Mike Facci (Follow @_facci on Twitter)
Mike Facci is a contributor to The Five By 5.
Let’s set the stage. The year is 2010. Tik-Tok by Kesha is the top performing song of the year, Blockbuster has yet to file for bankruptcy and Kobe Bryant has just won his last NBA title after topping the Celtics in seven games.
What does this have to do with the Memphis Grizzlies? It happens to be the last time that the Memphis Grizzlies have missed the NBA playoffs (3rd longest active streak in NBA behind the San Antonio Spurs and Atlanta Hawks).
For a team that adopted the motto “Grit and Grind” back in 2011 to symbolize their tough and relentless style of play, they have fallen on tough times this season and risk going into the All-Star break on a seven-game losing streak. Sitting at a current record of 18-37 and averaging just 98.9 points per game, the Grizzlies rank second to last in the league in scoring and wins this season. Those numbers trail only arguably the most dysfunctional run franchise in all of sports (not named the Cleveland Browns), the Sacramento Kings.
Just like someone staring down at the 2016 presidential ballot, you might ask yourself “how the hell did we get to this point?” Some could say it started when the Grizzlies let fan favorites Zach “Z-Bo” Randolph and defensive stalwart Tony Allen walk during last years free agency. Others could point to massive swing and misses by general manager Chris Wallace in handing out hefty contracts to the likes of Mike Conley Jr. and injury plagued small forward, Chandler Parsons (both players have struggled to stay on the court but continue to soak up most of Memphis’ cap room for the next 2-3 seasons).
The summer of 2016 NBA Free Agency proved to be arguably the wildest in recent memory. There were ludicrous contracts being handed out left and right as the NBA’s salary cap ballooned from roughly $70 million to just over $94 million due to the NBA’s new $24+ billion television deal.
Memphis General Manager Chris Wallace signed guard Mike Conley Jr. to a 5-year $153 deal, making Conley the highest paid player at the time. Conley and Wallace have a close relationship because Conley was Chris Wallace’s first draft pick back in 2007. Although Conley Jr. has been an underappreciated player, he has never been named an All-Star. This was a huge amount of money to invest in someone, but with the market being the way that it was, Memphis felt they had to overpay Conley to keep him. It’s still a bit of a headscratcher, but you can see why Memphis made this move.
Exactly seven days prior to the Conley contract extension, the Grizzlies landed their prize free agent acquisition in 6’10 scoring wing, Chandler Parsons. After relatively successful stints in Houston and Dallas, Parsons inked a 4-year $94M deal. Memphis felt like they had hit a homerun by signing their first premier small forward since trading Rudy Gay to Toronto in a three-team deal involving Detroit back in 2013(Rudy to Raptors). After just 34 games in Memphis last year and career lows across the board, Parsons was shut down for the season in hopes of coming back at 100% for the 2017-2018 NBA season. With current averages of 8.8 points per game and 2.8 rebounds per game, noticeable boos can be heard by the home crowd at times when he touches the ball. The return on these contracts has been far from justified as both Conley and Parsons are due just under $147M combined over the next 2-3 seasons, widely regarded as the worst two contracts in the league and something you would only wish upon your enemies.
Memphis, whom is labeled as a “small market team”, is roughly $19M over this seasons salary cap of $99M and does not have much to show for it. In the era of looking to form a “Big 3” to compete with the likes of the Warriors or Cavaliers, general manager Chris Wallace did everything in his power to field a winning franchise, but maybe not all the blame should fall on the players.
In the franchise’s 23-year existence, they have yet to capture a division title and have only drafted one All-Star, Kevin Love. However, Love was dealt to the Timberwolves on draft night in an eight-player deal centered around O.J. Mayo, (Pau Gasol made the all-star game with Memphis in 2006 but was traded to Memphis on draft night in 2001 via the Atlanta Hawks).
