Monday, February 19, 2018

The 1980s "Grizzlies"

Posted By on Mon, Feb 19, 2018 at 9:15 AM

As tough as the 2017-18 season has been for the Memphis Grizzlies — far more of a transitional campaign than most expected — I feel like I’ve seen this movie before. And I’ll be holding off on the popcorn until it becomes clear the ending isn’t as gut-wrenching as the original.

A brief back story: As a 14-year-old Vermonter in 1983, I adopted the Dallas Mavericks. When they drafted my college hero, Tennessee’s Dale Ellis, I felt like I had an NBA team I could call my own. My family had moved to Southern California in 1979 (the year Magic Johnson arrived), but the mighty L.A. Lakers didn’t find my heart. Neither did Larry Bird’s Boston Celtics upon our arrival in New England. (A bandwagon basketball fan I will never be called.) But the Mavericks had a fun, young team, led by a pair of sharpshooters, small forward Mark Aguirre and shooting guard Rolando Blackman.

Dallas made the playoffs for the first time in 1984, only the franchise’s fourth season in the league. When they drafted Derek Harper (with Ellis in 1983) and Sam Perkins (in 1984), they had a close equivalent to the Grizzlies’ recent “core four” (Mike Conley, Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph, and Tony Allen). The Mavericks made the playoffs five straight seasons (and six of seven), culminating with a trip to the Western Conference finals in 1988 where they took Magic and the defending-champion Lakers to a seventh game before bowing. The addition of skilled big man Roy Tarpley (in 1986) seemed to be the final piece in a championship-building puzzle for the young franchise.
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Then the 1990s happened. Tarpley succumbed to chemical addictions, eventually earning a ban from NBA commissioner David Stern. Aguirre was traded to Detroit in 1989, just in time to earn a pair of rings with the Pistons. Perkins left (for the Lakers!) as a free agent after the 1989-90 season. Meanwhile, Blackman and Harper — at one point among the NBA’s best backcourts — grew old together in Maverick uniforms. The Mavs went 22-60 in their final season together (1991-92), then, with Blackman shipped to New York, fell off the NBA map, winning 11 and 13 games the following two seasons. That’s 24-140 over two winters. The Dirk Nowitzki era was a long time coming.

Cut to 2018 and the Grizzlies are heading toward a final record that will be uncomfortably close to 22-60. After having reached the playoffs seven straight years, including a trip to the Western Conference finals (in 2013). Two of their core four are no longer here, Randolph now a Sacramento King, Allen traded from his new club (New Orleans) to Chicago earlier this month, only to be released by the Bulls. Gasol and Conley remain (as did Blackman and Harper), still the most valuable members of the Memphis roster, still hoping to serve as the franchise engine for another deep playoff run.

The trade-then-don’t drama that unfolded around Tyreke Evans earlier this month was a bad look for a front office now tasked with instilling confidence in a nervous fan base. Are the Grizzlies better with Evans on the roster this season? Without a doubt. Will the Grizzlies be better with Evans on the roster in 2018-19 or 2019-20? I don’t know the answer to that question. And what has me worried: I don’t think general manager Chris Wallace and the Grizzlies brass know the answer either.

After the Mavericks’ roaring Eighties, the Nineties were absolutely atrocious. The team’s win totals from 1992-93 through the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season: 11, 13, 36, 26, 24, 20, 19. The team returned to the playoffs in 2001 (Nowitzki’s third season), and won at least 50 games 11 years in a row, upsetting Miami for the 2011 championship. The historical lesson: successful eras — lengthy ones — can sandwich dry spells.

Here’s hoping the Memphis Grizzlies keep their current dry spell limited to a winter or two of discontent. But fair warning. Franchise turns are hard to accomplish in the NBA. Front-office clarity on what’s to happen after the turn is a must.

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