Friday, June 21, 2019

Conley Chapter Closes; Opens The Door For A New One

Posted By on Fri, Jun 21, 2019 at 10:22 AM

  • Larry Kuzniewski

On Wednesday morning the Memphis Grizzlies' all-time leading scorer, Mike Conley Jr., was traded to the Utah Jazz for Jae Crowder, Kyle Korver, Grayson Allen, the 23rd pick in Thursday night's draft, and a future conditional first-round pick. This came as no surprise. The Grizzlies had been trying to move their franchise cornerstone since before last season’s trade deadline. The Jazz were reportedly one of the teams with heavy interest in Conley but offered a rumored trade package — at the trade deadline — that was different than the one the two teams agreed upon this week. The trade was a culmination of both teams' interests, as well as what seemed to be a national campaign to get Conley to Salt Lake City. Utah beat writer (for the Athletic) Tony Jones may have written and tweeted more about Conley since February than anyone in Memphis.

The two teams seem to have gotten what they desired from the deal as the Grizzlies now have a young shooter, playmaker and scorer in the controversial and volatile Grayson Allen (he of recent Duke fame), a proven hard-nosed 3-and-D player in Jae Crowder, and one of history's best long-range spot-up shooters in Kyle Korver. Korver and Crowder come with the added bonus of being expiring contracts that can easily be moved again to acquire future assets. Korver also has a partially guaranteed contract that can allow him to easily be waived, but there could be benefits in keeping him around even at the age of 38. Korver played for new Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins, and his shooting ability could be a welcome fit to his offensive system.

The Grizzlies can now draft another potential young talent to add to their future core, or use that pick to move forward or backwards in the draft. The future pick could turn into a jewel in 2022, which is also the first year that it would likely convey, if the Jazz begin to decline around that time. Another not-so-obvious plus for the Grizzlies is that they created an NBA-record $25 million trade exception that allows them to basically trade someone’s contract into this quasi-cap space.

The most significant result of the trade is that it signals the official end of an era. Memphis fans watched Mike Conley grow from a 20-year-old kid to a man in front of their eyes as he came to the franchise after eliminating the Memphis Tigers — as an Ohio State freshman — in the 2007 Elite Eight. He was met with a ton of unfair criticism being that he was the consolation prize to a draft that the Grizzlies hoped to land either Greg Oden or Kevin Durant. Many even hoped that Conley would go to Atlanta at number three, allowing Al Horford to fall to Memphis to pair with Pau Gasol. But the Hawks took Horford instead. Conley’s slow start led to several seasons of criticism before he would make a dramatic increase in production that led to many eating crow and having to take an about face with those early opinions. Conley would prove to be a pivotal part of the franchise's turnaround and a member of the Core Four that spearheaded the Grizzlies' most successful era. That era has now officially come to a close.

With the second pick in Thursday's draft, the Grizzlies chose Murray State superstar and self-proclaimed “Point God,” Ja Morant. The pairing of Morant and second-year player Jaren Jackson Jr. seems like an enticing one-two punch. The sky is the limit for these two and hopefully they will not only serve as a bridge to the next era but as a potential rocket ship into a stratosphere that this organization has never seen. Morant and Jackson represent two hybrid mixes of talent the league is not accustomed to. Morant is a uber-athletic point guard with elite ball-handling skills and court vision. Combine that with Jackson Jr. who has shown the ability to be an elite level defender as well as score inside and from deep range. Those two surrounded by shooters and role players could lead to a Grizzlies rebuild that bears fruit faster than expected. Something we might call a new era.

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Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Taylor Jenkins: What We Know (And Don’t Know)

Posted By on Wed, Jun 12, 2019 at 1:42 PM

As soon as information was released Tuesday morning by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski that the Memphis Grizzlies had selected Taylor Jenkins as their newest head coach, many people messaged me, looking for my opinion on the hire. I probably disappointed many of them, because I really didn’t have much to say. Also, to those who are reading this: If you are looking for an in-depth breakdown on the new Grizzlies head coach, then this might not be first place that you need to visit. I mean, I’m honored that you decided to come here, but like many, I really don’t know much about Jenkins outside of things that are easily accessible with a Google search. I also won’t pretend that I knew who he was before he arrived on the Grizzlies radar a few weeks ago as a potential candidate. So hey! Let’s take this time to learn more about Coach Jenkins, together. 
Taylor Jenkins - NBA.COM
  • Taylor Jenkins

Jenkins, who was previously the assistant coach of Eastern Conference finalists Milwaukee Bucks, comes into his new position as the second-youngest NBA head coach, at 34 years old — behind only Ryan Saunders, of the Minnesota Timberwolves. He represents a growing trend of current and recent NBA head coaches who have had previous experience in the NBA Developmental League — joining Nick Nurse, Quin Snyder, and Dave Joerger, among others. Jenkins won a G League Championship with the Austin Toros during the 2011-12 season. He also has front office experience with the San Antonio Spurs as an intern in the scouting department, as well as with draft preparation. He indirectly falls from the Gregg Popovich coaching tree by way of the offshoot Mike Budenholzer coaching branch that includes the Brooklyn Nets' impressive head coach Kenny Atkinson, and the Utah Jazz' resurgent head coach Quin Snyder.

Jenkins also has been credited as being the mind behind the Milwaukee Bucks offense, which is highly attack-minded, with an emphasis on finding open three-point shooters. The Bucks finished with the overall best record in the NBA and had the fourth-highest offensive rating in the league. They also had the highest net rating. They were fifth in pace and second in true shooting percentage. The Bucks were second in the league at 12.8 three-pointers made and attempted per game, fourth in free throws made, and third in free-throw attempts. He is seen as a player’s coach, and known for developing young players. He comes to the Grizzlies as a highly recommended and up-and-coming assistant coach by former players, fellow coaches, and media members, alike. The hope is that he can lead the Grizzlies' young core that will include Jaren Jackson Jr. and possibly Ja Morant into a new era and style.

