A rebuilding small-market franchise like the Memphis Grizzlies that blew two consecutive top-5 draft picks (O.J. Mayo and Hasheem Thabeet) would normally be consigned to the lottery for the next decade. Instead, an unlikely collection of cast-offs playing a style of basketball that has long since gone out of fashion turned themselves into a conference power. They've made memorable playoff runs in each of the last two years, but they've yet to make a Western Conference finals. Even after a controversial midseason trade that sent Rudy Gay to Toronto, if recent history is any indication, they'll be a tough out.
In a league becoming more perimeter-oriented every year, Memphis is one of the few outliers. They run most of their offense through the low post and try to keep the game in the half-court, where their size and physical play can wear out opponents. Their "grit and grind" identity probably wasn't planned -- Marc Gasol was an afterthought in the deal that sent Pau Gasol to the Lakers, Zach Randolph was acquired for pennies on the dollar in a salary dump and Tony Allen was a bargain basement free agent. Even Mike Conley, the only top-5 selection in their rotation, was widely written off as a bust after his first few years in the league. NBA teams love to play the "nobody believed in us" card, but few can play it as effectively as the Grizzlies.
In 2011, they snuck into the playoffs as the No. 8 seed, where they were matched up against the San Antonio Spurs. The odds were against them, as an 8 seed had beaten a 1 in a seven-game series only once before in NBA history (Golden State over Dallas in 2007). However, their two-post offense threw a Spurs team that liked to play small around Tim Duncan for a loop. With Matt Bonner and DeJuan Blair forced to guard Zach Randolph, the Grizzlies forward put on a star-making performance, leading his team to a six-game series victory. They moved on to a brutal second-round series against the Thunder, which featured numerous swings in momentum until Oklahoma City's superior perimeter firepower proved to be the difference in Game 7.
Last season, they came into the playoffs as the No. 4 seed and faced the Clippers, another up-and-coming young team, in the first round. The Grizzlies got off to a great start in Game 1 before one of the biggest collapses in NBA history, allowing L.A. to rally from a 27-point second-half deficit that swung home-court advantage. The next six games were as much barroom brawls as basketball games, as the two teams memorably duked it out. However, the Clippers had enough size up front to play Gasol and Randolph to a draw, allowing them to sneak out an 82-72 victory in Memphis and send the Grizzlies packing.
This year, the core of Memphis' team remains, but there's been a substantial reshuffling of their supporting cast. Mayo, who never lived up to the expectations of being the No. 3 overall pick, was allowed to walk in free agency while Gay was packaged off and sent to Toronto for Tayshaun Prince, Ed Davis and Austin Daye. Trading Gay was the first major move for the Grizzlies' new ownership group and it caused a firestorm throughout the NBA, with many viewing it as more of a salary dump than a basketball move. It did save a lot of money, but it was also a doubling down on their identity as a defensive-minded, post-oriented team. Memphis still doesn't have a reliable shot-creator from the perimeter in the final moments, but they're hoping they play such great defense through the first 46 minutes that it won't be an issue.