The MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES are at a metaphorical crossroads. Before them: two paths. The first leads to a land of 8th seed playoff first-round exits, 14th overall picks in the draft, and sustained mediocrity. The second is an arduous journey — painful in the short term but would theoretically lead to a prosperous post-Warriors/Rockets future in the Western Conference.
In a film/book, there’s always the point where the protagonist reaches the “all is lost” moment. A choice is presented. For example, in Harry Potter‘s case, that point was *spoiler* Dumbledore’s death and Voldemort’s impending rise. Harry decides that he must leave Hogwarts — take the fight on the road and hunt down the Horcruxes without exposing his fellow students at risk. Or take, as an alternate example, Andy Dufresne in THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION. After the warden *spoiler* murders the one witness that could exonerate Andy’s murder charge and Andy begins to realize he’ll spend his entire life in prison unless he acts, Andy’s decision to *spoiler* escape prison is made. He puts his plan into effect — slowly exposing the warden’s fiscal fraud and digging his escape tunnel with a small rock hammer in plain sight — all while keeping his efforts secret from his prison buddies. The protagonist’s choice is never easy, and the short term often sucks, but the decision is for the greater good. This is a weird and perhaps too convoluted metaphor for my overall point: the Grizzlies need to rebuild, and the CHIEF is here to outline the process in the most digestible manner.
DISCLAIMER: importantly — and maybe illogically — this piece ignores the financial concerns of the franchise. In other words, I don’t consider decreased ticket sales/revenue in my plan, because I believe any such projections are entirely speculative. If the Grizzlies’ front office is [somehow] able to present a definitive plan to build the team going forward (not unlike the Sixers’ “Process”), I believe the fans will buy in and support the journey. If the plan is nebulous and contradictory (like the recent pivot back to “Grit ‘n Grind”), fans will riot. Crucially, the front office must be forward about the rebuild. They must expressly explain to fans the team’s goal and the specific steps to achieve it. Fair weather fans may bolt, but true fans will stick around (and the fair weather ones will return once the team starts winning again). Enough disclaimers, let’s dive in to the plan proper.
(1) Trade Mike, Marc, or Mike/Marc:
I didn’t say this plan would be easy. I never said it wouldn’t hit you right in your feels. Every second that passes — even in the time it takes you to read this very publication — both Mike Conley and Marc Gasol’s trade values steadily decrease. They’re old [for NBA standards], ya know? And they ain’t getting any younger. At best — and I hesitate to even predict this much — they’re each worth a future first-round pick. And the Grizzlies must be predatory about this transaction. I.e., the front office should target win-now teams that believe they’re one piece away from being a championship contender. Example: the 2015 Grizzlies, who were one scoring/creating wing away from a competitive dynasty (legitimately what some thought, including myself), traded next year’s first round pick to the Celtics (UGH), for the theoretically capable Jeff Green (Double UGH). Because Boston GM Danny Ainge is more shrewd than a Moroccan trader, the Celtics cashed in on an expiring
bum player that they knew wouldn’t help them in the short-term for a future asset that’ll likely be a lottery pick in 2019 (not to mention the Cs are a team that just reached the ECF with their two best players injured).
If I’m the Grizzlies’ GM, I’m calling Jeff Bower of the Detroit Pistons — a team that recently acquired the less than spectacular Blake Griffin on a more than spectacular contract. What does this tell me? The Pistons are willing to take big risks and take on absurd contracts in the short term to try to be the best they can possibly be and win now. I anticipate the call would go something like this:
ME: Yo, Jeff. CHIEF with Memphis. What’s happening?
JB: Who? Who are you? What happened to Chris?
ME: Never mind that. Listen. Got a trade offer for ya. You sitting down?
JB: [to assistant off phone] There a “CHIEF” with the Grizzlies? [Back to me] Okay, whatever, shoot…
ME: I’m backed into a corner here, and I have to make an offer too good to be true. But if I’m gonna get screwed, I’d prefer it to be by you, Jeff —
JB: Who the hell are you again?
ME: Look, Mike Conley Jr. for Reggie Jackson and your 2022 first-rounder. BANG. Who says no?
JB: Mike Conley? But isn’t he always hurt?
ME: Not anymore, he’s never felt healthier. Two years left on his deal plus a player option. And — I don’t have to tell you this — Mike is best when facilitating a big man in the pick and roll, so he’d pair extraordinarily well with your boy Blake Griffin.
JB: 32 million is a big-ass cap hit…
ME: Reggie is nearly 18MIL! We’ll make it work. Just give us Kennard — that white guy who played at Duke — to shed some salary.
JB: I dunno, I like Kennard…
ME: No you don’t, you don’t even know who Kennard is. Jeff, Jeff, Jeff… You can’t afford not to have Mike. LeBron’s gone West, the Sixers can’t stay healthy, all you have to do is beat the Cs to get to the Finals. It’s within your grasp! Mike gets you over the hump!
JB: A first-rounder too? C’mon…
ME: In 2022? Please, you’ll be a two-time champion then and the pick won’t be any good anyways. Help me help you. Have I ever steered you wrong?
