By Adam Spinella
During the summer of 2016, Memphis Grizzlies general manager Chris Wallace made a very calculated risk. Coming off a 42-40 season, the Grizz made a move to lock up Mike Conley on what was, at the time, the richest contract in basketball history. Wallace and his front office had little to no leverage; Conley was by far the youngest piece of a core that transformed the Grizzlies from nobody to perennial Western Conference playoff team. They maxed him out, paying him in excess of $150 million over five years, with a player option in the final year.
The risk with a deal like that for a then-28-year-old oft-injured point guard was whether the core surrounding him would be able to hold up as well. Marc Gasol was signed to a five-year deal the season before, with a similarly back-loaded amount of money and a player option in year five, when he’ll be 35. They went out and paid a hefty four-year deal worth roughly $95 million to the also injury prone Chandler Parsons, expecting he’d be the third cornerstone in their long-term core. Zach Randolph and Tony Allen, two players on expiring contracts due to dissolve in 2017, would be ready to take smaller deals with their careers winding down. The logic to all the moves was they could add Parsons, lock up the core and keep things together to enjoy at least three or four more years of playoff success.
Things backfired. Memphis limped into the playoffs last season without Parsons and after Gasol and Conley missed large chunks of the season due to injury. Zach Randolph, moved into a bench role under first-year head coach David Fizdale, took off for one last payday. Cap mismanagement prevented the Grizzlies from retaining Tony Allen. And a greater-than-expected season from JaMychal Green in the cavity created by the multitude of injuries added one more fairly expensive deal to the books, handcuffing Wallace into paying him and dealing with the consequences later.
Just a few months into the 2017 season, those consequences are rearing their ugly head. Conley has been injured once again, and Parsons is still a shell of the player they initially pined for (albeit he’s playing vastly better than he did a season ago). Gasol faces public criticism after his role in getting Fizdale fired, a baffling move to those who saw Fiz help glue the pieces together a season. A front office that’s failed to draft well in the last decade has no reserves to tap into anymore to keep this group afloat, leading many to believe the Grit ‘n Grind Grizzlies are a thing of the past and might be best-served to blow things up.
But torpedoing this season, or any future years, has incredible costs based on the way this roster has been created by Wallace. Those calculated risks in re-signing Conley and throwing a Brinks Truck filled with cash at Parsons have backfired, leaving Memphis without a clear contingency plan. They could attempt to deconstruct and strip away the pillars, but that task is much more difficult than it may look.
As it stands now, Memphis is due to pay more than $83 million to Conley, Gasol and Parsons during the 2019-20 season – nearly 75 percent of the team’s cap space. With the sheer size of the three major contracts of Conley, Gasol and Parsons, it’s unlikely they can unload any singular deal without taking back a similarly cap-strapping contract or unloading some future picks in the process. But trading draft picks away in an effort to clear salary so the tanking can commence makes little to no sense. Therein lies the catch-22 of the current situation in Memphis; they’re damned if they do, damned if they don’t.
I’m usually opposed to aggressive dismantling efforts for a franchise, especially one with quality players (Gasol and Conley) and recent success. The dreaded “tanking” strategy can net superb long-term results like we’re seeing in Philadelphia, but more often than not, it ends in a franchise looking like Orlando, Sacramento or Minnesota, mired in deep failures coupled with occasional spikes in promise. In the case of these Memphis Grizzlies, all other avenues provide a bleak outlook as well.
Breaking up the core, shaking up the pieces or standing pat all have severe drawbacks, unpredictable outcomes and a near-certain losing season to finish the 2017-18 campaign. With uncertainty and volatility at the ownership level, all the way down to the players, there’s really no predicting just what this organization will do moving forward.
No matter who was to blame for its cause, the players David Fizdale led onto the floor each night were a poor fit together and with their coach. As we approach Christmas, the Grizzlies are still dead-last in the NBA in pace, failing to do what many coaches to come into the Grindhouse have promised and speed up or modernize their offense. Fiz split the difference last season, keeping a fairly conservative tempo (Memphis was 28th in pace last season) while encouraging his big men like Gasol and Randolph to fire away from three-point range.
Memphis is a bottom-five team in the league shooting from deep, plays at a slow pace and is 27th in offensive rebounding rate. Where are the easy baskets supposed to come from if not transition (shown by pace), long-range (three-point rate) or put-backs? Especially for a group designed around two leaders who aren’t seen as one-on-one scorers. To some, it might seem as if Fizdale’s hands were bound from the start.
