This week's NBA draft begins a potentially busy offseason for the Memphis Grizzlies. But with uncertainty and discontent clouding the franchise, the team faces questions that are bigger than one draft or even one offseason.
Despite producing the seventh-best record in the league and a third straight playoff appearance last season, there are signs of malaise: attendance down, hand-wringing up. And in the wake of a now NBA-record 0-12 franchise playoff record, the targets of fan and media complaint are plentiful: Pau Gasol to Mike Miller to Mike Fratello to Jerry West; style of play to ticket prices to side issues about concessions and in-game bells and whistles.
But pointing fingers at all these bruised and battered trees only obscures the forest: Five years in, the real problem with the Grizzlies franchise isn't any one person or facet of the team. It's the lack of a coherent organizational philosophy about how to survive, or even thrive, in a small market with necessarily limited resources.
The Grizzlies are embarking on what could be an era of profound transition: Majority owner Michael Heisley has his share of the team on the block, with a potential (if still unlikely) sale this summer. This season will almost certainly be West's last running the team. Fratello is entering the last year of his contract. And whatever happens, the team -- reportedly losing $40 million annually -- has let it be known that player payroll has to be reigned in.
So, with the franchise facing transition if not outright tumult, this seems like a good time to speculate on what a fruitful course correction might look like. Having watched the team for five years and covered it for four, here's my Grizzlies manifesto:
For me, the most depressing moment in Grizzlies basketball over the past few months wasn't Dirk Nowitzki sinking a three-pointer to rob the Grizzlies of a playoff win. It was standing in front of Jerry West at his post-season press availability and experiencing the utter grimness with which he described the team's financial losses and the necessity of lowering player payroll.
This is reality: Memphis is a small market. The team is losing money. Even at best, according to president of business operations Andy Dolich, the Grizzlies will be a cash-neutral operation. And Dolich admits it will take a long time to reach even that point. It's insane to expect this team to have one of the league's 10 highest payrolls -- which it did this season. And it's pointless for fans to pine for a new owner unconcerned about the bottom line.
This is the much-needed realization: Reducing payroll isn't a death sentence. There is absolutely no correlation in the NBA between player payroll and on-court success. As long as the Grizzlies are willing to operate on a league-average, or even slightly below league-average, basketball budget, there's no reason the team can't stay competitive. Teams don't win in the NBA because they spend tons of money. Teams win through a combination of smart management and luck.
The Grizzlies need to play "Moneyball," to borrow a term made famous by Michael Lewis' bestseller about the cost-conscious but competitive baseball franchise Oakland As. Set aside the statistical approach to player evaluation that Moneyball describes: The real message of the Oakland model is how that team's front office and ownership embraced their financial limitations as a creative challenge.
Recruit Happy Warriors
For all the success of the Jerry West era -- quickly turning a perennial league doormat into a perennial playoff participant -- the profound disappointment is how little excitement and goodwill his presence has engendered among fans. West may be the Logo to the rest of the league, but his public demeanor has grown so dour that he's become impossible to rally around. And though many fans and media members have treated Fratello unfairly, he hasn't been much better in this regard. How can fans be excited about their NBA team when the people running it don't seem excited about it?
Commit to a Style of Play
The Grizzlies' slow-down style of play from last season has become a popular target of fan ire in the wake of another early playoff exit. These complaints sometimes confuse style with quality or execution, but they aren't without merit. The key is realizing that the product on the court has to be about more than just wins and losses.
An NBA team isn't just an endeavor where players, coaches, and execs indulge their own competitive drives. It's professional entertainmen -- and an expensive one.
If the organization commits to playing a fan-friendly style of basketball and conducts itself -- through front- office and coaching hires and player-personnel moves -- based on that commitment, then fans will have something to rely on. Through good times and bad, winning seasons and losing ones, there should be one constant: You can depend on a fun and exciting brand of basketball when you go to a Grizzlies game.
Don't have a plan to make the playoffs next season. Have a plan for building a long-term contender that will be appealing to the fans. Don't just think about next season.
Though some moves have been made with an eye on the long-term, too often the Grizzlies' focus has been on immediate minor improvements rather than potential but more gradual major improvements. The result is a team seemingly stuck in Jerry West's dread "middle," which has provoked complacency and drained hope from the fan base.
Ball on a Budget
The Grizzlies should set a reasonable player-payroll budget -- one considerably shy of the luxury-tax threshold the team exceeded this season -- and stick to it. The plan to compete within this limitation has to be based on careful salary-cap management, which means:
1) Find impact players on rookie contracts: Under the NBA's current collective-bargaining agreement, teams are able to keep first-round picks for four or five years on relatively low-paying contracts. Under this system, the biggest bargains in the league are by and large impact players on rookie deals. For this team to thrive under tighter financial constraints, it's imperative to do a better job selecting and developing young players.
2) Look for "second draft" bargains. With players entering the league at younger ages, sometimes quality prospects enter free agency before really tapping into their talent. Look for young, cheap free-agent bargains. More Earl Watsons. Fewer Brian Cardinals.
3) Pay for upside and stars. You can pay an all-star like Pau Gasol a max contract if you balance it out with rookie contracts and low-priced role players. What you can't do is overpay -- or maybe even pay market value -- for mediocre veterans. Spending mid-level money on tapped-out, low-impact vets like Cardinal and, more arguably, Damon Stoudamire is a risky proposition.
4) Don't get too attached. Shane Battier was a bargain on a rookie deal, and though he's decent value now on a relatively modest extension, this team probably should have flipped him for cheaper, more talented prospects when it had the chance. To thrive on limited funds, you need to get an impact from your rookies, but you also have to be judicious about re-signing them. Be willing to deal young players with limited upside before you're forced to pay them market value.
Whether Michael Heisley retains his majority share of the Grizzlies in the near future or sells it to another ownership group, confronting financial reality is a necessity for this team. It won't be a question of if the team cuts back spending but how. To thrive, the Grizzlies have to have a plan and be able to sell it to Memphis fans. The future starts this week, but it's a lot bigger than a draft pick.