JB: I don’t even know you, what’s your last name?
ME: Think about it and lemme know, Jeff.
I may also reach out to the Suns, who just had a big draft night and holster three promising young players (Booker, Jackson, and Ayton) on minuscule contracts (thus having money to blow-oh-oh-oh-ohhhhh). The Suns are sorely lacking at the PG position, and may swing big for Mike Conley, potentially the best trade-able point guard not named Kemba Walker. Mike’s selflessness and defense-minded style would fit extremely well with the current scorers on the PHX roster and would provide some much needed leadership and serenity in a locker room chock full of young fireball personalities.
For Marc, a suitor may be potentially easier to locate. He played nearly every game last year, averaged 17-8 shooting 34% from 3. He has one more year left on his 22MM deal (then a player option). I’m calling teams that can use a solid, facilitating center who plays team defense and can shoot 3s: Boston, Cleveland, Dallas, Charlotte, Clippers, Indiana, etc. Teams that have young players, draft assets, and seem to want to win now. Although, as discussed below, Gasol himself may request a trade if things begin to smell rotten in Denmark:
I would love to know Gasol’s true reaction to the Grizz drafting a guy moreso for the future than an immediate impact type of prospect. If things go south early on I think this will be the year he goes full Pau and asks for a trade.
— Isaac Simpson (@Isaac_Rivals) June 25, 2018
Of course, this would mean saying goodbye to two players that mean an unquantifiable amount to Memphis as a city. I understand there would be immediate backlash. But remember our friends Harry and Andy from earlier? If there is a plan in place, the front office could at least stand in front of the masses and explain accordingly. Why would we take such a drastic, and admittedly gut-wrenching course of action, you ask? Well, first of all, I don’t think we’re going to be any good next year, even with a fully healthy Mike and Marc. I challenge anyone to get me 100 PPG with the Grizzlies’ roster as constructed. And that challenge assumes a team that allowed 111 PPG (good for 26th in the league) last season will suddenly be able to defend at a decent clip going forward. You know what happens when you assume. [Insert rhetorical answer]. Tony Allen ain’t walking back through that door. When some of the local Grizz Twitter faithful were polled:
How many games do you think the Grizzlies win in the 2018-2019 season?
— The BarnBurner (@The_BarnBurner) June 26, 2018
The majority said 30-39. Close second is an optimistic 40-49. 30-39 wins is the worst spot: assuredly missed playoffs and an absentee first-round pick. Depending on where the team falls between 40-49, that could mean a 7th or 8th seed or another year watching from the sidelines AND no pick. Regardless, neither of these scenarios are ideal.
Another compelling reason to trade Mike/Marc is…
(1a) Play Jaren Jackson, Jr. All of the Minutes:
Development with a capital “D.” With Marc out of the rotation, Jaren Jackson, Jr. (“JJJ”) in particular will benefit from lots of NBA minutes (assuming he can stay on the floor given his history of foul trouble). The same sort of minutes that Dillon Brooks played last year — albeit, Brooks was served by the Grizzlies’ tanking efforts. Though forever optimist Robert Pera wants to win 50+ games, I’m not sure anyone’s reminded him that this roster is pretty trash. Chinese Basketball Association bucket-getter MarShon Brooks may average a 20-piece off the bench, but I’m not certain 50+ losses isn’t the more likely projection for next season.
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) June 21, 2018
JJJ’s potential is undeniable. His defense will have immediate impact. He patrols the paint and will either block or alter nearly every single shot at the rim. His offense, on the other hand, will be a work in progress, and Bickerstaff should endeavor to set him up with at least a few targeted plays for easy buckets. Rarely have the Grizzlies possessed a big man whose roll results in an above-the-rim alley oop and whose pop results in a splashed corner three. JJJ is that dude, let’s scheme for him accordingly.
More on Jaren Jackson, Jr.: The (Memphis) Morning After the NBA Draft
(2) Stock the Cupboard with Draft Picks:
Directly related to Step (1). In the modern NBA, draft picks have become the most sought-after currency. Any team boasting a stockpile of picks is very rich indeed. Why? Like any asset, they’re useful in a multitude of ways. The first is obvious: obtaining young talent (especially in a market unable to attract FAs). The second is less clear: trade leverage. Picks can be packaged with bad contracts or seemingly flawed trades to sweeten and incentive deals. Two second rounders can become a first (in the right situation). Simply stated, draft picks — despite their placement — are never a bad thing to have. Miraculously, many NBA fans can’t see the benefits that arise from future draft picks. Those are also the same people that would take a dollar today instead of ten dollars in four years.
The process is not especially hard. The blueprint is already out there: the 2013 Boston Celtics. For those that don’t remember, in July 2013, the Brooklyn Nets officially announced they had acquired Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Jason Terry and D.J. White from the Boston Celtics in exchange for Gerald Wallace, Kris Humphries, MarShon Brooks (LOL), Keith Bogans, Mikhail Prokhorov’s soul,
a sack of goose feathers, and the Nets’ unprotected first-round draft picks in 2014, 2016 and 2018. The Celtics also received the right to swap first-rounders with the Nets in 2017.
