Marc Gasol was traded from the Memphis Grizzlies to the Toronto Raptors at the trade deadline, and fans are still processing the emotions.
Eight years ago, I got a copy of NBA 2K as a birthday gift. At the time, I had no interest in basketball – never watched a single game. But as a pudgy suburbanite, I loved video games, so in the disc went. One thing led to another (he said as if describing a drunken night at a party), and soon enough I was watching the NBA religiously.
Let’s not mince words here. I fell in love with the Memphis Grizzlies. I watched my hometown Celtics, of course, and I appreciated the greatness of LeBron and Dirk and Duncan. It was an exciting time in the NBA to be becoming a fan, but I could care less about the finesse movement or the hyperathletic stars of the world. Instead, I fell in love with the team that rejected flash and flair and style. The Memphis Grizzlies were a team in the mud, and I loved every moment.
Everything about them was different. You had Zach Randolph, a charging wooly mammoth who had no qualms about destroying opponents with terrifying power. You had Tony Allen, who defended larger opponents fearlessly and made their lives miserable. There are scrappy teams, but this was more – this was an entire fanbase, through the course of years, adopting Grit n Grind as something more than a mantra. The FedEx Forum is the Grindhouse. Tony Allen was the Grindfather.
And then there was Marc Gasol, who is in many ways a dichotomy. Gasol fought down low with Randolph, forming one half of the twin-towers duo that made Memphis a terrifying physical presence. He also had – and has – one of the best basketball IQs in the game. His defensive intellect is the asset that made him an MVP candidate in Memphis’s heydey, and his shooting stroke and passing ability hint at European finesse. He and Randolph had differing styles, and that’s what made it work. They were two low post studs who could not just coexist, but thrive; one with brutality, one with skill, both with plenty of heart on display.
With Allen and Randolph long gone, the Grizzlies still had Gasol going into this season. They also had Mike Conley, who has been with the Grizzlies since 2007 and has endeared himself to the fans as much as Gasol has. Captain Clutch has delivered big in the playoffs, multiple times fighting through multiple injuries. He brings defense, shooting, and playmaking, and can go toe to toe with the All-Star point guards of the league on any given night.
There are just so many memories with Conley and Gasol. And there were supposed to be more. Following an off-season of retooling and in a season where they held the top seed for a very brief stretch, fans thought, hey, maybe this can keep going for a while longer. Maybe this recipe of hard-nosed defense plus a little bit of offense from Conley and Gasol can keep winning for a little while longer. We’re only two years removed from them being a playoff team – what if last year was an aberration?
But everything fell off a cliff, and soon enough they were a basement dweller again. Fans knew what that meant. This was supposed to be one last try, and if it didn’t work, they needed to start rebuilding. Memphis isn’t Boston or New York or Los Angeles – they can’t be bad for too prolonged a period of time, or else talks of relocating the franchise to Seattle or Las Vegas will start to circulate. They couldn’t afford to do nothing.
So now Gasol is gone. Conley is still hanging around, at least until this summer when the trade market opens up again. If the team’s draft pick falls out of the top 8 of the draft this year, it conveys to Boston. They’ve not been at all shy about wanting to convey this year, with this weak draft. So winning is the goal, for now.
Meanwhile, Gasol is over in Toronto. The early returns look good, and on paper he’s an insanely good fit over there. He is a giant defensive upgrade over Valanciunus, and not just as an individual defender. He raises the collective defensive IQ of any team dramatically. And on offense, he gives the Raptors a deadly big man playmaker – they’ve never had anything like that before. The fact that Gasol’s coach from the Spanish national team is a Raptors assistant just gives you more confidence that they’ll use him well.
Grizzlies fans should want to see Gasol win. They should want the same for Conley, too. For all their playoff runs in Memphis, they were never a real title contender. They were a team nobody wanted to face, but you weren’t picking them to win it all. Gasol has that chance in Toronto. We want to see him find success, because a player of his caliber deserves it.
But that’s the problem with a player like Gasol. Players staying with teams for this long is a rarity nowadays. Players having success with one team for so long is even rarer. For a group of individuals to create a culture and to capture fans’ hearts with it like this group of grizzlies did is something incredibly special.
He’ll always be a Grizzly. And Grizzlies fans will cheer for him wherever he plays.
But it’s damned hard letting him go.