On the Grizzle – Migration Season

After the Memphis Grizzlies overcame several months of much change and even more uncertainty to grind out the franchise’s best season ever, it appears yet further evolution is in store.

Shortly after the Grizzlies disappointing flameout against San Antonio, the team announced that Lionel Hollins – the best coach they’ve ever had, and one under which they improved every season of his tenure – would not be returning, fulfilling what both players and fans feared as his un-renewed contract loomed all season.

Hollins was by all accounts perturbed by the direction Robert Pera’s new ownership was taking the team; expecting them to chase a title while stripping its roster bare to dodge the luxury tax. He never quit on this team, but the lack of a renewal, coupled with Hollins’ increasingly-unimpressed comments following their midseason salary-slashing, made it evident this was probably coming.

There’s a revolution of change afoot in Memphis; in the first season it’s consumed the team’s coach, GM and leading scorer. With a roster that’s too shallow and offensively inept to seriously contend for a title, you can count on more moves to be made.

The hiring of assistant coach Dave Joerger as Hollins’ replacement makes sense on several levels. Not only is he familiar with the organization and comfortable with the players, but also oversaw Memphis’ defense from the bench the past three seasons, turning it into the powerhouse it is today. Hiring a first-time head coach is also a cheaper way for the team to fill the position, perhaps making management less hesitant to pull the trigger on the A-Word: the amnesty clause (more on that in a minute).

The Grizzlies can take plenty of good things away from this campaign, again the best in their hardly-illustrious history. Marc Gasol has solidified himself as the most complete center in the NBA; a multi-faceted threat who can change games in a multitude of ways. Mike Conley has outgrown the contract they were gawked at for giving him; he’s steadily improved every year, is currently something of a poor man’s Chris Paul, and judging from his playoffs might not have even hit his ceiling yet.

Furthermore, they withstood the house-cleaning and played some inspired ball in the first two rounds of the playoffs. Though Patrick Beverley may have helped their cause greatly, this team had every reason to roll over, and it took the Spurs playing their A-game to finally break them.??

All that said, there’s plenty about their run that has to be of concern, particularly the play of two guys who together will eat up almost half their payroll next year.

The Tayshaun Prince era in Memphis hasn’t begun gloriously. While Prince is still a long presence on D and a generally smart player, he was a horrid shooter for most of the playoffs, and his fading credibility as an offensive threat undermines his role on this team.

Zach Randolph put up an absolute abomination of a West Finals, dominated both physically and mentally by the Spurs. Turning 32 in a few weeks, Z-Bo’s ability to keep himself in prime condition and avoid breaking scales will be crucial to his central role on this team.

Memphis had several needs; glaring ones that stood out but are easily remedied. The issue is they have several pieces to put in place, but little room to do it with. Their payroll cuts have gotten them under the Luxury threshold, but only by $1 million vs. the projected cap. Barring trades, they have a mid-level exception and veteran’s minimum at their disposal to fill several gaping holes in their roster, with Tony Allen’s re-signing (a must as the best perimeter defender alive and the heartbeat of this team’s identity) strapping them financially and handicapping their market options. The problem with Allen is that his jumpshot is… well, hideous, to be polite, and any defense’s ability to sag off him severely hinders Memphis’ attack.

The Grizzlies need more scoring from the perimeter, preferably consistent shooters who can space the floor, prevent paint-packing, and make life easier for Gasol and Randolph; defenses have it easy enough when Allen’s on the floor, they can’t be allowed to cheat from both wings.

The Grizz had also previously needed a backup big; someone to protect the rim and clog the lane when Gasol sat, as Randolph and Arthur were woefully undersized as a defensive combo. This was addressed by shipping Arthur to Denver for Kosta Koufos on Draft night, adding size without necessarily giving up skill, and shrewdly saving cap space for other signings, as Ed Davis is more than ready to fill Arthur’s minutes.

The question thus becomes how to free up cap room to make further adjustments, and Zach Randolph’s name has to immediately come to mind. Owed almost $18 million next season, with a player option for another $16.5m to follow, Z-Bo’s being paid like the franchise guy, but just played his worst ball of the season at the most inopportune time.

While his name has surfaced as a possible trade target by media pundits, it would be a rash and unwise decision to break up the NBA’s best post tandem. Not only would Randolph be far more effective with the proper spacing preventing a defensive collapse on him, but trading him – which would be complicated given his contract, age, and the general trend towards small-ball – would likely result in them being ripped off.

Meanwhile, Tayshaun Prince is hijacking $7m of cap space the next two years to play slightly-above-average defense and miss 3-pointers. The guy behind him on the bench is a hungry, athletic youngster making $2.25m to play better-than-slightly-above-average defense and shoot better from beyond the arc. Every indication is that Quincy Pondexter could be a more effective version of what Prince is looked upon to do in this system at a third of the cost, which makes Tayshaun one of the more obvious amnesty candidates in the League – if Memphis’ stingy owners can stomach paying a guy $14m to play for someone else. It might be a bitter pill for them to swallow, but it’s by far the simplest (and perhaps cheapest if you consider the value and flexibility lost in trading Randolph) way to get this team enough room to acquire another key piece this summer.

Memphis won’t be hurting for lack of selection. Kyle Korver, Francisco Garcia, Martell Wesbter and Dorrell Wright are all unrestricted free agents within their budget who will improve their floor spacing from the get. While none are exactly defensive studs, Prince wasn’t really either, and with Gasol/another decent clog in the lane behind, someone like Wright or Korver would likely excel in their system on one end without being of detriment to the other.

The backup PG role, while not as critical, has a number of viable candidates in the Grizzlies’ price range, should they dump Prince. While Memphis has never been a trendy free agent-magnet, the Grizz also don’t need to lure stars, just quality players that can fill very obvious gaps on this team, who are quickly turning the franchise’s losing culture on its head. They also have the advantage of priority; their needs are subtle and they can make aggressive pushes for these guys early, having no interest in the top free agents.

Though the black-and-white on-court solution to this team’s flaws may seem obvious, the Grizzlies’ front office has shown they aren’t afraid to both analyze the game on a deeper level, and make sudden, major decisions on the heels of it.

Even though Randolph has been the rock of this team’s offensive identity for the past three years, he could be moved anytime, with his age and contract climbing while his consistency a go-to guy slips, and Gasol and Conley emerge as stars. Again, it would be a bold move, but the Gay trade was bold itself, and although it hurt Memphis’ ability to keep defenses honest in the postseason, it didn’t completely sink them as first thought.

One thing’s for sure about the Memphis Grizzlies going forward; you can expect just about anything from this team as they continue their attempt to inventively re-define successful small-market teams in the NBA. It’s a Grind.

About the Author

AJ Salah Growing up in the basketball-crazed city of Halifax, Nova Scotia, AJ Salah fell in love with the NBA at a young age by way of the Dream Shake and the Lister Blister, dreaming of one day having his own posters and shoe commercials. Long after his knees and general lack of athleticism shattered those dreams, he remains a full-time hoops junkie and part-time freelance writer who cheers for the good of the game above any team. You can catch his roundball rantings at http://basketballbanter.blogspot.ca and follow him on Twitter (https://twitter.com/BBall_Banter) for NBA coverage that pulls fewer punches than Oliver Miller at a BBQ.

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