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Eating Some Shit Might Be Just What The Grizzlies Need

1:51 PM EDT on May 1, 2023

Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

That photo up there shows Dillon Brooks doing a weird little jump-kick in the minutes immediately preceding the opening jump-ball of Game 6 of the Memphis Grizzlies' first-round playoff series against the Los Angeles Lakers. It's a funny photo to take in with the benefit of hindsight: The Grizzlies were annihilated Friday night, 125–85, the most lopsided loss in franchise playoff history, bringing to a hideous close a short and spectacularly disappointing playoff appearance. This is not to suggest that Brooks was foolish to allow himself to be photographed doing this move before the game, but the image winds up providing a handy if cheap microcosm of the downfall of this season's brash Memphis Grizzlies. You can almost imagine the foot continuing upward, looping around unnaturally, and jamming itself directly into Brooks's open mouth.

Brooks's hammy scenery-chewing made him a main character of this series when his play otherwise super-duper would not have. His insanely regrettable comments about LeBron James—Brooks infamously dismissed James as "old" and unworthy of his respect after Memphis won Game 2 of this series—became a delightful storyline as James's steady stewardship helped the Lakers grab control of the series on their home court, and as Brooks's individual struggles weighed more and more severely on Memphis's underwhelming half-court offense. Brooks averaged 10.5 points per game on bone-chilling 31 percent shooting against the Lakers; Memphis's offense was eight points worse per 100 possessions with Brooks on the floor, posting a 98.9 offensive rating that would've been worst in the league by miles and miles in the regular season. And this was with the Lakers largely ignoring Brooks and begging him to take open shots.

As his and his team's season veered first sideways and then directly toward the nearest toilet, Brooks went from crowing to sulking to hiding. After Brooks was ejected from Game 3 for punching James in the dick and balls, he moaned at practice about being a victim of a media campaign to depict him as a bad guy. This was a very funny position to take for someone who enthusiastically participated in the cultivation of a villain persona, including in a big ESPN profile from March with the headline "Dillon Brooks wants you to stay mad," which in the second paragraph says that Brooks has "embraced the nickname 'Dillon the Villain.'" This plot-line became funnier and funnier as Brooks started ducking locker room media responsibilities following Memphis's losses in Los Angeles, including dipping out early following Friday's series-closing massacre. Sunday morning the NBA fined Brooks $25,000 for violating the league's media access policies, a delicious little insult thrown onto the injury of bombing out of the postseason.

This brutal exposure under the bright lights and heightened scrutiny of the playoffs could not have come at a worse time for Brooks. His contract in Memphis expires over the summer; as a 27-year-old high-profile starter on a very good team, Brooks would normally be looking for a long-term deal to take him through the rest of his prime years, and he would have his best chance at securing one with the Grizzlies, who hold his all-important Bird Rights, and have a general idea of how he'd fit into their rotation and team culture. But the situation is complicated by Memphis's embarrassing playoff performance and Brooks's unfortunate-bordering-on-calamitous on- and off-court role in how it went down.

For one thing, Brooks was all but played off the floor by the Lakers, which a smart and serious team would naturally take as a prompt to deemphasize his role in whatever remains of a serious title hunt. Just as important is the possibility that Memphis's decision-makers might be looking for something of a culture reset, after their season was undone in part by what general manager Zach Kleiman described as "self-created distractions." Brooks's humiliating heel-turn looms nowhere near as large in all that as Ja Morant's brief March exile due to bizarre legal troubles, but Morant is the face of the organization and one of the league's brightest stars. A team will accept a certain amount of embarrassment if it comes with All-NBA-type production and international superstardom. Brooks is a limited role-player whose big talk and habit of mugging opponents eventually made him into a goofy and costly sideshow. The lasting impression of Brooks from the final days of his expiring contract is as a trumped-up Guy who takes awful shots and doesn't need to be guarded at all in a playoff series, who pokes bears and then bails on his professional duty to face the music.

There is probably a lesson to be learned in all of this, about waiting to boast until after you've accomplished something. Morant, who declared back in December that he wasn't worried about any team in the Western Conference slowing Memphis's march to the Finals, seems to have finally gotten the message. Morant said Sunday that he feels it will be "a good thing for us" if his teammates follow his lead and do a little bit less off-court trash talking going forward. The Grizzlies do seem to take some juice from maintaining as an identity a kind of snarling cockiness, but they might also find some value, at both the individual and team level, in chilling the hell out. If nothing else, the Grizzlies might benefit from a better-calibrated sense of who exactly they are in the NBA today; less over-the-top boasting would naturally follow. Memphis has a very good regular-season team that has won precisely one playoff series during Morant's four professional seasons. Maybe just hang back a little!

It's not clear that all Morant's fellow Grizzlies have yet taken his lead on this. Asked Sunday whether he had any regrets about goading one of the handful of greatest basketball players in history during the early stages of a competitive playoff series, Brooks remained defiant. "No," he explained, tragically. "That's who I am." Good luck with that.

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