Why the Grizzlies are a cautionary tale for the Thunder

Why the Grizzlies are a cautionary tale for the Thunder

The Grizzlies’ rebuild went extremely well. Then the bottom fell out, illustrating how in the NBA any number of things can derail a team.

Jon Hamm

By Jon Hamm

| Dec 18, 2023, 11:17am CST

Jon Hamm

By Jon Hamm

Dec 18, 2023, 11:17am CST

The Memphis Grizzlies were well on their way to the mountaintop of the Western Conference. Instead, they enter Monday night’s game against the Thunder — the first of three meetings this season — with a 6-18 record.

OKC’s Interstate 40 rival may merely be down but not out. Either way, it’s a somber reminder of how quickly a team can go from promising to simply lost. 

Oklahoma City and Memphis became well acquainted with each other during the Durant and Westbrook administration, squaring off three times in the postseason. The proximity of the cities combined with epic playoff series made the two teams natural rivals for much of the 2010s. 

The Memphis “Grit and Grind” crew led by Mike Conley, Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph, and Tony Allen gave OKC major fits. The 2014 first-round matchup was particularly memorable, with four straight games decided in overtime and Thunder cult figure Steven Adams literally taking one on the chin from Randolph in Game 6.

But time marches on, and the Grizzlies eventually had to tear down its beloved squad. Memphis slowly traded away key players and let others go when they hit free agency. The team endured an injury-marred 2017-18 campaign, sinking to only 20 wins. The draft lottery rewarded them with the fourth pick in the 2018 draft, where they drafted raw prospect Jaren Jackson, Jr. The Block Panther has since become an All-Star, Defensive Player of the Year, and Team USA member.

The Grizzlies didn’t improve much the following season, but they hit the jackpot in the 2019 lottery. Despite going in with the eighth-best odds, Memphis came away with the second overall pick, a scenario that had only a 6% chance of happening. The main prize of that draft was Duke forward Zion Williamson, who went first overall to New Orleans in a similar lottery leap. Memphis came away happily with Murray State guard Ja Morant.

Memphis slowly gained momentum during the two seasons impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, building a promising core that included first-round picks Brandon Clarke and Desmond Bane. The Grizzlies finished second in the West in each of the last two seasons, posting 56 and 51 wins respectively. Some Thunder fans just might tie that spike in wins with Memphis’ acquisition of the aforementioned Adams.

All of that promise and potential made the Grizzlies look like a team that would exceed the accomplishments of the Grit and Grind squad. But it all began to unravel. And quickly.

Morant’s off-court issues — and his apparent cavalier attitude towards them — began to fracture the team. He was suspended for eight games in March after he was seen in an Instagram Live video holding a gun at a nightclub outside Denver. 

That same night, Clarke suffered a torn Achilles tendon, ending the season for Memphis’ key reserve big man. He could end up missing all or most of this season as well.

Clarke joined Adams on the Memphis sideline, with the former Thunder big man suffering a January knee injury that will cost him this season as well. The two bigs played key roles in Memphis’ rise, and the Grizz have struggled to patch up the position while they recover.

Morant was suspended again after another weapon-related Instagram Live in June. He will make his season debut after concluding his 25-game suspension after Monday night’s game. But he returns amidst an avalanche of other injuries that forced Memphis to eventually add a pair of hardship signings to fill out the roster.

Perhaps Morant returns a different person and returns to the form that once had him in MVP discussions. But even that might not be enough to lift a team currently dead last in the league in offensive rating, though the team defense has held up considerably well considering who they are missing. The wounded includes former Oklahoma State star Marcus Smart, the one-time Defensive Player of the Year who has missed over a month with a foot injury.

This season may end up a lost one for Memphis, but it’s still possible to salvage the future. And if they can do so, who wouldn’t turn down the chance for the next generation of Thunder and Grizzlies battles?

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