by Kevin Lipe
Now that the NBA season is actually, officially over, and the draft is upon us—like, tonight upon us—it's time to start what is intended to be a weekly update on the Grizzlies during the dog days of summer, using a name that Chris Herrington made up a long time ago: Deflections. Our first installment comes in three parts, about something happening tonight, something happening in the next week or two, and something that's going to have to evolve over the next year or two.
It's tonight. I don't watch much college basketball, I don't scout these guys very far beyond their Draft Express videos (you know, the ones that make every prospect look like some kind of mutant Kareem/LeBron combo and like some kind of mutant Thabeet/Adam Morrison combo), and I'm not really sure what the Grizzlies are actually going to do tonight. With all of that said, I do think it's worth thinking about where the Grizzlies stand going into tonight.
The Grizzlies have the 17th pick tonight, since they made the playoffs and avoided conveying it to the Denver Nuggets. There are reports that they've promised to take Malachi Richardson from Syracuse if he's available, reports that sound similar to the promise they supposedly made to Jarell Martin before selecting him next year. Without parsing what a "soft promise" is and re-litigating the Twitter firestorm that broke out over the Martin promise last year, I will say two things: (1) I feel like these reports usually come from agents, and it's hard to parse what an agent considers to be a "promise" and whether such a thing is actually intended by the front office person supposedly making it. But also, (2) Chris Wallace has been followed by reports of making promises for a long time:
When you see Malachi Richardson, Chris Wallace, & "promise" in the same sentence, remember Wallace's history: pic.twitter.com/1Yhv3IIPy5— Peter Edmiston (@peteredmiston) June 20, 2016
And even though Wallace denies having ever made a promise while in Memphis, who knows. Whether he did or not, sometimes perception is reality in these situations, and promising (or at least perpetually saying things that sound like promises to agents, who then tell the media) seems like a weird way to do business.
The bad news is that if Richardson is chosen at 17 by the Grizzlies, we get to have the same dumb Internet arguments again. The other bad news is that if Richardson is chosen at 17 by the Grizzlies, there may be other players they should have taken—international mystery man Timothe Luwawu, Vanderbilt PG Wade Baldwin, and others are all projected to be drafted somewhere in the 14-20 range, and who knows. The draft is such a crapshoot it's hard to know who will be productive and who won't, and if the Grizzlies pull another "Jordan Adams over Rodney Hood" and take a guy who looks like the better player on paper but doesn't work out, it's going to be a setback in their attempts to get younger.
All this is to say: the NBA Draft is like a dark art where nothing is precise, sometimes the "right" pick is actually the wrong pick, the Grizzlies historically don't draft well, might be going about it the wrong way (making promises), and might even try to trade out of 17 (though I haven't heard anything specific in terms of intel along those lines). We will all sit down to watch it together, and make instant decisions about the entire process before the end of the night, and some of us will be disastrously wrong, and some of us will be right for the wrong reasons, and then we'll get to argue about it some more. Sports!
Mike Conley's free agency options are starting to dwindle. Or, maybe, teams who might have otherwise considered pursuing Conley in free agency this summer have decided to move on because they don't think he's attainable. Depending on your outlook, both are valid ways to read the trades made yesterday sending Jeff Teague to Indiana and Derrick Rose to the Knicks—both teams mentioned in connection with Conley's free agency as possible suitors.
Conley's almost certainly going to get a max contract from someone. Maybe Dallas will pitch him on it. The Spurs have been mentioned as a possible destination as they search for a Tony Parker replacement. But the two other teams in the race, including the one in his hometown, have decided to seek other options and trade for a point guard.
If the Grizzlies sign Mike Conley to a full five-year max deal, they'll almost certainly be overpaying for him. He's a good player, but he's approaching 30, has had trouble staying healthy for the last two or three seasons, has had to shoulder an unfairly heavy burden of minutes because if the Grizzlies' smoldering ash pit of backup point guards, and may already be starting to decline from his peak. That said, if they don't re-sign him, what's the point of keeping Marc Gasol? Of keeping Zach Randolph and Tony Allen? If the Grizzlies don't retain Conley, they'll almost certainly be headed down a path of teardown and rebuild, something they want to avoid by rebuilding a new supporting cast around Conley and Gasol as Randolph and Tony Allen begin to fade away.
I'm not sure whether yesterday's trades are good news or bad news for Grizzlies fans. The optimistic take is that these teams don't think they've got a shot at prying Conley away from the Grizzlies, so they've moved on to find a point guard through other means before free agency even starts. The pessimistic take is that these teams have decided that maxing Conley isn't worth it and are trying to fill their point guard need some other way. I wouldn't be surprised if the truth is in the middle; I still think Conley will be in a Grizzlies uniform in the fall, and I think it's going to take a max contract to make that happen, and I think that's too much money and also think it'll probably the right thing to do.
I believe the dictionary term is "ambivalent." That's how I feel about the whole thing, especially in light of the Pacers and Knicks essentially removing themselves from the Conley conversation before it starts.
How are we going to talk about this team now that we've said everything there is to say about "Grit and Grind"? That's a conversation I've had recently with two or three different people who write about basketball. We can talk about Memphis as a pro wrestling town and the Grizzlies as a team that plays to that, but Herrington already did that a couple of years ago. We can talk about how the blue-collar team and the blue collar town complement each other, but we've been doing that since 2011. We can talk about toughness, about being overlooked, about being counted out and fighting back against overwhelming odds, but we've done all of that, too. Six consecutive playoff runs with (essentially) the same core personnel means we've explored this team, the Core Four version of it anyway (maybe it's the "Mt. Grizzmore" version?), in about as much depth as is possible.
So what do we talk about next year? In David Fizdale, they've got a coach who represents a clean break with the past—Lionel coached under Hubie way back when, and Joerger coached under Lionel. On the flipside, Chris Wallace has apparently shored up his position as the lead basketball decision-maker, and he's been here for what seems like an eternity. Organizationally, there still doesn't seem to be a very clear picture of the hierarchy, of who makes what calls, of how anything works. Even though they seem to have made mostly good decisions in that time, the lack of clarity makes them hard to analyze, and I'm not sure that's an accident.
There will be new faces on the roster next year, no question. Whoever gets drafted this year will be expected to develop into a rotation player. The Grizzlies have to sign someone to start on the wing next year, and maybe even be the third-best player on the team. Tony Allen and Zach Randolph are still here (though both are in contract years), but what will their role be now? Will they accept the diminished reponsibility that almost certainly seems to be headed their way? What will this team look like? How will we talk about it?
We're right at the precipice of entering a new era of Memphis Grizzlies history, even as the team stresses its continuity. We're going to have to find new things to talk about. The old stories are exhausted by now, and Memphis is a town that clings to its old stories like they're a source of life. We venerate the past here, even as we tear it down and run roads through it. It's a trap, a collective weakness for former greatness. And yet, a basketball team is a fluid thing. Faces change over time. People will be talking about Zach Randolph and Tony Allen for the rest of time in this town, but now we're going to have to find a new story to tell, a new language to use, a narrative that isn't depleted of the vitality that made it so important in the first place.
Grit & Grind is dead. Long live Grit & Grind. Now, please, please, please come up with something else to put on a t-shirt.