The Grizzlies Are Finding The Winner Within


They say the first cut is the deepest. Most Grizzlies fans are feeling the pain from that right now. Grizz Next Gen’s first season came to an end after an incredible final game against Portland. This season served as an exciting start to the next era of success in Memphis, despite the end result.

It’s been said a million times, and will be said a million times more– the Grizzlies have an extremely bright future. While their next few steps aren’t fully defined, it’s fair to expect the best. They’ve got one of the best young cores in the league, and their newly revamped front office has fans feeling confident. Last year’s draft has the potential to be the greatest in Grizzlies history. Taylor Jenkins has taken a young team and established a budding culture. They were one win away from the playoffs in what was meant to to be a rebuilding year.

A Bubble Burst

All of that, and things still hurt right now. Why? Because an exceptional season had an anticlimactic ending. Pre-bubble, the Grizzlies were regaining their rhythm after a brutal post-All-Star stretch. They were on the brink of hitting their second wind when the season came to a halt. Jaren Jackson Jr., Brandon Clarke and Justise Winslow were all on the verge of returning for one of the team’s tougher stretches.

Then, the entire world stopped. Facing an unknown virus and unprecedented circumstances, the NBA had no choice but to pause play. Luckily, Adam Silver and the NBPA were able to form the Bubble, which worked perfectly. Sitting in the eighth seed, the Grizzlies were one of 22 teams invited to finish the season. As the details emerged, fans started feeling hopeful about what the team could do. On the other hand, there were some that felt the deck was unfairly stacked against Memphis. As play resumed, things quickly went south.

The Grizzlies were given one of the toughest schedules in the league, with the most important games up first. Their first three opponents — Portland, San Antonio and New Orleans — were all teams that were looking to overtake Memphis. The Grizzlies started flat, and stayed there. Their basketball issues were well-known, but the team was lacking their swagger and intensity. The absence of Tyus Jones further increased their problems. After their third game, it was announced they would be without Jaren Jackson Jr. as well. By luck (or design, depending on who you ask), the Grizzlies’ bubble turned into their worst nightmare.

When it was all said and done, the Grizzlies lost their play-in game to the Blazers and are back in Memphis. They get to watch as Damian Lillard and company face the Lakers in round one. They get to go home, rest, then get back to their grind. This loss, as much as it hurts, is the first step to this team’s future success. They’re still finding their winner within.

“The Innocent Climb”

In Pat Riley’s 1993 novel The Winner Within, the NBA legend details the necessary steps every team must go through on the path to greatness. Using his experiences with the Showtime Lakers and Ewing-era Knicks, Riley applies lessons learned to real-world scenarios. The Grizzlies’ season experience featured a few of the steps detailed in The Winner Within.

While the Grizzlies are far from being championship contenders, they took the first step this season. Riley calls this “the innocent climb.” This step happens when players harness their competitiveness and territorial nature for the betterment of the team. He explains how to detect innocence: “when a gifted team dedicates itself to unselfish trust and combines instinct with boldness and effort – it is ready to climb.” He details how the 80’s Lakers’ climb began in 1979 when the team drafted Magic Johnson. Riley broke down Johnson’s game, and it sounds shockingly similar to Memphis’ own Ja Morant:

“Earvin had both style and efficiency and knew when to let one dominate of the other. He quickly established himself as a dominant player, but he did in in a unique way. He was an avid student of all the styles of basketball. Instead of crushing his teammates under his own greatness, he studied their styles and figured out how he, as the man controlling the movement of the ball, could help them get the most out of the abilities they had. He dealt to their strengths.”

The similarities don’t stop there, either. In the Lakers’ first game, they won on a Kareem Abdul-Jabbar game-winner. Until that point, Kareem’s Laker tenure had been all business. Riley explained how KAJ was casually walking off the court when Magic ran over and praised him. That fire and passion became a staple of Magic’s career, and eventually became infectious. Morant has a similar fire about him. It is one of the many ways he is unprecedented in Memphis– they’ve never had that from a point guard. His fire became apparent in his third game, when he went right at Kyrie Irving. Morant blocked Irving’s last-second shot attempt, then set up the game-winning shot in overtime.

While the two teams had drastically different endings to their seasons, both took the first step in their path to greatness. The Lakers went on to become a dynasty– a future fans would love to see in Memphis.


“A thunderbolt is something beyond your control, a phenomenon that one day strikes you…it rocks you…you have no choice except to take the hit.” Grizzlies fans have plenty of experience with thunderbolts. Some have been good, others not so much. Riley tends to view thunderbolts in the negative sense, often as inhibitors to teams’ success.

