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See Ya, Pau!

What does the Grizzlies' blockbuster move mean for the team's future?

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Last Friday afternoon, when I arrived at FedExForum for Grizzlies general manager Chris Wallace's press conference to discuss the trade of Pau Gasol to the Los Angeles Lakers, I noticed something different about the cinder-block walls in the hallway of the Don Poier Media Center: Several of the color placards that adorn the hall were missing. All the images of Gasol had been removed — "ripped down" seems more appropriate considering the remnants of paper and glue still attached to the wall where the placards once were. This wouldn't have seemed all that odd, except that there were still several solo images of lesser former Grizzlies (Dahntay Jones, Lawrence Roberts) affixed to the wall.

No one seemed to have an answer as to whether the removal of Gasol's image was team directed or an act of vandalism, though the answer was suggested by the next night's game, when all references to Gasol, both inside and around FedExForum, were apparently absent. Regardless, it was a fitting image for the abrupt removal of the best player in franchise history.

Gasol, of course, had been an increasingly unpopular and controversial figure among a large segment of Grizzlies fans — well before the team's 0-12 playoff run cemented a sense of limited potential or Gasol's trade request in the middle of last year's lost season. He was often booed at games and often derided on local talk radio and fan message boards. Many Griz fans were so clamoring for his departure that variations on "I'd trade him for a bag of Cheetos" were not uncommon. But after Gasol was dealt to the Lakers for what looked to many like a pu-pu platter of mediocre veterans, unproven prospects, and middling draft picks, even some of his detractors started to second-guess their eagerness to pack the big man's bags. Those with a better appreciation for Gasol's talents tended toward irate or crestfallen. Certainly, the legions that wished for his departure are no more likely to buy or renew ticket packages in the wake of this trade.

It may be that a fundamental break from the persona of a team that's been losing fans for several seasons was needed and that moving Gasol was the only way to accomplish that. But rebuilding the fan base won't be as simple as removing a player for whom many fans had developed an irrational dislike.

Friday's trade of Gasol — the 27-year-old forward who has been the team's best player each and every season since moving to Memphis and who remains the franchise's lone all-star — may or may not end up being good for the long-term health of the Grizzlies. But at least one thing about it is certain: This is a franchise fighting a steady decline in fan interest, and they've just jettisoned their best player in a deal where the potential strategic value will be discernible to only the most obsessively informed NBA junkie.

The Grizzlies just traded an all-star-caliber player in his prime for one of the most notorious draft busts in league history (Kwame Brown), a retired guy who was serving as a volunteer assistant coach for another team (Aaron McKie), a 20-year-old guard who has barely played in the league and is not generally projected as a future star (Javaris Crittenton), and a couple of future draft picks almost certainly to fall in the crapshoot area at the end of the first round. The trade represents a colossal mismatch in player value, with the Grizzlies on the wrong side of the equation. And, yet, this is an entirely rational (if far from optimum) trade that could very well work out just fine for the Grizzlies, a team now being built in part around the breakout talent of second-year forward Rudy Gay.

Such a notion defies common sense, which is why the deal represents a very unneeded public relations hit despite Gasol's poor standing with many Grizzlies fans. But trades this lopsided on the surface are actually not at all uncommon in the NBA, and the success rate for teams cutting bait on star-level players in these deals is better than you might think.

Grizzlies head coach Marc Iavaroni knows this, having seen it firsthand as an assistant in Phoenix, which gave its star veteran backcourt of Stephon Marbury and Anfernee Hardaway to the New York Knicks in 2004 for a collection of competitive nonentities. The Suns used the financial flexibility created by the trade to swiftly rebuild their team around then second-year forward Amare Stoudamire and free-agent signee Steve Nash.

The Grizzlies aren't likely to find a Nash in free agency, but a couple of similar recent trades by a couple of this season's playoff contenders — the Toronto Raptors and New Orleans Hornets — are more indicative of what the Grizzlies hope to accomplish with the Gasol trade.

