The Grizzlies have had an absolute nightmare of a season. Because they came into the season with Marc Gasol and Mike Conley and Tyreke Evans and [gulp] Chandler Parsons on the team, they started with the goal of making the playoffs. But Conley played just 12 games this season; Gasol’s efficiency and defensive prowess have fallen way off; and Chandler Parsons is now, at best, just a guy. The Grizzlies haven’t been in the playoff picture since an 11-game losing streak way back in late November.
It’s taken them a while to shift fully into tank mode, again because they’ve had Marc Gasol, who is totally not here for tanking, per the Commercial Appeal:
Doing the right thing, it’s important, it makes you win games, and winning is what this is about. It’s not about somebody playing well, or getting your reps, or developing players, because, you know, we have a league for that. We have a league, and a team here in Memphis, to develop guys. This is the NBA, not the [developmental] league.
It’s unclear when or if they ever fully embraced the tank: they had an opportunity to trade Tyreke Evans at the trade deadline, and passed; Evans has probably been their best player this season, and keeping him around for the end stages of a lost season would almost certainly yield more wins than a truly tanking team would have any interest in accumulating. For that matter, they could’ve moved Marc Gasol, although the changing nature of the center position and the glut of reasonably useful bigs around the league would’ve certainly depressed what was once sky-high value for the big Spaniard. The Grizzlies did move James Ennis, but that move, on its face, doesn’t have the rebuilding upside of moving guys like Evans or Gasol, who might generate genuinely valuable future assets in return.
The Grizzlies also play in Memphis, which is a tiny market by professional sports franchise standards, and NBA teams in tiny markets are famously reluctant to jump into extended rebuilding projects. Forbes ranked the Grizzlies among the least valuable NBA franchises last year; ESPN’s big NBA financials scoop revealed the Grizzlies were among the 14 NBA franchises losing money annually. If they’re reluctant to trade the best player in the history of their organization and launch headlong into an indefinite period of full-blown non-competition, you can kinda start to see why!
At any rate, if they weren’t looking for the tank train, the tank train certainly found them. The Grizzlies, after a blowout loss Saturday to the also-tanking Dallas Mavericks, have now dropped a whopping 17 straight games, the longest such streak in a single regular season since the Sixers lost 18 in a row to open the 2015-16 season. The streak is reaching truly historic proportions: a loss Monday to the Bucks would put the Grizzlies streak in the top 20 all-time; a subsequent loss Thursday to the Bulls would move it into the top 13. They’ve got very little chance of threatening the 2010-2011 Cleveland Cavaliers for the longest losing streak inside one regular season—those dismal Cavs lost 26 in a row—but a man can dream!
So how does a team still utilizing Marc Gasol and JaMychal Green, the moderately useful Dillon Brooks, and the genuinely good and coveted Tyreke Evans, lose 17 in a row? Well, for starters, Evans is out with a rib injury, and the team is, of course, stressing caution with his recovery, which coincidentally is what you do when you are hoping not to use a guy. The schedule did Memphis no favors—or enormous favors, depending upon your view—with a stretch of games in mid-February that had them facing Utah, the Thunder twice, the Cavs, the Heat, and the Celtics, a run of teams against whom the Grizzlies would never once be favored. The Grizzlies, even with their best players in action, are still pretty bad.
But let’s not underestimate the value of creative roster deployment. This has been pretty funny to watch: in their last six games, the Grizzlies have played the Nuggets, the Magic, the Spurs, the Bulls, the Jazz, and the Mavericks; Marc Gasol, the best healthy player left on the Grizzlies, has missed two of those games, for rest: at the Magic, and at the Mavericks, both on the back-end of back-to-backs. And they’ve been using demented lineups featuring all of JaMychal Green and Jarell Martin together alongside a traditional center—a recipe for offensive death. The Grizzlies are for sure not an organization that is interested in breaking up a losing streak: at 18-48, they’ve got the worst record in the NBA, and are therefore in the driver’s seat for the most lottery combinations for the top pick in the 2018 draft lottery. To be clear, the back half of a back-to-back is tough, and the Grizzlies are bad, and plenty of good players are rested when teams look at those as acceptable schedule losses. But the schedule has supplied a credible excuse for resting Marc Gasol during winnable games, and the Grizzlies, certainly not eager to bust up a good thing, took the opportunity.
Gasol’s sanity may not survive this, but I am now kinda hoping this season’s Grizzlies never win again. First of all, it’d be hilarious and delightful to watch a team lose 33 straight (it’ll never happen). More to the point, I would like to see the Grizzlies infused with some blue-chip, franchise-altering talent, in no small part because they’ve been struggling uphill against market factors and roster limitations and injuries and decline, with their eyes resolutely on the playoffs, for years. Tanking mostly blows, but the Grizzlies have mostly rejected and eschewed it, even when faced over the years with devastating injuries to Conley and Gasol, even while this season dropped fully into the toilet. Only lately have they leaned into the tank, but late enough in the season that it won’t fundamentally alter who they are and where they stand in the league’s hierarchy. It’s a tank job a man can respect.
The Grizzlies have just two games left on their schedule against the real tanking squads: Thursday, against the Bulls, and April 6, against the Kings. They’ve got four times as many games left against teams fighting for playoff position in the fierce and crowded Western Conference. The streak may not last, but it’s not over yet!