Looking at it from Riley’s perspective, the Grizzlies had their share of thunderbolts this season. The biggest one, the hiatus, affected the entire league, but hit each team differently. For Memphis, the initial thought was that the hiatus would be a positive and allow the team to get healthy and re-establish their mid-season rhythm. Unfortunately, what was predicted to be smooth sailing ended with more thunderbolts.

The first post-hiatus thunderbolt was injuries. A few days before their opener, the team announced Justise Winslow had suffered a season-ending hip injury. Winslow had yet to appear in a game for the team, so most expected the team to perform well despite the loss. The bigger bolt came shortly after, when it was announced Tyus Jones would miss the first week, and the Grizzlies’ most important, winnable games. The ripple effects of the Jones injury were massive, and the team’s performance suffered without him.

Just when it seemed things couldn’t get worse, they did. After the Grizzlies’ third game, it was announced that Jaren Jackson Jr. suffered a season-ending meniscus tear. Jackson had been the Grizzlies’ best player through those three games. The team was 0-3, down two key players, and the season had been back for less than a week. The scenario is shockingly similar to the one Riley references.

In the last game of the 1983 season, Riley lost star rookie James Worthy. The team weathered the storm, marching through the playoffs. In the last game of the conference semis, they lost Bob McAdoo, a key piece to their title team from the year before. Then, in game one of the finals, they lost their starting shooting guard as well. The losses destroyed the team’s attitude. Riley explained they adopted the mindset of, “we all silently decided that if anyone had the right to lose, it was us. This simply wasn’t our year – what else could we do?”

At times, it seemed that the Grizzlies adopted the same mindset. They didn’t come out with their usual swagger and energy in the bubble. They seemingly gave up before they started, despite having beaten almost all of their opponents before. Fortunately, this Grizzlies team might have learned how to handle these thunderbolts as they inevitably come. This mindset also led the Grizzlies to another part of Riley’s process…

“The Choke”

Riley defines choking as “defeat that results from failing to understand or accept the reality of your competitive position versus an opponent.” He explains that choking is a “universal experience” and is “always miserable – but by no means necessarily terminal.” Choking means that a team has something to overcome before they can show the world their best, Riley says. “Choking means that you are at least midway in climbing the steps that lead to ultimate success,” he argues.

It’s debatable if the Grizzlies choked their position away. Some say they just lost out to more experienced teams, while others say they were in a great position and choked it away. I side with those that say they choked, and not just because they lost.

In my opinion, the Grizzlies choked because they didn’t bring their best effort. They beat themselves. I think the transition from hunter to hunted gave them the victim mentality Riley discusses throughout The Winner Within. Riley details the aftermath of his team’s choke in 1984. After losing Game 7 in Boston, fans stormed the court. Some verbally and physically attacked his players or Laker fans. Upon trying to leave, the team bus was swarmed and damaged by a mob. The Grizzlies didn’t face any mob in person, but fans and opponents across social media certainly spoke their minds.

Riley also explains how Sun Tzu’s The Art of War played a role in how he learned to avoid chokes. In his book, Tzu says “know your enemy and know yourself and you can fight a hundred battles without disaster.” Riley takes that further, explaining that “over- or underestimating your competitor leads to clutching because you don’t know your enemy. It’s just as bad when you don’t know yourself.” The Grizzlies, being a young team, are still figuring themselves out. They had ample time to learn their enemy, but at times went far, far away from their identity.

This off-season serves as a crucial step in how the Grizzlies’ future pans out. “You have no choice about how you lose,” Riley states. “But you do have a choice about how you come back and prepare to win again.” The Grizzlies have to be diligent in their off-season training. They have to be totally prepared for the challenges ahead. Riley lays out the next steps. He explains that being ready does not equal being prepared, saying “preparation demands mental and physical conditioning and conscious planning.” The Grizzlies have to be sure not to fall into the defeatist mindset.

The Silver Lining

A lot of what’s been discussed here is focused on the negative parts of the Grizzlies’ season. The purpose of doing that is to explain that the Grizzlies are in the first steps of a proven cycle that every team goes through. The difference between the successful and unsuccessful teams is how they respond to each step.

Pat Riley is one of the greatest winners the league has ever seen. That was true in 1993, when the book was released, and he’s only added to his impressive resume since then. If I want my team to trust anyone’s process, it’s his. The Grizzlies are going to be okay, we all know that. The difference between being okay and being great lies in their hands.

If they need help, they have a proven blueprint to follow. A map to their winner within.

Follow us on Twitter @Grizz_Lead for the latest Grizzlies news and insight.

About Richmond Bailey Caldwell

Die-hard Grizzlies fan since 2009. Aspiring basketball writer and coach. University of Georgia sport management alum. Perennial first team all-defense selection.

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