To say an NBA team has an identity is to also suggest that they have been quite good for a while, because being habitually and distinctly awful or even just middling gets coaches fired and rosters shuffled. There’s an argument to be made that the NBA is boring because it’s static and predictable, in a broad sense. We know at the outset of each season who will compete for the title, yet we endure a dubiously edifying 82-game dance that spans from late October to mid-April. Upstarts don’t take the league by storm, as they do in the NFL, so much as they go through protracted pupation, and the best teams stay intact. You can plot Oklahoma City’s rise without drawing any steep lines, and the Spurs’ penchant for 55-win seasons seems to stretch back to the Reagan Era. The Heat are currently sleepwalking toward the second seed in the Eastern Conference because they have no incentive to do otherwise. They will play with verve when they need to. This is normal.
The NBA regular season is there for those who want it. It’s hard to argue for its essentiality. Individual games matter or don’t depending on the engagement and fatigue levels of the players on a given night. It is basketball played as well as it is being played anywhere in the world and therefore worth watching to a certain subset of people, but I wouldn’t blame anyone for drifting in and out, or waiting until the playoffs to fully engage.
As David Roth wrote for VICE a couple years ago, NBA connoisseurs can be haughty and insufferable: self-styled vanguards who confuse knowledge of Larry Sanders with cultural cachet. The reality is that being a connoisseur of anything means submitting to tedium that most people forego for a reason. There’s very little that’s cool or even all that interesting about Utah Jazz games. There are a lot of excitable partisans who will try to convince you the NBA provides a wealth of fascinating action each night — they will pretend botched alley-oops are Paul F. Tompkins-level hilarious; they will gasp when Nick Young says anything at all — but the NBA can be boring. Perhaps it is boring most of the time.
One of the actual benefits of NBA nerd-dom is a deep understanding of the players and teams that populate it. Maybe this is why anyone becomes obsessed with anything: It is satisfying in a hard-to-pin-down way to become attuned to something, to watch an event unfold just as you know in your bones it’s going to. And it is even more satisfying to be surprised, for an event to unfold at first as you know it will, then suddenly in an unexpected way. It feels good to know and occasionally be reminded you don’t know everything. The NBA is predictable enough that it’s possible to learn its rhythms, and its athletes are intuitive and skilled enough to spectacularly upset them. If that’s too abstract, here’s Chris Bosh hitting a game-winning 26-footer:
Whether you watch the league a little or a lot, you know about the Memphis Grizzlies. No worries if you haven’t been keeping up; they haven’t changed much. It’s Zach Randolph on the block and Marc Gasol in the high post and Tony Allen in somebody’s shorts. Tayshaun Prince is worse than you remember, but he’s still got a noble great dane vibe. James Johnson qualifies as a character — he’s got a big neck tattoo — but his personality doesn’t clash with the already-established blue collar misfit toys ethos of the team. New head coach Dave Joerger floated some ideas this summer about pushing the pace offensively, and then that tentative plan fell through before the season even started. The Grizz are the Grizz. They’re still great defensively and can’t shoot from outside.
There might not be a team in the league that performs more closely to expectations than the Grizzlies. They are the diner food of the NBA. But this season has been turbulent. They started out slow, got blown out alarmingly often. Then Gasol went down with a knee injury, and they went on a bonafide skid. He returned a few weeks ago — and still looks a little out of sorts — but the team was already starting to turn it around. Joerger won Western Conference Coach of the Month for January. They’re currently sitting two-and-a-half games out of the final playoff spot in the West. The Grizzlies look like themselves again, and I assume they’ll find their way into the postseason, albeit with a worse record than usual.
Contenders stay the same, but not forever. They corrode until they sink or someone in management makes a significant change. What we’re seeing from the Grizzlies is probably the beginning of the end for this particular group of players. Randolph and Allen are both 32. John Hollinger and his staff are going to need to retool soon. All indications are that they believe in this team, at least for one more year. They rebuffed the Suns inquiry about Randolph’s availability and are in the market for a new starting small forward. The Grizz will be the Grizz for at least a few more months.
This matters to me, somehow. It is important that Memphis plays like I am accustomed to watching them play. Part of this is aesthetics: I like post-up play, and the Grizzlies are block-centric in a way no other team in the league is. But there is also just something to believing you know what a team will do and seeing if they will do it, or if they will surprise you. Everyone who throws on League Pass five nights a week just to see where it takes them has a team or two like this. It is the kind of relationship that is formed through enduring tedium, through watching low-stakes basketball games because something new might happen, and you will know it is new in a way that feels like a pleasing secret.
The NBA regular season doesn’t matter, really, but the sheer volume of stuff that happens over the course of six months allows for this slow and imperceptible accumulation of meaning where, all of a sudden, you read that the Grizzlies aren’t trading Zach Randolph, and you’re a little thrown by the intensity of your relief. You watch the Grizz that evening. James Johnson has a loud fourth quarter, but they lose to the Cavs in overtime. The game doesn’t have any grand implications. It doesn’t have to. It felt good to watch.