My colleague Brian Floyd wrote that in beating the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 6 Friday, the Memphis Grizzlies had "cheated death," and that's just a perfect way of framing what's happened, because the Grizzlies have cheated death again and again. It's worth assessing how this series has been framed, with the teams involved drawing such divergent narrative.
The Thunder, of course, have done everything right. Sam Presti is the wunderkind GM, bred by the San Antonio Spurs, eye on advanced metrics, completely modest but unfettered in his control of the roster. Oklahoma City built through the draft, while in Seattle drafting Kevin Durant and Jeff Green while hoarding draft picks; in the transition summer the Thunder picked up Russell Westbrook and a year later James Harden. That's four top-five picks, two of them All-Stars within three years, another a legit Sixth Man of the Year candidate in his sophomore season, the other a solid roleplayer. That roleplayer, Green, was parlayed into a strong starting center (hard to come by) before reaching free agency.
The Thunder avoided long, tricky contracts, and refusing to make a huge trade or free agency splash before the team was ripe. Sitting on cap space in 2009 despite real designs on the 2010 playoffs, Oklahoma City exuded patience and a comfort with the team's own skin. The path was being laid out, it was obviously lined with gold, and there was not hurry.
Then there's the Memphis Grizzlies. In the 2006-07, the Grizz finished with the worst record in the NBA; the Sonics finished three spots ahead. Lady Luck smiled upon Seattle and granted the No. 2 pick, Kevin Durant, an all-NBA performer and potential MVP. Memphis ended up as low as they could finish in the lottery, No. 4. Mike Conley was the prize. Both teams were bad the following year. Oklahoma City ended up with Westbrook at No. 4; the Grizzlies (No. 5) traded up to grab O.J. Mayo ahead of OKC, taking on salary in the process. Not the Thunder way, certainly.
But it's in 2009 where these teams go down paths unrecognizable to each other. The Thunder continue to build slowly, patiently. They end up with the No. 3 pick in the draft, and have a chance to take potential franchise guard Tyreke Evans. Instead, they pick for "fit" -- they make the decision based on who will be able to succeed with Durant and Westbrook, and that pick is Harden. The Grizzlies pick up the No. 2 slot. Their decision-maker, owner Michael Heisley, who at this point begins to openly tinker with the roster despite having an experienced general manager in Chris Wallace, becomes enamored with UConn center Hasheem Thabeet. Without even working him out, Memphis makes Thabeet the pick.
In the meantime, the Grizzlies, ripe with cap space on account of Heisley wanting a non-playoff payroll down around the league salary floor, use that space to pick up a talented but troubled and expensive and very available player in Zach Randolph. The Blazers had dumped Randolph for almost literally nothing two years prior, just to get him away from their own young core. He flamed out under Isiah Thomas in New York. He flamed out with the Clippers. Yet the Grizzlies -- the young, building Grizzlies -- blew their cap space on him. The heavens shook, and a gag gift dropped from the sky. The Thunder had Durant, Westbrook, Harden and forever. The Grizzlies had Z-Bo, Rudy Gay, Mayo, Mike Conley, Thabeet and clown shoes.
And here we are, heading to a Game 7 with entry to the Western Conference Finals on the line. Conley finally developed; he's still a shade of Westbrook at best, but he's been just lovely at times in this series. Mayo, who had a fistfight with Tony Allen and a 10-game suspension for PEDs within a month this season, has again found his swagger, and was excellent in a starting role in Game 6. Randolph has been both an excellent citizen (as far as we know) and one of the best forwards in basketball; he's even learned how to pass a little bit! (He might have more assists and hockey assists in these playoffs than in the Portland-New York-L.A. years combined.)
Marc Gasol was a treasure, the most Thunder-y player on the roster, and without him, this crazy escapade doesn't work. He's the pre-existing make-up call for Thabeet, who was pawned off for a rental of Shane Battier, another Thunderish roleplayer. Memphis swung for the fences with Thabeet and struck out wildly; on Westbrook in particular, Presti had swung for the fences and hit a homer.
But Memphis found its luck elsewhere, and has shown that there's another way: a bizarre, terrifying, Russian roulette method to building a winner. It might not be replicable, it might not be legal in all 50 states. But it's something to behold, and to cherish, so long as we have these Grizzlies in our lives.