SB Nation

Paul Flannery | October 23, 2014

The road less traveled

In a league defined narrowly by ultimate success or absolute failure, three teams are taking their own path to relevance and maybe someday to a championship.

Everyone wants what the San Antonio Spurs have, yet only a handful of teams can even reasonably aspire to it. As a new season begins, there are maybe a half-dozen challengers with realistic championship hopes; a few caveats and some lucky bounces may allow a few more -- at most -- to contend.

We count the rings in the NBA and measure champions for history, ranking them and their superstars among the all-time greats. After a time, few remember the valiant losers, let alone those who were left behind in the conference finals or the early rounds of the playoffs.

The worst place to be is not the cellar, but somewhere in the big, unhappy middle.

The notion of success has been drained of meaning in a league where second place can feel as empty as last, but both are much better than the middle. The worst place to be is not the cellar, but somewhere in the big, unhappy middle, among the also-rans unable to sell either championship hopes or draft lottery dreams.

It's a harsh and mostly barren landscape for more than half the teams in the league, and yet each franchise has a different set of goals and expectations that need to be met and accounted for annually. There are steps to be taken and lessons to be learned in the search for ways up and otherwise out. Except in the rarest of exceptions and the most glamorous of markets, there are no shortcuts to reaching the ultimate goal.

This is a reminder that one team's relative failure is another's aspiration. Consider the Memphis Grizzlies, one of the league's best teams for almost half a decade. The Charlotte Hornets would love to be able to build last season's unexpected playoff run into something similarly sustainable. The Sacramento Kings would like nothing better than to experience a breakthrough like Charlotte's.

Not every team can be the Spurs, but every team does have a story. These are three of them.


The Grizzlies are a very good basketball team, a status that has won them many admirers but few actual accolades. Since their first round win over the Spurs in 2011, the Grizz have won almost 63 percent of their games. That number is even more impressive given that they went 10-13 without Marc Gasol last season and still won 50 games.

They were good enough to thoroughly dismantle Oklahoma City when it was without Russell Westbrook in 2013, en route to the conference finals. Last year they took the full Thunder squad to seven closely contested games. The Grizzlies are a team opponents dread during the long, cold months of the regular season and the proverbial team no one wants to play in the postseason.

"They look on the schedule and see that they have to play the Grizzlies, it's going to be a long night," point guard Mike Conley says after an early training camp practice. "We're going to play solid and hard and physical and it's going to be a game regardless of who we're playing. That's the image and identity that we want to portray. To have teams thinking twice."

All of which is not a bad place to be for a team that harbors championship hopes, even if they're not usually listed among the league's elite. That distinction means little in Memphis.

"That's the only thing that matters, that we believe," Conley says. "We don't care if you put us in the top five or top two or top 10 or whatever anyone else says, we're just going out to achieve our goals."

What the Grizzlies have achieved is a legacy of sustained success. That's no small accomplishment given the transient nature of the league where windows begin to close almost as soon as they open. No one personifies the Grizzlies' slow and steady ascent more than Conley, who has improved each of his seven seasons in the league.

Few teams know themselves as well as Memphis, and the result is a strictly no-frills operation.

"There's a lot of things that come into play," Conley says. "You can get complacent and say, ‘Oh I've achieved a level of success, I'm happy with where I'm at.' When you come back every year and try to reach another level you're always hungry. It's a little bit easier to make a jump, than to stay at a peak level all your career."

Their run began four years ago when they discovered that playing ferocious defense and working the ball through their post players -- Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph -- was a formula for success that could be relied on and replicated. Few teams know themselves as well as Memphis, and the result is a strictly no-frills operation. The Grizzlies' appeal lies in the quirky personalities on their roster and the manic energy in their home crowd, less so than their style of play, which is as unassuming as it is unforgiving.

"That's who we are," Conley says. "We're blue collar, we're straight to the point. There's no gimmicks, there's no show. We play hard, we do it for each other. We're not about attention or notoriety or awards, we just want to go out and win. We understand that if we win everybody gets noticed in the end."