If you were looking for the Grizzlies to hire a former head coach who comes in with an impressive coaching career, then those frustrations should have subsided much earlier in the coaching process. The Grizzlies showed their hand pretty much throughout the entire hiring process and it was clear that they were targeting someone young, innovative, and who could fit in with the culture and DNA of the ownership and management of the organization. The Grizzlies have also made it clear that they value someone who is moldable and pliable over someone who is older and tenured. The slate is clean within the organization and the hope is that since they are hiring someone in the image of the management, they will work as a more cohesive unit than what team management has displayed over the past few years. The Grizzlies have had several awkward and even embarrassing relations between ownership, management, and the coaching staff. Hopefully, Jenkins is a step in a much more positive direction.

Will Jenkins be the answer as the Grizzlies head coach? Your guess is as good as mine. He could be the next great head coach or he could be gone in a year and a half, like so many before him. He could be what the team needs to carry its young core into their ultimate destiny, or he might be the coach who hands them over to someone else when they reach their prime. First-time head coaches who were former assistant coaches in Memphis range from successful leaders of men like Lionel Hollins to the hot assistants who flamed out early, like Marc Iavaroni. There is no formula to predict what the Grizzlies have in store with Jenkins.

That said, optimism is usually a good route to take when it comes to coaching hires, and I’m willing to do so until proven otherwise.

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Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Grizzlies Land Number 2 Draft Pick ... The Possibilities are Endless

Posted By on Wed, May 15, 2019 at 10:25 AM

The Grizzlies have been known for having a series of misfortunes when it comes to the NBA draft, but on Tuesday night the (ping pong) balls finally bounced in their favor.

Whether it was a broken Mike Conley face, a Tony Allen hamstring, or a Zach Randolph suspension, the Grizzlies have had a seemingly unfair share of deflating circumstances. The franchise and the city has grown accustomed to waiting for the other shoe to fall — and having no luck except bad luck, but Tuesday night, the Grizzlies got a taste of overdue reparation when they were awarded the Number 2 overall draft pick, after being slated to pick eighth. The unfavorable odds just made the results that much more gratifying.
Ja Morant
  • Ja Morant
When I saw that the Lakers had advanced to the top four, my immediate reaction (and my engrained pessimism) led me to believe that the Grizzlies would fall to ninth, since a team that was below them in the odds had advanced. Things got wild when it was revealed that the Grizzlies had also advanced into the top four. After what seemed like the longest commercial break ever, the Grizzlies heard their verdict and it came up almost as perfect as it could be. The Grizzlies moved up in the draft for the first time since 2009, in which, ironically they also landed the second overall pick. (We won’t discuss who was taken in 2009; there’s no need Thabeet a dead horse.)

The Grizzlies now have basically the entire draft class at their disposal, because it’s pretty much a given that Duke’s Zion Williamson will go first overall to New Orleans. They can take the highly probable choice of Murray State sophomore Ja Morant or Duke scoring wing RJ Barrett. I also would not rule out the possibility of the Grizzlies taking a gamble and selecting someone like Vanderbilt freshman Darius Garland, who is rehabbing from a season-ending knee injury. Garland possesses a shooting stroke that is a fit for today’s NBA, but he would be a huge gamble since Morant has been listed as the consensus best point guard available. The Grizzlies are in the favorable position of having options if someone like Barrett or Garland is killing it in their workouts and are impressive in the combines. The have the ability to basically take whomever they want.

Another great thing is that this is not 2009 and there is no Hasheem Thabeet to tempt the Grizzlies into a bad decision. They also have an experienced front office, with guys like Rich Cho and Glen Grunwald, who can come together and help new point man Zach Kleiman with the draft choice. They also have the liberty to draft Morant and trade veteran Mike Conley — who has been rumored in several trades — for another pick or a young player on the perimeter. They could draft R.J. Barrett and take a Coby White type point guard with a later pick acquired in a Conley deal, or even a falling Darius Garland. The possibilities are numerous and come with the great reward of having the second overall pick.

The Grizzlies spent the majority of the season after the trade deadline trying to convey their draft pick and get out of the draft, and here they are now, sitting pretty with the Number 2 choice. It ain’t fair that a team that at no point of the season tanked has ended up with a chance to add another young star to their roster, but the draft is always unfair to some team, and the Grizzlies, their fans, and this city deserved some good luck for a change.

It was once suggested by former Grizzlies forward Rudy Gay that sometimes you have to make your own luck. Last night I’m sure that many were fine with the kind that just drops in your lap.

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Friday, April 12, 2019

Grizzlies' Irregular Season Ends In The Most Grizzlies Way Possible

Posted By on Fri, Apr 12, 2019 at 12:02 PM

I was able to attend the Memphis Grizzlies end of season media availability on Thursday morning. I came into the FedExForum’s practice facility with what I thought were reasonable expectations: I would hear General Manager Chris Wallace give a generic spiel about how the season was a success, in spite of all of the failures; how he was confident in Coach J.B. Bickerstaff, going forward; and how he really didn’t have a plan to announce for next season. I expected to say my final goodbyes to Mike Conley, who I assume has played his last game as a Memphis Grizzly. I even expected Bickerstaff to basically say that he wouldn’t have done anything different, if given the opportunity, when I asked him about reflecting on his first full season as a head coach. 
Grizzlies GM Chris Wallace.
  • Grizzlies GM Chris Wallace.

What I didn’t expect was the chaos that ensued just hours after the media availability ended.

Grizzlies majority owner Robert Pera announced, seemingly out of nowhere, that Bickerstaff would be replaced as head coach, and that the front office would be restructured. That restructuring included Wallace and Vice President of Basketball Operations John Hollinger being demoted to lesser roles, and President of Business Operations Jason Wexler being named to oversee both business and basketball operations. Assistant General Manager Zachary Kleiman was promoted to Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations.

Pera's announcement brought mixed reactions, due mainly to the odd timing of the move in relationship to the media availability earlier that morning, and the fact that Wallace and Bickerstaff had already had exit interviews with each other and with the players. The general feeling coming from the morning press availability was that instead of finding new leadership for the franchise, the team had simply relabeled their organization and would continue doing what they've been doing for years.
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • J.B. Bickerstaff

The timing of all of this was particularly odd. Wallace could have been demoted literally at anytime during the season, especially after the embarrassment and backlash of the botched Kelly Oubre trade. Bickerstaff also could have been informed that he would no longer be with the team at some point well before he and Wallace had had exit interviews with the players.

