What had been widely speculated broke officially Sunday night. As first reported by Marc Stein of ESPN.com, former NBA player agent and Sacramento Kings executive Jason Levien, who had been acting as a representative for prospective Grizzlies owner Robert Pera for the past several months, has been named to the top post in the new Grizzlies organization.
Levien will be named Chief Executive Officer and Managing Partner of Memphis Basketball, LLC (the new name for the Grizzlies' governing organization, replacing the previous Hoops LLP), overseeing both the business and basketball sides of the organization and reporting directly to new controlling owner and board chairman Pera. There's no exact precedent for this in Grizzlies history. Think of Levien as some union of Jerry West, Andy Dolich, and Michael Heisley right-hand man Stan Meadows. In other words, he now has more organizational power than any non-owner in franchise history. (For an inside look on how Levien's tenure with the Kings came to an end, check out this breakdown from friend of the blog Tom Ziller.)
Pera and Levien met with members of the Commercial Appeal on Sunday, but as of Friday, representatives of the new ownership group had not been on the scene, according to multiple Grizzlies sources, and current staffers seemed uncertain about the degree of change that was looming.
The plan, apparently, is for Pera and/or his representatives to meet with team employees early this morning, ahead of the 10 a.m. public press conference to follow. As one Grizzlies employee joked, “Hopefully you won't see a line of us walking out with pink slips when you show up.”
That seems unlikely, with the Commercial Appeal reporting today suggesting that Pera and Levien are likely to take a “wait and see” approach to top incumbent decision-makers on both the basketball and business side. But you can bet there will be changes — additions if nothing else — in the near future.
If Pera hadn't met with most team employees until today, he did apparently meet with local minority owners last night, sitting down with all of them — and there are a lot, more than have been reported so far — for dinner last night according to new minority owner Duncan Williams, who I saw at the awards ceremony for the Indie Memphis Film Festival, an event his company, Duncan Williams Inc., sponsors.
As the Pera era kicks off today, I see many signs of promise and a few reasons for pause. Temperamentally and intellectually, Pera seems much closer to my ideal than the departing Heisley, whose erratic temperament fostered an erratic organization.
But there's plenty that still hasn't been established about Pera's ownership. While Pera is the “controlling owner” and has the power to unilaterally make most decisions for the team — including everything in terms day-to-day operation and basketball decisions — his grip on the team is not as overwhelming as was Heisley's. Pera's ownership stake has been reported as “under 50 percent,” but my understanding is that the number is really closer to 25 percent. And while Los Angeles investor Steve Kaplan has been named as a major part of the new ownership group, there appears to be another nonlocal figure at Kaplan's level that has not yet been made public. The contractual relationship between Pera and the other high-level non-locals, all of whom have a higher stake in the team than the top locals (Pitt Hyde and Staley Cates) is something we need to know more about.
I also wonder about the percentage of Pera's personal wealth — especially liquid assets — that has been put into this purchase and what that means in terms of how the team might operate financially. The assumption — and I think it's a good one — is that the new CBA and revenue sharing models and the team's healthier on-court and box-office situation make the kind of losses Heisley dealt with far less likely, even with high payrolls and potential (and sure to be short-term, if even that) dips into taxpayer status. But if there's ever the need to cover significant losses, I don't think we know enough about this group's wherewithal to do so.
I'll be on hand at Pera's press conference and will be reporting on this later today and in this week's Flyer print addition. Hopefully more answers to these questions and others will emerge in the days ahead.
While ownership change is the story of the day, there's also a game going on tonight. Games festivities will begin two hours before the 7 p.m. tipoff with a “Plaza Party” in front of the arena what will include various entertainment and family oriented activities.
The Jazz come into town at 1-2, following a win in their own home opener over Dallas with road losses to New Orleans and San Antonio. This game will pit what should be two of the most productive frontcourt tandems in the league in the form of the Grizzlies' Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol and Utah's Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap, though the Utah duo has gotten off to a slow start.
Three other things I'll be looking for tonight:
1. Will Jazz Go Big? — The Jazz had a lot of success at times last season with a super-sized frontline of Jefferson, Millsap, and young, defensive-minded big Derrick Favors, including in a game against the Grizzlies, where Rudy Gay really struggled to guard Millsap at small forward.
With a true small forward in the starting lineup this season in the form of imported Atlanta Hawk Marvin Williams, the Jazz have seemed less interested in using the Millsap/Jefferson/Favors lineup, which got only four minutes together over the team's first four games. But I suspect it could be effective again against the Grizzlies. If Millsap at the three is a tough match-up for Gay, the Grizzlies don't have many other defensive options to combat it, not with Darrell Arthur still unavailable.
2. Slowing Down Mo: New Jazz starting point guard Mo Williams would seem to be a weak link in the starting lineup for Utah, but Williams is off to a great start, averaging 22 points per game on 49% shooting. Mike Conley did a nice job defensively against Chris Paul in game one, but Golden State's Steph Curry, more of a spot-up shooter in the mold of Williams, was able to find open looks in game two. The Griz need to keep track of Williams on the perimeter.
3. Get to the Line: The Grizzlies have gotten to the line 64 times over the first two games and are hitting 81%, and this is a good game to keep that streak going. The Jazz allowed a 29th ranked 26.2 opponent free-throw attempts per game last season, though they're been a little better than that through three games. With Zach Randolph getting his bounce back and Conley and Rudy Gay looking more aggressive so far, all three have substantially improved their free-throw. There's a huge “small sample size” caveat here, but this looks like a trend the Grizzlies have a chance to keep up.
If looking for another avenue to celebrate the start of the season, how about putting Lionel Hollins' powerful sideline whistle on your phone? Ward Archer, owner of the Archer Records music label, who frequently sits behind the Grizzlies' bench at home games, has partnered with Hollins to convert the coach's whistle into a downloadable ringtone, available in five different versions, in both 5- and 30-second variations. Hollins recorded his whistle at Archer's Music + Arts Studio, set to music provided by Lucero's Roy Berry and Rick Steff. You can download the ringtones at coachhollins.com. Hollins is donating his royalties from the project to his own Lionel Hollins Charities.
The Commercial Appeal's Geoff Calkins wrote a tremendous column over the weekend welcoming Robert Pera to Memphis and trying to give the new owner a feel for culture of the franchise and its city. But I feel that it is my obligation to correct Geoff on a couple of matters of great cultural import that he got all wrong. So, Mr. Pera, don't get it twisted: There is an answer to the question “wet vs. dry.” (It's dry. C'mon, son.) There, however, is not a clear answer to the pointless question “Motown vs. Stax.” (The answer: Both are glorious cultural eruptions that all should treasure. We don't need to denigrate Motown in order to elevate Stax. That's just boosterism.)