Part of what makes the Grizzlies unique is they were built without the usual roster tropes. There is no Memphis blueprint; it would be foolish even to attempt to build a team this way. Conley, who was on the cusp of All-Star recognition last season, is the only lottery pick on the roster who was drafted by the franchise. Their best free agent move was signing Tony Allen for less than the mid-level after six up-and-down seasons in Boston.

Even their most successful trades have been opaque. Gasol was an afterthought in the deal that sent his brother Pau to Los Angeles. Randolph was seen as a high-maintenance vagabond. Trading Rudy Gay was more about maintaining flexibility than adding premium talent.

They are better than the sum of their parts, but more importantly, they are survivors. Conley arrived in 2007 and was followed by Gasol, Randolph and Allen in successive seasons. This year they return eight of their top nine players, including Randolph, who signed an offseason extension. They also bring back Quincy Pondexter, a rotation regular before a season-ending injury.

"This group has evolved in the way we had to go through the struggle together," Conley said. "We had a team that wasn't as good, then we were fighting to get to 40 wins, fighting to get the eighth seed, fighting to get home court advantage, and each year we seem to get further and further. In the course of that journey we've grown into a family with the respect we have for each other on and off the court."

There's a palpable and functional culture in Memphis, which is one of those overused words teams talk about all the time, but often don't have the patience to see it to fruition. Like most of his teammates, Conley had only known winning before arriving in the NBA. He won three state championships in Indiana and then helped lead Ohio State to the Final Four in his one and only season in college. Memphis won only 46 games his first two seasons in the league and that Conley says, was a wakeup call.

"We had to learn what it took to come down in the fourth quarter and still have energy to finish out a game or how taking care of your body, how that affects your play," Conley said. "All the things a professional has to do."

Beating the Spurs in 2011 was the turning point. It was the moment when the Grizzlies truly believed they belonged among the other good teams But they have yet to fully arrive. The next year they lost in the first round to the Clippers in a brutal seven-game series that saw them blow 27-point lead in the opening game. Then came the run to the conference finals, where the Spurs exacted revenge, and then that frustrating loss to the Thunder last season. It was yet another lesson for a team that would like to be beyond such things.

"We can't be playing catch-up like we have the last few years," Conley says. "We've had to fight so hard just to get into the eighth seed or the seventh seed because the West is so tough. We have to be in the moment, we have to be in here every day treating every game like it's the last game, because there's no promise that we get back to the playoffs. That's why it's so special. We have to want it bad enough to get there."


Not much was expected of the Charlotte Bobcats heading into last season, or of their unassuming new head coach. Two seasons removed from a disastrous 7-59 campaign and one year from an indifferent 21-61 season, the team's offseason moves were met mostly with blank stares.

After years of trying to add talent through the lottery with middling results, general manager Rich Cho abruptly changed tack and signed Al Jefferson to a three-year deal. Cho also hired Steve Clifford, a career assistant whose previous head coaching experience was limited to high school and Adelphi University, a Division II school.

Not many people were thinking playoffs, but with Jefferson as the team's offensive focal point and Clifford's defensive system in place, Charlotte improve from dead last in defensive efficiency to a remarkable fifth. The stunning 22-win turnaround that followed was all the more remarkable because of how convincing the Bobcats made it look.

With the free agent additions of Lance Stephenson and Marvin Williams, along with a popular name-change back to the Hornets, expectations have been raised to a level not seen in Charlotte since the heady days of Larry Johnson and Alonzo Mourning. Rather than retreat from these expectations, Clifford is embracing them. "I think we all should be happy about that," he says. "That's why we do this."

expectations have been raised to a level not seen in Charlotte since the heady days of Larry Johnson and Alonzo Mourning.

Despite the dramatic results, Clifford is no miracle worker. His concepts are simple and his teaching method is direct. One league executive recalls watching Clifford take a bunch of undrafted free agents at a summer camp and turn them into a cohesive defensive unit after quickly drilling them on basic principles.