The way that the franchise went about doing this just added to the uncertainty about the team's leadership amongst the players — namely Mike Conley, who is rumored to want to move on; Jonas Valanciunas, who has the decision to opt in or out of the final year of his contract; and Jaren Jackson, who is the franchise's young and impressionable future star.

Although the timing came off as ill-prepared, and even shady, I still think that the two main things that needed to happen happened: Bickerstaff will no longer be the head coach, and the illusion of Chris Wallace being the decision-maker for this team has come to an end.

I doubt this was a decision Pera made after checking twitter for reactions from media members and fans about what happened at the morning press availability, so surely he could have done this without creating such a need for damage control — or making Wallace and Bickerstaff come off as victims. But at this point, it is what it is — just another reason for national media members to ask what’s going on in Memphis. It's a bad look.

But it’s also an opportunity for change, a possible step in a much-needed new direction. Yes, the Grizzlies have had four coaches in the past seven years, but that doesn’t change the fact that Bickerstaff just was not the answer. So here we are: A business guy and a lawyer are now in charge of the team. I also expect that someone else will be added to serve in a basketball decision-making capacity, whether it be in a position above Kleiman or in support of him, or even a coach with a general manager role. A (partially) new regime is about to set a fresh course for the Grizzlies, and I, like many, hope that the regime's shaky start is not a sign of what is to come.

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Tuesday, April 9, 2019

I Have a Confession to Convey

Posted By on Tue, Apr 9, 2019 at 9:49 AM

I have a confession to convey. I’ll admit it. I’m legit afraid of what lies beyond the Grizzlies' last two games of the season and the pending 2019 NBA Draft lottery, and that's because I have real memories of previous pain and disappointment.
Otis Thorpe
  • Otis Thorpe

I was visiting a family member in the emergency room while watching the 2003 NBA draft lottery. My older brother and I were sitting in the waiting room as the draft order was unveiled, team by team. I can remember the anxiety that I carried that evening. The Grizzlies had been terrible the previous season, and here they stood with a chance to add a player from a draft that included LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, and Chris Bosh. Admittedly, it was a slim chance, because the Grizzlies entered that year’s draft lottery owing a pick to the Detroit Pistons that was only protected if the Grizzlies landed the number-one overall pick. This was a result of a trade that the Grizzlies had made six years earlier with Detroit for the then 35-year-old, 13-year veteran, Otis Thorpe.

I don’t recall the reasoning behind the then-Vancouver Grizzlies trading for Thorpe, since they were never close to being a playoff team, but regardless of what made or didn’t make sense back in 1997, the Grizzlies had to pay their debts on lottery night 2003. The lottery went to commercial break and the number one pick literally came down to two teams — Memphis and Cleveland. The Grizzlies would either win LeBron James or they would go home with nothing but remorse. We all know how history would play out as the Cavaliers would indeed win the lottery and James would play two stints in Cleveland, including an NBA World Championship run.

The feeling I had as a fan of the still-new franchise in town was sickening, but not nearly as bad as it could have been if I had a long-term investment in the team, like I — and many others — do now. I also didn’t know that the 2003 draft class would end up being one of the best ever, with four NBA championships being won by teams led by players from that class. The protection on the Grizzlies pick that they sent out for Thorpe decreased year by year, and by the time that 2003 draft rolled around, the Grizzlies had to pay the ultimate price for the bad decisions of their previous management.

I’ll be honest. I sway back and forth between whether or not I want the Grizzlies to convey or not convey — to pick or not pick — in this year's draft. I understand all of the benefits of adding another potential star, or even a role player, beside Jaren Jackson Jr. to build for the future and show Jackson, as well as the fanbase, that the organization is headed in the right direction. I am also admittedly crippled by the fear of reliving that 2003 draft, the one that saw the future of the NBA handed over to Cleveland, and saw Detroit use their Grizzlies pick at number two for Darko Milicic.

The Pistons didn’t need Wade, Bosh, or Anthony, to win a championship and could afford to take a risk with Milicic, but the Grizzlies couldn’t afford that luxury. They desperately needed another star on that young team with Pau Gasol and Shane Battier, and they were not able to acquire one. I fear going through that again. I fear the Grizzlies being the laughing-stock of the NBA – giving the Boston Celtics, who are already a contending team, a chance to add a top-three pick to their team, while the Grizzlies remain searching for answers. I can see and hear the local and national backlash if something like that happens, and I’d rather avoid it all at all costs. Is this a gloomy, worst-case scenario way of thinking? Sure, of course it is. But is it that far-fetched to see Jeff Green as the reincarnation of Otis Thorpe?

As not only a journalist, but an actual native Memphian and day-one fan of the team, I can’t always think with a rational mind. I fear the worst. I hear, “Don’t worry about it! With this team, plus a draft pick, we will convey next season!” and that sounds good. But its nowhere close to a given. The draft lottery will be here sooner than we think, and the ping-pong balls will be randomly sorted and sifted through. The Grizzlies will have their name called on that night and I am scared to death that they might be handing over a future star to someone else — again. I watched it, lived it, and endured the ripple effect of not having a pick in the 2003 draft. And I’m not sure that I'm ready to go through that again.

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Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Rivalries, Rebuilding, Rehab, and Rasslin’

Posted By on Tue, Apr 2, 2019 at 9:22 AM

I was a guest on Kevin Cerrito’s sports-radio show, Cerrito Live, on Sports 56 last weekend, to discuss, of all things, the Memphis Grizzlies and their Wrestling Night promotions. Every NBA team has themed nights to add some pizzazz to their home games, and Wrestling Night is the home team's exclusive version of this. It was a great event when it was initially presented back in 2015. The night featured Jerry “The King” Lawler and Ric Flair, and was capped off by the Grizzlies beating a rival Oklahoma City Thunder team with Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Serge Ibaka.
901 Wrestling - MICHAEL BUTLER JR.
  • Michael Butler Jr.
  • 901 Wrestling

During my radio interview, we talked about how the Grizzlies Wrestling Night went from being an amazing annual event to one that the Grizzlies in-game operations team has run into the ground — resting on past accomplishments and probably serving up too much of a good thing. The Grizzlies had six Wrestling Nights this season, often featuring embarrassingly aging former wrestlers from the 1990s and early 2000s. Unfortunately, this gaffe by the team’s event staff mirrors some of the actions of the organization on the basketball side, as well.

