To understand why the Memphis Grizzlies are so wonderful, you need to understand Marc Gasol's origin story. To do that, we need to go back to the beginning of the Pau Gasol era.
When Pau was drafted by the Grizzlies in 2001, 16-year-old Marc came with his parents to live in Tennessee. He spent two seasons playing high school ball in Memphis and claimed state Mr. Basketball honors for his division as a senior. Pau had learned the game and developed strictly under European guidance. Marc had lots of that plus a crash course in urban American basketball in Memphis.
Out of that, the younger Gasol became something Pau never could be. Something that got Pau run out of town.
After three straight playoff berths but zero playoff wins, Memphis fell off considerably in 2006-07. The following season looked like a repeat, and Pau began to take heat locally for not being good enough to carry a team beyond the first round.
The knock on Pau was that he was soft. And he appeared to handle things poorly: he played passive, he feuded with the hot new coach and he sulked. The common sentiment was that he saw the writing on the wall. The Grizzlies' run of success was over, he was trade bait and he gave up. That just egged on his doubters, creating a destructive cycle. Memphis doesn't bluff, you know. And at the time, there was a strong and growing sentiment coming out of the ordeal that Pau wasn't tough enough to be a Grizzly.
So the Grizzlies traded Pau to the decidedly un-Memphis L.A. Lakers, where he immediately brightened up and helped Kobe Bryant run through the entire Western Conference on the way to the Finals. The only city happier than Memphis during the Game 6 Finals beatdown the Celtics laid on the Lakers was Boston itself. When you root for a hopeless team, schadenfreude is often the only joy you can find.
And make no mistake: the post-Pau Grizz were hopeless. It was a team without speed that tried to run. It was a roster filled with defenders who played in a totally useless scheme. All young players are flawed, but the Grizzly cubs had obvious deficiencies.
Consider the 2007-08 roster featured Darko Milicic, Kwame Brown, Javaris Crittenton, Stromile Swift, an aging Damon Stoudamire and Casey Jacobsen. It also had a young Kyle Lowry, a rookie Mike Conley, Mike Miller at the peak of his powers and the wonderful yet brief NBA career of Juan Carlos Navarro. The Grizzlies lost 60 games.
The next season was worse, though in retrospect the shape of revival began to take shape. Marc Iavaroni, that hot new coach who was way overmatched, got canned and the most recent Lionel Hollins era began. Hollins was the perfect coach for Memphis. Not the Grizzlies, but Memphis.
Iavaroni was a system coach out of the Mike D'Antoni tree, which is very not Memphis. Hollins is as old school as they come (often to his detriment) and was a better fit. The front office botched the draft by ending up with O.J. Mayo instead of Kevin Love, but as a rookie Mayo got things done. Conley looked a bit better. And most importantly, Marc Gasol arrived.
After high school in Memphis, Marc played professionally in Spain and was a lower-rung NBA prospect when the Lakers drafted him in the second round in 2007. Memphis, who knew Marc well, nabbed him in the Pau trade. He agreed to join the NBA and play in his second hometown.
But really, those teenage years in Memphis deserve so much credit for Marc's game and standing in Bluff City. Just as NYC guards are granted innate handles, just as seemingly every guy from Seattle has a killer crossover, just as every player from Chicago has zero problems throwing himself into traffic in the lane -- Memphis gives its people grit. That's what Pau was perceived to be missing and what Marc has in abundance.
The basketball science explanation of the Grizzlies' rise from that moment is pretty standard: the team bought low on Zach Randolph, focused on buying cheap defense (like Tony Allen), offered a strong environment for Conley and Gasol to grow and focused on consistency.
There were mistakes, as well. Rudy Gay got an oversized contract, Mayo flamed out, Lowry was wasted behind Conley, the 2009 draft was a horrible disaster and a new franchisee clashed with Hollins. But when the good overcame the bad, the good was really good.
Now the Grizzlies might be the best team in the entire NBA, a culmination of years of -- what else? -- grinding up the ladder. The King of Memphis is Z-Bo, a player who was salary-dumped three straight times before re-blossoming as a '90s-style bruiser in Grizzly Blue. The Grindfather is Tony Allen, the league's most manic defender since the Indiana version of Ron Artest (and someone with as much personality, too).
Together, the pair makes the Grizzlies feel like the most dangerous team in the league, the squad most likely to spark a brawl at any moment. (Ask Blake Griffin and the Clippers about that.) Conley is the team's Alfred: calm, incredibly intelligent and way more important than any casual observer can know. His steady presence is a counterweight to the brand of crazed funk Z-Bo and T.A. provide.
And at the center of it all is Marc. A little bit Spain, a little bit Memphis. A little bit Z-Bo, a little bit Conley. An evolved Pau who sprung from the seed of the original Gasol era in Memphis. In retrospect, how everything happened -- the end of the Pau era, the lambasted trade, the lean years -- seems predestined, a storybook whose climax is yet to come. That's what makes the Grizzlies so wonderful: the funky chemistry, the throwback aesthetic and the promise of a happy ending.