On The Grizzle – Reasonable Doubt

When the long-speculated Rudy Gay trade finally became a reality for the Memphis Grizzlies, there was a large rift in the reactions of the NBA community.

Some praised the move as an effective salary-slash that didn’t cut too close to Memphis’ core as to hurt their playoff chances significantly. Others – and I’ll openly admit I fell squarely into this group – believed new ownership had overtaken a small market team, seen themselves with too large of a payroll, and punted a good season to put themselves in a better spot down the road.

At first, things looked as such: The Grizzlies first couple of games were reminiscent of Vancouver; despondent losses that made some wonder if this team had suddenly given up. There were rumblings of malcontent from Lionel Hollins, and Robert Pera – in his first media appearance as owner – made some vague, uneducated remarks that reinforced his reluctance to front as a basketball strategist, and did little to quell the skepticism behind his motives.

But then suddenly something pretty unexpected happened: Memphis started rolling out W after W, to the tune of eight in a row. Their ever-solid defense still crippling teams, they were actually scoring more efficiently and winning 100+ point games. When the streak finally ended, it took four full quarters of effort at home from a Miami team that was a single loss and a Harlem Shake video away from a perfect February.

While the Grizzlies’ recent success certainly isn’t indicative of a return to their early-season form, it lends credence to the idea that they could still be a threat in the West. Memphis may have lost their best pure scorer in Gay, but they also lost a ball-dominator who didn’t quite fit the scheme of their ideal attack (that being their low-post oriented grind with a dash of suffocating transition D from the ’11 Playoffs; the one they never really got a chance to fit Gay into last year, and seemed to be doing well with this season pre-rumors).

While Rudy’s now blossoming on a team that needed a go-to scorer and happily gave him the green light, what remains to be seen is if the void left by his absence can be consistently filled by his teammates against top opposition; when a team like Miami ramps up the D to #GNG levels in the 4th of a close game, will Memphis be too reliant on their low-post tandem? It was my main concern when Gay was traded, and it remains, despite the recent success, and Tayshaun Prince’s mild resurrection.

Yes, Gay was a largely inefficient offensive player; he was dribble-heavy, shot a lot of long-range two pointers and for his volume didn’t hit them at a great clip. What he did do was impose a looming threat on opposing defenses; one that was capable of getting hot at any time and beginning to burn them from pretty much anywhere on the floor, constant insurance against them jamming the post on Z-Bo and Gasol the Greater.

Memphis is aiming to make up for that through ball movement and shot selection, and while it’s worked in a small sample against largely subpar opposition, it will be a weapon of inferior caliber in the Playoffs. They’ll be pitted not only against better teams, but more familiar foes that will have game after game to become more familiar with their predictable offensive rotations and preferences, constantly eroding what edge the Grizz may have. And when the game’s on the line, and they need a bucket, every coach, announcer, and fan in the NBA will generally know where the ball’s going.

It worked without Gay in 2011, but that was then. Shane Battier was still a Grizzly, OJ Mayo hadn’t fully begun his descent into the organization’s doghouse, and Greivis Vasquez was providing inspiring play as a rookie backup point guard. This current roster lacks the perimeter snipers that allowed their attack to flourish, and despite the huge progress made by Mike Conley it’s yet to be seen if he can mandate the perimeter-checking he might have to for Memphis to be anything more than a Dark Horse wannabe.

The Grizzlies’ recent winning streak was celebrated, but from a realistic point of view, they beat the teams they’re better than, and didn’t find ways to beat the one that they’re not, something they seemed all too capable of doing in November. This team obviously hasn’t given up, and still has the ability to make a run deep into the postseason, but the jury should be out on the Gay trade until we see how that run plays out, and just what this team’s capable of.

On the Grizzle – Business Unusual

As Robert Pera stepped to the mic yesterday for the first time since his Nov. 2 Home-Opener Address, he faced plenty of questions about the current state and direction of his team. After all, these Grizzlies were a different lot than the ones he’d taken over, the ones he’d watched jump out to the NBA’s best record before approving their overhaul since his last public appearance.

While the questions have flown, Pera has not seemed entirely consistent (or educated) in his stance, leaving even more uncertainty about his intentions going forward. This outlines the obvious massive chasm between the technology industry – where Pera, obviously a brilliant businessman, has made billions – and the NBA.

Delegate his dealings to Jason Levien and John Hollinger as he may, the man truly at the helm of this organization claims to be motivated by wins and not the “bottom line”, a mystifying position given its direct contradiction to the trades made so far. Both on paper and on the court, the current Grizzlies are a shell of the team that had the whole League on alert in November, but have swept countless millions in salaries and luxury tax off their books (while Pera noted “ownership…is still shoring up sponsorship agreements”).

His motives for the Cleveland deal seem nebulous; Pera insists it was part of “leverage” for the Gay trade (itself much scrutinized). Most NBA analysts saw the move as a potential waste of the 1st-round pick they dealt. Most Grizz fans saw it put their team under this year’s salary cap without significantly hurting their core. Ultimately, many feel the “value” that was “leveraged” from the Gay deal wasn’t the best offer to be had.

Unfortunately, this isn’t where the lack of clarity ends.

Any attempt to disguise last month’s trades as anything other than a salary dump (as Pera is venturing to do) is pure dishonesty, something that probably won’t endear too well to Memphis’ blue-collar fanbase. Last week, in an online chat with season ticket holders, Pera went so far as to call the Grizzlies ‘a far more dangerous playoff team’, citing a loose understanding of the defense-favoring pace playoff basketball takes on, and the recent Spurs and Pistons as historical proof of teams winning without “dominant superstars”.