I also attended a local wrestling show that Saturday night, from a promotion called 901 Wrestling. Its owner, Christopher Thompson, has been hosting outstanding shows at the Rec Room on Broad Ave recently, and I was able to bring Grizzlies beat writer Omari Sankofa from The Athletic out with me to experience and learn how deep wrestling is rooted in a certain subculture of the city. He grasped the parallels and passion of it and saw how it adds to what he has already observed about the city since moving here last fall from Detroit to cover the Grizzlies. In Memphis, we love our hoops — and we love our wrestling.

Wrestling and basketball have always played off of each other well in Memphis, due to the fact that both sports have a element of good vs. bad, heroes vs. villains, and intense rivalries with individuals that you may hate when they are on the court or in the ring but still find entertaining. This is what made great Grizzlies rivalries against the Thunder and Clippers so good, because we savored the classic battles between Zach Randolph, Tony Allen, Marc Gasol, and Mike Conley against the likes of Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, Deandre Jordan, Russell Westbrook, and Kevin Durant.

After the Grizzlies latest 113-96 loss to the Clippers on Sunday night, it sunk in for me just how much the once-entertaining Clippers rivalry is now dead. Both teams have new rosters and new directions and Conley is the lone member from either side's glory days. Something else that stood out was how the Clippers were able to lose Paul, Griffin, and Jordan over the last year and have still managed to find themselves in the Western Conference playoffs, even after dealing Tobias Harris, their star player from earlier this season. The Grizzlies' former rival embraced their rebuild, took the bumps, and added respectable but non-star free agents, while keeping a proven head coach to lead the retooled roster back to the playoffs. In 2017, Doc Rivers was demoted from his position as director of basketball operations to focus on coaching, and he got his team back in the playoffs ahead of schedule.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Grizzlies currently sit tied for the sixth-worst record in the NBA. They have a potential superstar-level talent in Jaren Jackson Jr. but a ton of uncertainty in the front office going forward. There is no obvious sense of direction, outside of what now looks to be failed attempt to convey the draft pick owed to Boston. Jonas Valanciunas, who has had a monster campaign since being traded to the Grizzlies for Marc Gasol, is now out for the season after an ankle injury that he suffered against the Clippers. This adds to a long list of recent injuries, including Jackson, Kyle Anderson, Dillon Brooks, Avery Bradley, CJ Miles, and likely Joakim Noah as players that are out for the season.

The Grizzlies are heading into what will truly be a rebuilding offseason for the franchise, as Mike Conley is also likely to be traded as early as draft night, this summer. It comes with a ton of uncertainty because of the organization's frustratingly unclear front-office structure, which includes long-time general manager (and scapegoat) Chris Wallace and whoever else seems to be pulling strings and making moves at any time. Can the fans trust an organization that has botched so many major decisions? There is no quick remedy to get the Grizzlies back to being a Western Conference competitor, but just as with their Wrestling Nights, I hope that the team's leadership realizes that just doing more of the same thing probably isn't going to work.

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Thursday, March 28, 2019

Conley Regains Griz Scoring Record: How Long Will He Stay?

Posted By on Thu, Mar 28, 2019 at 2:39 PM

Mike Conley’s time in Memphis is possibly coming to an end. If it does, he'll go out as the team’s all-time leading scorer, which is a fitting accomplishment.

Although the Grizzlies fell short Wednesday night in a pseudo-road game against the Golden State Warriors in a FedExForum filled with faux-Warrior fans, Conley was able to regain the franchise’s all-time scoring record with a corner three-pointer in the first quarter.

Conley, who also leads the franchise in assists, steals, three-point field goals, and games played, joined LeBron James and Reggie Miller as the only players ever to lead in all those categories for their respective franchises.

Conley was a late-bloomer scoring-wise over his career, after struggles to be productive early. As a young player, he was often the butt of fan and media jokes, but Conley went from being the third to forth option on teams that had some combination of Rudy Gay, OJ Mayo, Zach Randolph, and Marc Gasol to the team’s number-one option in recent years. His longevity, combined with his production, has now placed him among the franchise’s all-time greats.

But now, Conley has a cloud of uncertainty floating over his head, as he is constantly the subject of trade rumors — even as early as NBA Draft day — after not being moved at this year's trade deadline. There are those who believe the Grizzlies will, in fact, move Conley either around the draft or at some point before next season’s trade deadline, the thought being that another team looking to re-tool going into next season might be willing to give more for Conley than the offers that were presented to the Grizzlies this season.

The Lakers, Jazz, Pistons, Pacers, and Magic seem to be the most likely candidates, based on previous interest in Conley, as well as speculative looks into their roster make-up, needs, and draft placement. Conley’s recent scoring production has made him look like a much more desirable player. There are those who say that Conley might even be “auditioning” or showcasing his abilities to a league-wide audience because he might not be opposed to the possibility of leaving Memphis via trade.

There are two ways of looking at his situation. There's the obvious benefit of having Conley back next season, especially if the Grizzlies are not able to convey the draft pick they owe to Boston. A team that consists of Conley, Jackson, Anderson, Brooks, and some combination of the players acquired via trade this season could not only be good enough to convey the pick, but possibly be good enough that the pick lands high enough that it might not sting so much to lose it.

There is also the thinking that not only should Conley not have to be forced to be a part of a team that is clearly rebuilding, but that the Grizzlies shouldn't try to rebuild on the fly, and keep Conley in the process. This kind of clean break would force the team — and the fans — to embrace life after Grit 'n Grind, of which Conley is now the lone survivor.

Regardless of what the Grizzlies end up doing with Conley between now and the near future, it is great to see him cement his place in team history. His hard work, dedication, and loyalty to the franchise, his teammates, and the city has placed him where he belongs — on top.

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Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Can It Be That It Was All So Simple Then?

Posted By on Tue, Mar 19, 2019 at 9:22 AM

The Memphis Grizzlies have found themselves in a strange place — where their wins and loses are suffering from an identity crisis.

Times were so much simpler this time last season for the Grizzlies. It was cut and dried, to say the least. A win equaled “bad.” A loss equaled “good.”
Jaren Jackson Jr. - JOE MURPHY/NBAE
  • Joe Murphy/NBAE
  • Jaren Jackson Jr.

