by Kevin Lipe
You've no doubt seen the news by now: Marc Gasol has agreed to a 5-year, $108 million contract with the Grizzlies that will see him in Beale Street Blue for the next four years with a player option for the fifth. That agreement ends about a month and a half of sheer terror on the part of some Griz fans, and also a week of uncomfortable silence when the NBA's free agency period began (though teams can't actually sign players until the moratorium lifts on July 9th) and no one heard anything from Gasol while teams were landing players right and left.
Ultimately, if you believe the official reports and Gasol himself—which I do—Gasol just wasn't in a hurry because he wasn't considering any other teams. His intention was always to come back to the Grizzlies, and that's exactly what he did.
So, now the Grizzlies have the first team All-NBA center and All Star Game starter and former Defensive Player of the Year back for at least four more seasons, probably five, and likely for the rest of his NBA career at this point. Where do they go from here?
While the basketball world watched and waited for Gasol to make his decision, the Grizzlies didn't sit still. They flipped Janis Timma into Luke Ridnour and then turned Ridnour's unguaranteed money into Matt Barnes. They were able to grab big man Brandan Wright at a discount, locking him up for three years at the mid-level exception (close to $5.5mm, according to the CBA FAQ) which seems like an absolute steal given some of the deals handed out during this free agency period so far. Wright provides a skillset that the Grizzlies haven't had in a bench big in a long time: he's an elite roll man, finishing a very high percentage of his shots around the rim. Playing next to Gasol, he should be excellent, and I think he can fit next to Zach Randolph, as well.
The Grizzlies were always going to lose either Marc Gasol or Kosta Koufos this summer. Thankfully it's Gasol who's back and Koufos who's gone, but in his absence the bench big rotation is going to have to get a bit of an overhaul. Wright (who is from Nashville, and whose desire to return to Tennessee was apparently a factor in his decision to sign with the Grizzlies, so hey, maybe Nashville isn't all bad) can step in immediately and contribute. But what about Jarnell Stokes and JaMychal Green? Will they both be on the roster after the preseason, much less ready to step in and play meaningful NBA minutes as the fourth big?
With Barnes and Wright in place, and armed with the knowledge that Gasol is here to stay (and thus presumably Mike Conley when his contract ends after the upcoming season, though he'll demand some serious money on the open market, and rightfully so), the Grizzlies need to do a little pruning of the roster. Tony Allen, Courtney Lee, Vince Carter, and Jordan Adams can't all get minutes at the 2/3 spots, especially if Dave Joerger continues to run with dual point guard lineups of Conley and Beno Udrih (or, if Summer League is actually meaningful this year, Conley and Russ Smith) to soak up even more of those available minutes.
Also taking up minutes at the small forward spot will be Jeff Green and Matt Barnes, though both of those guys can also play as the 4 in smaller lineups—something Green struggled with last year, and something Barnes has been doing (and doing fairly well) his whole career.
If developing Adams is really important to the future of the team—and it should be, given his skill set and potential to give the Grizzlies a new offensive dimension that they've really never had—they've got to clear some space in these rotations so that he can play. We've already heard rumors of a trade with Brooklyn for Joe Johnson—a trade that presumably would've had to involve Lee and Green for the salary to work, and maybe Carter as well. Look for the Grizzlies to continue to find trades that will, shall we say, "clarify" the rotations and the future direction of the team at the 2 and 3 spots. Now that Gasol is locked up, that's the most important thing they can do for the upcoming season, in terms of personnel.
The fact that Gasol is back on a long term deal—instead of the one or two year deal some suspected he'd take so that he can take advantage of the projected rise of the salary cap over the next two or three seasons—the team can also do some planning for the near future. What does that look like?
Mike Conley, Jeff Green, Matt Barnes, and Beno Udrih are all free agents after this season. Conley is obviously the priority there—the whole team is built around the Conley/Gasol tandem and that's the way it should be until they're both too old to start games anymore. The next year after that, 2016-17, is the last year of Tony Allen's 4-year deal and the last year of Zach Randolph's 3-year deal (and also the final, partially-guaranteed year of Vince Carter's contract).
