Year None: The Memphis Grizzlies

The 2019-2020 NBA season came to an abrupt halt on March 11 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. With the season effectively three-quarters of the way through, many storylines, records-to-be, and developing comebacks were left in the lurch; all the bizarre, beautiful, and too-absorbing minutiae of the league halted. This is a look back at the most compelling of those suspended narratives in an attempt to figure out what could have been while reconciling, maybe wrenchingly, that however the season concludes, this will be a year in basketball that never fully happened. Welcome to Year None.

Oh, but they’re fun aren’t they? Lemon-bright and clarifying. A team that, tired of waiting to be ready, decided to play its own game. They refused to be bullied and then OK Boomer’d Andre Iguodala, and it only made their sweetness grow. It isn’t cloying, how honeyed they are with one another, it springs from kindness over the occasionally ingratiating models teams can take on. Less one prominent — obvious in salary, seniority or reputation — leader, they’ve all taken the time and energy to step up and would have stayed a Grind City best kept secret if they weren’t so happily fond of being flashy.

The first time I touched down in Memphis the plane banked low over the (now Bass Pro) Pyramid that sits to the east of the where the Mississippi River coils into the city, the late-afternoon sun sinking molten and heavy to the west. The sun’s light on the Pyramid bouncing directly up from the dark, shifting glass on all four sides of the structure to glance off the plane’s dipped wing and be delivered into the cabin in a dizzying, entirely blinding light. Even when, out of the necessity of safety, the plane changed course and the light winked out, we were all temporarily struck, dazed with sun spots scorched into our sights, wondering would this be permanent and smiling all the same. The Memphis Grizzlies are like that.

Let’s start small. Dillon Brooks plays like he is permanently running downhill and that when he gets there, a small trampoline is waiting. He has a fumbling, top-heavy energy of a nearly extinct from the league big man, but the tightly wound coordination to control it. Coming down the lane he throws his weight out with every step, swinging his elbows, clearing space and once he has it, an unobstructed look or a fresh-ploughed path he plants his feet, hops up, maybe lands and pogos again, swinging his arms like a helicopter the entire time, to deliver the ball not right into the basket but on a sweeping arc that catches your breath until it sails and sinks. It could be an infuriating sequence every time if you did not trust him, and his teammates do. Because when the ball clanks from all that extra velocity Brooks creates with every added step, he is right under it to grab his own rebound, try it again, an exhausting effort he never seems to tire of as he clears 22, 27, 32 points per game.

On a roster that as a rule never tires, adrenaline finds a corporal form in Jaren Jackson Jr. Like the tendency that lays in wait for all of us when presented with the option to cleanly lose or draw, Jackson Jr. likes to push. He has a tendency to work past himself, shifting into an elevated state of assurance where doubt and taking a breath are banished. Occasionally this ends in him being brick-walled in the paint between bigs he neglected to clock the size of, but more often than not it has him pulling up in the pocket, or out way deep mid-court, the momentum from his last rushing steps instantly diverted into his hands that fling the ball up, away, to float down in slow motion through the net and the hearts of the defenders who have turned to watch, forlorn.

The fountain of youth that blasts through this team as if affixed to a dad’s new power washer has scoured a bright new ceiling for the Toronto-tenured Jonas Valanciunas. Always steady, in the past occasionally to his detriment, the big and beloved Lithuanian has found a new versatility in the stabilizing role he can play for a group that can’t bear to downshift. His first year in Memphis Valanciunas averaged the highest scoring of his career, 19.9 points per game, and where he has gently tapered off this year he’s made up for it at the rim, with career best averages in offensive and defensive rebounding. Valanciunas was always a player who thrived when his role was to look out for his shooters, to sweep his whole body into territorial space-making, and there are near endless options now for who needs his physicality on a team so long and green.

Where Brooks and Jackson Jr. blunder very capably into your heart and Valanciunas protects it, Kyle Anderson is loitering around outside, waiting to be let in. It feels strange to refer to any one player on this very young team as old guard, but Anderson is. The year Anderson was meant to get comfortable instead became an overhaul. The roster was jettisoned around him, coach included, its anchor points of Marc Gasol and Mike Conley heaved up, traded north and west. Anderson learned his habits in the Spurs system and this season’s run and gleeful gun Grizzlies can make his six years in the league, even compared to some of his more seasoned teammates, feel almost antiquated. Almost. His fundamentals serve him, the ones he took from San Antonio. He is a helper, understands spacing and angles and where he best fits in most plays. If wingspans can be subtle then his 7’3” worth of one is a sleeper. Where he seems slow by virtue of the cranked up velocity around him he can at least reach to rebound and worry any incoming offender. Still, these Grizzlies don’t amble, they need to run, and Anderson may prove the last inflection in a bygone Tennessee accent eventually shed for the voice of this future generation.

