The Space Between
The Memphis Grizzlies are caught in the middle.
by Tracy Weissenberg / @basketballista
Sometimes the Grizzlies look like they can hang with anyone. And when they have a two-point win against the Lakers, you think maybe this is the game it comes together, this is the effort they build off of, and this is the game that starts to shape their season.
It never seems to work out that way, though.
After 20 games, the Grizzlies were 8-12, mirroring their record at the same point last season. Last season, however, the Grizzlies overcame a 1-8 start to regain respectability, creating an identity rooted in saving the season. This season, that same urgency isn’t there.
“We have a young group, but we’ve been young for a while now, we’ve played together for a while now,” says guard Mike Conley, “so we gotta start putting two and two together and can’t wait on coach to make the decisions, we gotta learn and do it ourselves. Once we figure that out, we’ll be fine.”
Conley, armed with a multi-year contract extension, has become more aggressive this year, with career highs across the board including points, field goal attempts and assists. He says head coach Lionel Hollins told him before the season to have a scorer’s mentality. “[Hollins] said I want you to be averaging 15 points…get into the paint, you know being relentless, a lot like how you were in college. That’s what I’ve kind of took to heart, I just want to be able to create a lot of plays, not necessarily for myself, but for everybody else on the team and make us better,” he says.
Grizzlies starters have never had a problem scoring, but their bench has been the complete dichotomy. It is hard to imagine a team having success when it wins through offense, yet there is so little balance between the outputs of the first and second units. Last season, the Grizzlies’ starting lineup ranked first in points while the bench ranked 30.
After this season’s first 13 games, Hollins sought to balance the lineup by moving third-year shooting guard O.J. Mayo to the bench. Hollins says it was a move he discussed in coaches meetings before the start of training camp. “I thought it was a move that needed to be made that would sure up our team and it’s been very productive so far,” he says.
These days, we commonly see players built up to unrealistic levels only to be knocked down at the first sign of vulnerability. Prodigies growing up are told they are the greatest–given nicknames, titles, comparisons—creating an aura that is seemingly untouchable as long as the player keeps producing. Everybody feeds these egos and then berates and dissects comments like “taking my talents to” even though those talents and that phrase is a product of a continuous basketball propaganda machine.
What happens when the story doesn’t live up to the headlines and that the hero is just another person trying to make it? I don’t know where Mayo’s poise and wherewithal comes from. It is hard to imagine the reflection involved in going from the best player on every team you’ve played on to dealing with setbacks like not making USA Basketball’s final roster or the Grizzlies’ starting lineup.
But Mayo is extremely self-aware, especially when he talks about understanding how the support players on teams he used to star on played hard and he just wants to give forth the same effort he expected from them. “I’m kind of in the position where they were and just want to be there and be efficient and know what I bring to the table each and every night, 110 percent,” he says.
On dealing with disappointments in his young career, Mayo says, “Just really stay professional and don’t let things that doesn’t happen for me individually hurt the team because I’m a team player first and as a team, I want to win first more than myself get a lot of credit. So just keep team first, and just remember that we’re playing for one team and playing for one goal.”
Hollins gives the situation perspective when he says, “Today, I think a lot more status is attached to guys really before they’ve earned it and you come in the league and no matter where you’re drafted, you gotta find your niche, you gotta slide in wherever your talent allows you to slide in. There’s a lot of guys that were drafted high and had a lot of potential that aren’t starting or not the number one scoring option. It’s still a game of five on five and always the talent rises.”
Mayo says, “So many young players go and average 20 and 30 points but are on losing teams and I just want to be on a winning team and get to the postseason and just play at high levels because you only get one career.”
The Grizzlies showed glimpses of reaching that next level, but ultimately finished out of the Playoffs after hanging in the race for a while last season. Asked what that showed about the team, Mayo says, “That we’re so close but so far, because we were in the Playoff race but we were still ten games outside the eighth spot…this year we pretty much have to get it done and win ball games and not have stretches where we don’t win games.”
Forward Rudy Gay won a gold medal with USA Basketball and signed a max extension during the offseason. Asked what he took away from his USA teammates this summer, Gay says, “The work. People, whether they had good games or bad games, every night, every practice would come back and get working. That’s the biggest thing, the biggest difference and that’s one of the things I’m trying to bring to this team.”
Mayo says the Grizzlies look their best when the team is “getting out in transition and really dominating the boards with Zach [Randolph] and Marc [Gasol] and just getting out and running. Getting easy buckets in transition and playing with a lot of energy.”
Randolph says, “If we focus on defense and get stops, we could score with the best of anybody.”
The Grizzlies got a key stop on the last possession in the win against the Lakers. It was a win that could have, should have been built on, but the Grizzlies dropped the second game of the back-to-back December 1 against Atlanta.
On the loss, Hollins says, “I was proud of our team to come back and play until the end because it’s easy to just say it’s over, you’re tired in the second game of a back-to-back. But we do need to grow as a team and start being able to come out and muster the energy that’s needed to win a back-to-back and not just give into the fatigue and that’s our immaturity level right now.”
Asked if the Grizzlies could take the win against the Lakers as a game to build on, Gay says, “It should be, it was a good win for us. We played against a great team and got some stops and came out with the win, but in the future we have to make that translate.”
So far, the Grizzlies haven’t been able to do that. It’s unfair to just put it on the members of the roster. The most successful teams in the NBA continue to build around their strengths and add pieces to address weaknesses. The Grizzlies did not bring in new players that would greatly impact the roster and they are hoping that moving Mayo will inject some scoring into the anemic bench this season.
Right now, the Grizzlies are left in limbo. And every once in a while, we get a glimpse of their potential.