The quandary for coaches is, ultimately, they are held accountable for their team’s execution, even if they aren’t to blame for its absence. Take this play to start the second-half against the Nuggets earlier this season… it results in a turnover, but were the passing completed it appears to be a high-quality attempt waiting for JaMychal Green:
Coaches really only can control so much with on-court execution. Their biggest task is placing players in a position to succeed. In games where Fizdale only has one or two options as go-to scorers on the floor, drawing up plays can be especially difficult.
Yet Synergy ranked the Grizzlies as being 23rd in the league last year in After Timeout situations, a tick below their spot at 21 in terms of half-court offense. Fizdale’s work last season in these situations, where coaches usually have the most impact on a game, was subpar to say the least. In a comparison of most team’s point per possession outlook in normal half-court settings and ATO plays, Memphis rated pretty low on the scale, and averaged 0.046 points per possession worse after these timeouts than in normal half-court settings.
But how much of that stems from injuries and roster construction? Conley, Gasol and Parsons only played in 17 games together last season, and the rest of the roster has been rather bare for a while. If we judge coaches based on giving their team a positive boost in ATO settings, only a handful are successful. If it’s based on development of the youth on the roster, Fizdale didn’t get enough time to prove his worth. If siding with a superstar on an internal rift is what the organization will do, then performance really doesn’t matter.
Placing blame on Fizdale, or Bickerstaff, or the failures to develop talent under Dave Joerger, is completely unwarranted. The onus for a broken roster ultimately falls upon Chris Wallace, the general manager who helped build the Grit-n-Grind Grizzlies but failed to sustain them. The Parsons signing was lauded at the time as a heist for the small-market Memphis squad, knowing they’d have to overpay to get a quality free agent. In retrospect, we should’ve seen the downsides in locking up so much money in this particular trifecta. They’ve combined for zero seasons averaging 20 points per game or more, making it difficult to hold up against some of the more illustrious duos or trios in the Western Conference.
Consider this jaw-dropping factoid: heading into this season, no Memphis first-round pick selected after 2010 had played more than 80 games in a Grizzlies uniform:
Jarell Martin has since topped that mark, but the results are quite similar in terms of failures. Wade Baldwin IV was cut just one year into his rookie contract to accommodate Mario Chalmers. Jordan Adams was similarly cut, and Tony Wroten, Xavier Henry and Greivis Vasquez were all traded early in their careers before their potential could blossom. Promising second-rounder Rade Zagorac was cut due to cap reasons before he could even log a game. Second-rounder Deyonta Davis, whom a first-rounder was swapped for, hasn’t shown much promise yet.
This has been the environment created by Wallace and owner Robert Pera: show immediate results or the organization will abandon the project and start from scratch. Cultures like that rarely breed strong results. Young players, especially ones taken later in the first-round where the Grizz have selected in recent years, require more seasoning and a development process. When a revolving door of head coaches exist, it’s hard to get trusted, meaningful and continuous development that brings the most out of each prospect.
On the other hand, Wallace simply may just be a poor drafter. None of these players Memphis have moved on from, save Vasquez (who was included in a trade for Quincy Pondexter), have gone on to make an imprint anywhere else around the league. The franchise whiffed on their last two lottery picks (Xavier Henry and Hasheem Thabeet), overpaid for the services of Deyonta Davis and, with the exception of current rookie Dillon Brooks, haven’t found much out of the second-round pool.
Where does young talent come from if not the draft? Finding it elsewhere, i.e. scrapping for other youngsters released by one team, is a dangerous game to play. For every James Ennis and JaMychal Green there’s the money that goes into reaping the benefits of their services without a long-term plan behind them. For every Bi-Annual Exception used on a flier on Tyreke Evans, there’s a successive year with less money on the free agent market, as well as the daunting prospect of retaining Evans.
All three have out-performed their initial contracts with the Grizzlies, which were short-term deals on the cheap to accommodate the team’s cap needs. Tyreke in particular has surprised and might even be a frontrunner for Sixth Man of the Year. He’s shot an outrageous 40 percent from three this year, coming into the season as a wretched 29.7 percent bomber from deep. His form looks more fluid and he’s got supreme confidence in his shot right now. Teams haven’t adjusted, still playing lane-protected as if it’s the old Tyreke Evans, and he’s torching teams that go under the pick-and-roll consistently:
As with Evans, whom the organization does not have the Bird rights for, that production has saved the team from a disastrous offense, but lends little to no long-term hope of retaining him beyond this season. The Grizz are projected to be more than $4 million over the cap, and would have to get considerably low beneath it in order to pay Evans what he’s made himself worth.