In December 2004, Toronto traded Vince Carter, then one of the league's most high-profile stars, to the New Jersey Nets for Alonzo Mourning (who, attempting to come back from a liver transplant, never played for the team), Aaron Williams, Eric Williams, and two first-round picks.

The Raptors got neither the immediate financial flexibility (none of the veterans were large expiring contracts like Kwame Brown) nor promising prospect out of this deal that the Grizzlies just obtained, and the draft picks were equally marginal. Essentially, Toronto decided its franchise needed a culture change and did so by jettisoning an increasingly unpopular and unhappy star and turning their franchise over to a budding star (Chris Bosh) then in his second season. Sound familiar?

Toronto finished 33-49 the year they made the trade and fell to 27-55 the next season. But, led by an overhauled team built around Bosh, they made the playoffs last season (going 47-35) and are on pace to get there again this season.

In February 2005, New Orleans traded Baron Davis to the Golden State Warriors for veteran journeymen Speedy Claxton and Dale Davis. The Hornets got only modest immediate cap space (Dale Davis was expiring; Claxton was not), no draft picks, and no young prospects for Baron Davis, at that point a two-time all-star still in his prime. At the time, Davis seemed injury prone and also the focus of some chemistry problems. The team was struggling, and the Hornets decided to go a different way without the burden of Davis' large, multi-year contract. (Again, sound familiar?)

The Hornets finished 18-64 that season, tied for the second worst record in the league. The ping-pong balls did not do the Hornets any favors that summer, the team sliding down to fourth in the draft, a pick they used to select Davis' point guard replacement, Chris Paul. The Hornets flirted with .500 the next two seasons (38 and 39 wins, respectively) while making some smart decisions with their newfound financial flexibility. Now, Paul is an MVP candidate and the Hornets, at 32-14, own the second-best record in the Western Conference. (This trade, it should be noted, worked out pretty well for Golden State, too, as the Gasol deal likely will for the Lakers.)

REUTERS | JOE GIZA
  • Reuters | Joe Giza

The Grizzlies hope to follow this road map — turning their newfound flexibility and young core (Gay and rookie point guard Mike Conley, specifically) into a reborn contender within a couple of seasons. It's a sound, defensible plan. But does a dwindling fan base have the patience for it?

Now that we've established that the Grizzlies' current strategy offers a well-trod road map to success, let's back up and take a closer look at some of the issues surrounding the boldest player-personnel move in franchise history.

Why did it happen?

New hoops honcho Chris Wallace and Marc Iavaroni asserted last summer their intent to build this Grizzlies team with Pau Gasol as a core piece, but Wallace acknowledged Friday that his thinking on that issue evolved over the course of the season. The league's fourth-worst record and third-worst attendance can do that. Clearly, after finishing with a league-worst 22-60 record last season and getting out to a 13-33 start this season, the current team model wasn't working. The decision was made to commit fully to building a new team around a nucleus of Gay and Conley rather than keep trying to blend young players into the established veteran core.

With the team's journey back to respectability going slower than hoped, the financial complications of trying to keep Gasol while developing Gay and Conley presumably became more of an issue. Gasol's current contract was set to top out at around $17 million and expire around the time the team will presumably want to extend the contracts of Gay and Conley. At that point, the Grizzlies wouldn't have been able to afford to re-sign Gasol at his established salary while also signing Gay and Conley (and, presumably, whatever high lottery pick the team obtains this summer) to market-value contracts.

So, if the Grizzlies weren't going to be able to keep Gasol long enough to pair with Gay and Conley when those players entered their prime, what was the point of paying him nearly $50 million in the interim? Especially while attendance declined and financial losses mounted, a consideration the team's basketball brass was certainly aware of regardless of whether the deal was dictated from on high. A decision was made that it was time to start building for the future in earnest and that Gasol wasn't going to be — perhaps couldn't be — part of that.

Is this the best deal the team could get?

That's hard to believe, but perhaps it is once you consider what Wallace ultimately decided was his priority.

There were three types of value the Grizzlies should have been looking for in any realistic deal for Gasol: financial-flexibility-creating expiring contracts, draft picks, and a young player (or players) still on a rookie contract with the realistic potential to be a significant contributor.

