NoBA rivalries used to be about something: an exclusive claim to supremacy at hoops, infighting between divisions, an apparent lack of respect. But it’s been difficult to maintain those grudges during an era when players enter the league as childhood friends, constantly change teams and barely play defense against each other. These days, only one team keeps the others on edge, and that’s the Memphis Grizzlies. Everyone hates them.
His bad boy arc starts with a classic betrayal. In the summer of 2019, the Grizzlies were part of a three-team trade that brought Andre Iguodala to Memphis. Iguodala is the gold standard for the NBA’s glue guys, a former Finals MVP who remains valuable as an unofficial player-coach and clutch contributor despite his advanced age. But when he refused to fill the same role for a rebuilding Memphis team and wouldn’t even show up at their facility, team management agreed to buy out his $17 million contract or trade him for a playoff contender. Naturally, his new teammates quickly took umbrage at Iguodala’s stance, beating his chest as Memphis surpassed expectations and passed Golden State, his former team, in the Western Conference standings. “We all had the vision,” said Dillon Brooks of Memphis. “He didn’t, which is perfect. Send him back to the Warriors and let him do his thing 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 have fined me for not showing up.”) Months earlier, the Grizzlies had ended the Warriors’ season in the league round of play. Then the Warriors returned the favor in last year’s Western Conference Semifinals; it was a series that saw Brooks trade egregious ejections with Draymond Green (an NBA threat in his own right), Grizzlies star Ja Morant accusing Warriors’ Jordan Poole of deliberately injuring his knee mid-series, and all of that. as Memphis fans mocked the Golden State to the tune of Whoop That Trick. As Golden State became NBA champions, the chips on the Grizzlies’ shoulders grew at a Sisyphal scale.
Really, they’ve been stuck in Beatrix Kiddo mode ever since Iguodala’s “swap”, picking fights over anything that disrespects them. Asked to name the Western Conference teams that pose an obstacle to Memphis’ title hopes, Morant quipped, “I’m fine in the West.” (Never mind the question of reigning NBA MVP Nikola Jokic’s Denver Nuggets at the top of the conference table.) Recently, Steph Curry revealed the crazy talk she hears from Brooks when they face off—things 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 crosses the line. Last month, he was suspended for his part in a clearing brawl during a game against Cleveland that began with him rolling into Donovan Mitchell’s leg after a missed field goal and punching the Cavaliers guard in the groin. Asked if Brooks’ foul was a cheap shot, Mitchell retorted: “That’s just the way he is.”
The Grizzlies don’t go easy on even their own fans — not after the Memphis crowd chanted for Morant to “stay out” during his rusty first game after a month-long absence last season. “Usually when someone says something negative about me, it feeds me,” he said. “But tonight the fan comments really hurt.” It may very well have been the point of no return in 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. It is finish with the fans. Brooks lit the match up by yelling 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 dad Tee. During a stoppage of play, Brooks, Morant and Grizzlies big man Steven Adams made a beeline for the spectator – who, upon further inspection, was just as large and belligerent as the players approaching him.
Turns out that fan was none other than Shannon Sharpe, the NFL big guy turned TV sports debater and president of the LeBron James fan club. And while the optics of NBA players getting into this with paying customers certainly gave the league office unwanted flashbacks to Malice at the Palace, say this for the Grizzlies: At least the fight they picked was literally the biggest fan in the room. 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 beat their chests again. “An ordinary pedestrian like him?” Brooks laughed. “He should never have come back in the game. But she. Headlines berated the Grizzlies for “wearing out their welcome” and generally being “annoying”.
The attitude in Memphis is not fake. It’s effectively who the team has been since moving out of Vancouver earlier in the evening and getting rid of all that Canada Nice (not even Ontario-born Brooks, aka Memphis Bill Laimbeer, does that kind of thing). The 2010s are fondly remembered as the Grit and Grind era – a simpler time when Zach Randolph was calling himself the bully of a bully, defensive pesky Tony Allen kicked Chris Paul in the head, and Marc Gasol wouldn’t hesitate to elbow him. his older brother taller in the face. But even so, these Grizzlies weren’t exactly hated, because they were never a serious title threat. During their streak of seven consecutive postseason appearances from 2011 to 2017, the Grizzlies only made it past the conference semifinals once.
Current Grizzlies players aren’t just tough. They are led by Morant – perhaps the most exciting player in the game, not named Giannis Antetokounmpo. They are still young – just 24 years old on average. The defending champion Warriors, always in the way, are just treading water above the playoff cut-off line. If the situation holds and Memphis fails to overtake Denver, the Grizzlies could face Golden State again in the first round of this year’s playoffs.
Surely those who witnessed the heyday of Bird and McHale’s Celtics, Shaq and Kobe’s Bad Boy Pistons and Lakers never imagined the day when professional basketball would have one rivalry game – the Grizzlies v Warriors – is worth watching. The overt hostility and bitterness that defined those bygone eras has been replaced by unbridled punctuation. And while hot waves certainly have their appeal — they’re big, they’re horny, they put butts in seats — they don’t stir the soul like good ol’ resentment.
All of which is to say: maybe the league mis-rostered the Grizzlies. Of course, every game with them is a grudge match, and they clap for their own fans. But really, they’re more anti-heroes than outright villains – an NBA team that really means something. It’s just that they never have good intentions.