A joke that isn’t funny anymore
In recent years, the Grizzlies have been equal parts punchline and NBA team.
One of the most important moments of recent NBA history was the 2008 Memphis trade of Pau Gasol to the Los Angeles Lakers. That trade — painted by the press and certain Spurs coaches as a ridiculously lopsided affair that smelled of collusion — prompted a series of reactionary trades. The Spurs, for example, got in on the “supercontenders” race by trading Bruce Bowen, Kurt Thomas and Fabricio Oberto for Richard Jefferson. San Antonio’s current team is still very much a response to the Grizzlies-Lakers deal. The Gasol trade was a huge stone that sent ripples charging from the center of the NBA pond to its shore.
We’re still seeing those ripples. The current Grizzlies team is largely a result of the Gasol trade.
Marc Gasol came to Memphis directly from Los Angeles. Darrell Arthur, an important bench piece, was added through a draft pick sent from L.A. And, of course, by transferring Pau Gasol’s salary to Los Angeles, the Grizzlies positioned themselves to absorb Zach Randolph’s salary. One wonders how much, if at all, the contract extensions of Mike Conley and Rudy Gay were partially enabled by the Gasol trade?
Simply put, Memphis has done well. I didn’t see it coming. You didn’t see it coming. But it’s happened. The Grizzlies have managed to rebuild themselves despite trading away their best player.
This season the Grizzlies are — especially in their first round series against the Spurs — a revelation of fun, winning basketball. Defensively they swarm and ballhawk and generally maintain their commitment of being a world class pain to their opponents. Offensively, they pound the block with Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. If you’re into basketball where the bigs play big, then look no further than Memphis.
Recently, the TrueHoop Network collected votes for the NBA’s end-of-season awards. I granted Lionel Hollins a third place vote for Coach of the Year, Tony Allen a third place vote for Defensive Player of the Year (as well as All-NBA Defensive Team), and tapped Zach Randolph for All-NBA Third Team honors. Looking back on the voting, I wish someone had given Chris Wallace an honorary mention for Executive of the Year.
That’s right, Chris Wallace. The baboon who traded Pau Gasol is having the last laugh.
Michael Heisley and Chris Wallace have been called many things over the past few seasons, but increasingly one must give credit where credit is due. Heisley owns a team in a small market. He’s kept the team competitive despite gate troubles. Heisley is lousy at PR and sometimes leaves the impression that he is asleep at the wheel. And, who knows, maybe he is. But the primary duty of an owner is to pay for stuff. On that front, Heisley can’t be accused of not trying. The Grizzlies committed to $68 million in payroll this season. That’s more than other playoff teams and nearly the same amount spent by Spurs owner Peter Holt. The Grizzlies also extended Rudy Gay and Zach Randolph to lucrative contracts. Clearly, Heisley is interested in keeping the winning up. He is, putting this to a point, operating a successful franchise.
Chris Wallace put together the Grizzlies roster, which, as Spurs fans are quickly learning, is not only talented, but works. Wallace, as all GMs do, has made his share of poor decisions (see Thabeet, Hasheem). But, by my scorecard, he’s ahead. Flipping Darko Milicic for Quentin Richardson and then turning Q-Rich into Zach Randolph looks like a master move in retrospect. Draft picks Sam Young and Darrell Arthur have helped the team. Lionel Hollins, a Wallace hire, is proving invaluable as a head coach. Free agent and trade acquisitions Tony Allen and Shane Battier were spot-on manuevers. Allen, especially, is a game-changing player.
In short, the Memphis Grizzlies are a joke that isn’t funny anymore. It’s impossible to evaluate the Grizzlies management without giving them passing marks.