With the playoffs approaching, every Grizzlies fan is asking the same question: does this team really have enough to win a title? There are times when it seems like they just might, like when they pull off last-second wins against the Thunder, or when Mike Conley scores five points in 30 seconds to beat the Spurs. There are other times when the task seems all too daunting, when the lack of star power appears more glaring than usual. It tends to vary from game to game.
But when looking at past NBA champions, there’s one team who the Grizzlies seem especially reminiscent of: the 2003-04 Detroit Pistons. This is a team that is remembered for their excellent defense, and for taking down a team with far more star power (the Shaq-Kobe-Gary Payton-Karl Malone Lakers), because their superior team chemistry, and ridiculously intense defense was too much for the much-hyped Lakers to handle. It’s not hard to see a bit of the Grizzlies in that team. Let’s look at a few shared traits between the 03-04 Pistons, and 12-13 Grizzlies.
A Reformed Ex-Jail Blazer
These days, Rasheed Wallace’s career is remembered pretty fondly. Sure, he was rough around the edges, and he liked to argue with the refs a little too much, but he also worked hard, was a great teammate, and a top-10 power forward for more than a decade. He didn’t always have such a great reputation, however. During his days with Portland, he was seen as a troublemaker whose talents weren’t worth the problems he caused on and off the court. He also had to deal with the stigma that came from being part of the notorious “Jail Blazers” teams of the early 2000s. Not all of those players were bad people, but having so many players with checkered pasts (and presents) on the same team caused them to be lumped together, and they became the subject of generalizations that weren’t fair.
Sheed dealt with that for the first half of his career, but he changed his career arc for the better when he went to the Pistons in 2004, and immediately became a key contributor on a team that would go on to win a title. During his next few years with the Pistons, he would continue to earn more and more respect, as people realized he wasn’t the bad guy he had so often been made out to be.
If anyone can relate to that, it’s Zach Randolph. Z-Bo had been pegged as a troublemaker for much of his career. Even as he was putting up 20-10 seasons in Portland, he was still seen as a bad egg, and Paul Allen once claimed that getting rid of Z-Bo was what allowed the Blazers to thrive in the 07-08 season. This seemed rather unfair; Randolph put up excellent numbers in Portland, and frankly, a team built around Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Alridge and Z-Bo probably would have been amazing (assuming either Aldridge or Randolph switches to the 5, which probably could have worked), but Z-Bo’s reputation preceded him, and Allen had no problem showing him the door.
His time with the Knicks didn’t help matters. He was trapped on Isiah Thomas’s nightmare of a team, a place where talent was known to mysteriously disappear. It’s not that Z-Bo wasn’t playing well, just that the atmosphere was conducive to failure. After a season and half, he went to the Clippers where he was quietly good for a half-season, but no one really noticed. It wasn’t until Z-Bo got to Memphis that we finally realized just how valuable he was. He’s played his best basketball with the Grizzlies, making two All-Star teams, and earning a 3rd-Team All-NBA nod in 2011.
Like Sheed before him, Randolph has proven that he’s not the bad guy people make him out to be, and that he’s a more valuable player than anyone realized during the first half of his career. Z-Bo is the second “Jail Blazer” to earn redemption with another team, and now, he’ll look to take it full circle by earning that elusive ring. If he does, it would be the final step of a four-year process in which he’s gradually put all the doubters in their place.
A Not-Too-Flashy Point Guard Who’s Better Than Anyone Realizes
It probably seems outlandish to compare Mike Conley to Chauncey Billups, right? I seem like a homer who’s finally gone too far? Well, if I do, that’s because Billups has gone on to have an amazing career, to the point where he might even make the Hall of Fame. His reputation wasn’t always what it is now, however. He struggled early in his career, and before eventually finding his way, he had been labeled as a bust.
Sound familiar? If you remember Matt Moore’s November 2010 column, in which he reacted to Conley’s contract extension by calling him “the worst point guard in the NBA,” it probably does. Conley and Billups both started out slow, and gradually got better and better. These days, Conley isn’t too far from where Billups was back in 2004 – his play has improved each year, and serious NBA fans are aware of how good he is, but he still hasn’t made a name for himself among casual fans. Playing a key role on a championship team would drastically increase Conley’s profile, and make NBA fans realize what Grizzlies fans have known for years now: Mike Conley is a really good point guard.
Could Conley go on to career that resembles that of Billups? It might be a stretch, especially since Conley has the misfortune of playing in an era where the point guard position is as loaded as its ever been. It would tough for Conley to earn an All-Star nod when he’s playing in same conference as Chris Paul, Tony Parker, Russell Westbrook, and Stephen Curry. An All-NBA nod would be even tougher, and to get that, Conley would have to improve in terms of conventional stats like points-per-game and assists. With so many great guards, it’s hard for a quietly effective player like Conley to be noticed.
Still, as Conley continues to improve, he’s bound to get more recognition. He just might be able to earn that respect by coming through on the biggest stage, just like Chauncey did nine years ago.
The Best Defensive Center In The League
While the 12-13 Grizzlies and the 03-04 Pistons both lack any offensive superstars, they share one trade in common: having a defensive monster playing the 5. For the Pistons, it was Ben Wallace, who blocked shots and grabbed rebounds like a man possessed, making life miserable Shaq during his time with both the Lakers and the Heat.
For the Grizz, it’s Marc Gasol. He’s a bit different than Wallace, for sure. He doesn’t grab rebounds with the same zeal (that tends to be Z-Bo’s job), but he’s just as much of an intimidating post presence, and many of the best offensive players in the league have no answer for him.
What sets Gasol apart is that while Ben Wallace was a notoriously limited offensive player, Marc is effective on both sides of the ball. He’s an excellent mid-range jump-shooter, and one of the best free-throw shooting big men in the game.
You could argue that Gasol’s defense isn’t quite as domniant as Wallace’s was, but he makes up for it by being solid on both ends of the ball, and just like Ben was with Sheed, he makes up one half of a ridiculously intimidating front court.
Well, this one’s rather self-explanatory, now isn’t it? Prince was in his second year when he won a ring with the Pistons, now he’s in year 11, and while he’s not as athletic as he was back then, he’s a much wiser player, and an important “glue guy” for the Grizzlies.
Prince made several playoff teams with the Pistons, as they were one of the better teams in the league for half a decade. This means during the playoffs, he”ll likely have a “been there, done that” attitude which could be a calming presence for the team.
What I can help but wonder is if perhaps by acquiring a member of the 03-04 Pistons, the Grizzlies have captured the spirit of that team once and for all. Perhaps Prince can act as a guide, a sherpa, if you will, as the Grizzlies go on their quest for glory. Or maybe I need some sleep.
The point is, while it’s easy to point out that very few teams have won a title without a superstar, the 03-04 Pistons pulled it off, and the Grizzlies share a stark amount of similarities with them. It doesn’t mean the Grizzlies will go on to have the same success that now-immortal Pistons team did, but does remind us that lacking a true superstar doesn’t disqualify a team from winning it all. A team with quality players, and excellent chemistry can overcome the lack of a player as dominant as Kobe or LeBron. Whether the Grizzlies will make the same journey the Pistons did remains to be seen, but one thing is certain: no one wants to be the team standing in their way.