With a nod to Led Zeppelin, there are transition years, and then there's 2007 for the Memphis Grizzlies. It's hard to imagine a professional sports franchise being in more flux than the local NBA outfit, particularly when you consider that the face on all four levels of operations -- ownership, front office, head coach, star player -- may well be different when the next season opens in November. Even more compelling is the fact that the tipping point for the entire transformation happens to be as small and light as a ping-pong ball.
Whether you interpret this on a literal or metaphorical level, the Grizzlies' position in June's draft is going to make all the difference in the world for all four levels mentioned above. Should Memphis land either the first or second pick -- and with it a franchise-player-to-be in either Greg Oden or Kevin Durant -- there will be new life for a franchise still looking for its first playoff win.
On the other hand, should their preponderance of ping-pong balls in the lottery hopper get the Grizzlies no better than third -- Al Horford anyone? How many season tickets will Joakim Noah sell? -- shoulders will slump as if Bryant Reeves' latest paycheck just came due.
Here's a look at what we can expect, from the owner's box to the court, as the Grizzlies' Summer of Change unfolds:
OWNERSHIP -- Here's the beautiful, cold truth about capitalism: you can sell your product, service, or talent for precisely what the market will pay. Not a penny more. (There are thousands of home-sellers across the country who would be happy to advise Grizzlies owner Michael Heisley about the reality of moving inventory in a sagging, war-weary economy.) Heisley may want $252 million for his 70-percent share of the franchise. To this point, not a solitary buyer has stepped forward with a check near that amount. And considering the draft lottery is May 22nd, Heisley's recently established deadline of May 1st for any offers appears to be at least three weeks premature.
With the image of Brian Davis and Christian Laettner holding up uniforms at a press conference -- their shabby bid being the best Heisley has seen to this point -- we armchair economists have to believe the franchise is overpriced. But imagine what Oden or Durant might do for the lowest average attendance (14,654) in the NBA. May 1st is no deadline, Mr. Heisley. Come May 22nd, you can either name your price, or determine how much it should be lowered.
MANAGEMENT -- Based on his comments last Tuesday -- "I'm not a youngster anymore" -- the legendary Jerry West will ride off into the Memphis sunset come July 1st. West says he'll remain with the team long enough to find the new coach and, presumably, a replacement (or two?) for himself. Before West's arrival in 2002, the Grizzlies employed a pair of front-office decision-makers in Dick Versace and Billy Knight. Among the dynamics to consider is just how much impact on personnel decisions the new head coach will be allowed. Even with West's hinted departure, though, that ping-pong ball would seem to carry some weight. How could Mr. Logo pass up the chance to help build a team around Oden or Durant?
COACH -- Until now, Marc Iavaroni's claim to fame was being the fifth starter for the 1982-83 world champion Philadelphia 76ers, a team that featured All-Stars Julius Erving, Moses Malone, Andrew Toney, and Maurice Cheeks. This offseason, Iavaroni's will be the hottest name among head-coach candidates. (And that Italian surname fits perfectly into the recent trend of basketball bosses in the Bluff City: Calipari, Fratello, Barone.) What, precisely, can Iavaroni bring a franchise significantly shy of the firepower he currently enjoys as an assistant with Phoenix? Once again, it all depends on that ping-pong ball. With Oden or Durant at FedExForum, the idea of "pushing" offensively is a lot more palatable than it was in 2006-07. Whether or not the Suns are still playing beyond May 22nd, Iavaroni would be wise to see how the lottery shakes out before making a decision on his future.
STAR -- Pau Gasol may not have burned a bridge with his trade request last winter, but he sure lit a match. Having watched Gasol for six years now, Memphis fans understand he's what might be called a "complementary All-Star" (see Scottie Pippen, James Worthy, or Kevin McHale). With Gasol as lead-bear -- both on the floor and in the press -- the Grizzlies plateaued with three winless playoff appearances. If Memphis lands one of the prize draft picks this June, Gasol may be able to step back and merely excel as Robin to a rookie Batman in 2007-08. If Memphis falls to third in the draft, the franchise should seriously consider finding a deal that brings more youth and financial flexibility. After all, without Oden or Durant, the rebuilding is going to take some time.