A joke that isn’t funny anymore

by

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.

  • DorieStreet

    The Grizz were more of the “forgotten ones” than the NBA running joke/punchline franchise. The Clippers are tops in that category (being 2nd fiddle in Hollywood with the Champs but sharing the same arena), with the Warriors (highly entertaining up & down basketball, but in the end always still a sub. 500 team), Nets and Wizards ready to stand in and be fodder for ‘sorry NBA team talk’.
    Memphis was so out-of-sight and mind, we all forgot than their best player was a Rookie of The Year and put up the same stellar stats for nearly a decade while missing on average only a handful of games each year. That trade brought them out from under the rock (what division are they in? who is their coach?) and put them in the headlines for basically the 1st time since the team moved from Canada.
    That transaction didn’t start the “supecontender race”–it was the Garnett & Allen to the Celtics that previous summer (2007) that begat what the league has gone through since–top 10 players/stars being traded or becoming free agents.
    In retrospect, the Spurs’ reaction to the megatrades comes up short. Jefferson is not our 4th star but a complimentary role player in the startin 3 position.
    An exchange once universally deemed comical and borderline illegal in the league circles, has panned out to be quite beneficial to both parties: Team A bounces back to championship form after a sub .500 year & 2 1st round exits, while Team B moves from the NBA ‘have-nots/bottom feeder/lost franchise’ club to a playoff team.

    And isn’t it ironic that the Spurs have spent nearly a decade going overseas to acquire quality international front court players (Scolla, Mahinmi, Splitter, Richards), but the best internationl player for that position has literally been under their nose –5th place in their own division–for the better part of a decade.

  • DorieStreet

    Actually, we can go back 7 seasons for the first “supercontender race”–when Karl Malone and Gary Payton joined Shaq & Kobe in LA for that 2003-04 title run. It was the Lakers’ move to get by the Spurs, who supplanted them as champions the year before.

  • zenmage@hotmail.com

    Great article. However, I am not bullish about Wallace and the Grizz despite many good decisions. They hugely overpaid for Gay and, I still think, for Conley. Don’t draft all that well in the lottery, and now their picks will be more difficult going forward. That said, Allen as a free agent is the kind of move RC is paid to scope out and deliver to SA.

  • DorieStreet

    What’s not to like about the Grizz? So they may have overpaid for Gay—they’re doing well w/o him; I bet if they put out feelers, they might can unload him to another team. Remember, they actually traded Mayo–it was voided because it was after the deadline. The FO could try it again this offseason. Conley is improving. The draft picks now will be for supporting roles to augument the current squad, if they can come in and supplant the players that are on the roster but not part of the rotation.

    And they are holding their own against the top team in the west.

  • Gladyglade

    “The baboon who traded Pau Gasol is having the last laugh.”

    That seems a bit presumptive, considering they’ve yet to win a playoff series. Unless I missed something, the Grizzlies have yet to achieve, much less exceed the amount of success achieved by the Lakers since The Trade.

    Let’s see… Lakers have reached the NBA Finals four times successively (winning three times) in the four years since The Trade.
    The Grizzlies have… well, they’ve won a whopping TWO playoff games (all of which have been against an undersized Spurs team featuring a Manu Ginobili still trying to recover from a seriously injured elbow).

    I have nothing against the Grizzlies, but I think we’re at least four years away from being able to say (with any real credibility) that The Trade was equitable.

  • Gladyglade

    I apologize. I meant to say that the Lakers reached the Finals THREE times, winning it all TWICE. Guess I should proof read my comments more thoroughly.

  • hoopsman

    What an ignorant take. We’re talking about the Grizzlies here….a team that has been a laughingstock and a doormat. A team who made it to the playoffs three times and were swept every time. If the Grizzlies never win another playoff game, this was a great trade for them. It made them relevant. It enabled thim to keep their core players together.

    Pau Gasol is terribly overrated. He’s a better fit in a place like LA where he can defer to someone else and play a supporting role. In Memphis, he was expected to be THE MAN and he’s not that kind of player, and the Grizz, knowing this, traded him to clear space and go get that kind of player: Zach Randolph.

    If I’m starting a team, I may take Marc Gasol over Pau Gasol straight up. He’s much tougher and he’s a better defender. Pau is more athletic, but he struggles against aggressive front lines.

  • http://www.operaforthemasses.com David G

    Nice post, and I completely agree. At the time the trade looked like an absoulute give away by the Griz, but it’s been a win/win trade for both teams, which is the goal of a trade. Pau is a star player, but he wanted out and wasn’t going to stay after his contract was up. The Griz basically turned Pau into Marc, Randolph, Young, and Arthur. For any basketball historians out there has a team ever done better when trading their star player?

  • este

    The Spurs conning everyone in to thinking you can win with spare parts like Matt Bonner is the real joke

  • Betsy Duncan

    I don’t think our team has taken them seriously enough. Sure hope we aren’t a ‘punchline’ to their ‘wackiness’!

  • Lvmainman

    Imagine if the Grizzlies hadn’t wasted the #2 overall pick on Hasheem Thabeet!! They’d have a backup pt guard in Stephen Curry or a James Harden type.

    Being up 2-1 without Rudy Gay shows they do have potential.

    But, what if Marc Gasol leaves after this year?

    Trading Pau Gasol for Kwame Brown/Marc Gasol was still a bone-headed move, in my opinion.

  • rrw

    Timothy, excellent article, but here is one correction: Thabeet was Heisley’s pick, not Wallace’s. Tony Barone (in charge of player personnel) pushed hard for Thabeet and all of his potential upside. Wallace and Hollins wanted to get either Evans or Curry (I don’t recall who wanted which guard, but I would have been happy with either choice) to help strengthen the back-court. Of the three draft picks made that year, Heisley picked Thabeet and DeMarre Carroll in the first round to strengthen the team’s defense; and Wallace was given a garbage pick in the second round, with which he chose Sam Young – who not only is the only one of the three still with the team but is also starting in lieu of Rudy Gay’s absence.

    Wallace was also instrumental in the much-maligned player exchange that the Grizzlies ran a few years ago in which the team used its significant cap space available due to the Gasol “fiasco” to buy other team’s expensive, non-performing contracts (with cash considerations that basically paid off the rest of the year), and then bought out the contract from the player for less-than-face value. This helped the Grizzlies stay afloat financially in 2009 and still retain their cap space for the following year.

    One last thing, Wallace has been beat up in the media for his trades when he was in Boston, but he basically was doing the same thing there that he did in Memphis, just in Memphis he was able to see it through to the end. The cap space that Boston had available to sign Garnett and Allen was due to Wallace’s dealings over the prior two years, not because Ainge was that much of a genius.

  • Rowrbazzle

    I’m still not buying it.

  • Drzarr

    Great blog. Just wanted to say that the Hasheem Thabeet draft pick was not Chris Wallace. It was the owner, Michael Heinsley. I am a Grizz fan, and it pained Heinsley to trade Thabeet away to Houston, but given Shane Battier’s immediate success by making the winning 3 pointer in the first playoff game, I am pretty darn sure he doesn’t regret it.