year, and keep the streak alive? They might, but right now (assuming JaMychal Green is returning, as the reports would seem to indicate), it's far from a sure thing. And what happens if they don't? What happens if they're 10 games under .500 in January and the Trade Rumor Mill starts up fast and furious? What happens if the buy-sell clause gets triggered and we get another round of the "Robert Pera's a crazy person" news cycles from 2014, while the team is bad—or worse?

The catastrophe is not coming, it is here—or at least it might be. If it is, it would fit the trend. 2017 is shaping up to be a year of storms and fires, both literal and not. It's hard to see how the Grizzlies escape the same fate as the rest of us in 2017, watching things we didn't think would happen to us manifest. But, at the same time, in the NBA the storm comes every year; it's just a matter of magnitude. They've over-performed against bad odds before, but what if they end up closer to their floor than their ceiling? Are they doomed to aim for the playoffs and land in the lottery (in which case, at least they'd have their pick) or are they going to defy their projections again?

No matter what happens between now and the start of the season, we know that the Grit & Grind Era is over, and that now we're on our own out here, and things don't look good or bad—right now, they're mostly illegible. Maybe everything that dies someday comes back. We'll find out together.



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