Marc Gasol loves Project Pat.

During his tenure with the Grizzlies, Marc was always…let’s say focused. We really didn’t hear a lot about his personal interests or tastes. When he did the Connor McGregor thing people were like, ‘oh you like UFC? And also: what is this personality you are showing off here?’

This current press push for the film Gasol revealed what many of us likely already knew: Gasol is reticent to talk about himself, and he would be very ‘self conscious’ while watching the new documentary about his time in Memphis so he just hasn’t watched it yet. 

So it was a surprise to me, a dedicated Grizzlies fan for at least 15 years, to learn that Marc was a Project Pat fan.

But the bigger surprise was the time he spent with friends in Frayser playing pick up games. That Marc has a real love for Memphis was obvious during his time as a player. But it was a surprise to learn that he spent a lot of time in this decidedly dicey North Memphis neighborhood as a teenager.

I’m the same age as Gasol. And as someone who grew up in the adjacent suburb of Raleigh, and as a kid who visited my godmother in Frayser nearly every month, I was just tickled to know that we haunted some of the same Memphis neighborhoods. These are neighborhoods that, as you likely know, are very far away – both literally and socially – from the well-heeled east Memphis enclave that was home to his Lausanne High School. 

What was not a surprise was to learn that Marc was fixated on winning, often to his detriment. During the core four era Marc’s basketball IQ and sheer will power helped elevate the Grizzlies to sustained playoff success, if not a championship. His talent level was VERY high, likely making him the best or second best big in the league from 2015 through his championship in 2019. But the level of intensity he brought to the singular task of helping the Grizzlies win a championship was also VERY high, although it was not always as obvious at the time as it is now. Marc is an intense dude, and when it became clear that he was not going to win in Memphis, that intensity became a liability to himself and his team. This by his own admission. 

And that leads to another takeaway from this film: what we had in Memphis from 2011 – 2018 was very special. Kevin Durant called it a dynasty. Yes, a dynasty. KD was clear: even though this team did not win a championship, we should still celebrate the core four as a dynasty for one reason and one reason only: it is so rare to have such a complementary group of good players that could make the playoffs every year. Memphis did not miss the playoffs for seven straight seasons. That does not happen very often. It is something that perhaps even this current crew of Grizzlies might not do. They had three seasons in a row, but this year that streak ends.

The rare blend of personalities and human beings in the mix, including Lionel Hollins, was exceptional. All of the guys attest to this fact. Marc discussed the depth of his relationship with the other three on the Chris Vernon show. Their families would hang in the off season, their kids and wives bonded, and this was on top of this crew playing their hearts out for 82+ games a year. The ability of the group to really click was helped greatly when Lionel Hollins was brought in to replace Mark Ivaronni. It was clear that even if they did not always get along, they did respect each other greatly. And they all bought into Hollins leadership.  

The specialness of those seven seasons becomes crystal clear when listening to Dillon Brooks and Jaren Jackson Jr. talk about their first seasons with the Grizzlies. The arrival of David Fizdale killed the vibes, and the root of it was Fizdale’s VERY public benching of Zach Randolph. Gasol was muted but obviously mad about it at the time, and it is clear the rancor Fizdale introduced into the locker room was a big reason he wasn’t in Memphis very long. By the time JB Bickerstaff took over as coach the die was cast: Gasol first, and soon after his pick and roll partner Conely, were shipped out for handsome franchise rewards.

The end of an era. And for many folks, myself included, it was the end of the first sports team I genuinely loved. 

In this “Grizz Next Gen” era, how does this team history shape the expectations today? 

First, the expectation of on court basketball success for this current group is higher than it was for the core four. Ja Morant, Desmond Bane, and Jaren Jackson, Jr. have more combined talent than the core four. They should be able to reach the NBA finals. For the core four, playing in an era of Steph and Klay, Lebron and whoever, the Finals were a stretch. 

As the sun sets on that group of 2000-teens stars, Luka, Jokic, Embiid, Booker, Tatum, Edwards, and yes – Ja – have made the league faster and more talented. Marc Gasol and Tony Allen both felt they could not compete in the current NBA. TA and Gasol discussed the default drop coverage schemes deployed by nearly every NBA defense today, and both agreed it is probably the right scheme given the skill of and offensive differences afforded to current NBA perimeter players. 

But they also both agreed their smothering pick and roll coverages of seasons’ past simply wouldn’t work today.

So Ja has the speed and athleticism. Dez the skill. Jaren is nearly a complete player on both ends of the floor. 

So this new group can compete at the highest level, a level higher than the core four.  

But what about the vibes? The vibes have been pretty good in the Ja years! ((((That is, until January 2023 when Steven Adams injured his knee, and then March 2023 when BC blew out the achilles and Ja blew it all at Shotgun Willies.)))) 

Adams is now out, but Ja appears to be back on track. BC is leaping and dropping in floaters, and Desmond Bane would have had a career year had the year actually mattered, and had he not been injured. Jaren is likely to play for Team USA this year. Maybe Des, too. 

So the talent is there, and the vibes are headed in the right direction.

Which leads to the other thing from the core four era that really shapes expectations of this current era: maturity.  

The sober level of maturity from the core four comes through so clearly in the new Gasol doco. Gasol was focused and cerebral. LIKE REALLY FOCUSED. Mike was an excellent organizer, Z-Bo will bust your ass, and Tony brings a (mostly) appropriate level of chaos. These guys knew their strengths and weaknesses and their maturity allowed them to lean on each other, to cover each other’s weaknesses, and to go as far as they did despite their (relative lack of) talent. Tony had a ring when he came to Memphis. Marc got one the season he left. Mike is chasing one now. Those guys are winners, and they kept their heads on straight when it mattered most…(except for Z-Bo’s punch to Steve-o in game six which may have been THE year but I digress).  

The new core three will be in their mid-20s next season. I wouldn’t expect a championship run next year, but a deep playoff run with at least one series win and perhaps a second one that goes to a game 7? That is, to me, is a totally decent scenario because this young next gen crew does not yet know what it takes to win at the highest level. 

Gasol consistently made this point: building good habits is a daily process. If you play the right way and lose, no problem. Move on. But if you play the wrong way and win? For Gasol, that was a problem. The reason? All the little things you are NOT doing may get you by in the regular season. But when you play at the highest level? It’s the little things – blown coverages, getting caught in rotation, missed fastbreak opportunities – that will be your downfall. The most competitive 7 game series can come down to a single possession. Is this current crew ready to play at that level, locked in, mistake free?

I think the answer is not yet, but they aren’t that far off either.

Playing the right way. Having a coach who gets you motivated to win. Building bonds of trust (a big word for Gasol)…to know that when you are tied at 107 with 34 seconds to go you have to get a stop, you can count on guys being in the right position. You can count on Jaren to call out the schemes. You can count on Ja to outlet the ball quickly, for Des to be in position on the other end of the court. For a Vince Williams, Jr. to crash the boards if you miss and need an offensive putback.  Trusting that every guy will do everything they must do in those situations to win – this is what the Core Four achieved – this is an as yet unfulfilled expectation left behind for these current Grizzlies.