At the fore of that expeditious era is Ja Morant. Twenty years old and torqued with joy, Morant was exactly who the Grizzlies wanted when they drafted him 2nd, and who the team needed to pull its plan together. But where they wanted someone to perhaps ease into play, Morant instead bounded, impervious to slow growth as much as to gravity. Where he became immediately a new model of player is where his delight and control collide. The gear he operates in does not typically lend to control, to hairpin execution within seconds split by pressure, but Morant funnels each moment through an existential ice luge, giving his already deft handles a chilling control. Morant went unscouted in high school, discovered by chance at a camp when an assistant coach from Murray State went in search of a vending machine to score an overpriced bag of chips. He plays with the simultaneous joy of someone who recognizes luck but also understands inherently its runway. That at some point, you’re going to have to conjure your own. Morant was always going to be a wonder, but the more unbelievable fact is that we get to watch.

Watching him, you feel your heart heave and shudder, your doubts contract. He has made the most curmudgeonly analysts and recalcitrant critics lead with their eyes, the rest of us force sharp breath through clenched teeth as he soars, saturnalian, as far as physics will let him push before yanking him hard back down to earth. With Morant you are at every moment as elated as you are afraid for the unfortunate circumstance of his bones, as breakable as our own more sheepish skeletons.

The full extent of his fearlessness is on display when he falls. His body connecting with hardwood a taunt he takes one step further by lying there, prone, making Mr. Olympia poses. As many half court lobs that come magnetized to his two waiting hands, body laying in wait mid-air, as many dunks that seem to see him accelerate to the rim with arms bent back behind his head, no tactile way to increase his speed but speed increasing all the same, it is maybe the way that he does not shy from colliding with the floor that embodies what this team is and will be. A certain invincibility of youth, yes, but the rote wisdom of where the very rules of the game, its form and physics, can be pressed, nudged and broken. One big slogan writ large by Morant, by the Grizzlies in gameplay, in how guys engage with one another and protectively come for those who don’t get it, is Why wait?

If you reserved any empathy for Iguodala these past few months then please, release it. Spend it elsewhere or stash it for later. He made himself a martyr, that was what he had set out to do all along, but where his own self-sacrifice turned on him was where he least expected, in rookies and those he felt automatically junior calling him — correctly — out. The core value of this team, that flourishes where they’ve miscalculated a should-be win or run themselves ragged, is showing up for each other. It is where they thrive and how you know they are here for a longer run than this season’s meteoric showing. Iguodala never understood that, because he never made himself available to either the team or its players. He felt he was owed a respect on the standing of his quantified experience alone. Brooks was the first to be asked about the veteran’s absence and his answer should have been clarifying enough, “First time I seen him was on TV talking about us. It doesn’t even matter. Andre Iguodala is a great player. I feel like he’s doing the right thing for his career. But we don’t really care.” And why should they? What mattered to the team minus Iguodala was showing up, the physicality of being there.

Brooks, in the vein of what it means to be a Grizzly, ran with it, “A guy on our team that doesn’t want to be on our team, I can’t wait ’til we find a way to trade him so we can play him and show him what Memphis really about.”

It was funny! It was also the kind of biting honesty that can be so rare in the hierarchal trappings of the league. To make a threat about sitting out your presence has to be missed, but Iguodala’s never was. In what Brooks said and Morant and others later echoed, they were already looking at the interruption as brief and had their sights set past it, if anything annoyed by the dead weight of Iguodala’s contract and attempts at trying to turn it into something it never was — a hindrance on their potential.

In all the teams that had their seasons and stories sidetracked this year with the lurching pause and even more untenable return to play, it is the Grizzlies and the sudden snuffing of their quickening joy that we should feel protective of, even though they will bounce back the fastest in whatever form this season or the next will manifest as. They are a young team in collective age as much as their history, a legacy impatient to unfurl full tilt, and this year will prove another temper to their resiliency, a blip for a group already putting mile after breathless and joyful mile behind them.