The Grizzlies and Deferred Maintenance



Our house was built in 1925. It's been around a while. When we bought it, the wood fence on one side was about to fall over. Some of the (lead) paint was peeling off of it. The air conditioner was old. Most of the power outlets still only have two prongs. But there's really only one thing you have to do with a house this old to make sure it sticks around: keep up with the maintenance. If you don't keep it painted, the wood will rot. If your roof leaks, fix it. If the wiring isn't cutting it, replace it. If you keep on top of the little things that go wrong here and there (and if you don't mind having one bathroom and really small closets) you can live in an old house forever. They're well built.

But "well built" doesn't mean "worry free." It never has. You have to stay on top of things. If the roof leaks, and the house sits empty for a year, or if the paint falls off the eaves in big Lay's-sized chips and you let it sit a couple of winters, it's not long before you get to this:

Lowenstein House

Which is fine. It's not pretty, but it's fine. Could use a coat of paint, and some new windows. The roof probably leaks. But the longer you put it off, the worse things get. The heat and the cold break things. The water finds its way into the structure. Animals get in. People get in. Vines grow through, inexorable.

And if you put off maintenance too long—you think I can wait until next year to start working on the house, or you think maybe it's not that bad and I can just refinish the floors, or you think one more winter without a new roof will be fine—you can get to a bad place in a hurry.

There's a house on Vance Avenue that I pass sometimes on my way to work like this, near Pauline, an old Victorian with hardly any paint left on it. The whole side of the house has fallen off recently, and even from my vantage point in a car passing by on the street, you can see through the stairwell and into the house's back bedrooms. I thought of it the other day after writing up some notes on a Grizzlies game.

I found a picture of it.

You see where this is going, right?

The Grizzlies have been deferring some maintenance, and one more winter—one more trade deadline, one more offseason—is fast approaching.

A trip back through time

  • Larry Kuzniewski

Looking back, we felt it, right? The farther we get from it, the more last year's Golden State series—in which the short-handed Grizzlies pushed the eventual champions to six games (which was two more than just about every national basketball writer figured) while Mike Conley hobbled around on a bum foot with a titanium plate newly embedded in his face, eye swollen shut, woozy with pain and adrenaline—the more that series feels like a high-water mark, like the last foamy reaches of a wave about to turn gently away.

It was supposed to be different this year, of course. The Brandan Wright signing was supposed to change the way the bench unit played offense. Jordan Adams was finally going to start getting some minutes, the first Grizzlies draft pick to crack the rotation since, who, Darrell Arthur? Jarell Martin was a project, but one who could be out of the D-League and at the end of the Griz bench by the end of the season. They brought in Matt Barnes to bolster a wing rotation that's sagged since before Rudy Gay hurt his shoulder in 2011.

Things were going to be different. There was an adjustment period for all of this, time to figure things out, how to work with these new pieces. Instead: hurt. Hurt. Hurt. Barnes has played well—but the rest of the team has played so badly that instead of shoring up the rotation, he's been the best wing on the team, and defends stretch 4's better than anybody else on the roster, too.

  • Larry Kuzniewski

They're shorthanded, sure. And Jeff Green—even before Dave Joerger realized he had to bench him or he was going to lose his team completely—hasn't worked from minute one, contributing sometimes, making plays sometimes, but mostly just stumbling through the game like he always has, a net negative at both ends, just like he's always been.

But hey, they gave up a draft pick to get him here, one of two they currently owe. The other one they unloaded to Cleveland to dump Marreese Speights, Wayne Ellington, and Josh Selby and take back Jon Leuer while getting under the luxury tax line to facilitate a better Rudy Gay trade. But the Grizzlies build through free agency anyway, right?

