I thought it was the Jeff Green trade.
I figured it was because his total space-cadet lack of awareness on the court and his aloofness off of it had fatally disrupted the chemistry of the Grizzlies and that was the whole problem—that was the reason Marc Gasol looked like he was having a Ritchie Tenenbaum-style breakdown, ripping his jersey like shedding layers of signature Fila gear. My thesis in those days, well-documented on the back pages of this blog, was that once the Jeff Green Problem was sent to Siberia (or the Clippers, whichever is worse) the Grizzlies would get it together and play better basketball.
There's no Jeff Green to blame this year. There was for a while, when Chandler Parsons briefly occupied the same "Marc Gasol hates playing with this guy" niche, but he was removed from the equation, things improved, and then things rapidly went right back to where they were.
Where they are is this: the Grizzlies are either not good enough to win without Marc Gasol expending superhuman amounts of energy, or they've realized that they're going to lose in the first or second round and have decided not to care about their seeding situation. My fear, the thing that makes me question why I'm even still paying attention (other than the fact that I have to) is that it's both.
Let's look at what's happened to the Grizzlies this year. They've beaten some very good teams (Golden State twice, the Spurs twice, the Rockets twice) and they've lost to some very bad teams (the Nets, the Knicks, the Lakers). They show up when it's an "important" game and they take the night off when they think they can afford to. There's a problem with that approach that they don't seem to think about, though: they can no longer afford to, because every dumb loss they take makes their playoff situation harder. The Core Four are all old enough that they're simply not going to be physically able to bring the full Grit & Grind experience every night, period. And when they can't, there's pretty much nothing else for the team to do without a healthy Chandler Parsons. So while they look like world beaters and a real problem in the games where they store up their energy and come out guns blazing, they're probably going to be the 7 seed instead of the 5 because they let so many stupid, winnable games get away through lack of focus.
Which is a self-fulfilling prophecy. They end up at the low end of the playoff seeding because of the bad losses, have to play a team with a much better record, and eventually they get exposed as the one dimensional team they mostly still are. Except this year the defense isn't as good.
The NBA season is a long, long slog. With the end in sight, it's hard to be mad at teams like the Grizzlies for getting senioritis: they know where they're going to land, and they're not terribly worried about what happens around them. So while other teams are scrapping to make the playoffs, or scrapping to prove which guys belong as part of the future on lottery teams, the Grizzlies are just strolling through the garden having a smoke break and checking their watch. In fact, this is pretty much an accurate recap of the Grizzlies' entire spring so far:
And this has happened to them every year. Either at the beginning of the season, the end of the season, or both, or sometimes in the middle just for flavor. 2013? The middle, leading up to the Rudy trade. 2014? The beginning. 2015? The end. 2016? The beginning, and then everyone got hurt. 2017? The middle, when Conley came back from a back injury, and now also the end. This is a streaky team. They run on these big win streaks and then pull themselves back down to earth by playing big stretches of disjointed .500 ball in between... plus ça change.
I still believe this is a team that can make the conference finals this year if they catch the right breaks and the right matchups. They almost beat Golden State without Gasol on Sunday, and they've already beaten them in convincing fashion twice this year. The Spurs are a tougher challenge but they don't seem as invincible as they have in the past (although last year they swept the Grizzlies while not even playing well). If they catch a first round matchup with the Rockets, who knows what could happen—they may out-physical and out-crazy the Rockets, or they may give up 65 three pointers a night.
It's very up in the air. But you wouldn't know that from watching them. From watching them you'd think they'd already wrapped up home court and they couldn't move up or down no matter what happened. There's a distinct lack of urgency around them these days, especially in third quarters, where they routinely clog the toilet on offense even when the defense is working, which it hasn't always done reliably this year.
Eventually we have to admit that the inconsistency is just part of the program. If we're going to be honest with ourselves (that rarest of things in sports fandom), "Grit and Grind" has never actually meant "playing all 82 games at a certain intensity level." It's meant showing up for about 60 of them and playing like your life depends on it, and just not being able to focus the beam on the other 20 or so. Which is fine. But let's not act like what the Grizzlies are stumbling through right now is out of character, because at this point, we should all know better. They've been teaching us this lesson for five years.