NBA rivalries used to be about something: an exclusive claim to hoops supremacy, intra-divisional beefs, a perceived lack of respect. But it’s been hard to keep up those grudges during an era in which players come into the league as childhood pals, move teams constantly and barely play defense against one another. Nowadays only one team keeps the others on edge, and it’s the Memphis Grizzlies. Everybody hates them.
Their bad boy arc starts with a classic betrayal. In summer 2019 the Grizzlies were part of a three-team swap that brought Andre Iguodala to Memphis. Iguodala is the gold standard for NBA glue guys, a former finals MVP who remains valuable as an unofficial player-coach and clutch contributor despite his advanced age. But when he balked at filling that same role for a rebuilding Memphis squad and didn’t even show up to their facility, team management reportedly agreed to buy out his $17m contract or trade him to a playoff contender. Naturally, his new teammates swiftly took offense at Iguodala’s stance, beating their chests when Memphis defied expectations and passed Golden State, his former team, in the Western Conference standings. “We all had the vision,” said Memphis’ Dillon Brooks. “He didn’t, which is perfect. Send him back to the Warriors and let him do his thing over there.”
Ultimately, Iguodala was traded to Miami before resurfacing with the Warriors. (“If they really wanted me,” Iguodala said of the Grizzlies in a recent podcast interview, “they would’ve fined me for not showing up.”) Months earlier the Grizzlies had brought the Warriors’ season to an end in the league’s play-in round. Then the Warriors returned the favor in last year’s Western Conference semifinals; it was a series that saw Brooks trade flagrant foul ejections with Draymond Green (an NBA menace in his own right), Grizzlies superstar Ja Morant accuse the Warriors’ Jordan Poole of deliberately injuring his knee midway through the series, and all this as Memphis fans jeered Golden State to the tune of Whoop That Trick. While Golden State went on to be crowned NBA champions, the chips on the Grizzlies’ shoulders grew to a Sisyphian scale.
Really, they’ve been stuck in Beatrix Kiddo mode since the Iguodala “trade”, picking fights over whatever slights them. Asked to name the Western Conference teams posing an obstacle to Memphis’s title hopes, Morant quipped: “I’m fine in the West.” (Never mind the matter of reigning NBA MVP Nikola Jokic’s Denver Nuggets atop the conference table.) Recently, Steph Curry revealed the crazy talk he hears from Brooks when they’re matched against each other – stuff like, “We’re already a dynasty.” (Never mind last year’s playoff result.)
Brooks in particular has made a name for himself this season with physical play that often goes over the line. Last month he was suspended for his part in a bench-clearing brawl during a game against Cleveland that started with him rolling into the leg of Donovan Mitchell after a missed layup and punching the Cavaliers guard in the groin. Asked whether Brooks’s foul was a cheap shot, Mitchell shot back: “That’s just who he is.”
The Grizzlies don’t even go easy on their own fans – not after the Memphis crowd shouted for Morant to “sit back out” during his rusty first game back from a month-long health absence last season. “Normally, when anybody says something negative about me, it fuels me,” he said. “But tonight the remarks from the fans actually hurt.” It may well have been the point of no return on the Grizzlies’ bad boy arc, the moment when they fully embraced chaos.
On the road earlier this year against the Lakers, the Grizzlies were determined to be the ones to start it and finish it with fans. Brooks lit the match by shouting back at a courtside spectator who said he couldn’t guard LeBron James. The fan was also sucked into a harsh verbal exchange with Ja’s father, Tee. During a play stoppage, Brooks, Morant and Grizzlies big man Steven Adams made a beeline toward the spectator – who, upon further inspection, was just as big and belligerent as the players approaching him.
Turns out, that fan was none other than Shannon Sharpe, the hulking NFL great turned TV sports debater and LeBron James fan club president. And while the optics of NBA players getting into it with paying customers surely gave the league office unwelcome flashbacks to the Malice at the Palace, say this much for the Grizzlies: at least the fight they picked was with literally the biggest fan in the joint. What’s more, Sharpe, who was briefly removed from his seat, was forced to apologize on air for his part in the war of words as the Grizzlies thumped their chests again. “A regular pedestrian like him?” Brooks chortled. “He shouldn’t have never came back in the game. But it’s LA.” The headlines scolded the Grizzlies for “Wearing out Their Welcome” and generally being “Annoying”.
The attitude in Memphis isn’t a put-on. It’s effectively who the team has been since moving from Vancouver in the early-aughts and shaking off all that Canada Nice (not even the Ontario-born Brooks, aka Memphis Bill Laimbeer, hews to the type). The 2010s are fondly remembered as their Grit and Grind era – a simpler time when low-post tough Zach Randolph styled himself as a bully’s bully, defensive nuisance Tony Allen kicked Chris Paul in the head and center Marc Gasol wouldn’t hesitate to elbow his taller older brother in the face. But even so, those Grizzlies weren’t exactly hated, because they were never a serious title threat. During their run of seven consecutive postseason appearances from 2011 through 2017, the Grizzlies only made it beyond the conference semi-finals once.
The current Grizzlies players aren’t just tough. They’re led by Morant – maybe the most exciting player in the game not named Giannis Antetokounmpo. They’re still young – just 24 on average. The defending champion Warriors, always in the way, are just barely treading water above the playoff cut line. If the situation holds and Memphis fails to overtake Denver, the Grizzlies could well find themselves facing Golden State again in the first-round of this year’s playoffs.
Surely those who witnessed the heyday of Bird and McHale’s Celtics, the Bad Boy Pistons, and Shaq and Kobe’s Lakers never imagined the day when pro basketball would have one rivalry game – the Grizzlies v Warriors – worth watching. The open hostility and bitterness that defined those bygone eras have been replaced with runaway scoring. And while hot streaks certainly have their appeal – they’re big, they’re buzzy, they put butts in seats – they don’t stir the soul quite like good ol’ fashioned resentment.
All of which is to say: perhaps the league has miscast the Grizzlies. Sure, every game with them is a grudge match, and they clap back at their own fans. But, if anything, they’re more antihero than outright villain – an NBA team that actually means something. It’s just that they never mean well.
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