A year ago, with the Grizzlies making their postseason debut and Hubie Brown accepting his Coach of the Year award, the NBA playoffs in Memphis felt like a festival.
This spring, in a new building with new expectations, game three of the Grizzlies' first-round series with the Phoenix Suns felt more like Festivus, the made-up holiday celebrated by the Costanza clan on Seinfeld, which includes such traditions as Feats of Strength and the Airing of Grievances.
At FedExForum that night, the Feats of Strength were provided by Phoenix Suns center Amare Stoudemire, who scored his 30 points on a series of powerful, athletic forays to the rim.
The Airing of Grievances began earlier with the late-season complaints of locker-room malcontents Bonzi Wells and Jason Williams. But the fans got into the act in game three, chanting for Coach Mike Fratello to bring Wells into the game, unleashing anger and frustration during the Grizzlies' collapse, and ultimately booing the home team. The post-game radio show I co-hosted with play-by-play announcer Eric Hasseltine took on the aura of a group-therapy session.
Fittingly, the Airing of Grievances continued after a much better but still losing effort in Game 4, when hothead point guard Williams lashed out at Commercial Appeal columnist Geoff Calkins in the locker room, at least providing fans with an enduring moment of unintentional comedy ("You don't need nothin', homeboy! You ain't writing nothin'!") to take from an otherwise dreary finish.
Those wishing to assign blame for the team's second straight playoff sweep (in fairness, a fate that also greeted the Grizzlies' Eastern Conference eight-seed counterpart, the New Jersey Nets) had plenty of places to look.
On the court and in the locker room, the lack of reliability of Wells and Stromile Swift proved a distraction. Ostensible franchise player Pau Gasol played well in spurts, including a dominant stretch in the second half of game two, but was still too inconsistent. Lorenzen Wright and Shane Battier proved that effort doesn't always equal production. Earl Watson couldn't make shots, and Brian Cardinal wouldn't take them.
The series wasn't Fratello's finest moment either. After deftly negotiating an endless series of injuries to get his team into the postseason, Fratello entered the playoffs without ever deciding on a set rotation, and managed his talent with an uncertainty that didn't breed much confidence on the sidelines or in the stands. His controversial benching of Wells in favor of second-year player Dahntay Jones made more sense in both the short- and long-term than irate fans were willing to recognize. His extended play of back-up point guard Watson in fourth quarters over hot-shooting starter Williams was explainable (defense is still half the game) if not quite defensible. But the way Fratello limited the minutes of his best shooter, Mike Miller, down the stretch of winnable games in Phoenix was highly dubious.
Like Fratello, Brown was criticized for his substitutions, particularly in fourth quarters, and he too was swept out of the playoffs. But Brown had a lovably gregarious personality that served to insulate him from some of these criticisms. The more reserved Fratello, not so beloved, didn't get the same pass, and fans who a couple of months earlier were campaigning for him to win Coach of the Year were now calling for his head.
But don't forget about the front office. Team president of basketball operations Jerry West might have been able to soften the disruptions that soured team chemistry by dropping the hammer on Williams and Wells back in November, as Brown reportedly requested. He could have been more forceful in trying to trade Wells' expiring contract before the February trade deadline and, once he was unable to do so, could have cut him outright to potentially avoid some of the messiness that plagued the team late in the season.
But those questions downplay the bigger role West played in his team's second-straight playoff collapse: The truth is that the Grizzlies simply lost to a much better team. Consequently, it's hard to avoid the fact that, three years after taking over a 23-win team, West fielded a playoff team where four of the five starters were players he inherited from the previous regime. Only Miller, acquired from Orlando for West's first draft pick, Drew Gooden, was a West addition.
Of course, turning a perennial loser into a back-to-back playoff team in only one season is nothing to sneeze at, but West's not inconsiderable accomplishments have essentially fallen into three areas: changing the mentality of the organization and its image around the league; upgrading the coaching staff; and building quality depth on a franchise that had previously relied on minor-league-level bench play. All of that has been enough to make the Grizzlies respectable, but West still hasn't been able to pull off the big deal required to get the team over the postseason hump. And at this point one wonders whether West's pursuit of such a deal hasn't hampered the team's long-term development.
And so begins a particularly important offseason for the Grizzlies. With potentially four players entering free-agency, a sense that the current team has gone as far as it can go, and, for the first time in Memphis, palpable unrest from a fan base that didn't even fill the building for Game 4, changes now seem inevitable.
Though a potential lockout before the beginning of the July 1st free-agent period could delay whatever makeover West has in mind for this team, what follows is a guide to what the Grizzlies could, might, and, most importantly, should do this summer.
Define a Strategy
There are three paths the Grizzlies can take as they rebuild their roster this offseason. The first is to make a big splash in the form of trading for a veteran star. In lieu of that, the team can retain its core and tinker around the edges of the roster. Finally, the Grizzlies could take advantage of their roster's youth by focusing on the long-term, being willing to take a step backward this upcoming season if it could lead to better days ahead.