That’s how things are when you are clearly in the middle of a dead-end season, facing one of the best draft classes in recent years. You want to position yourself to get the best draft pick possible. You knew you had Mike Conley and Marc Gasol coming back, in addition to a potential top-five draft pick, so it made perfect sense to place yourself in a position to umm … well, increase your odds of winning as few games as possible.

The formula worked as planned. Well, sort of. The Grizzlies ended up landing the fourth overall draft pick, which turned out to be Jaren Jackson Jr. Pretty good, so far right? They added an elite-level, potential two-way star player to the combo of Conley and Gasol.

But the second half of the Grizzlies plan is where things began to falter. The assumption was that the team would be good enough this year to possibly contend for a playoff spot and, if not, to be able to convey the team's first-round draft pick that is owed to Boston. This has been explained ad nauseam, but here is the condensed version.

The Grizzlies owe Boston a draft pick. If it's in the top eight picks this year, the Grizzlies keep it. If it’s in the top six next year, they keep it. The year after that, it goes to Boston no matter what, if it hasn't already been conveyed to them.

Got it? Good.

But yeah, back to the whole plan not really going according to plan thing.

It didn’t work. The wheels fell off of the Grizzlies season very early, and all hopes of having a playoff team were deflated. After Gasol was traded, General Manager Chris Wallace announced that the team still planned on attempting to convey its draft pick to Boston, and ever since, the Grizzlies have found themselves in an odd place, where wins and loses are becoming one and the same.

They aren’t bad enough to catch the five teams below them in the reverse standings, and they can’t string enough wins together to make it seem like they will finish 9th or better — or worse — or however it works. It's confusing.

Injuries to Dillon Brooks, Kyle Anderson, and Jeran Jackson Jr. have also put a damper on things; the team can’t evaluate how their young, potential core players will perform with the veterans acquired in the Gasol trade. With all of the accolades that Jonas Valanciunas has received, it’s truly unfortunate that we won’t get to see him play with Jackson this season.

Things were so much simpler last year, when all you wanted the Grizzlies to do was lose — just lose as many games as possible. Simple. That’s all changed this year. The team sits in a peculiar place — where their highs aren’t high enough and their lows aren’t low enough. For every three-game winning streak against playoff teams, there are losses to Atlanta and Washington. Both of the team's options lack appeal.

It's makes you yearn for the good old days, when tanking made everything so simple.

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Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Valanciunas Catches Grizz Fans On The Rebound

Posted By on Tue, Mar 5, 2019 at 10:18 AM

There is a newly acquired seven-foot, board bangin’, paint stompin’, reboundin’ machine named Jonas Valanciunas who has quickly captured the hearts of Grizzlies fans. Is it true love, or is the fanbase just on the rebound during the team's rebuild?
Jonas Valanciunas
  • Jonas Valanciunas

When Pau Gasol was traded from the Grizzlies to the Lakers back in 2008, many lambasted the trade. The Grizzlies were criticized for, in essence, trading away their franchise player, who was still in his prime, for what amounted to expiring contracts and future assets, including Pau's younger brother, Marc. Although Pau was criticized for being too passive to be the best player on a good team, like the Grizzlies needed him to be, the overwhelming consensus was that he was one of the most skilled big men in the entire NBA and would help the Lakers tremendously — as he did.

Except for General Manager Chris Wallace, who insisted that the younger Gasol was a hidden gem, not many anticipated Marc Gasol panning out like he did. When he finally made his debut with the team, after coming over to the United States from playing professionally in Spain, he instantly became a fan favorite. He was big, burly, and wild; he fought in the paint and backed down from no one. He was the Anti-Pau, and the antidote that the team and fanbase needed to get over their traded star. For every memory of Pau being balled up on the floor after getting overpowered in the paint or checking for blood, the fans were gifted with Marc roaring with energy as he finished in the paint through contact.

He was a rebound for the broken hearted — a symbol of hope for a franchise in transition. He was the bigger, stronger, tougher, Memphis-molded version of his older brother, and just what the city needed at the time.

Similarly, Valanciunas has been just what Grizzlies fans have needed after Marc Gasol's departure. During a period where wins and losses feel the about the same as far as draft positioning is concerned, watching JV thrive on the court has been a thrill. He’s averaged 18.4 points, 10.1 rebounds and 2.4 assists in the seven games he’s played for the team, and has reminded many of the younger more paint-oriented version of what Marc was. The idea of him playing next to now-injured Jaren Jackson Jr. has left many fantasizing that Valanciunas' physical style will be the perfect complement to Jackson’s youth and diverse talents, and cover his weaknesses — a yin to Jackson’s yang, an alternate reality Z-Bo to Marc, or the other way around — whatever makes sense to you.

Still, it’s not a great idea for fans to get too attached to their new-found love, since Valanciunas has a player-option on the $17 million owed to him for next season. He might opt in for the final year with Grizzlies, making him a free agent in 2020, or sign an extension with the Grizzlies, or opt out of his final year and become a free agent in 2019. No one knows, at this point.

There is also the possibility that he opts in and is then traded to another team.

That said, Valanciunas has been a pleasant surprise, especially to those who didn’t know that the team was acquiring one of the league's top young centers. He’s not Marc Gasol and might not even be here long enough to build a legacy, but he’s been perfect in the moment.

It’s perfectly fine to be excited about the potential that fans see in Valanciunas on the court and even in the locker room. But, be careful Grizz fans. It's okay to fall in love with a rebound, just don’t get too enamored by someone who may break your heart.

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Friday, March 1, 2019

Time Out For The Excuses

Posted By on Fri, Mar 1, 2019 at 12:02 PM

After the Grizzlies suffered their 39th loss of the season against the equally woeful Chicago Bulls on Wednesday night, head coach J.B. Bickerstaff went on a mini-tirade. He ranted to the media members in attendance about how NBA officials were not calling fouls for Mike Conley in a way that he felt they should, and pointed to how a late no-call against the Bulls swung the outcome of the game. 
JB Bickerstaff - SAMUEL X. CICCI
  • Samuel X. Cicci
  • JB Bickerstaff

Bickerstaff said that he had gotten earlier feedback from the league after issuing a complaint but hadn’t seen any progress as far as the referees calling fouls in Conley’s favor more often. For someone just looking at the Bulls game's final moments in a vacuum or as an isolated incident, sure, you can say that the referees’ bad calls affected the outcome of the game. But not if you look at the big picture — the picture that shows that the first-year coach is digging for excuses instead of owning up to his own shortcomings.