The blockbuster trade was supposed to put the Nets over the top and give the Celtics a chance to hit the reset button. But, as we now know, Brooklyn was unable to win a championship and still finds itself in a massive hole because of its old win-now, big-spending, star-chasing strategy. Meanwhile, Boston, who stockpiled a ton of assets with which to build, has since acquired:
- James Young (2014 — admittedly a bust)
- Jaylen Brown (2016)
- Jayson Tatum (2017 — swapped from 2018)
Suddenly, a mere FOUR YEARS LATER, Boston wins over 50 games, is in the ECF with Kyrie and Hayward watching from the bench, and has two of the most promising players aged 21 and under in Brown and Tatum. Ainge and Boston wisely decided they preferred ten dollars instead of one. This brings me directly to:
(3) Oh Hai, 2019 NBA Draft:
Next year’s draft is replete with talent (but for real, because everyone says that every year) and, most importantly, the top five or so picks are wing scorers — a position of high demand for the Grizzlies. Sidebar: I hope there comes a day where I can remark, “well, the one thing the Grizzlies sure DON’T need is another wing that can shoot and attack the basket.” Because that hasn’t been a thing that I could comfortably say for the past 8+ years. Sigh…
— Brian Coulter (@PhilaBCoulter) June 24, 2018
Cam Reddish, R.J. Barrett, Nassir Little, and Romeo Langford all project to be tremendous, immediate impact, franchise-altering players. At minimum, they’ll all be able to put the ball through the hoop (half the battle indeed). Of particular relevance here, take a guess who they would complement perfectly? Jaren Jackson, Jr., baby.
But here’s the kicker: due to the now catastrophic Jeff Green trade in 2015 (hindsight is a bitch), the Celtics own the Grizzlies’ 2019 first-round pick. There remains, however, a slim chance that the Grizz can keep this pick, as it is top-8 protected. While somewhat non-intuitive, this “protection” means that the Grizz keep their 2019 pick if, and only if, it falls within the top-8 when the lottery order is selected. What does this mean practically? It’s in the Grizzlies’ best future interest to be very, very bad at basketball next season. While there may be some possibility of receiving a 2019 first-rounder in the aforementioned Mike or Marc trades, unfortunately, and not to use a “trigger word,” another tank would also be a prudent course of action.
I get it. The mere mention of another tank causes many fans to shudder and react with opposition. And there’s no doubt that last season completely and utterly sucked. But as established before, I believe the team will again be awful next year — whether calculated or not. So then the question remains: would the Grizz prefer to retain their lottery pick in a loaded scorer draft or lose it to the already stacked Celtics? Further, an important salient fact to consider: the Grizz cannot and will never be able to attract free agents. The team’s best (and generally only) chance of acquiring game-changing talent is through the draft, which means maximizing picks is truly the key to Memphis’ prolonged success and title aspirations. In addition, though somewhat tinted by my bias, I believe that players who spend time in Memphis and play for the Grizz undertake a transformation and garner a greater appreciation for the city and franchise, such that they may re-sign and try to win a ‘ship for the 901. But, we have to get them here first. See, for example, an Anthony Davis in NOLA situation. Sure, maybe he eventually bolts to a bigger market to win a title, but the Pellies will have had at least eight years to surround him with talent. This begs a difficult question: if Grizzlies fans are unwilling to suffer through a calculated rebuild, do they deserve an NBA franchise anyway?
Now, if the Cs don’t get the Grizzlies’ pick next year, in 2020, it’s only top-5 protected. In 2021, the pick automatically goes to the Celtics regardless of its placement. But if everything goes *extremely Heath Ledger Joker voice* according to plan, the Grizzlies should be already on the upswing, with three consecutive lottery players (here’s looking at you James Wiseman in 2020) blossoming in key starting roles while the Warriors and Rockets are entering their twilight years. If the Mike/Mark trades yield any future first-rounders, with a stroke of luck, those pick(s) compensate for the year the Grizz eventually lose their pick to Boston.
Texts with Slim and Bro:
I reached out to the Backdoor Cut Crew for their respective insight with the simple question: “can y’all think of anything you’d suggest to save the Grizz?”
I don’t disagree, fellas.
What Are The Grizzlies’ Goals?
The pivotal question that will decide the franchise’s path. Is the goal to reach the Finals and compete for championships? Or, rather, is the goal to scratch and claw into the playoffs, maybe win a round, and be ousted before you can yell “whoop that trick”? Maybe the goal is simply to churn out a little profit. The choice the front office makes in the coming years will give us the answer to this question. I, for one, prefer the chance for a parade down Beale Street. What about you? And, crucially, what about Chris Wallace, Robert Pera, Joe Abadi, and Jason Wexler?
We’ll know soon…
EDITORIAL NOTE: The Pistons fired general manager Jeff Bower in June 2019 and hired Ed Stefanski has a senior advisor to help reorganize the front office (including the hiring of former Raptors Head Coach Dwayne Casey).