In doing this, Pera is demonstrating not only a lack of historical basketball perspective, but insulting the intelligence of anyone he expects to believe him. His refusal to acknowledge Tim Duncan as a “dominant superstar” is absurd, and speaks to a low NBA IQ . The Pistons team he refers to was not only a perfect storm of defense and chemistry (the latter of which he’s bludgeoned since his arrival), but the only team to win a title without Duncan, LeBron James, Dirk Nowitzki, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Dwyane Wade, Shaquille O’Neal, Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, Isaiah Thomas, Larry Bird, Moses Malone or Magic Johnson in the last 34 years. “Historical proof” that Pera doesn’t really know what he’s talking about.

Further proof lies right in front of us: the team that Pera is trying to masquerade as a contender to placate a justifiably angry mob of fans. While this team has likely improved marginally on defense with Tayshaun Prince in Gay’s place, they were already elite on D, and sacrificed too much offense to stay afloat, subtracting the leading scorer (and best perimeter-oriented threat on a post-heavy team) from an attack that already ranked in the NBA’s bottom five. “Defense wins Championships”, but it doesn’t do it alone. Any impartial observer can look at this team; compare it to the one that was skunking most of the League’s elite three months ago, and conclude that Pera is deceiving – in confident ignorance – either himself, or his new customers.

If Pera had simply maintained the position of a new small-market owner saddled with a Top-5 payroll and completely different approach to NBA ownership than his predecessor, this whole situation would be easier to swallow. If his intentions were clearly to save money now to improve the team’s flexibility in the near future, then waxing Gay was a painful, but reasonable decision. But shifting stances to cloak the move in rhetoric that even a slightly-knowledgeable fan can see straight through – as though he seriously built this team to contend this year – sets a dangerous precedent for his tenure in Memphis.

On The Grizzle: Layoffs > Playoffs

You hear it all the time; “The NBA is a business”. An obvious statement in and of itself, the sentiment it echoes is often a sideshow distraction behind the competitive drama professional basketball inspires.

Yet on days like today, its meaning is all too visceral for the Memphis Grizzlies and their fans, who are now officially seeing Peyton Manning, Justin Timberlake, and whoever else is calling the shots up there begin bushwhacking a Top-4 Western Conference force.

Last week’s deal with the Cavaliers was a shrewd adjustment; allowing the Grizzlies to hibernate under the luxury tax this season while shedding some expendable players, but apparently the need to save more money bore greater importance than a deep run in the Playoffs, as Rudy Gay’s departure has signaled.

There’s a lot to digest here, not the least of which is the fact that this is happening to begin with. The Grizzlies got off to the best start in the NBA, apparently reaching the apex of a team that had steadily improved each season its core spent together. They hit a few standard rough patches once the hype caught up with them, but didn’t really start playing their worst until management began publicly dangling Gay and casting this whole tightly-knit team’s outlook into doubt.

What they get in return for their best wing scorer (what little compensation they had for the lack of shooters to keep defenses from collapsing on Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph) and fan-favorite/bench-prop Hamed Haddadi is a serious mixed bag.

Ed Davis is an athletic stud with a rapidly developing skill set who was buried beneath questionable signings in Toronto’s rotation and never got the chance to consistently show out. At a fraction of Gay’s contract, he could wind up being the best player in this trade, but his role in Memphis’ frontcourt is somewhat nebulous. Davis figures to be in a battle for minutes with the well-established Darrell Arthur, and while he can see minutes at the 5-spot against smaller lineups, it will be hard for him to grow into his potential with Randolph and Gasol being so focal. All told, he’s a very intriguing prospect but it’s difficult to see how he helps the Grizzlies much this season.

Memphis also netted Jose Calderon; a great fit for them at backup point as a distributor on a team who can mask his defensive horridness, and playing with a long-time Spanish teammate. As though that didn’t make enough sense, his $10 million salary also came off the books in the offseason, lessening that financial strain the Grizzlies’ top brass found so burdensome.

So of course, Calderon was immediately flipped to the Pistons for Tayshaun Prince and Austin Daye, two completely redundant swingmen (one who’s almost over the hill, the other never really climbed it to begin with) who may provide a slight net defensive gain over Gay, but are downright offensive liabilities on a team that’s basically bringing knives to gunfights on a nightly basis, and only surviving because of heavy Kevlar.

Put more blatantly, the Grizzlies have a lot of trouble scoring at a steady enough clip. Everyone raves about their defense – and rightfully so – but their per-game scoring sits in the NBA’s catacombs along with the Pacers, Bulls (both of whom are missing their leading scorer) and Wizards (who nobody wants to be associated with).

Now that their best perimeter scorer has been significantly downgraded, it’s hard to see the situation improving much. None of the new arrivals are high-volume scorers, or consistent long-range threats to stretch defenses, so regardless of Davis’ contributions down the road, Memphis has taken a step back this season.

At the end of the day, from a business point of view, this was a justifiable long-term decision that sticks Memphis with a safer small-market budget, but its timing is all off. Not only is breaking up the core of an arguable Western contender somewhat dubious, but these new owners (every time I write that I’m envisioning JT with an increasingly sadistic look on his face) already accomplished their salary-slashing agenda; they got under the cap for this season. If they didn’t want to pay Gay next year, he wouldn’t have been any less tradeable in July after Memphis made an indeterminably deep playoffs run, and didn’t move to alienate their fan base.

But alas, the NBA is a business, and the most successful businesses are those that are built on growth; solid foundations and steady returns built upon not losing sight of the long-term for short gains.

What the Grizzlies have done with this trade however is ignore the solid foundation they already had, and the steady returns it yielded. They lost sight of the short-term for long savings, and it might cost them a shot at the game’s ultimate goal.