To take it one step further, the Grizzlies only have one player in the Hall of Fame to have ever even suited up for them. Hall of Fame point guard Allen Iverson was a part of the Grizzlies for a forgettable three-games. Iverson refused to come off the bench and elected to retire instead of taking on a lesser role at this point in his career.
Let’s not forget the 1997 trade that landed Otis Thorpe (so close yet so far) in Memphis (for just 47-games). In this trade the Grizzlies were forced to trade their 2003 first-round pick to the Detroit Pistons. If you recall, the 2003 NBA Draft was full of stars such as: LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Bosh. So, the Grizzlies could have had the chance to draft Wade, Anthony or Bosh to a long term deal, but elected to trade for Thorpe for a lousy 47-games.
With that being said, the past is the past. Let’s turn our attention to the present day, Memphis Grizzlies. After 19 games into the season, with a 7-12 record, head coach David Fizdale was fired after just a little over one season with the team. With veteran leadership from the past now gone, the Memphis Grizzlies sport an average age of just 24.9 years old (7th youngest in the NBA).
Franchise cornerstone, Marc Gasol has seen his shooting percentage dip in each of the last four seasons, currently sitting at a career low 41% shooting this season. The two bright spots on the roster this season for Memphis have been: 2017 second round draft pick, Dillon Brooks (who has started 47 games for them), and the low-risk, one year $3.29M dollar deal that Tyreke Evans received as he aimed to revive his career after up and down stints in Sacramento and New Orleans. Evans is having arguably his best season to date, but with Evans set for unrestricted free agency this offseason, the Grizzlies are already over next years expected salary cap and a long-term deal for Evans to remain in Memphis is unlikely.
The fact that Memphis was unable to yield a trade return for Evans after they sat him out for a full week prior to the deadline to preserve his value, is a head scratcher for a team that has not shown too much life this season. As is traditionally common in the NBA, Conley, Parsons, and Gasol are set to see their salaries rise each of the next 2-3 seasons further questioning the direction of this franchise.
So, what is the outlook of this team moving forward? Can they get back on track and be a mainstay in the playoffs again? Well it doesn’t take a genius to know that it won’t be this season. Trading Evans would have helped their chances at securing the #1 overall pick as the #2 overall pick has not been too kind to them in the past having selected Stormile Swift, Mike Bibby (best years were in Sacramento), and Hasheem Thabeet (drafted one pick ahead of James Harden, I am so sorry Grizzlies fans) second overall in the past. The fact of the matter is that Memphis has struggled to attract free agents in the past and will need to nail this draft pick similar to when general manager Chris Wallace drafted Paul Pierce 10th overall during his stint with Boston back in 1998. However, that was 20 years ago, and this is a “what have you done for me lately” era that we live in now.
With money being tight and the need to develop younger talent moving forward, the Grizzlies elected to buy out veteran power forward Brendan Wright and trade 6’7 small forward James Ennis III for seldom used second year pro Brice Johnson, in hopes of opening up additional minutes for Dillon Brooks as Ennis is set to enter unrestricted free agency this summer.
The sad conclusion of where Memphis stands moving forward is that the overspending of the summer of 2016 is starting to unravel at the seams and the man who may pay the ultimate price is the face of the franchise and arguably your best player ever, Marc Gasol. At age 33 with a professional playing career that stems back to 2003 when he was an 18-year-old playing for FC Barcelona of the EuroLeague, it is safe to say that after 3 all-star births and a defensive player of the year award, his best years may be behind him. With Memphis’ attendance ranking 27th in the league (its lowest since the 2012-2013 season), serious cap concerns moving forward, and the belief that Chandler Parsons may never return to his 2013-2014 season form, Gasol may serve as Memphis’ best chance at shedding salary and bringing in younger talent through a trade. Memphis fans have already seen one Gasol brother leave town (Gasol for Gasol) and while they have been reluctant to entertain Marc’s name in any trade talks this season, general manager Chris Wallace sure has his work cut out for him moving forward.
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