The Memphis Grizzlies’ Best Season: 2013

The “Grit N’ Grind” Memphis Grizzlies were the last gasp of the old-school, late-90s/early aughts Dark Ages style of basketball to enjoy NBA success. Lousy on offense because of their allergy to 3-pointers, shunning eFG% and with a defense-first philosophy, it wouldn’t be until 2015 that the team even took a fifth of their shots from long range and escape the dead-last spot in 3PAR.

But before the rest of the league left them behind—the collapse of the 2016 Grizz down the stretch and a similar late-season meltdown in 2017 would finally force a rebuild that would have them back in the playoffs in 2021—the 2013 Grizzlies, with the talent they did have, managed to go 56-26, make the franchise’s only trip to the Western Conference Finals and just the second of three trips beyond the first round, and post the best regular-season record in franchise history.

So let’s look at this museum piece of a franchise and examine just how a team that was the polar opposite of every offensive trend in the NBA at the time still managed to have such an impressive year.

The On-Court Record

Memphis was dead last in 3PAR, 24th in 3-point percentage when they did shoot from out there, 25th in 2-point percentage, and 17th in offensive rating.

As the league had already begun to trend toward crashing the offensive boards less and getting back on defense to limit the fast break more, Memphis was second in the league in offensive rebounding percentage, getting back 31.0 percent of their own missed shots. Only the Denver Nuggets—who with Kenneth Faried and Kosta Koufos patrolling the restricted area when the team’s own shots went up—were higher.

Memphis was dreadful slow, playing at just an 88.4 pace in a year when the league played at 92 possessions per ballgame. And while that’s not the slowest team the NBA has ever seen—Portland played at an 86.6 pace in 2009 and Mike Fratello’s 1996 Cavaliers played so slow (an 82.3 pace) that they might as well have just committed a 24-second violation on every possession (which would, if both teams did it, produce a pace of 60 for each team)—it was gods-awful slow by the time 2013 rolled around.

Granted, the league pace hadn’t yet exploded—the league played at a 99.2 pace in 2021 and reached 100 or higher in both 2019 and 2020—but even relative to a 92 pace, 88.4 is glacial.

But the upshot of all that clock control was a team that was able to frustrate the other team at the defensive end. Teams that liked to run couldn’t get a rhythm going. Teams that also liked to play slow would find themselves forced to put up a lot of bad shots with the clock expiring—the classic case of “drag them down to your level then beat them with experience” jokingly said about arguing with idiots.

Memphis had an identity. And that identity produced a plus-4.7 Net Rating (seventh in the league), an expected W-L of 54-28 (sixth), and an actual record two games better.

In the playoffs, Memphis beat the Clippers in six and then the defending conference champion Thunder in five before finally bowing out in a sweep against the eventual runner-up Spurs, who swept Memphis by essentially doing what the Grizzlies did but better. San Antonio was third on defense but seventh on offense, and while Gregg Popovich’s offense is today regarded as painfully archaic, the Spurs’ .264 3PAR was actually ninth in the league in 2013.

Interestingly, John Hollinger, one of the earliest prophets of the modern NBA offensive religion of threes and layups, was hired during this season. He would clean house in the offseason in an effort to bring in more modern principles…and the Grizz have never done as well as they did in 2013. As a stat guy through and through, this has always been a thorn in my side, but then again, you can have all the modernity you want in your offense but without the personnel to execute it, you’re basically the 2017 Brooklyn Nets.

The Featured Players

Memphis in 2013, however, had the personnel for the system they ran.

This was the famous squad of Mike Conley at point guard, Marc Gasol at center, Zach Randolph at power forward, Tony Allen at the 2-guard, and first Rudy Gay and then, after a trade with Detroit, Tayshaun Prince at the small forward.

Conley, who finally avoided the unfortunate tag of “best player never to make the All-Star Game” when he was at last awarded the honor in 2021, put up 14.6 points and 6.1 assists per game, and while that doesn’t sound like much, it’s not adjusted for pace. Neither are any other counting stats on this team, one reason Conley was perpetually underrated. It’s hard to put up gaudy numbers on a team that plays so slowly.

Indeed, Conley’s 4.6 VORP and .172 WS/48 is one of the best seasons ever by a player who didn’t make the All-Star team.

Gasol, meanwhile, was even better—.197 WS/48 and 5.1 VORP—and he wasn’t an All-Star in 2013 either. At least he’d gone to the 2012 game. But the advanced stats reveal what the counting stats refused to. Gasol had 14.1 points and 7.8 rebounds per game. He looked nothing like an All-Star if you just went by counting stats. Yet he had the kind of five-VORP season common only to superstars—do that anything close to consistently and you’re probably headed to the Hall of Fame.

