A few weeks ago, I stopped my colleague Kevin Lipe in a hallway of our office building. And I asked him to — without pausing — name the Memphis Grizzlies’ current eight-man rotation. He grinned (slightly), looked to the floor in concentration, and proceeded to recite the following: “Ray McCallum, Tony Allen, Matt Barnes, JaMychal Green, Ryan Hollins, Lance Stephenson, Xavier Munford, Jarell Martin.” You’d think Kevin has a blog on the subject, maybe a podcast.
Injuries are never an excuse in professional sports. Until they are. Despite suiting up a team that required a program, literally, to identify over the final two months of the 2015-16 season, the Grizzlies extended the franchise’s streak of playoff appearances to six. Furthermore, Memphis is one of only three NBA teams to enjoy winning seasons the last six years. (The others — San Antonio and Oklahoma City — have a combined half-dozen future Hall of Famers.)
The team’s All-NBA center, Marc Gasol, played his last game on February 10th. Mike Conley — among the NBA’s top ten point guards — played his final game on March 6th. Even the man tasked with supplementing the overworked Conley’s role — Mario Chalmers — went down with a season-ending malady (March 9th). After Conley’s injury, the Grizzlies (counting the playoffs) won five games and lost 19. Twelve of the losses were by margins greater than 10 points. These were not the grit-and-grind Griz an entire region has embraced as a cross-culture bond. These weren’t even the lovable losers we accepted as our own way back in 2001. (Where was Jason Williams? Where was Nick Anderson, for crying out loud?) Ask an artist to paint a landscape without the colors green or blue. Ask a novelist to complete her book without the letters “a” or “t.” These were our Grizzlies, 2016 postseason edition.
Injuries can change the fate of a franchises (and an entire league). Hall of Fame-bound David Robinson hurt his knee early in the 1996-97 season and his San Antonio Spurs face-planted to a record of 20-62, bad enough to earn them the draft-lottery ball that turned into Tim Duncan. (A franchise then known as the Vancouver Grizzlies lost six more games than the Spurs and landed the immortal Antonio Daniels with the fourth pick.) The Spurs have won five championships and at least 50 games every full season since. Perhaps the Grizzlies’ true misfortune this past season was not losing Gasol (and/or Conley) early enough. There will be no lottery savior for the Grizzlies, not that a Tim Duncan exists in this year’s draft pool.
This offseason will be the most agonizing in years for Griz Nation. Conley’s tender Achilles heel will surely lower his price tag on the free-agent market. With his longtime partner in crime, Gasol, facing a steep climb back just to wear a Grizzlies uniform — let alone contend for All-NBA honors — is Memphis the best place for Conley’s professional future? Zach Randolph and Tony Allen — the other members of “Mount Grizzmore” — are another year older. Are we closer to Matt Barnes being the face of this franchise? Will Kevin Durant even glance at FedExForum as he considers his future workplace? Too many questions — and too heavy — to answer this soon after the lights were turned off (for good) Sunday.
At the end of every season, the Grizzlies hang an official team picture in a hallway leading to the practice court at FedExForum. The picture features coaches, the training staff, and typically 12 to 15 players in uniform. How (and when) could that picture be taken for the 2015-16 season? It would feature roughly half the contributors to this distinct (if painful) campaign. The Grizzlies’ 12th most-active player — Ryan Hollins — played all of 32 games (412 minutes). But he belongs in the picture, right? However the photo is framed, apply a bandage to one corner. For posterity.