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NBA Chaos Theory

Is it the Memphis Grizzlies or Lord of the Flies?



"This is why we can't have nice things." That's the first thought I had when I read Marc Stein of ESPN's tweet dropping the bomb no one (save for maybe Chris Wallace) saw coming: Jason Levien and Stu Lash were on their way out of the Grizzlies organization. The Grizzlies had just finished up a tumultuous season: 50 games won despite injuries; a first-year head coach; long stretches of uninspired, lackluster play; and a barrage of Zach Randolph trade rumors.


Throughout the season, we learned a few things: Dave Joerger, despite his flaws and growing pains, is undeniably a decent coach. (Before you write those angry Lionel Hollins letters, please note that I said "decent.") Levien, Lash, and John Hollinger proved they could make smart basketball decisions that also took the franchise's long-term financial health into consideration. On the business side, the team has never been in better shape. ESPN ranked the Grizzlies the #1 Franchise in Professional Sports for a reason.

All of that isn't necessarily gone, but it's certainly been jeopardized. Controlling owner Robert Pera has shown some of the smartest guys in the business the door, allowed Joerger to interview for the Minnesota Timberwolves' coaching job, and has said absolutely nothing about what he's thinking or where the team is going. Not that he has to, of course. The fact remains, though, that the only people talking about what's going on are people who were just shown the door, and thus 1) don't know what's happening with the team any longer and 2) are, shall we say, motivated to paint what has already happened as the lashings out of a crazy person.

Not that we know whether Pera is a crazy person or not. It's entirely possible that he is, but it's entirely possible that he has a carefully thought-out master plan that will take the Grizzlies from good to great. We'll just have to wait and see.

The onus is now on Pera to regain the trust of the fan base and prove that he knows what he's doing. Trust takes time to build and no time at all to destroy. There's every reason in the world to think the Grizzlies are transforming into the Knicks right before our eyes: an owner who wants to call shots he shouldn't be calling and who lacks the self-awareness to know when to stand back and let the basketball people do their jobs. That works in New York, where the Knicks have a license to print money. That goes a long way to cover up inept management. It doesn't work in a small market, where the team has to break even to be viable, and a big part of breaking even is careful management, both of the business side and the basketball side. The Grizzlies' fan base is still young and relatively fragile. A detour back to the broken-foot-Pau days may not permanently damage that relationship between team and city, but it won't help.

There are on-court things to consider, too. How does this affect Zach Randolph's decision-making regarding his player option this summer? If Pera makes the wrong moves, will Marc Gasol want to stay around next summer? If the wrong head coach is brought in, will that coach be able to manage the personalities in this locker room? It's not hard to imagine a scenario where the good things the Griz have built over the past five years are washed away by a bad hire or two.

It could work out, of course. But at the very least, the power structure of the Grizzlies' unwieldy ownership group has been upended, and relationships there may be damaged beyond repair. A promising front office has been partially dismantled, and a promising young coach has been shown the door, possibly because a player or two didn't like him (but then, we don't really know what the players said in those secret season-ending interviews with Pera). At the very least, instability has been injected into a situation where it didn't seem like there was any, and Pera has taken his basketball team from a smart situation set up for success to, well, who knows?

It was already going to be an important summer for the Grizzlies, but it was only supposed to be roster decisions that determined the future direction of the team. Now there is no direction visible, and all of us get to sit and watch and wait for the Grizzlies to be remade in some image. But whose will it be, and how will it shake out? That's up to Robert Pera, for better or for worse.

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