Franchise-defining eras don’t need championships to be embraced by its fans. Just ask mid-90s Magic fans, turn-of-the-century Kings faithful, or witnesses of Seven Seconds or Less in Phoenix.
You can lump Grizzlies fans of the 2010s into that group, because it’s hard to find a stronger local connection than the one that exists between Memphis and its NBA franchise of recent years. The team and its city take pride in “Grit and Grind,” a brand of basketball that wasn’t always pretty, but effective enough to earn seven straight postseason trips and a trio of 50-win seasons. They rallied behind an underrated cast headlined by a non-All-Star point guard (Mike Conley), castoff forward (Zach Randolph) and late-blooming center (Marc Gasol).
That era appeared to be in danger after the 2017 offseason, when the Grizzlies bid farewell to Randolph. It was hard to imagine “Grit and Grind” without the fan favorite forward, who bulldozed his way to 16.8 points and 1.0 2 rebounds per game in his eight seasons with Memphis. Ditto for the loss of Tony Allen, a limited-but-beloved guard who made life miserable for elite scorers.
Fast forward to Day 12 of the 2017-18 regular season, and the Grizzlies are sitting pretty at 5-1. It’s their best start to a season since 2014-15 — the same year Memphis advanced all the way to the Western Conference finals. The faces have changed. The identity has not.
Memphis’s stubborn refusal to fade was on full display against Houston on Saturday night. Facing the ultimate example of run-and-gun basketball, the Grizzlies doubled down on their own style and showed why they still have a place at the Western Conference table. They limited the Rockets to 89 points on 37.7-percent shooting, well below their early-season marks of 106.3 points per game at a 45.1-percent clip. After their 103-98 victory, the supposedly endangered Grizzlies now sport the best record (5-1) in the league.
The cast of characters is different, but the formula remains the same. Entering Saturday night’s game, Memphis ranked eighth in defensive rating at 98.3 points allowed per 100 possessions, which would be their best mark since 2012-13. They have compensated for Randolph’s absence partly through Gasol (25.0 ppg, 10.8 rpg) and partly through a committee of energetic role players.
Tyreke Evans will never fulfill the promise he showed in his Kia Rookie of the Year campaign, but he gives the Grizzlies an extra playmaker who rebounds extremely well for a perimeter player. James Ennis III and Jarell Martin provide energy and more rebounding at the forward spots. Mario Chalmers adds a much-needed dash of passing and shooting.
They might be even better if Chandler Parsons can build on his long awaited coming-out party on Saturday. The seventh-year forward, who played just 34 games last season, poured in 24 points on 9-of-11 shooting in 19 minutes. Without that, the Grizzlies likely don’t survive a rare off-night from both Gasol and Conley (14 points, 5-of-18 FG combined).
When healthy, Parsons gives Memphis the third scorer it needs to complement the Gasol-Conley duo. Without him, Gasol’s admirably crafted 3-point stroke (43.5 percent) is the lone outside threat opponents consistently respect.
Even so, the Grizzlies aren’t fretting about offensive flaws when its strengths — defense and execution — can carry the day if everyone buys in. So far, they are. Memphis is yielding the fewest points off turnovers per game (12.6) and the second-fewest points in the paint (37.6).
In short, the Grizzlies are gritting and grinding their way to wins — just like they always have.