Grit & Grind was borne out of Tony Allen loathing his defensive assignment.
Allen was mostly coming off the bench in his first season with the Grizzlies, as they prepared for a Feb. 2011 game against the first-place Thunder. So, he studied to guard Oklahoma City super-sub James Harden.
But, with O.J. Mayo already suspended, Rudy Gay was a late scratch due to injury. Memphis inserted Allen into the starting lineup – and told him to cover Kevin Durant. With no time to prepare, Allen seethed.
“It felt like my livelihood, my manhood, everything, was on the line,” Allen said. “I didn’t want to get embarrassed.”
Allen carried his anger into the game and played his heart out. In a four-point overtime win, the Grizzlies outscored Oklahoma City by a whopping 24 points with Allen on the court. He scored 27 points on 9-of-12 shooting with five steals and three blocks. Though Durant finished with 31 points, he’s a generational scorer, and Allen slowed him just enough late.
After the game, Allen was still riding a wave of emotion when, in an on-court interview, he uttered the two words that would define an era.
“It’s just all heart,” Allen said. “Grit. Grind.”
The quartet’s seven seasons together is NBA’s longest active run for a foursome – one year longer than Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard and Patty Mills (yes, five) have all been with the Spurs. In that time, the Grizzlies have established themselves as a team that plays tough and defends.
“It might not be the prettiest of basketball,”Gasol beams. “It might not be the most spectacular.”
But it has been darn effective.
The Memphis quartet reached playoffs all seven seasons together, upsetting the No. 1-seeded Spurs in the 2011 first round and peaking with a trip to the conference finals in 2013. At 34-23, the Grizzlies appear headed back to the postseason again.
There little idea this core would achieve so much when it was formed.
Conley arrived in Memphis first, drafted No. 4 in 2007 and overcoming premature bust labeling. Gasol followed in 2008, when he signed after the Grizzlies acquired his much-overlooked rights in an earlier trade of his brother, Pau Gasol. Then, in 2009, Memphis traded for Randolph, who came cheaply because he had developed a reputation as a troublemaker with the Trail Blazers and Knicks. Allen was the final enduring piece to the puzzle, signed after helping the Celtics win the 2008 title and return to the 2010 Finals as a reserve.
Through the years, they’ve developed a bond evident in their linked competitiveness and on-court chemistry.
“These are the people that I want to go to war with,” Gasol said.
The players have established such a strong culture, it has survived through three coaches.
It blossomed under Lionel Hollins, whose hard-nosed style was integral to the Grizzlies establishing their identity (especially given his insertion of Allen into the starting lineup for that Feb. 2011 game). Dave Joerger followed, and Memphis endured. Now, David Fizdale is in his first season.
“They already had some success before I got there,” Fizdale said. “I just felt like what I needed to do was fill in the gaps to get us a little bit closer to the promised land.”
Fizdale has rejuvenated Conley-Allen-Randolph-Gasol as a unit after it slipped last year. When they shared the floor, those four played better than a 53-win team in each of their first five years together. That dropped to playing like a 38-win team last year. This year, they’re up to a 70-win pace when sharing the court, important considering how little Memphis has gotten from its splashy offseason signing, Chandler Parsons:
Fizdale has given Conley a larger offensive role, and the point guard is absolutely thriving in it. Career highs in usage percentage (26.0) and true shooting percentage (58.7) have led to him scoring a career-high 19.4 points per game and adding 6.3 assists per game.
Per Fizdale’s suggestion, Gasol has expanded his range beyond the arc. After making 12 3-pointers in his previous eight seasons, he has already hit 77 this season. And he’s doing it efficiently, converting 39.1% of his 3-point attempts.
Fizdale is bringing Randolph off the bench. Not only does that set a tone of sacrifice, Randolph is excelling in his new role, averaging 14.1 points and 8.2 rebounds per game. The only other primary reserve to meet those marks in the last 25 years was Lamar Odom in 2011.