If some of Coach Bickerstaff’s decisions on the court didn’t include starting Chandler Parsons at small forward over Kyle Anderson, choosing to use Jamychal Green much more than Jaren Jackson Jr., especially in the fourth quarter, and an insane helping of Shelvin Mack, then I’d show more understanding and grace towards his rant. But now, he’s just passing the buck instead of accepting that it's a bed that he made and now has to lie in.

As I’ve written before, this entire season feels like one that could’ve been different in some way, if not in a major way, if things were done differently. But here we are — looking at a team that is currently 14th in the Western Conference and possibly slotted to pick sixth in the NBA draft.

This team has always looked like it had more left in the chamber — and that questionable coaching has been a catalyst in its shortcomings. To sit in front of the city's media and try to imply that a lack of foul calls for Conley is the major problem is not only an insult to the intelligence of the fan-base, but a desperate reach for sympathy — and a deflection. This wasn’t Dave Joerger crying back in 2016, after being swept, or even David Fizdale’s “take that for data” rant in 2017. This was Bickerstaff 100-percent deflecting from the real issue: His team lost at home to a very bad team. Just let that be what it is, without making excuses. Especially when the excuses include defending a player, in Conley, who is quite capable of defending himself.

If Conley accepts constantly being fouled while not losing his mind to the officials, then that is as much as an issue with him as it is with the officials. The squeaky wheel gets the grease and closed mouths don’t get fed. If Conley wants the calls, then he needs to stop with the good-guy thing and speak up for himself.

On Wednesday night, It didn't appear that too many people bought Bickerstaff’s attempt at sympathy. The rant garnered more eye-rolls than applause. It’s time-out for the excuses, Coach Bickerstaff. Own it. Do better. The city will respect you more for it. Trust me.

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Friday, February 22, 2019

Jackson and Rabb: Addition by Subtraction

Posted By on Fri, Feb 22, 2019 at 9:19 AM

The Grizzlies' two young big men have a prime opportunity to shine, now that a path has been cleared for them. After the dust of the NBA trade deadline settled, two of the team's veteran big men were gone: JaMychal Green and, of course, former franchise cornerstone, Marc Gasol. These two moves have freed up more playing time for rookie Jaren Jackson Jr. and second-year player Ivan Rabb, and gives them an opportunity to showcase their skill-sets.

Jackson replaced Green in the starting lineup fairly early in the season, after Green suffered a broken jaw during the team’s home opener against Atlanta. Since then, he’s flashed a plethora of talent, both offensively and defensively, while creating a conundrum for head coach J.B. Bickerstaff, who seemed to be more inclined to play Green over Jackson. This created a ton of fan frustration, since many saw Jackson as the obviously better talent — now and for the future. Bickerstaff would often describe Jackson as you would a player who is years away — or a project — when in fact, Jackson, although still developing and struggling with occasional foul trouble, has produced on a high level when given playing time.
Jaren Jackson Jr. - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Jaren Jackson Jr.

This was also the case with Rabb, a second-year player who received sporadic playing time as a backup center/power forward before the trades. Since he's begun starting, he has been very productive, scoring inside and rebounding well. Rabb is undersized and can still be physically overwhelmed, so he struggles defensively at times, which was evident against Lamarcus Aldridge and the Spurs two weeks ago. But he has a knack for scoring around the basket and his newfound confidence has paid dividends for him — and the team — on the court.

As a player who has been compared to Tim Duncan since high school — which was probably based on aesthetics more than anything — Rabb has finally begun to show flashes of his promise since being given more responsibility. It can be assumed that newly acquired big man Jonas Valanciunas will likely replace him in the starting lineup, but hopefully Rabb can continue to be a major part of Bickerstaff’s rotation.
Ivan Rabb
  • Ivan Rabb

Bickerstaff has spoken about how Jackson’s role will change to become more of a focus of the offense and how he plans to “give him the rope to do more” and allow him to play through the expected bumps that come with being a 19-year-old rookie. This is interesting, considering that Bickerstaff has also hinted that he's still working on how to manage Jackson’s skill-set.

There are those who think Bickerstaff has mismanaged Jackson's usage this season. The rookie has the tools to be a phenomenal player on both ends of the court and it’s been a point of frustration that Bickerstaff has under-used him, until the trade that sent Green to the Clippers basically forced his hand. The Grizzlies have struggled with rebounding all season, and a tenacious rebounder like Rabb is just now being given an opportunity.

Should it have come sooner? Will Jackson and Rabb continue to not only get more minutes but show themselves to be a formidable future front-court tandem. Hopefully that’s the outcome — and more importantly — that the opportunity will continue to be given to them to make it happen.

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Thursday, February 7, 2019

Wendigone: Marc Gasol's Memphis Era Ends

Posted By on Thu, Feb 7, 2019 at 10:47 PM

The tale of the Grizzlies' half-man, half-Memphian, has  come to an end.

Matt Moore of the Action Network coined a nickname for now-former Memphis Grizzly Marc Gasol that took off on twitter during the height of the Grit n’ Grind era. “The Wendigo,” as Moore called him, came from Gasol’s tenaciousness on the court and his physical appearance. A mythological half-man, half-beast creature known for devouring people whole, the Wendigo was an accurate description of the long haired, uber-aggressive Grizzlies rookie center that Moore saw in 2008. Gasol was a wild man on the court back then — an inside presence who banged the boards and battled in the paint to the delight of the fan-base that took pleasure in seeing a more “Memphis Made” alternative to Marc’s older brother, Pau. For everything that fans longed for in Pau, Marc was the tougher, grittier, upgraded version.
  • Matt Preston

Marc Gasol was as close to being a native son as any non-Memphian could be. He played high school basketball at Lausanne Collegiate School and later turned down an opportunity to walk on at the University of Memphis in order to go play professionally back in his native Spain. Fate would bring him back to Memphis via trade. The younger Gasol’s years of being one of the best prospects overseas prepared him well, and he became a welcome surprise upon his arrival to the NBA. He was a traditional European-style big-man, infused with Project Pat lyrics and Bluff City swagger and toughness. What Matt Moore saw as being half-man, half-beast was actually more like half-man, half-Memphian — a player who became a product of his environment — but also the methodical, intellectual, introverted, puzzle that we know today.