"Our defense is right by the numbers," Clifford says. "We try to protect the paint first, defend without fouling and get to the better 3-point shooters. Those are the three things by number that are the best offensive possessions in the league. We played out of a base NBA system. Traditional basic defense, try to be smart, positional. It wasn't anything out of the ordinary."

The defensive improvement was a revelation, but it was Jefferson who gave Charlotte a sense of itself and made roles easier to define. As with most teams that rebuild through the draft, the Hornets were loaded with young players trying to establish themselves in the league. As with many talented young players given unlimited opportunity but little direction, the results were stark, and slow.

Many of these players had come from winning backgrounds; both Kemba Walker and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist were part of national championship teams in college. It's not that they didn't know how to win, but as with Conley's early teams in Memphis, they had to figure out the more complicated equation of winning in the NBA. With Jefferson giving the team 20-and-10 lines on a nightly basis, everything began to fall into place.

"He was our best player, and that's where basketball starts," Clifford says. "You need to have first, second and third-best players. You need to be good at the top of your roster. You need to have guys you can play through with the game on the line, guys who can score. He allowed the other guys to take one step down and play well as second, third and fourth-best players."

The Bobcats flirted with the .500 mark for the first third of the season, and after surviving a rough stretch in January, finished the year by winning 27 of their final 42 games. Jefferson injured his ankle late in the season and they were swept by the Heat in the first round, but by any realistic measure their season was an unqualified success.

Sensing opportunity in the wide-open Eastern Conference, the Hornets pursued Gordon Hayward in the offseason, signing the restricted free agent to a max-level offer sheet that Utah ultimately matched. Despite missing out on Hayward, simply pursuing him signaled that the Hornets were not content with their modest standing.

Cho moved quickly to sign Stephenson, the enigmatic former Pacer who brings playmaking and shooting to a team that needs both. He also added Williams, whose long-range shooting and ability to play as a floor-spacing four should make the Hornets far more versatile.

"The key to our season will be how much of a step we can make offensively," Clifford says. "Balance in this league wins. Our defense was good enough to play well every night. If we're going to become a team that really has a chance to do something of significance we're going to have to be much more consistent offensively right from the beginning of the season."

Adding Stephenson to a team that was hailed for its closeness and chemistry is not without its risks. As mercurial as he is talented, Lance's on-court demeanor has a tendency to devolve into what could be called antics, and which the less-charitable would label distractions. When the Hornets sat down with Stephenson in the offseason, team owner Michael Jordan stressed that controlling his emotions was vital if he wanted to reach his potential.

"When you watch him, his great strength -- and he has a lot of them -- is he's highly competitive," Clifford says. "Like all of us, your great strength is also your great weakness. He agreed with that."

Clifford was also impressed by Stephenson's development as a player from raw rookie to near-All-Star, and for his unselfish style of play. "He's not a guy out there hunting for shots," Clifford says. "He looks to make the right play. When a teammate's open he moves the ball. I see so many more positives than potential problems."

The Hornets enter the 2014-15 season with Toronto and Washington as teams that are trying to build on last year's success. All three made the playoffs after long bouts of irrelevancy and all three have designs on going even farther this season. Clifford, who learned the pro game under both Van Gundys, is nothing if not pragmatic.

"You have to be careful about goal-setting," he says. "If you have a championship-level roster it's fair to say we're a championship-level team. In terms of number of games or things like that, what I want right now is having a good training camp. If we have a good training camp then we take the next step to have a good regular season, and the regular season is to qualify for the playoffs. That's been my experience in this league, that's the way the best players look at it and that's the way the coaches I've worked for talked about it. If we really understand where we're at, that's what we'll be thinking about, too."


The Sacramento Kings want to win, and they want to win now. That may strike some as Quixotic, even misguided. After all, it's barely been more than a year since Vivek Ranadive rescued the franchise from the wayward ownership of the Maloof family and began going about trying to undo several years of what could be charitably be termed benign neglect.

