The Grizzlies have been one of the NBA's toughest outs for years, but they've struggled mightily through the first two week of the season.
LOS ANGELES — This month, Kara Joerger will take Patrick to the American Quarter Horse Association World Championship in Oklahoma City and try to keep him at ease under the hot lights of State Fair Park. Kara and Patrick already captured two amateur world championships for palominos this summer, in reining and ranch riding, but the field is about to grow wider and the stakes higher. Kara is the one who trains Patrick to perform his intricate routines – where to run, when to halt, what hoof to plant, how many rotations to spin. Her husband, Dave, mucks the stalls. “I do think of a lot of new plays when I’m mucking,” he clarifies.
He also watches his wife teach. “Let’s say you’re using the rein, and you’re on the horse’s neck, if he doesn’t move away you keep pushing,” Dave explains. “As soon he gives into it, you can relax. That’s how a horse’s psyche works. They move away from the pressure. They don’t want the pressure. They actually respond to the absence of pressure.” He is asked if a decorated basketball team can also prosper without strain. “It’s completely the opposite,” he replies. “They need the pressure.”
Dave Joerger is in his third season as the head coach of the Memphis Grizzlies, and as he spoke Monday morning, his team packed up from a shoot-around at Staples Center. Meanwhile, Mike Conley and Marc Gasol sat across the court on the scorer’s table, deep in conversation. Conley was drafted in 2007, Gasol was acquired in ‘08, and by ‘12 the Grizzlies believed they had their answer to Tony Parker and Tim Duncan. Conley and Gasol, plus Zach Randolph and Tony Allen, transformed Memphis from a great basketball town into a great NBA town. The Grizzlies won 50 games or more in each of the past three seasons and reached every round of the playoffs except the Finals.
As other organizations tinkered, overhauling systems and personalities, the Grizzlies constancy became its identity. Even when the front office changed, and changed again, the team remained essentially the same: grit, grind, a Conley floater, a Gasol touch pass, a Z-Bo moonbeam, with Allen providing a bluesy soundtrack. As the Spurs and Warriors and Rockets started playing long-range pop-a-shot, there was something reassuring about the Grizz, forever back-back-backing down, bleeding the shot clock dry, and offering no apologies. They sometimes lost, but they always left a mark. Ask the Warriors who provided the stiffest challenge in last spring’s joyride. They’ll point south.
The Grizzlies, as usual, made few summer headlines. While Western Conference contenders unveiled their splashy additions—the Spurs with LaMarcus Aldridge, the Rockets with Ty Lawson, the Thunder with Billy Donovan, the Clippers with Lance Stephenson—the Grizz doubled-down on continuity. Everybody else would require an adjustment period. They’d hum from the jump. But Joerger is correct. NBA teams require pressure in some form. For a young squad, it’s the pressure to reach the playoffs. For a veteran one, it’s the pressure to incorporate a new member, or recover from a crippling series. For a champion, it’s the pressure to validate the trophy, avenging slights real and imagined.
But for a team in a small market that ended last season admirably, that has been together forever, that knows it will play into May but needs much fortune to see June, the spark can be hard to find. “You have to battle complacency,” Conley says. “You want to stay hungry, stay driven, and that’s the hardest thing once you taste a little bit of success.” If the Grizzlies needed some pressure, they found a way to manufacture it in less than two weeks, dropping five of their first eight games, one by 50, one by 30, one by 19. They couldn’t shoot, but that’s nothing new. They plunged to No. 26 in defense, unthinkable for any outfit that employs Allen.
Suddenly, everybody was talking about the Grizzlies, their age and their style and the security of their coach. There is no sense sounding alarms after eight games—a November tradition in the NBA—except the Grizzlies amplified much of the noise themselves. “I think it’s between the ears,” Conley says. “Our focus, our effort, the pride we play with, as opposed to Xs and O’s.” Amid such self-reflection, the Grizz delivered their best game of the young season Monday night, even though it resulted in another loss. Facing the Clippers, their familiar playoff adversary, they may have rediscovered a piece of their old selves. They held L.A. to 94 points. They piled up 11 steals. Randolph stripped Chris Paul and then broke down the sequence with courtside fans. “That felt like…us,” Conley said.
The Clippers and Grizzlies are often tagged as cultural opposites, but they’re built the same way, around a three-headed core that no one wants to break up and no one wants to bet on, either. Rivers subscribes to the philosophy that teams can turn stale, and that both the Clips and Grizz are nearing an expiration date. He attributes this belief less to any individual than to the unavoidable nature of group dynamics. “You get less tolerant of each other,” Rivers says. “As the years go by, you know what a guy can’t do, but you get mad at him because he can’t do it.”
The Grizzlies have a clearer path to reinvention, trading Randolph and opening the court around Conley and Gasol, taking the Spursian plunge. But they will never recoup a player as meaningful as Randolph, and besides, that’s not a chord anybody thinks of pulling after eight games. The Grizzlies, true to form, believe their biggest problems can be solved with elbow grease and floor burns—though some three-pointers would help, too. “Younger teams are like, ‘It’s a new season. This is exciting!’” Joerger says. “We’re all excited, but teams that have been in a lot of playoff games can start to be like, ‘We’ll turn it on at some point.’”
The elites are able to throw a switch, but the Grizzlies have rarely overwhelmed opponents with talent. They win with culture, and if they let that lapse, they will struggle to bring it back. The Grizzlies can take comfort in the knowledge that everybody out West, save Golden State, will likely experience the kind of rough patch they are currently enduring. It’s nearly inevitable, given the peril of the conference schedule, and the expectations of the teams at the top: Warriors, Spurs, Thunder, Clippers, Rockets and Grizzlies. The pressure on the Grizz, to remain in that exclusive group, was there all along.
By now they should feel it.