Next year

Marc Gasol is in the first year of a 5-year, $100mm-plus contract, coming off the best ⅔ of a season of his life, the other third of which was mostly spent in some sort of mental collapse following the All Star game and the Jeff Green trade. Coming up this summer, the Grizzlies will have to decide how much they're willing to pay to keep Mike Conley in Beale Street Blue. Both guys are arguably either past their prime or currently in them, and regardless of whether they remain as good as they currently are, there's very little chance that either has much room to improve.

Meanwhile, the following Grizzlies are free agents after this season, a summer in which the cap will go up, lots of teams have money, and there aren't many big time free agents to go around:

  • Mike Conley (as already stated)
  • Jeff Green
  • Courtney Lee
  • Mario Chalmers
  • Matt Barnes

They also have a team option on JaMychal Green and a team option on James Ennis.

That means, assuming the Grizzlies re-sign Mike Conley and don't bring back the other free agents or pick up either team option, this is the Grizzlies' roster heading into the summer:

  • Mike Conley
  • Zach Randolph, in the last year of his contract
  • Marc Gasol
  • Tony Allen, in the last year of his contract
  • Brandan Wright
  • Vince Carter (whose salary is only partially guaranteed)
  • Jordan Adams
  • Jarell Martin

So... even assuming the Grizzlies somehow make a splash on the free agent market—let's assume Golden State is drunk and doesn't match their offer for Harrison Barnes—who else plays on this team? Is the starting lineup on opening night going to be Conley/Allen/Free Agent Signing/Randolph/Gasol? In the 2016-17 season?

And what if Jordan Adams turns out not to be as good as the Griz thought he'd be when they drafted him? Clearly he'll need substantial playing time before any decision along those lines can be made. Same for Jarell Martin; it's clear to anyone who isn't Lionel Hollins and isn't Dave Joerger that the main way to find out if young players are any good is to play them rotation minutes and see if they can figure it out.

Either way, that's not a team that's any better-equipped to handle the likes of the Warriors, Spurs, and Cavs—the league's elite teams, among others, who have shredded the Grizzlies to embarrassing little pieces this season—than this year's version is, unless Brandan Wright somehow turns into 2008 Ray Allen or something.

Let's Talk About the Draft

It me
  • It me

The Grizzlies have been writing bad checks with draft picks since 2009. You know the pick. Arguably swapping OJ Mayo for Kevin Love on draft night was a huge mistake, too, but let's pretend it wasn't, because without that trade Zach Randolph doesn't end up in Memphis and the "Grit and Grind" era never happens:

  • 2009-10: Hasheem Thabeet. Every other player who went in the first round was better. Even Jonny Flynn, probably. You know this deal. They passed up Curry, Harden, Rubio, and an absolute boatload of other legit NBA rotation players. "You can't teach size" turned out to be true in the most horrible way possible.
  • 2010-11: Xavier Henry, Greivis Vasquez, and Dominque Jones who was "traded" to Dallas for cash. Henry started in front of Tony Allen, wasn't very good, and then got hurt. Vasquez was and is a decent backup point guard whose lateral movement is slower than a Greyhound (the bus, not the dog). Jones hasn't amounted to much, but hey, I like money.
  • 2011-12: The Grizzlies didn't have a first round pick because they traded it for Ronnie Brewer, who played five games for the Grizzlies and then broke his leg. Somehow this is still better than drafting Thabeet. The Griz did draft Josh Selby in the second round, but he played 237 total minutes as a rookie—only 11 fewer minutes than Jordan Adams played last year—and was kind of a long shot anyway.
  • 2012-13: Tony Wroten. Festus Ezeli and Jae Crowder were still available, and... no.

Let's stop right here for a second.

The Grizzlies drafted Tony Wroten in the first round and Draymond Green was taken in the second. Lots of other teams missed on Draymond, too, but the Grizzlies should've known better. Is there a better player on Earth to have been the Grizzlies' Replacement Z-Bo? No. There isn't. This move only looks bad in hindsight—remember, everyone else missed on Draymond, too—but it still looks bad.

