Is Grizzlies’ Best Behind Them or Yet to Come?

By Don Wade

Is the Grizzlies’ potential not-yet-realized or grossly overestimated? That’s the only relevant question in the midst of Rudy Rumors, speculation about coach Lionel Hollins’ long-term future with the team, and the level of commitment new ownership is or isn’t willing to make in the here and now to this particular roster.

Several days ago, Hollins went public and said he hoped his team would be kept together. Translation: If the Grizzlies are going to trade Rudy Gay – and they probably are at some point to alleviate future luxury tax penalties – then please give this team one last go-round and wait until after the season to make a move.

Problem is, every game brings a new spin to the possibilities. Beat the San Antonio Spurs in overtime at home with Rudy, and in the heat of the moment breaking up this team seems crazy. Get run out of the gym in Dallas with Rudy, and the time to trade is now. Lose big at home on Monday, Jan. 14, against the L.A. Clippers without Rudy (and with no Chris Paul handing out dimes for Lob City) and, well, you could maybe argue either side.

Spurs’ Kawhi Leonard and Memphis Grizzlies’ Marc Gasol scramble for control during the recent game in San Antonio. The Grizzlies, the hottest team in the NBA in November, is a team looking for answers in January. 

(Photo: AP Photo/Eric Gay)

But then lose by 21 two nights later at San Antonio – with Rudy, and the Spurs without Manu Ginobili – to extend the losing streak to three games, and it’s definitely time to play Let’s Make a Deal.

For certain, the distance between the Clippers and the Grizzlies is now longer than Lance Armstrong’s path to forgiveness. Blake Griffin started the game with a breathtakingly easy and resounding dunk – “that’s embarrassing, that’s not how we built this team,” point guard Mike Conley said – and things only got worse from there as L.A. cruised to a 99-73 victory.

While Hollins volunteered that “what got us beat was our lack of intensity, effort, competitiveness,” he seemed most upset when talking about the good minutes off the bench provided by rookie guard Tony Wroten, saying, “He made some nice passes; nobody caught them and nobody finished them, but he made some nice passes.”

And then two nights later near the Alamo, another game ends with Wroten, Josh Selby and Hamed Haddadi picking up garbage time. Even after these three abysmal losses, the Grizzlies were 24-13. Time was, no one would have questioned anything about a 24-13 Grizzlies team. That time has passed.

Yes, the Clippers have had bad losses this season, too. But they also had a 17-game winning streak that stretched from Nov. 28 through the end of 2012. There were, dare we say it, several grit ‘n’ grind nights among those 17 straight victories. At Utah, in winning their 17th in a row, they rallied from 19 points down.

“That’s what was unique about it,” said guard Jamal Crawford, who is making a great case for the league’s Sixth Man of the Year Award. “We found different ways to win – defensive ways, offensive ways, blowouts, close games; that’s what made it special.”

It was the Clippers, of course, who both eliminated the Grizzlies in a seven-game first-round playoff series last season and started the current season off with a loss in L.A. But this Clippers team plays in a different universe than the crew the Grizzlies could have beaten last spring or the team the Grizzlies are right now.

Crawford and guard Eric Bledsoe play off the bench and they are more dynamic than anyone who starts for the Grizzlies, including Rudy Gay.

“They’ve got more athletic bigs coming off the bench, and even more scoring from Jamal Crawford, Matt Barnes and Lamar Odom,” Conley said. “They get deeper and deeper as you go down the bench.”

True enough. But the Grizzlies don’t just have a Clippers problem, or a Spurs problem, or an Oklahoma City Thunder problem. Once, the question was whether they could beat those teams in a seven-game series. The answer probably was no, but it was at least a question worth asking. Now the question is how far does the team slide in the Western Conference playoff seeding?

Regardless of what ownership does or does not do before the Feb. 21 trade deadline, it falls on the players to bring the intensity, effort and competitiveness that were absent in Dallas, versus the Clippers and at San Antonio. And it falls on the coach to re-discover his ability to push the right buttons.

“We have two options,” said center Marc Gasol. “Well, I believe we only have one. And that’s to work.”