As Gasol’s game would develop and change on the court, his understanding for the importance of the role that he played for not only the team on the court, but the Grizzlies organization — and the city of Memphis — would change as well. As Gasol faded farther away from the basket, his love and understanding for the essence of the city of Memphis grew closer to his heart, and Gasol himself grew closer to the heart of the fan-base.

The addition of Zach Randolph in 2009 allowed Gasol the freedom to not to have to bang in the paint as much and provided him with a teammate that joined him to form half of one of the best front-court tandems in the NBA. Gasol became more of a facilitator and an outside threat as years went by, and many, including me, would grow frustrated with his tendency to defer to his teammates instead of looking to be more aggressive offensively.

Gasol was an acquired taste for some within the fan-base. On some nights he would be an unstoppable monster that you could run everything through on offense, while also remaining an elite defender. Other nights he would seem to be disinterested and passive, blaming either his teammates or coaches. Gauging Gasol's temperament was difficult, but he was without a doubt the team’s thermometer. Want to know the mood of the team and the outlook in the locker room? Take a look at Marc Gasol’s body language, or better yet, put a microphone in front of him. Gasol's demeanor could range from grim and grumpy to grateful and giddy — and it could all happen before halftime. 
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Marc Gasol

Gasol’s time with Memphis has now come to an end. He is off to Toronto, where he will have a much lower level of expectation placed upon him. There won’t be as many people begging him to rebound, score in the paint, or attempt to block a shot. He will have less pressure on him, but he won't get nearly as much love as this city provided — a love that he always made an effort to return. From the aggressive half-man, half-beast without fear or limitations that he was back in 2008 to the more seasoned and worse-for-wear veteran he is now, his time in Memphis won’t soon be forgotten. Here’s to Marc Gasol continuing to represent for the city that adopted him as its own.

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Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Conley and Gasol's Possible Farewell Brings Mixed Emotions

Posted By on Tue, Feb 5, 2019 at 8:53 AM

Today the remaining two members of the Memphis Grizzlies’ “Core Four” era could be playing their final home game for the team they have played for their entire careers. Mike Conley and Marc Gasol have been involved in several trade rumors after it was recently announced that Grizzlies owner Robert Pera was willing to trade the
  • Larry Kuzniewski
m before Thursday’s NBA trade deadline.

The Grizzlies play at home against the Minnesota Timberwolves Tuesday night, before a road game against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Thursday. I would expect the Tuesday game to be emotional for the fans and media members, who could be seeing Gasol and Conley for the final time in Beale Street Blue. I’m also sure that there will be a tone of emotion from both Gasol and Conley, as they reflect on the possibility of playing their final home game for Memphis.

The possibility of both franchise stalwarts being traded creates a unique situation for the Grizzlies. For a franchise with a relatively short history, compared to others in the league, Conley and Gasol represent the first long-tenured, accomplished players who are having a farewell tour, so to speak. Both players have played for Memphis since their rookie seasons, and Gasol, of course, attended Lausanne High School here in Memphis, while his brother Pau played for the Grizzlies. 
We've watched these two now-established veterans grow literally from being boys to men. We've watched them change in appearance and body frame over the years, and we've seen them get married, have kids, and become a part of the community — on and off the court. The thought of Conley and Gasol not being a part of the Grizzlies is a difficult one to comprehend, but one that, as far this season’s trade deadline is concerned, is definitely a possibility.

It has been reported that the Grizzlies covet draft picks and young prospects in any trade, and some reports also suggest that they desire expiring contracts in return for either of their stars. Many trade scenarios include the Grizzlies gaining players with warts and flaws that the team believes could be less worrisome in a different environment. Others have suggested that the organization should consider Conley's and Gasol's accomplishments and contributions and choose a destination for them that is mutually beneficial to the Grizzlies and the two players.
  • Larry Kuzniewski
I don't think that that should be a factor. The NBA is a business, and a shrewd one, at that. Teams have a limited window of success, and in a small market like Memphis, that window can have a screen, bars on the outside, and be quickly painted over, if opportunity isn’t seized and handled intelligently. There have been complaints that the Grizzlies organization failed Conley and Gasol by not providing an adequate supporting cast for them during their time here — especially recently.

I am personally fine with considering the possibility that Gasol and Conley were also the product of their other two Core Four members, and instead of being a two-man tandem, were part of a quartet that needed all four members to truly make hit music.

The Core Four was like a concept album. A beautiful creation built around Grit n’ Grind, where if you were to separate the various songs from the whole record, they don’t hold the same weight. Yes Conley and Gasol have been vital to this organization, but why do they deserve a better send off than Zach Randolph and Tony Allen received, which was nothing? They both played their entire final season expecting to be back, and wanting to come back, only to be told (or not told) that they weren’t welcome.

Could a trade be announced tonight in the middle of the game, leading to an awkward but potentially amazing moment? Possibly. Or will we see Conley and Gasol make it past the trade deadline and keep playing for Memphis for years to come? The one thing that is definite is that the NBA trade deadline is Thursday, and two of the city’s adopted sons might be playing their final home game here. It’s one game that I won’t miss — even though I might not miss these two players as much as others will.

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Thursday, January 24, 2019

Grizz Front Office Woes? Pera Doesn't Have To Look Far For a Solution

Posted By on Thu, Jan 24, 2019 at 8:04 PM

With the Grizzlies now on the verge of possibly trading the last two pillars of the Grit 'n Grind Era in Mike Conley and Marc Gasol, many fans and media members have shown concern. Not so much a concern over whether or not it is a good idea to trade the two veterans, but more a concern about who would be in charge of trading them — namely Grizzlies General Manager Chris Wallace.
Tayshaun Prince - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Tayshaun Prince

Wallace has been connected to his share of baffling moves and blunders while serving as the team’s general manager. From the Hasheem Thabeet draft pick, the countless other picks that didn’t pan out, the questionable trades, the giving away of draft picks haphazardly, the overpaying for players, and the signing of Chandler Parsons to a max contract. Is it understandable fans might be gun-shy about trusting Wallace with another rebuild?