Tony Wroten probably isn't going to be a good NBA player, but again, he only played 272 total minutes as a rookie, and then was traded to the Sixers for a second round pick that only conveyed if it fell between 55-60. It didn't.

  • 2013-14: No first round pick, traded to Houston to unload Thabeet and DeMarre Carroll (who, turns out, is a good shooting and defending wing, another one of the Grizzlies' rookies who was buried here and went on to better things elsewhere) in exchange for a rental of Shane Battier for the rest of the 2011 season. Grizzlies took Jamaal Franklin in the second round, hoping for a poor man's Kawhi Leonard, instead getting a worse player than Tony Wroten.

  • 2014-15: Jordan Adams. Adams has had bad injury luck, sure. And he played only 248 minutes. He made some mistakes, sure, and he also showed some flashes of brilliance—a high steal rate, an ability to get into the paint and draw contact, an occasional longball. But no, Vince Carter, who was coming off surgery and clearly not in any shape to be on a basketball court, got those minutes instead.

I'm not going to pick on Jarell Martin here. Way too early, and he's been hurt. He's probably the best player available with the pick the Grizzlies have.

But let's look at this: How many of these first round selections are on the team? Two. And only the most recent two, and neither of them have played any sort of significant minutes.

The Grizzlies have built this team entirely out of free agency and trades. And that's fine, but... you're never going to get out of a trade what you put into it. The Grizzlies went from Rudy Gay to Tayshaun Prince and Austin Daye and Ed Davis, to Jeff Green and Russ Smith, and lost two draft picks in the process. They traded at least one guy—Wroten—who is at least good enough to play for a terrible team for literally nothing.

They have no assets but expiring contracts, and now with the cap rising expiring contracts aren't worth much, especially when they're for a player like Jeff Green, whom the Grizzlies gave up a first round pick to definitively prove makes every team he's on worse.

So where do they go from here, with a bunch of old players on expiring deals, some decent rotation guys locked up for the next 2-3 years, and nothing else?

The nuclear option

  • Larry Kuzniewski

It doesn't take a genius to see that there's been tension between Dave Joerger and the front office this season. It doesn't take a genius to see that there's been tension between Dave Joerger and the players this season, either—guys were openly blaming "changing the way we play" for the slow start, just like they did in 2013-14, Joerger's first season as coach.

Joerger has been openly dour about the roster of this team, the age of this team, and their effort at times—he's called them old, said other teams are "simply better", he's called JaMychal Green a small forward and said he only has one big on the roster (presumably Marc Gasol, who is neither small nor a forward). And here's the thing: he's not wrong. The Griz roster is a mess this year, and they can't really play any one specific way well for a sustained period of time, either relying on the small ball sets to confuse teams, or Tony Allen and Zach Randolph to string together a few standout performances. There's no identity to the team this year.

I'm not sure what the relationship between Joerger and the players is—I've heard murmurs, of course—but it mostly seems that he's just their boss. I don't sense that he's able to reach them to motivate them—their miserable 3rd quarters this season should tell you that much—and I'm not sure they're much interested in being reached. That's a two-way street, but there's only one side that ever wins a coaches-vs.-players decision in the NBA.

But one wonders what effect his public pronouncements are having behind closed doors. Even if you're an idiot, it doesn't feel good to be called one. So what, then? Joerger has a three-year deal, signed after he almost left for Minnesota after his first season in the big front office conflagration of 2014, the oral history of which will be very interesting in 10 years when guys like me and Chris Herrington can finally get anyone to go on the record about it.

Joerger seems to be determined to win every game he can this year. And I can't blame him for that—his reputation as a coach is on the line. And with the roster he's been given, I'm not sure there's much else he could be doing. But his decisions with Jordan Adams, his insistence on roster moves—he's clearly a fan of Jeff Green, and he's been Ryan Hollins' biggest cheerleader since the last week of the preseason—make me wonder whether he's really the kind of flexible, adaptable, system-oriented coach the Grizzlies need if they're going to rebuild, or somehow acquire young players that then have to be taught how to play together. He says all the time that Lionel Hollins is his mentor. Are we sure he won't make all the same mistakes with rookie players, not playing them enough, not building their confidence, and insisting they be shipped out when they don't match standards they've been set up not to reach?