The coach has unleashed the active Allen on the offensive glass. A poor outside shooter, Allen is hunting offensive rebounds like never before. His 9.4 offensive-rebounding percentage is the best by a rebounding-leaderboard-qualified guard this century. Every other guard ever to hit the mark has been at least eight years younger.
And that’s why time is ticking on this group. Allen (35), Randolph (35), Gasol (32), Conley (29) won’t maintain this production forever – though they’ve already collectively hung on longer than expected.
Contract situations could also break up this group before Father Time. But, again, the Grizzlies have so far staved off that threat more easily than expected.
Despite big-market rumors and a pending salary-cap explosion incentivizing a shorter contract, Gasol re-signed on a five-year deal in 2015. That commitment presented major risk considering Conley would become an unrestricted free agent the following year. If Conley walked, Gasol could be stuck on a listless team.
But Conley’s teammates recruited it him in their own ways. Allen threatened to flagrantly foul the point guard if he signed elsewhere. “He was serious,” Conley said. “He might have showed up at my house.” Gasol went with honey to Allen’s vinegar.
It didn’t hurt that Memphis offered Conley a five-year contract worth more than $152 million – the biggest deal in NBA history. He of course re-signed, taking advantage of the new salary-cap landscape.
But Gasol returning on faith, in part to keep playing with Conley, the year before also factored.
“I guess there was a little bit there,” Conley said. “You didn’t want to let him down. You didn’t want to let the guys you played with over the last seven, eight years, to let those guys down by leaving, abandoning them. So, in a sense, I felt a sense of responsibility, a sense of loyalty, to my guys. I didn’t want to go anywhere else.”
Conley and Gasol are stars who nearly any team would covet. They determined their own futures. The other half of the Grit & Grind quartet is at the whims of the Grizzlies.
Allen has already popped up in trade rumors, and he and Randolph will be unrestricted free agents this summer.
Randolph walks the middle ground about his plans.
“I want to, of course, be here,” Randolph said. “It’s where I want to finish my career.
“You never know. It’s a business. You never know.”
Allen is more direct about his intentions.
“I don’t want to go nowhere,” Allen said. “I want to be in Memphis.
“I don’t need a lot. But I need to be tooken care of. But my heart is in Memphis.”
Heck, Allen will even answer on Randolph’s behalf.
“I’m pretty sure his heart is in Memphis, too,” Allen said. “I don’t think we’re going to go nowhere. But, obviously, Zach is a higher commodity than me. He’s a 20-and-10 kind of guy. He can start anywhere. That’s basically his deal, and he understands it’s a business. Me, on the other hand, I’ve got my feelings into it. I want to be in Memphis.”
Is it time for a new chapter, or will the Grizzlies keep this core together? Owing Parsons more than $72 million over the next three years complicates the picture. So does the changing landscape of the NBA game, which increasingly values speed and spacing.
But Gasol lays out, in simplest terms, why the Grizzlies must re-sign both Allen and Randolph.
“One is the president of Memphis,” Gasol said. “The other is mayor.”
Gasol, Conley, Randolph and Allen have set a winning tone. They each play off each other in their own way, and disrupting the ecosystem could destroy it.
Fizdale hasn’t been in Memphis long, but he has quickly understood who drives the team’s identity.
“It’s all four of them,” Fizdale said. “They all have an incredible toughness, an ability to rise to the occasion. They’re all connected.”
Those connections have survived countless ups and downs, big and small moments. Gasol looks back fondly on their dinners together. It’s not even the happiest times that stand alone. He recalls meals after playoff losses, when a group of four friends – bonded by pursuing a common goal over a long period off time – connect more deeply.
“Everybody is more vulnerable or more open,” Gasol said. “Everything is more real after a loss, and everybody is just more open. More fragile, maybe. I think, after a loss, you sit, and you talk, and you share some wine or whatever it is that you drink, or a Shirley Temple you may like to drink, whatever it is. And you just talk in there, and you open your heart and talk. We always find that we always stay on the same side.”