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Rise and resilience (and fall?) of Grizzlies’ Grit & Grind

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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.”

Six years later, a core of Marc Gasol, Mike Conley, Zach Randolph and Tony Allen are still leading Memphis, which has adopted Grit & Grind as its perfectly fitting slogan.

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:

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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.”

All Cedric Maxwell got for winning NBA Finals MVP was this janky watch (video)

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Just two NBA Finals MVPs who are eligible for the Basketball Hall of Fame haven’t been selected for induction:

  • Cedric Maxwell (1981 Celtics)
  • Chauncey Billups (2004 Pistons)

Andre Iguodala (2015 Warriors) could join them, but he at least has some Hall of Fame chatter surrounding him. Billups is absolutely a legitimate Hall of Fame candidate, even if not enshrined.

Maxwell, on the other hand, wasn’t on that level. He never even made an All-Star team. He was just a good player who had an excellent six games against the Rockets in the 1981 NBA Finals.

Really, it’s a neat distinction to be the lone NBA Finals MVP who was never a star. Maxwell can cherish that.

And this watch, which he reveals in this entertaining video.

NBPA reaching out to players, getting feedback on return scenarios

Michele Roberts
David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images
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NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has been in information gathering mode since the day he was forced to shut the league down. He’s gathered information from medical experts on how a return would work, talked to owners and GMs about the financial end and what they hope to see, and had conferences with the league’s broadcast partners.

Most of all, Silver wanted to know what the players thought. With the NBA closing in on a return strategy — Friday Silver and team owners will have a conference call that could lead to a decisive plan — players’ union executive director Michele Roberts is taking the return plans to the players for feedback, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

It looks like the NBA will return to play in Orlando, with training camps starting in late June and games in mid-July.

The questions to be answered are:

• Do all 30 teams report to Orlando to play a handful of regular season games, getting teams over the 70 game threshold?
• Do just the top 16 teams report with the league jumping straight to the playoffs?
• If the league does go straight to the playoffs, how will that impact player pay, which is tied to the regular season?
• Will there be a play-in tournament for the final playoff seeds?
Should the NBA do a 1-16 seed playoff format, or keep the traditional Eastern/Western conference format?
• Will each playoff round have seven games, or will the first round (or two) be best-of-five?

Everything option is still on the table (as officials will be quick to say). However, the buzz around the league has grown louder that just the top 16 teams will go to Florida, and there will be seven-game series for every round, as the league tries to squelch any asterisk talk.

We may know a lot more on Friday. And the players will have their say.

Michael Jordan on tape saying he wouldn’t play on Dream Team with Isiah Thomas

Pistons guard Isiah Thomas and Bulls guard Michael Jordan
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In “The Last Dance,” Michael Jordan was asked to react to Isiah Thomas’ explanation of the Pistons’ infamous walk-off. Jordan replied immediately:

I know it’s all bulls—. Whatever he says now, you know it wasn’t his true actions then. He’s had time enough to think about it. Or the reaction of the public, that’s kind of changed his perspective of it. You can show me anything you want. There’s no way you can convince me he wasn’t an a—hole.

Maybe there was some projection in that answer.

For years, Jordan has denied any involvement in Thomas not making the Dream Team. Rod Thorn, who was on the selection committee for the 1992 Olympics, has backed Jordan’s version of events.

But Jordan once revealed a different story.

Jordan on Jack McCallum’s “The Dream Team Tapes:”

Rod Thorn called me. I said, “Rod, I won’t play if Isiah Thomas is on the team.” He assured me. He said, “You know what? Chuck doesn’t want Isiah. So, Isiah is not going to be part of the team.”

Yes, the Pistons were being poor sports when they left the floor without shaking the Bulls’ hands in the 1991 playoffs. But that neither began nor ended the story.

The Bulls repeatedly disrespected the Pistons while finally overcoming Detroit. That particularly bothered the Pistons, because, on their way up, they paid deference to to the Celtics and Lakers. So, while the walk-off was – even according to Thomas – regrettable, it happened for a reason.

Jordan carrying his vendetta to the Dream Team only escalated matters. Yet, unlike the Pistons for not shaking hands, Jordan receives minimal scorn for his poor sportsmanship. Threatening not to play if a rival player is also included is the antithesis of what people want the Olympics to stand for.

And Jordan is now on published audio admitting that’s exactly what he did. You can listen to him for yourself.

As the best player and marketing giant, Jordan had the power. Thomas felt the consequences.

In 1992, Thomas was a marginal choice for the Dream Team. He wasn’t clearly better than the players who made it on current ability. He wasn’t as great as the players – Magic Johnson and Larry Bird – who made it on career accomplishments. It would’ve been fine to select Thomas. It would have been fine to omit him.

But it’s a shame he never got proper consideration on merit.

It’s also a shame Dream Team coach Chuck Daly, who coached Thomas in Detroit, is no longer alive to give his account. Did Dally really tell Thorn not to put Thomas on the Olympic team? Did Thorn really tell that to Jordan? Jordan and Thorn are just so untrustworthy on this matter.

Kendrick Perkins: LeBron James-Paul Pierce rift stems from Pierce spitting at Cavaliers bench

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In 2004, Celtics forward Paul Pierce got fined for spitting at the Cavaliers bench during a preseason game.

Why did Pierce do that?

Apparently, LeBron James.

Kendrick Perkins, via ESPN:

When LeBron was coming into the league, he was getting a lot of heat from players. “Oh he’s not going to do that to us. The Chosen One. Wait til he play against grown men.”

So, Paul is talking noise to the bench, right? He’s talking big noise to the Cavs bench. And they’re sitting over there. Bron and them, they’re all sitting over there.

Paul actually spits over there at the bench, right? The ultimate disrespect, OK?

It ended up turning up. After the game, both teams were meeting in the back. Guys was ready to fight. We had to hold people back. It went up from there.

Ever since that moment, LeBron James and Paul Pierce hate each other. They don’t speak to each other.

This was entering LeBron’s second season, not his rookie year. But Pierce was still the established star, LeBron the riser trying to prove himself. As we’ve seen since, Pierce is very protective of his place in the game.

The feud deepened over the years as Pierce’s Celtics battled LeBron’s Cavaliers and Heat in the playoffs. Pierce took other shots at LeBron, even indirectly. Most recently, Pierce named a top-five list that didn’t include LeBron.

But spitting? That’s low.

There’s just something about Boston players from that era.