These things take time, and Ranadive has certainly earned an extended honeymoon period after saving the team from relocation.

These things take time, and Ranadive has certainly earned an extended honeymoon period after saving the team from relocation. He is apparently skipping the honeymoon, though, and has made no secret about his ambitions to put a competitive team on the floor before the team begins play in their new arena.

To understand the Kings, you have to understand the fan base and their relationship with the team. It's not that everyone from Ranadive to his general manager Pete D'Alessandro want to reward their loyalty, they feel like they owe it to them.

"Our ownership feels beholden to these fans that we need to get there faster, not slower," D'Alessandro says. "Those expectations have been set and we'll do everything we can to reach it."

Since taking over as GM a little more than a year ago, D'Alessandro has turned over almost the entire roster. The only players left from the previous regime are DeMarcus Cousins and long-time forward Jason Thompson. Despite the roster churn, this is neither the standard five-year plan at work, nor a go-for-broke gambit. Even with this flurry of moves, the Kings have cap flexibility beyond this season. They have retained their draft picks. They are, even as they try to win as soon as possible, very clearly positioning themselves to win more in the future.

"We want to make the playoffs, that's our goal here," D'Alessandro says. "We always say we're trying to get there faster rather than taking the slow route. We know we still have work to do. We're going to continue to be aggressive in our thinking but we do feel really good about the direction our roster is going."

One of D'Alessandro's first moves was signing Cousins to a four-year max extension that kicks in this season. Cousins, in a very literal sense, is the franchise player around whom all other decisions are focused. His presence was a big reason why the Kings traded for Rudy Gay. Their metrics indicated that Gay would thrive playing next to DMC, and in 55 games in Sacramento, he posted some of the best numbers of his career.

Acquiring Gay was a controversial move, and one greeted with far more skepticism than praise. The same could be said of the Kings' decision to let point guard Isaiah Thomas leave in free agency, while replacing him with Darren Collison and Ramon Sessions, but D'Alessandro is undeterred.

"We think the world of Isaiah and his talent is unquestioned," D'Alessandro says. "No one said, ‘Isaiah can't play.' We all think he can play. The end result was 28 wins for us. That's not Isaiah's fault, DeMarcus' fault, Rudy's fault. All I know is you can't come back with the same thing year after year and just expect it to happen. This league is about making decisions and so we did."

All of this all comes back to Cousins in one way or another. Still just 24 years old, he's already posted numbers that put him among the league's elite and after a successful summer playing with Team USA, sentiment has begun to favor the big man who has been both celebrated and castigated for his style of play. But no one questions his talent, and with an infusion of veterans, the Kings believe that his best is still to come.

"We discover new things every day," D'Alessandro says. "He can play off the elbows, he can play with his back to the basket. He's not just one of the better passing big men, I think he's one of the better passers in the league. The more people you have around him who understand how to play with him they realize they can use in so many ways. It gives you so many options."

Having Gay and Cousins on Team USA was big for the franchise. It gave them a shot of credibility and also allowed the two players time to continue playing together over the summer. How they work together will go a long way toward determining whether the Kings are able to meet their lofty goals. They're not shy about expressing them.

"I said our goal is to be a playoff team," D'Alessandro says. "You can judge whether that's a good goal, a bad goal, I don't know, but it has to be our goal. It has to be. How can that not be our goal? No one wants to sit through losses. None of us do. As a general manager, from our owner to all the people who work me in the office to our coaching staff, we all want to win. More than anyone, our fans do. It's been a long time here and we're going to try."

Producer: Chris Mottram | Editor: David Roth | Photos: Getty Images

About the Author

After covering everything from 8-man football in Idaho to city politics in Boston, Paul came to SB Nation in 2013 to write about the NBA. He developed the Sunday Shootaround column and profiled players such as Damian Lillard, Draymond Green, and Isaiah Thomas. When not in arenas, he can usually be found running somewhere.