The NBA’s schedule release is usually a well anticipated and exciting moment for NBA fans. It finally gives them a chance to look at when the big matchups are. However, the NBA introduced a new wrinkle to their schedule.
An “NBA Rivals Week.”
It is scheduled to take place at the end of January and will include 11 rivalry games. These matchups feature classic rivalries like the Boston Celtics vs. the Los Angeles Lakers and the Brooklyn Nets vs. the Philadelphia 76ers. It will also have more recent rivalries like the Toronto Raptors vs. the Golden State Warriors and the Celtics vs. Miami Heat.
The NBA has scheduled the Minnesota Timberwolves to play last year’s first-round opponent, the Memphis Grizzlies, in Rivals Week. Longtime Wolves fans may not look back at the league’s history and see these two franchises as natural rivals. However, it is an excellent idea by the league to put these two teams against each other. It will begin shaping the narrative of a new and thrilling rivalry between these two teams.
Memphis and Minnesota feature some of the best young talents in the league: Ja Morant, Anthony Edwards, Karl-Anthony Towns, Jaren Jackson Jr., and Desmond Bane – just to name a few. Both teams also have some great player matchups within their rotations that could make for a very intriguing and entertaining rivalry in the upcoming seasons. The Grizzlies and Wolves have an exciting future to look forward to. The histories of each team have an interesting parallel that adds more nuance to this budding rivalry.
The Timberwolves and Grizzlies entered the league at around the same time. The Wolves played their first game in 1989 and struggled during their initial years as a franchise, winning no more than 29 games in their first seven seasons. The Grizzlies were initially based in Vancouver and first played in 1995. They were one of the two Canadian expansion franchises, along with the Raptors, to join the NBA that year.
Like the Wolves, the Grizzlies also struggled initially, winning no more than 19 games in each of their first four seasons. Vancouver’s inability to compete took a toll on profitability and attendance rates. In 2001, ownership moved the franchise to Memphis.
However, the Wolves and Grizzlies eventually turned things around by drafting star forwards.
In 1995, the Timberwolves took Kevin Garnett, the greatest player in franchise history, with the fifth pick. Garnett would lead the Wolves to their first playoff berth in 1997 and first winning season in 1998. While Garnett could not take the Wolves further than the conference finals, it marked the most successful period in time for the Wolves franchise.
Similarly, the Grizzlies’ fortune turned when they took power forward Pau Gasol third overall in the 2001 draft. Gasol became Memphis’ first All-Star player. In the 2003-04 season, Gasol helped lead the Grizzlies to a 50-win season and their first playoff berth in franchise history. However, Memphis could not make it past the first round in three consecutive seasons with Gasol. In 2008, they traded him to the Los Angeles Lakers. Ultimately, neither Garnett nor Gasol could carry either team to a Finals appearance. Still, they similarly marked a shift for both franchises.
The two teams will face each other four times during this upcoming regular season. The Wolves are 49-48 all-time against the Grizzlies, so both teams have matched up fairly competitively against each other thus far.
Memphis had more success in the 2010s. The Grizzlies were consistently in the playoff hunt from 2012-16 during the ‘Grindhouse’ era, and the Wolves reached the playoffs only once during this decade, after a 14-year playoff drought, in 2018 with a team centered around Jimmy Butler and a young Karl-Anthony Towns.
The trajectory of these two franchises has been very similar in their respective histories. Thus it becomes even more compelling that these two teams now seem to be heading towards an ongoing battle in the Western Conference.
Many fans still recall the edgy, competitive first-round matchup between these two teams in last year’s playoffs. Nearly every game in the series featured hectic action with large comebacks and clutch shots. The skills of both team’s superstars, particularly Morant and Edwards, were on full display and made for a very entertaining series. While the Wolves couldn’t pull off the upset, they pushed a talented and successful Grizzlies team to their limit.
Entering the 2022-23 season, both teams aim only to be better than last year. Minnesota made significant offseason moves, most notably trading for Rudy Gobert. The Grizzlies retained most of their core players, which helped them win a franchise record-tying 56 games last season. Therefore, it is very likely both teams will be competing for some of the top seeds in the Western Conference.
From their similar franchise histories to their current match-made-in-heaven superstar duels between Ja and Ant, and KAT and Jackson, to even their ideal mascot battle between two of the most dangerous wildlife creatures, these two teams almost seemed to be destined to become a great rivalry.