You could argue that the Grizzlies got all three in this deal: a large expiring contract (Kwame Brown), two first-round picks, and two young players with upside (Javaris Crittenton, the rights to Pau's brother, Marc Gasol). The problem with that rosy analysis is that on two counts (player and picks) what the Grizzlies got back is far more marginal than what was hoped. Crittenton could be good, but he's not as safe a bet as such potential targets as Chicago's Joakim Noah or Atlanta's Josh Smith, Marvin Williams, or Josh Childress. The draft picks — likely to be late first-rounders — aren't worthless, but they're not as valuable as the potential lottery picks other Gasol suitors may have been able to dangle.

Wallace apparently valued cap savings above players and picks and thus dealt with the Lakers, who had the biggest expiring contract to offer. It's unfortunate for the Grizzlies from a public perception angle that the expiring contract they received is attached to such a notorious name, a former number-one overall pick who is even more synonymous with the phrase "draft bust" than current Grizzlies Darko Milicic or the recently departed Stromile Swift. But fans should get past the name. The Grizzlies did not trade for Kwame Brown, even if the young man does manage to carve out an on-court role for himself. They traded for Kwame Brown's expiring contract and the cap space/savings/flexibility it brings.

Was this just a money deal?

There are really two questions here: Was the Gasol trade more a business decision than basketball decision? If so, does that also preclude it from being a good basketball decision?

There have been plenty of suggestions that this trade was only done to reduce costs and help facilitate an eventual sell of the franchise. There's no doubt this franchise is bleeding money. Attendance is down again. The ouster of president of business operations Andy Dolich was apparently related to his salary as much as performance. There have been whispers and then some about other cost-cutting or financial tightening around the franchise. But whether this trade was motivated primarily by the ledger books instead of basketball strategy is unclear. There are mixed signals on this point and, frankly, I don't feel comfortable making a strong assertion either way.

Regardless, even if this trade was strongly motivated by the team's current finances, that doesn't mean it isn't also part of a reasonable team-building strategy. What a lot of people don't understand about modern pro sports, particularly the NBA, is that financial decisions and team-building decisions are linked.

Lopping the $50 million remaining on Gasol's contract cleanly off the books, which was the primary goal of the trade, does many things directly related to team-building: It allows the Grizzlies to be a potential free-agent player either this summer or next; it could help the Grizzlies facilitate trades with teams wary of overextending their own finances; and it helps the team plan for eventual contract extensions for its new and still-developing core of young players.

One thing fans should be wary of, however, is putting too much hope into the free-agency process. Despite the salary-cap room created by this trade, I'll be surprised if the Grizzlies sign any max or near-max contract players in free agency. I suspect free agency will be used to fill in roster gaps but the core building will occur via draft and trade.

What does the future hold?

Plenty. Expect tons of activity from this mix of trades, draft picks, and free agency over the coming months. This trade leaves the Grizzlies with a promising young core (Gay, Conley, potentially Milicic if he continues to build on strong recent play), a presumably very high pick in this summer's draft, lots of strong secondary assets in the form of players (Mike Miller, Juan Carlos Navarro, Kyle Lowry, Hakim Warrick, etc.) and picks (the two first-rounders from the Lakers), and tons of space under the league's salary cap. The reasonable best-case scenario has the team using the combination of high draft pick, secondary assets, and cap space to acquire two talented young starters this summer to add to Gay, Conley, and Milicic.

Chris Wallace has given himself a wealth of raw materials with which to rebuild this team but also a rather sizable challenge in doing so. As bad as the Gasol trade might look on the surface, it's very easy to envision a series of smart decisions and minor good luck that could lead to a swift turnaround. It's equally easy to envision a series of bad decisions and poor luck turning an already bad situation into something even worse.

The pressure is now on Wallace and, to a slightly lesser degree, Marc Iavaroni to make it work. They have every chance to build a team in the manner they want. We'll soon find out if they're up to the task.

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