Gasol, incidentally, never topped five VORP again, but what a season…and he wasn’t even an All-Star despite playing for a 56-win team.

Allen was never truly underrated, as anyone who knew even the first thing about basketball then (or knows now) recognized him for his defensive abilities. Allen couldn’t shoot a lick—he hit 44.5 percent of his shots, but went just 3-of-24 on 3-pointers all season, with a nearly Ben Simmons-esque disdain for shooting from out there—but the Grizzlies didn’t acquire him for his shooting.

It takes a certain kind of player to put up a 13.2 PER and a 1.2 VORP in the same season, and that’s what defense buys you.

“Z-Bo” needs no introduction for his defensive capabilities either. He actually was an All-Star on that Grizz squad, posting 15.4 points and 11.2 rebounds a game while his 4.7 Defensive Win Shares were the best of his career.

The Grizzlies’ true offensive weakness was in that small forward spot. Gay shot just 40.6 percent from the field, and when they shipped him out, Prince came in and was a shadow of his former self. He’d hit 43.4 percent from long range in Detroit; he shot 36.6 in Memphis in 2013. The following year, he’d shoot just 29.0 percent from 3; by 2016 he was out of the league.

As for the bench, only two Grizzlies played 1,000 minutes or more other than the guys mentioned; those were Quincy Pondexter (.125 WS/48, 0.6 VORP) and Jerryd Bayless (.108, 1.0.) When you play a short rotation and when the few bench guys who get minutes do the most they can with them, you’re usually in good hands if everyone stays healthy, and for the most part the 2013 Grizzlies stayed healthy. That’s the stuff that 56-win seasons are made of.

The Coach

Lionel Hollins was fired after winning 56 games, such was the disdain Hollinger had for him; even after the best season by a mile in franchise history, that was enough to have Hollins shown the door.

Was he a good coach? Well, yes and no.

Yes, because records don’t lie, and coaching the team to three of the only four playoff series wins in franchise history and the best regular-season record is a result-over-process kind of testament to one’s abilities. This goes double considering the way Memphis collapsed over the next four seasons.

No, because there’s a good reason he never coached again after a brief stint in Brooklyn in 2015 and ’16. When your ability to grasp basketball strategy doesn’t change with the times, and when your team gets splattered in a playoff series with its weaknesses largely exposed, that’s a sign your time has come and gone. You only get away with that if you’ve won five rings (see Gregg Popovich post-2017.) Hollinger saw the direction NBA basketball was taking—indeed, he was instrumental in mapping out the path—and there wasn’t a place for Hollins anymore.

And one suspects that no coach in the league, past or present, could’ve kept Memphis from its destiny as their contending window closed; Dave Joerger just took the fall.

But for all the flak this site has given Hollins (see “Scott-Hollins Syndrome” just for a start), the fact remains that he was the last of an old guard, and he went down fighting. That counts for something.

Honorable Mentions

Of course Vancouver’s getting no mention here for success. The team was so bad in the late 1990s that any hope the NBA had of establishing a foothold in the Vancouver market was doomed from the start. You might be able to get Canadians interested in basketball—just look at the Toronto Raptors—but the difference there is that Toronto actually fielded a team people would want to watch.

The Vancouver Grizzlies never won more than 23 games in their six seasons, all at a time when folks in Vancouver could’ve just hopped a ferry to Seattle and watched the SuperSonics if they wanted to see an NBA game. This was before 9/11. International travel was a cinch then.

Memphis was briefly decent in the mid-aughts, making the playoffs three straight years from 2004 to 2006, but they were never truly good (the 50-32 team in ’04 was the high-water mark) and they never won a playoff series.

And the 2015 team went 55-27, second-best in franchise history, but they got bounced in the second round by the eventual champion Warriors and that was pretty much it for the Grit N’ Grind era as a serious playoff factor.

Memphis has made the playoffs 11 times in 26 seasons. Seven of those were with basically the same roster in the mid-10s. Three more were a brief surfacing from the murky depths of the NBA lottery that never amounted to anything. And the last, they needed to win two play-in games because they finished ninth and wouldn’t have made the playoffs under the pre-COVID system, which ought to have an asterisk next to it—sorry NBA, but I agree with LeBron, whoever thought up that play-in tournament needs to be fired.

In other words, a perpetual-motion machine of suck that just happened to put it all together just as the style they played was setting like the sun on the west coast of British Columbia where once they’d made their home. That’s your Memphis Grizzlies.

NEXT: Miami Heat. Not exactly a difficult Decision, is it? Stay tuned, and thanks for reading!