We all know the quote and have heard it a hundred times, but I’m going to make you read it once more because I love it so damn much: “I’m fine in the West”. It’s easily going down as one of the worst answers to an interview question in NBA history. I think it’s got the fighting power for a seven game battle with Klay Thompson’s “I guess his feelings got hurt”, which he said after the Warriors took a 3-1 lead in the 2016 NBA Finals… we all know what happened next. The difference between the quotes? Klay Thompson took aim at one super-human who made him eat his words for three games and a Finals MVP later. Ja Morant took aim at half the NBA with three quarters of the season yet to be played. He even doubled down on the quote during the all-star game.
You know the classic Kobe “jobs not finished” interview? Ja Morant decided to do the opposite and call the job while he was still getting out of his truck and tying his boots.
Everything that’s happened since that quote seems like some sweet justice that you only read about in books and see on the big screen. The Grizzlies went from being a talented, likable, group of young guys with a real threat to the title–to one of the most disliked teams in the league, seemingly finding themselves in a new confrontation in every state they go. Whether it’s on or off the court, the news coverage has been endless and it’s usually for something that has nothing do with basketball.
I think things started going south when the whole team decided to confront Shannon Sharpe for talking shit. The exchange itself was rather meaningless and the only thing to come from it was some great social media clips, but in my mind this is where their focus shifted.
The Grizzlies went into the LeShannon incident on a 11 game win streak and sitting tied at first place in the West. At that point in the season, the “I’m fine in the West” quote didn’t look so bad because the Grizzlies were truly rolling through every team in the West.
From the time of the LeShannon Incident to the all-star break, the Grizzlies went 4-8 and dropped out of first place; now sitting in second and six games behind the Nuggets. Over that same span, they found themselves in some sort of unnecessary drama almost every night. Just five short games after the LeShannon incident, Ja Morant was involved in an off the court situation in which he confronted two members of the Pacers traveling party, who claimed they had a red laser shined on them from the of inside Ja’s SUV (as reported by Bob Kravitz and Sam Amick of The Athletic). One person who was involved in the confrontation stated “we felt we were in grave danger”. Ja continues to be out here running around like he’s Birdie in Above The Rim with little regard for the hundreds of millions in his future.
Two games later, Dillon Brooks went up for a layup and had a collision with Donovan Mitchell in-air. After hitting the ground, Brooks decided to be unnecessarily dramatic and rolled up onto Mitchell’s ankles. In the process of rolling around, he flopped his arms and landed a punch straight to Mitchell’s family jewels. Like any man on earth, Mitchell defended himself after a cheap shot to the go-nads. (Real quick side note because game always recognizes game; Dillon Brooks is an elite level instigator. Maybe the best in the league.)
The Grizzlies continued to prove they’re more bark than bite as the fight was quickly de-escalated when Dillon Brooks got tackled by his own trainer. Props to the Grizzlies trainer. He probably saved a couple guys from suspension and landed a perfect form tackle in the process. Honest days work if you ask me.
Even if you subtract the in-house incidents from the Grizzlies, they still find themselves in a precarious spot compared to when Ja said the infamous quote. As per usual with the NBA deadline, chaos ensued. The problem with that chaos for the Grizzlies? All roads led West. Besides a couple relatively meaningless moves by contenders in the East–like the Bucks adding Jae Crowder–every major move resulted in a western conference team landing a superstar or bolstering their bench.
The Mavs added Kyrie. The Suns went and got KD. The Lakers traded for D’Angelo Russell, Jarred Vanderbilt, and Malik Beasley. The Clippers completely revamped their bench throughout February. The Nuggets finally picked up a backup center who isn’t 300 years old (had to sneak Thomas Bryant in with this list). The Grizzlies did manage to get in on the frenzy, but unless I’m missing something about Luke Kennard’s game, they really didn’t improve much.
I understand by the natural ebbs and flows of the NBA, every team is going to go through rough patches at one point or another. It’s the most elite athletes on earth and maintaining dominance for all 82 games is damn near impossible. Something feels different about this rough patch for the Grizzlies though. This hasn’t been your routine mid-season rut. It feels like the the best five or six teams in the Western conference, besides the Grizzlies, are all gearing up to play their best ball down the stretch when it counts. Lebron even referred to the remaining 23 game stretch as the “most important games of my [his] career”. Meanwhile, the Grizzlies best ball of the season happened in the first 40 games and seems to be on a downward trajectory.
I don’t want to jump to conclusions like Ja did, but this current Grizzlies team isn’t winning the championship. They don’t have the championship mentality that so many NBA players have spoken about. I hate to even use that phrase because it’s one of the corniest and overplayed phrases in basketball–frankly I don’t even know what a championship mentality actually is. There’s no real way to quantify a championship mentality; I just know this current Grizzlies team lacks the maturity to be classified with that.
To make a championship run the Grizzlies will have to go through at least two of the following: Luka Doncic and the Mavs, Kevin Durant and the Suns, Lebron James and the Lakers, Nikola Jokic and the Nuggets, Kawhi Leonard and the Clippers, Zion and the Pelicans, or Steph Curry and the Warriors. Not exactly cake-walking your way through anyone on that list. Excluding the Mavs and Pelicans, every team has a Finals MVP or regular season MVP on their roster. Do the Grizzlies really have the focus to run through that list?
Even as I write this the Grizzlies are in the midst of blowing a late lead against the Sixers in their first game out of the all-star break. To no one’s surprise, Dillon Brooks incited another meaningless scuffle in the first quarter. After a week to rest and get their minds right, you’d think they come back a little more focused, yet the irrelevant drama continues right where they left it off.
There’s nothing I would enjoy more than for this whole blog to be one long freezing cold take. In my opinion, Ja is the most exciting player of this new generation. Granted I have a guard-bias, but every 10 or so years we get an explosive do-it-all guard that flips the game on its head; Ja is that guy. I haven’t loved watching a single player’s game this much since prime Derrick Rose, and before him it was Iverson. No other player in the league makes me pick up my jaw off the ground more than Ja. He has an indescribable part of his game that can’t be taught or learned. Unequivocally there’s no one that stacks up to him in the wow factor. Another unquantifiable stat (if you can’t tell by now I’m a “that boy nice” watcher and not a statistician guy).
Maybe I’m wrong about the whole thing and they truly are carving themselves out to be the modern day “Bad Boys”. Maybe Steven Adams is the new Scott Hastings and Ja is the new Isiah Thomas. Maybe I’m just being dramatic. Don’t need to be liked to win a championship. Matter of fact, most of the great ones were assholes. The league always needs a villain anyways… As things stand now though, I’m willing to bet all my marbles that the Grizzlies are not “fine in the West”.