Every other week in The Coach’s Box, Timothy Thomas explores the various lessons that can be learned from the world of sports.
We’ve already written about Ja Morant’s off-the-court troubles. But after a disappointing Memphis Grizzlies season, it’s worth revisiting his entire team—which showed much promise in the beginning of the season—and their failed expectations. Unfortunately, the lessons the Grizzlies learned came the hard way. Overconfidence mired in egotistical, unrealistic, and disrespectful notions led to the team’s demise. In the end, they were all made to look foolish.
However, suppose the Memphis Grizzlies organization can learn to correctly survey the thin line between ego and confidence. In that case, their hard lessons can become the catalyst that helps them create something great in the future. The way their season imploded can also become a helpful reminder for us to prioritize humility when facing the overwhelming prospect of success.
Coaches want their athletes to approach competitions with confidence. A self-doubting athlete is difficult to coach. When they learn to trust in you and themselves, mistakes can be fixed. But helping athletes find that line between ego (i.e., a lack of both humility and awareness of self-limitations) and realistic confidence can be just as frustrating.
Those frustrations for Grizzlies’ head coach Taylor Jenkins may have started mounting around the season’s halfway point when ESPN‘s Malika Andrews asked Ja Morant who he was most focused on going into the playoffs. “Who do you look at around the league as you’re studying and say, ‘We’re gonna have to run through them?'” Andrews asked. “Celtics,” said Morant. “No one in the West,” Andrews asked. “Nah, I’m fine in the West,” Morant said. When asked about his comments a few weeks later, Morant doubled down. “Like I said, man, if I needed to say it like this, the Grizzlies are fine in the West and there ya go,” Morant retorted. “That’s the confidence.”
This “confidence” rolled along the rest of the season despite the Grizzlies missing critical pieces of their offense and defense due to injury. First, their defensive anchor, Steven Adams, went down with a season-ending injury. Next was 6’ 8” forward Brandon Clarke, who suffered a lower leg injury in February. Despite those key losses, though, the Grizzlies entered the NBA playoffs seeded in second place and were slated to play the red-hot LeBron James-led Los Angeles Lakers.
Grizzlies guard Dillon Brooks—who had his own timeline of controversial antics throughout the season—told reporters that he “wouldn’t mind playing” Los Angeles and LeBron James in a first-round series. He added: “The legacy is there. First time back in the playoffs, knock him out right away in the first round,” he said.
The Grizzlies lost the first game of the series.
After winning the second game, Brooks called LeBron James “old,” adding, “I don’t respect anyone until they come and give me 40.” He dismissed James as “just another player” and suggested he would have provided more of a challenge during his prime with Miami or the Cavaliers.
The Grizzlies lost the third game, where Brooks was ejected for elbowing James in the groin. (Brooks blamed his ejection on the media’s attempt to villainize his image.) Then they lost game four.
After the Grizzlies won game five at home, forward Xavier Tillman, Sr. confidently told the home crowd, “We’ll come back for Game 7 for sure!” Likewise, Memphis guard Desmond Bane said, “I said it out there [in LA], and I’ll say it again. We’re going to be back [in Memphis] for a Game 7.”
The Grizzlies would be back in Memphis after game six, but not for a game seven. Instead, their season ended as they lost in blowout fashion to the Lakers. Now all that remains is a season of “could’ve’s” and Dillon Brooks essentially being told that he would not be returning to the team under “any circumstances.”
J. Cole cautioned us that “Pride is the Devil.” The Bible warns that pride comes before the fall. The Grizzlies probably wouldn’t call their bravado “pride” but rather, “confidence.” Yet, in the end, it was ego—that is, an overinflated sense of self combined with disregard and disrespect for their opponent. Their lesson is also ours, though. It’s an even more excellent reminder for believers to place our confidence in the Lord rather than ourselves, and to respect the enemy who prowls around like a lion seeking to consume us with our own devices (Psalm 49:12–13; Proverbs 11:12; 1 Peter 5:8).
As a coach analyzing the Memphis Grizzlies’ downfall, I can see how their path of self-destruction could become a path to redemption. When a team like the Grizzlies learns to value their wins while respecting their opponents, too, they can approach every competition with the highest degree of focus and consistency to get over the hump of mediocrity.
The same is true for us in whatever we do. Whether we work, play, or compete for a living, we aim to glorify God, drawing attention to Him instead of ourselves. So we must do away with ego and self-sustaining efforts to keep us above the competition. But even if we do and we still find ourselves falling from grace, we have an out. The solution to our fall from grace is to fall into the grace of God, and that can only happen if we place our confidence in Him to catch us.