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.