With Gasol under wraps, re-signing Conley is (1) imperative and (2) likely. But as Allen and Randolph approach the ends of their current deals, and as Green and Lee come off their current contracts, the Griz need to be developing young players to fit in around Conley and Gasol for the next wave of Griz success. If they're going to stay good and not go through a rebuilding cycle, guys like Jordan Adams, Russ Smith, Jarnell Stokes, and even this year's draft pick Jarell Martin (whose selection I don't hate as much as I did on draft night) have to step up, and have to be allowed to step up.
If the plan is to keep Gasol and Conley and build around them for the next five years—and I have to believe that's the plan, and that Robert Pera spent that dinner in Barcelona convincing Gasol that that's the plan—those pieces need to start falling into place this season so that next season they can play an even bigger role in what's going on. That future, the Gasol/Conley post-Z-Bo future we've been talking about for a couple years now, really starts now, even as Randolph and Allen will no doubt continue to be major contributors on this year's team.
The Grizzlies are also playing with some serious cap space over the next two years, especially as the cap itself rises. With Gasol on the books for $20mm, the only three players currently signed through 2017-18 are Gasol, Brandan Wright, and Jordan Adams. After bringing Conley back for 2016-17, the Griz can make a real run at some big time free agents the following season, and if they're still perennial West contenders, there's more possibility than ever that such a thing could happen. Granted, the Grizzlies haven't ever landed a big-name free agent before—but they've also never been a good team when they had money to spend. I'm cautiously optimistic that they'll fare better in this free agent marketplace than they did when they were a perennial lottery team.
The future here with Gasol (and presumably Conley) in place for the next five years seems pretty straightforward: surround them with new role players and key pieces as Zach Randolph and Tony Allen ride off into the sunset.
There's something even bigger in play here for the Grizzlies now that Gasol is returning and they're looking towards the future. Over the next ten years, the Grizzlies can try to build their team in such a way that when Gasol and Conley retire—six, seven, eight years from now, maybe more (maybe even ten in Conley's case)—they can continue their success even beyond then.
Now, the obvious example of another team that's done this—or, more accurately, a team that's in the process of doing this—is the Spurs. Robert Pera, from day one, has said that the Spurs' success is something he'd like for the Grizzlies to emulate. The Spurs, who have been limiting the minutes that their major players have to play for years now. Who have slowly but surely recrafted everything about the way they play as their Big Three of Parker, Ginobili, and Duncan age, and have added Kawhi Leonard into the mix, and have now landed LaMarcus Aldridge and David West. Suffice it to say that their long run of success is, in large part, what has enabled them to build this kind of a core. Five NBA titles will do that.
But that doesn't mean that the Grizzlies can't find things to
steal copy from the Spurs now, even without the rings to match: if they can successfully develop the players in place around Gasol now—that is, the "short term" guys I just talked about—they can also start to prepare for Gasol's eventual absence long before he's gone. This is exactly what the Spurs are doing. LaMarcus Aldridge is going to play with Tim Duncan, and then he's going to play instead of Tim Duncan. Now, is the Duncan-to-Aldridge transition going to be of the same caliber as the David-Robinson-to-Duncan transition? Probably not. But it doesn't have to be. The Spurs have implemented their Duncan replacement plan—in Leonard and Aldridge—before the guy's even gone.
That's the kind of organizational smarts I'd love to see from the Grizzlies. They have Gasol locked up for the next four years anyway, but probably for much longer—start thinking about what to do next now. That's how you build long-term stability for a winning franchise. Championships will come with time, or they won't. But building a team that is always competitive—that avoids tanking or the dreaded "mediocrity treadmill" syndrome so many of the East's dead-end playoff teams find themselves on—should be the goal, and that starts now, with this player, with this contract.
That's the long term goal. That's what's in play now for the Grizzlies, all because Marc Gasol signed his new contract. It's an exciting time to be watching the Memphis Grizzlies.