The big splash is what Griz fans have been aching for since the day West arrived. To a degree it's what they were promised, but tinkering is what they've gotten.
Grizzlies fans were patient with this approach, content in the knowledge that West was merely doing exactly what he'd promised -- filling the barren cupboards of a long-suffering franchise with quality NBA talent and biding his time until he could combine a few of those pieces in a deal for a marquee player.
But that deal never came, and if West was unable to make a major move last offseason, when he had more assets and there were more big-name players available, it's hard to see a scenario that will bring the Grizzlies their all-star this summer.
The nuclear option is trading Gasol, a move both risky and difficult. It's difficult because, under current league rules, Gasol's max-contract extension makes any deal financially complicated. It's risky because, whatever Gasol's faults, young seven-footers who can serve a catalytic role in a team's offense are very hard to come by.
So, not believing the big-splash strategy is likely this offseason, what this Grizzlies watcher proposes is a combination of the second two strategies -- smart tinkering with an eye on the future. This means building around a young core of players, cleaning up the team's salary-cap situation (with Williams' and Cardinal's contracts the ones most in need of moving), and focusing on young players with big upsides in the draft and free-agency. The big question is whether this strategy could mesh with what's shaping up to be a Jerry West Farewell Tour.
Identify and Develop the Core
A lot of the Grizzlies' fans may not want to hear this, but the most important avenue for team improvement right now is probably internal.
Fans have every reason to be disappointed in Gasol's progress through four seasons. But to conclude that Gasol, at age 24 three years away from his prime, can't get better is silly.
Last season, Gasol struggled through three coaches and two injuries. If you want to find a reasonable starting point for expectations heading into next season, look back to December, the only month of the season when Gasol was completely healthy. In 36 minutes per game, about what he should be playing next season under Fratello's presumably reduced rotation, Gasol averaged 20 points and nine rebounds a game while shooting over 50 percent. If Gasol bypasses international play this summer in favor of resting his sore foot and working with the Grizzlies on strength and conditioning issues, then fans should expect a small up-tick in those numbers for next season, unless the team adds a ferocious rebounder to play next to him.
Next is Miller, still only 25 years old. That Miller's splendid shooting last season was in line with his physical tools -- one of the planet's prettiest jump shots -- suggests that he can build on that performance. And if his minutes (only 30 a game last season) and opportunities increase alongside Gasol's in what should be a tighter rotation, Miller will have a shot at duplicating his April numbers of 18 points a game.
So Miller and Gasol are the players to build around, but there are a few others with the youth and skills to be part of the long-term vision as well. At 26, Battier might not get much better, but he should be able to play at his current level for six or seven more seasons. Jones, 24, proved in the postseason that he's ready for a prime role in the rotation. And the team seems high on young guards Andre Emmett, 22, and Antonio Burks (at 25 -- yes, he's older than Gasol), who need court time to develop.
Clean Up the Roster
The decisions about the remainder of the Grizzlies' roster start not with the team's four potential free agents but with incumbent point guard Williams, whose fate could go a long way to determining the direction the Grizzlies take.
If the Grizzlies really wanted to rebuild with a mind for the future, then jettisoning Williams and his remaining three-year, $24 million contract for a shorter deal is the way to go. (The rumored trade to Minnesota for Sam Cassell and his expiring contract hits the mark.) If Williams stays, the team is forced to think more short-term.
Either way, it's clear that the time for half-measures is over. If Williams is to return, the team should commit to him. This means letting J-Will be J-Will: Take a page out of Phoenix's game plan with MVP Steve Nash and play an up-tempo style that maximizes Williams' strengths and seeks to minimize his weaknesses. Factor his sub-par defense into the equation, as Phoenix did with Nash. Bench him in the fourth for lack of effort if necessary but not for simple match-up purposes. Ease his sensitivity about those fourth-quarter substitutions.
As for the rest of the roster, it's hard to see any of the four free agents back in Beale Street Blue. The team holds an option for one more year of Wells' services, and though West has suggested the team could bring Wells back, it doesn't seem likely. With Miller entrenched in the starting lineup and young prospects Jones and Emmett needing playing time, there's no room for him. The only reason to bring Wells back would be an attempt to do what West failed to last season -- package Wells' expiring contract (likely along with that of Wright) in a bid for the big splash. But with Wells' apparently rancid impact on the locker room and his likely declining trade value, this doesn't seem worth the risk.
Watson won't be back in a Grizzlies uniform unless Williams is dealt, but even then the Grizzlies would be advised not to invest a long-term deal in their current back-up point guard, not when they've got a point guard the same age in Burks, who seems to have more upside on both ends of the floor.
Likewise, why pay what it'll take to re-sign Swift when the team's had three seasons to decide if Swift and Gasol can play together and hasn't reached that conclusion?