Yes it is. Especially when this rebuild is different — for many reasons.

This isn’t the fresh, cute and cuddly Grizzlies franchise that was new to a city that didn’t know what to expect. This team has grown on — and with — the city and the fans have tasted the spoils of victory. They won't settle for years of bad basketball or a poorly run franchise. It’s a crucial time for the organization. A mishandled rebuild could be fatal to the organization by driving away its fan base. 

So let’s assume that Grizzlies majority owner Robert Pera also has concerns about Wallace’s ability to prepare the organization for its next phase. Where does he turn at this point in the season? Who would be willing to come on board with the organization (or lack thereof), with its seeming constant flux and instability? To me, the answer might be simple. In fact, the answer in this case might already be here.

Chris Makris - NBA.COM
  • Chris Makris
The Grizzlies have two under-utilized members of their front office in former NBA player Tayshaun Prince, who serves as Special Assistant to the General Manager, and Chris Makris, the Director of Player Personnel. As a former highly respected and professional NBA player, Prince has clout around the league. Players, coaches, and executives, alike, respect Prince and his work ethic. He is highly intelligent in terms of seeing the game, identifying problems, and looking at the many intricate ways in which they can be addressed. He has a wealth of knowledge about the game — and knows what it takes to win. Most fans will also remember that he was a steadying presence on the Grizzlies' Western Conference Finals team — and a major loss off the court when he was traded for Jeff Green two years later.

Prince is still relatively inexperienced in the area of day-to-day operations, but this is an area where Makris could come in and support Prince by filling that void. Similar to the Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka partnership with the Lakers, I could see Makris and Prince being a tandem that accentuates each other’s deficiencies for a common goal — a successful NBA team built the right way, with no short cuts or ulterior motives. With the Lakers, Magic Johnson has the clout, pull, and credentials, while Pelinka handles the behind-the-scenes grind. Neither Prince nor Makris are yes men. And both choose to let their work and their actions do the talking.

I originally became aware of Makris when he was serving as General Manager for the Iowa Energy, after the Grizzlies acquired the team as a developmental league affiliate. He served in this capacity for 10 years, during a tenure that included four division titles and one league championship. Makris ran the basketball side, as well as the business side. He hired three Iowa Energy coaches that now serve as either NBA head coaches or assistants: Head Coach Nick Nurse and Assistant Coach Nate Bjorken in Toronto, and Sixers Assistant Coach Kevin Young. Makris and his revamped and refocused scouting team also identified Jaren Jackson Jr. early in the scouting process and saw his potential as the best player in this draft, when many others didn’t.

Are Prince and Makris experienced enough to handle this team for the upcoming trade deadline and beyond? Maybe not, but they have done the work and have all of the tools needed to succeed. And they would be a breath of fresh air in a front office that needs a major upheaval. The fanbase has seen what Wallace and Hollinger have to offer and most think it's time for a change. I believe that Prince and Makris have the DNA that matches what the fans want to see, going forward.

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Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Grizzlies, Memphis, and MLK Day: Still a Long Way to Go

Posted By on Tue, Jan 22, 2019 at 9:09 AM

The Memphis Grizzlies do a phenomenal job with their annual Martin Luther King Day Celebration. In what I consider the crown jewel of the Grizzlies' operations side’s achievements, the team pulls out all the stops to recognize and celebrate the legacy that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. left behind in this country for all who suffered racial and economic injustices. The team traditionally honors former athletes who have been examples of Dr. King’s legacy, and hosts a captivating symposium that allows the honorees to share stories of adversity and inspiration. 
A recent Grizzlies MLK Day uniform
  • A recent Grizzlies MLK Day uniform

The celebration, of course, also surrounds an actual NBA game. The Grizzlies were the first organization in the NBA to place an intentional emphasis on the day, which is fitting, considering Memphis’ history as a key city during the civil rights movement and Dr. King's tragic assassination here in 1968.

The NBA has since hitched their wagon to the Grizzlies' innovation and made MLK Day a major event league-wide. This also resulted in the Grizzlies being bumped from the prime-time nationally televised game to the earlier afternoon game (and even being moved to the Sunday before Martin Luther King Day in 2017). The NBA eventually made things right by returning the Grizzlies to the Monday game last season. In 2017 and 2018 the team wore uniforms inspired by Dr. King and the civil rights movement.

The Grizzlies and the NBA have done an excellent job of capturing the essence of Dr. King on a surface level, but there is so much more that needs to be done, especially in the city where Dr. King took his final breath. I was born and raised in Memphis and I love this city with everything I have. I love its soul, its attitude, its hospitality, its culture. There’s isn’t much about this city that I won’t defend to its core — except for the fact that now, 50-plus years after Dr. King’s assassination, Memphis still has a long way to go as far as achieving the actual essence of his dream.

The difference between schools in the inner city and the suburbs is appalling. As someone who has a background in working hands-on with the city’s youth, and alongside its school system’s employees, I can tell you that a visit inside of some of the inner-city schools can bring you to tears. There are no rules or laws that separate us but there is a lot of “that’s just how it is.”

The racism is veiled, but still alive and well. There are parts of town that people avoid, either because of perceived danger or just plain ignorance. From another viewpoint, there are also parts of town that people stay away from to avoid unfair treatment, stares, and racial profiling.

But the show must go on. The games and the festivities around them must still be played. There’s a cliché that gets a lot of notoriety here in Memphis: Namely, that the Grizzlies bring the city together. This is a cliché to which I will never subscribe. Sports don’t bring a city together. They are a temporary escape from reality — a coping mechanism. If a person has disdain or prejudice towards someone of another race or social class, it doesn’t magically disappear when you both see the upside in Jaren Jackson Jr.

Maybe the Grizzlies cause you to cheer together against a common enemy or to join together in the joys of victory, but all of that can quickly fade away when you see the guy that you just gave a high-five to pull his wife closer as she clutches her purse in the parking lot while passing you. I’ve been a part of this scenario enough to know that it’s a real thing. I’ve lived in this city long enough to know that it needs work to achieve all that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. envisioned. Has there been progress? Yes, but there is little to actually celebrate about.

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