And let's talk about that front office. This team is Chris Wallace's baby. He built it mostly through smart trades and signings—gambles on guys who might or might not pay off. Marc Gasol turned out to be better than anyone imagined. Zach Randolph figured out how to keep his nose clean. Tony Allen managed to be more than a flash in the pan, and put together several sustained seasons of defensive excellence. The fringe moves are always good—getting Matt Barnes for a Luke Ridnour contract acquired for the rights to Janis Timma is a really great example, as is this season's Beno Udrih and Jarnell Stokes for Mario Chalmers deal. But is Chris Wallace a guy you trust to have a long-range vision of how to put together a basketball team to be a perennial contender, or is he a gambler who made some smart moves and got lucky a couple of times? And how can a general manager be put in charge of a rebuild with no draft picks and no recent history of drafting anyone worth anything?

The Bucks Case Scenario

Remember the 2012-13 Milwaukee Bucks? They made the playoffs with a 38-44 record (remember when the East was that bad?) and went into the offseason thinking they were going to add some pieces and be better. They had Monta Ellis, Brandon Jennings, Larry Sanders, JJ Redick, Ersan Ilyasova, Grizzlies Legend Beno Udrih, and some other good players. It seemed like they were a weird mix, some on the upswing and some on the downswing, but they decided they were going to try to add young pieces while not "bottoming out", and see if they could return to the playoffs while still technically "rebuilding."

The next year, they won 15 games.

  • Larry Kuzniewski

This is what Grizzlies fans should probably be afraid of right now. The Grizzlies have good players who will be here next year in Gasol, Randolph, Allen, and probably Conley. Brandan Wright can play, assuming he's healthy, and if they can figure out how to get him to play with the other guys, he's a good piece. But Allen and Randolph—who have both looked old at times this year, despite their current success—will be another year older, both in contract years. Gasol will be 32. Conley will be 30. Assuming they sign a starting-quality wing, is that going to be the team, then? Can Jordan Adams be an NBA player, and will he get a chance to find out? Is the rest of the bench going to be filled out with bargain-hunt 35-year-olds, and then coached by the youngest old-school coach in the NBA? (This is mostly a compliment, except when it's not.)

A Fixer Upper

  • Larry Kuzniewski

The Grizzlies have already been left behind by the elite teams of the NBA. That's indisputable. They're still not very good at defending the spread pick and roll, and they still don't have the offensive firepower to keep up once they get down 10 or so points. That's why they quit playing when they get down by 15 against these teams. They know they usually can't catch up. What happens next year, when the Core Four are a year older, and there's still not anyone around them? Will the wing rotation ever not be a disaster? At this critical time, is anyone in the front office trying to come up with a plan for what this team will look like next summer, or the one after that? Do they know what kind of coach they want for the long term, and is that Dave Joerger? (I have a guess.) Are the basketball operations people the ones Pera wants running his team for the next 5-10 years?

These questions need answers. Some of them will be answered by the passage of time. Others, like leaks in the roof, like broken windows, like the cracks in your exterior brick, will only linger, and the water will find a way in, and the sunlight, and before long, you can't walk through the living room without putting your foot through a rotten floor.

The Grizzlies have doubled down on the Grit and Grind era as many times as they possibly could, and they've put off maintenance—refreshing the lifeblood of this team with young talent—as long as they can, and now when they need it most, they're missing two draft picks, both gone so they could address a wing problem (whether it was Rudy Gay or Jeff Green) that still isn't fixed, and now looks like it never will be. There are serious dilemmas up and down the organization.

A coat of paint isn't going to do it, but I'm not sure anything is, not soon, not as soon as next year.

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