The best-case scenario with Watson and Swift would be to package them with other expendable players (or together) in a sign-and-trade deal -- if not for the big-splash veteran then for a young player with big upside or to move up in the draft. And then there's Ryan Humphrey, a hard-working energy guy the team has an option on. They could pick it up as a cheap way to fill out the roster but would be better off clearing a spot.
And something's got to give among a playing-time log-jam that includes Battier, Jones, Cardinal, and James Posey. With the longest contract and smallest upside, Cardinal should join Jake Tsakalidis (his three-year extension a clear West mistake) at the forefront of the team's trade negotiations this offseason.
Joining them could be incumbent center Wright. A hard-worker and fan favorite entering the final year of his contract, Wright presents no burden for the Grizzlies. But with a replacement in the starting lineup likely to be found in free-agency and with his expiring contract increasing his trade value, Wright could be a component of any big deals the Grizzlies make.
Be Bold on Draft Day
After not having a first-round pick last season, the Grizzlies will pick 19th in what is shaping up to be a deep draft.
In previous years, the Grizzlies have played it too safe on draft day, setting the tone by taking Kansas star Drew Gooden in 2002 when high school phenom Amare Stoudemire was on the board. Since then, they've taken only experienced college players from major programs, with mixed results. Jones, Burks, and Emmett all look like good value given where they were picked. Robert Archibald, Chris Owens, and Troy Bell have been busts.
I'm not suggesting that the Grizzlies shouldn't take an experienced college player in the draft this summer, only that they need to take the best prospect available, regardless of how "ready" he is for the NBA. Remember, Gasol wasn't supposed to play his rookie year, while four-year guy Bell was going to have an instant impact. And we all know how that turned out.
Recent history has shown that the best post-lottery values come from all over, from the high school ranks (Josh Smith, Al Jefferson), overseas (Beno Udrih, Nened Krstic), and, yes, from good ole State U. (Josh Howard, Tayshaun Prince). When the Grizzlies pick at 19, the best bet might be a college star such as Sean May or Danny Granger. But it might also be a high-schooler such as Monta Ellis or Andray Blatche or an overseas prospect such as French center Johan Petro.
But the Grizzlies also shouldn't be content at 19. If there's a player in the late lottery that the team thinks has star potential -- North Carolina point guard Raymond Felton or high school swingman Gerald Green perhaps -- then the Grizzlies should work hard to trade up and get him. It might be the most likely scenario for adding a second star to go along with Gasol.
Find a Partner for Pau
The free-agent market this summer is headed by a strong contingent of two-guards and a couple of all-offense centers, none of whom seems like the perfect fit for the Grizzlies.
But the depth in free-agency is in the number of promising young power players available, and the Grizzlies' top priority should be to secure one of them to pair with Gasol. This class of players is headed by three of the five most effective rebounders in the NBA last season, as well as a young true center with the potential to be a devastating defender. For a team that was among the worst rebounding teams in the league, adding a young physical force next to Gasol could fill the biggest hole in an otherwise good defense and allow the team to be more active in transition to get easier baskets.
One available player that is already being talked-up in Griz media circles is Jerome James, Seattle's mammoth center, who has been very impressive in the postseason. The problem with James is, where do you put your faith: his past five games or his past five seasons? James is too old, at 30, too erratic, and too poor a rebounder for his size for the Grizzlies to bother with. Better to let someone else overpay for him.
Players the Grizzlies should be focusing on: Restricted free-agents Tyson Chandler and Samuel Dalembert would be the best fits but also hardest to obtain. If deals can't be worked out, the Grizzlies should throw their mid-level exception at a couple of sleeper options: James' teammate Reggie Evans, 25, a relentless, physical rebounder, and Milwaukee's Dan Gadzuric, 27, a Marcus Camby clone with the size to play center.
Other free-agents that should be on the Grizzlies' radar this summer: Washington underachiever Kwame Brown, who might just need a change of scenery to get his game back on track; Miami rebound machine Udonis Haslem; and, for a cheaper option, young Milwaukee bruiser Zaza Pachulia.
But the Grizzlies should also keep an eye on the draft lottery to see which team ends up with college center Andrew Bogut. If Bogut goes to the right team, it could put an attractive young center -- think Utah's Mehmet Okur or Portland's Joel Przybilla -- on the market.
Would I object if West pulled an established superstar out of the offseason hat? Of course not. But short of that, my ideal offseason would look like this: Add a young perimeter player with star potential in the draft (e.g., Felton, Green, Ellis). Acquire a young post defender and rebounder through trade or free-agency (Chandler or Dalembert if possible; Evans or Gadzuric if not). Clean up the roster (bye-bye, Williams, Cardinal, and Tsakalidis). Develop the core (big leaps from Gasol, Miller, and Jones).
Is there a good chance that those moves would help the Grizzlies avoid another playoff sweep only by missing the postseason entirely? Sure. But the team also would be better positioned for a long haul that will almost certainly proceed without Jerry West at the helm.