Sometimes, the NBA season feels too long. It can stretch on and on like a West Texas highway. Or the Grammy Awards.
But for the Memphis Grizzlies, time has been a friend. And somehow, most of us – maybe all of us – forgot how much time there really was.
When the Grizzlies were 2-3 on Nov. 6 after a home loss to the New Orleans Pelicans, we the people were worried. When they lost to the Toronto Raptors at FedExForum on Nov. 13 by a score of 103-87 as Rudy Gay scored 23 points and the Grizzlies fell to 3-5, the world was coming to an end.
Fans threw their metaphorical darts at Grizzlies CEO Jason Levien for trading Rudy, for not retaining Lionel Hollins and promoting Dave Joerger, and for not improving the back-up point guard situation (OK, he’s still taking some shots on that one).
Of course, it was after that bad Raptors loss that the Grizzlies swept a four-game road trip to get to 7-5. And so we … exhaled.
And then against the San Antonio Spurs here on Nov. 22, center Marc Gasol suffered a knee injury. Including the loss to the Spurs, the Grizzlies lost 10 of their next 13 and at one stage lost five in a row before beating the hapless New York Knicks on Dec. 21.
Including that victory over the Knicks, the Grizzlies have gone 14-5 through their win at Sacramento on Wednesday, Jan. 29, to get to 24-20 and pull within a half-game of Dallas for the last playoff spot in the Western Conference.
Throughout this journey, I have heard little praise from rank-and-file Grizzlies fans for Levien and the analytics-driven front office. Yet, where would the Grizzlies be without the December signing of James Johnson out of the NBA Developmental League? Where would they be without the early-January trade of Jerryd Bayless to Boston for shooting guard Courtney Lee?
Yes, the Grizzlies had gone 7-1 through Wednesday’s victory since Gasol’s return and 9-1 in their last 10.
But even before the Big Fella returned, there was a tangible chemistry remix in progress.
It’s easy now to say, sure, who wouldn’t be able to tell that the athletic and high-motor Johnson couldn’t help this team? It’s easy to say that a shooter such as Lee would do wonders for the Grizzlies’ offense and spacing.
But that’s the worst kind of hindsight. Fact is, Johnson had washed out with the Bulls, Raptors and Kings and was cut by Atlanta in the preseason. It’s fitting, really, that if you go to nba.com now you will see an old profile picture of Johnson that doesn’t even look like him. Just like his game doesn’t look like it once did.
The Grizzlies’ front office saw what he was doing in the D-League, filling the whole line on the stat sheet each night and that he had re-made his body, and took a chance. It now looks genius.
Lee, too, had played NBA travelogue: Orlando, New Jersey, Houston and Boston. He is due more than $11 million over the next two seasons after this one, so it will be a while before we can judge the total return on investment. But for now, on a $5.2 million salary this season, he has been a steal.
Don’t misunderstand: I’m not suggesting Johnson and Lee have made the Grizzlies a perfect team or that they’re All-Stars. The Grizzlies still have some flaws and Lee is not the defender Tony Allen is and Johnson shoots too many threes and has a tendency to make turnovers.
But they are good players who have fit into their roles almost seamlessly. They have been invaluable additions that have had much to do with the Grizzlies’ turnaround.
For that, the front office deserves some credit.
Don Wade’s column appears weekly in The Daily News and The Memphis News. Listen to Wade on “Middays with Greg & Eli” every Tuesday at noon on Sports 56 AM and 87.7 FM.