Green and Ennis are the greater feel-good stories and testaments to the development that Fizdale was able to squeeze out of his group. Green is now paid for the next two seasons, on what ended up being a modest deal for the team in the midst of a restricted free agent freeze, more of a market aberration than a great deal of planning on the part of Wallace. Ennis will be a free agent this summer; many don’t realize he’s already 27 years old and barely boasts a positive assist to turnover ratio. A role player at his core, is he really the type of player the Grizz should break the bank for?
Wallace and his front office will explore big discussions this winter about blowing things up to a certain degree, and rightfully so. Gasol, the most attractive piece for other franchises, would be the biggest chip to use in this process. Others like Evans (due to the aforementioned contract issues as a one-year deal), Ennis and Brandan Wright are almost sure to get dealt by the deadline if the Grizzlies don’t square themselves back up with the playoff race.
Boston could end up absorbing Evans straight-up with their Disabled Player Exception in the Gordon Hayward deal, sending a pick back to the Grizzlies (although likely not a first-rounder) and letting Memphis scour the D-League for young prospects worth giving a shot to this Spring. Portland could get involved, shipping a fellow expiring with more money and potentially a conditional pick for Tyreke as another backcourt handler and a wing defender. Other teams are certain to call about his availability, so long as Wallace isn’t unrealistic about the asking price for a $3 million expiring deal.
This is where the Grizzlies are at now, clinging onto the Grit ‘n Grind mantra far after the heart and soul of that culture has departed. Allen and Randolph all left for nothing (Z-Bo and Vince Carter left for Sacramento for heaven sakes, ironically to be reunited with former Griz boss Dave Joerger), and now the organization is clinging to the pricey deals of Mike Conley and Marc Gasol for the foreseeable future.
The option of standing pat just leaves these pricey players together, trying to see if internal development can vault the Grizzlies back into the playoff race, this year or next. The concept of idling while stars in their thirties flail around with a broken supporting cast isn’t one that makes much sense. It’s much more likely the Grizz split the difference between a full-on fire sale and making no adjustments to this disappointing campaign; they’ll try to cash in on their expiring contracts before they would inevitably leave in free agency this summer and squeeze a few young assets out of it. Once those assets are more tangibly understood in terms of value, Wallace and company will have a clearer picture of whether tearing the whole thing down is really their best option.
J.B. Bickerstaff now has one of the most difficult jobs in the league from a leadership perspective. The leaders he responds to are still hoping this season is salvageable; the subordinates who look to him are in a deep rut, and there’s no job security on his part to push any buttons that shake things up a bit. For an organization that has been so tumultuous with on-court leadership due to the frequent coaching changes, there’s little Bickerstaff can look back on to feel like success won’t be determined by simply being a straw man for his top stars and winning games immediately. His leadership will be tested.
But as we know with leadership, everything stops at the top. That begins with Grizz owner Robert Pera, who has been simply impatient with internal development throughout his tenure. Since taking over in October 2012 (just five years ago) the franchise has gone through three different head coaches despite making the postseason every season. As Michael Scotto of Bball-Insiders pointed out, Pera once tried to fire Dave Joerger just three games into his head coaching career. To call the Fizdale firing uncharacteristic of the ownership group would be false; it’s a volatile situation through and through.
The irony is that the assumed reason for the firing, a contentious relationship between Fiz and Marc Gasol, is not dissimilar to the relations that take place between Pera and his subordinate coaches. To add to the irony were the reports, at the same time as the firing, of the minority owners exercising a Buy-Sell Clause, essentially putting pressure on Pera to buy them out or give up his stake in the team. The timing is calculated and wise on the part of the minority owners – capitalize on the high valuation of NBA franchises following the recent sale of the Rockets, and also apply pressure on Pera to either right the ship or take on sole responsibility for it sinking.
That minority ownership group can name their price for Pera to match in order to buy them out, and they have roughly three months to do so. This whole process has been dramatic, as the rift between Pera and key minority owners Steve Kaplan and Daniel Strauss has led to this line-in-the-sand type of conclusion. Smooth sailing may not be ahead for this organization, as there’s a lot of volatility in the coming months.
Despite the drama off the court there’s a lot of cleanup that must take place in order to get the franchise to be competitive on it. Mismanagement of draft picks, cap space and relations with the veterans who built the culture have plagued their ability to remain viable as their successful players age. Fizdale, Wallace, Pera, and all members of the organization shoulder some of the blame for letting it get to this point.
Now comes the difficult part… finding a fix.