I was prompted to write this by a tweet I saw on Sunday that echoed some thoughts I've been floating in my head for a while now:
Just started thinking through a theory that next year could be the real shot for the Grizzlies.— Chase Lucas (@deepfriedcouch) October 24, 2015
I've had the same thought while looking at the Grizzlies' roster headed into this season.
The conventional wisdom is that with Marc Gasol's return on a five-year contract, the Grizzlies are essentially "running it back" this year with the same guys (plus or minus a couple of role players) and rolling the dice to see if they can end up with better seeding and better matchups in the playoffs, thus making it to the Conference Finals or maybe even the Finals. On paper, it looks like that's exactly what's happening.
But I'm not really so sure. Yes, the personnel is mostly unchanged from last year, but while adding Brandan Wright to the bench is a huge deal for what the Griz can do offensively, and Matt Barnes is a proven role player who makes a place for himself no matter what team he's on, outside the "core four" the team is mostly made up of young guys who havent proven themselves, veterans in contract years, and old guys on the verge of retirement (OK, maybe that's just Vince Carter).
Which leads me to the question in the title of my post: Is this really a stealth rebuild with a bunch of roster churn where the Grizzlies try to stay good while flipping pieces around and really loading up for next year?
Let's think through this "stealth rebuild" hypothesis. Obviously, the Grizzlies have been an excellent team for the last five straight seasons. That has to end at some point—people age and their careers end. With Zach Randolph entering the season at age 34, and Tony Allen turning 34 in January, it's obvious that age will catch up with these two guys at some point. Who are the guys who are going to step up if it happens to be this year?1
Exactly. Those guys aren't on the roster right now. There was talk of Jarnell Stokes being "Z-Bo replacement" material, but that was a stretch at best, and now, after seeing his mediocre preseason, it seems like a cute fantasy. So right now, the Grizzlies don't have a backup plan. The way to have a backup plan is to build your next core group while your current core group is still playing. The Spurs did this right around the time that some team from Memphis knocked them out in the first round, and came out of it with future Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard. It's worth remembering that they looked completely done in that Memphis series, but all the while some of the pieces that would help win them their next championship (Danny Green, Tiago Splitter) were already on the roster.
The Grizzlies don't have that right now. They've got a bunch of guys who could be that but haven't played much, and they've got some guys who are probably going to be gone after this year (and a couple they'll probably bring back), and then they've got the Core Four and Brandan Wright.
This team has a lot of expiring contracts and a lot of decisions to make this summer. Guys who are free agents after this season (according to HoopsHype):
And these are the guys who have team options after this year, meaning the team can decide whether to pick up that option or to make them free agents:
Don't forget, either, that Vince Carter's final year of his contract is $4.2mm on paper but is only partially guaranteed, meaning they don't have to pay him the whole thing if he's waived.
That's a lot of potential for turnover after this year. All nine of these guys are basically going to have to prove their worth this season (well, except Conley, one assumes). Courtney Lee has had a really strong camp and preseason, and Matt Barnes is still finding his rhythm in the Grizzlies' offense, but the rest of these guys? Adams is a question mark, Smith is going to have to show development, Udrih is going to have to prove he can maintain last year's level of play, JaMychal Green is probably a rotation player but the team doesn't seem so sure, Stokes might be playing his way into being replaced by Ryan Hollins, and Jeff Green has yet to prove whether he can actually make this team better as a starter.
There's also health. The last two or three years, Mike Conley has been so banged up by April that it's hurt his play in the postseason. Tony Allen has missed 20+ games with injury the last two years, and that's before you count the hamstring that bothered him all spring and kept him out of Game 6 against Golden State. Gasol's knee injury almost imploded Joerger's first season, and last year, in the midst of his best season since his MCL tear in 2012, Zach Randolph missed several games resting a knee injury to keep it from getting worse. These guys are going to have to play fewer minutes, and I'm not sure there's the personnel or scheme in place to let that happen smoothly this year.
I've said all this and it makes it sound like I think the team is going to win 30 games. I don't believe that. I think, as good as this group of players is, health is the only thing that could keep them out of the postseason. I think the Grizzlies are going to be good this year. (You'll get to read more about that next week in the Flyer's annual Grizzlies/Tigers preview issue.) But I do think we're going to see the start of that roster churn this year, heading into the summer. I think guys are going to get traded. I think they're going to struggle to get it together because there are some interesting depth issues and some real crowds at the forward positions. I think all along, the organization's eyes are probably on being as good as they can this year while trying to build the next great Grizzlies team around Gasol and Conley leading into this summer. This year is when they recharge what they've got while still trying to make noise in the playoffs. It's a rebuild without a teardown. They did say they wanted to be more like the Spurs, right?
I don't think it's going to be this year, but one can't rule it out.↩