Chemistry Slowly Building for New-Look Grizzlies

By Don Wade

They showed up in matching blue and white-striped Grizzlies sweat suits, looking like they had walked into FedExForum from the 1980s. It was, without a word being spoken, the first message delivered by Grizzlies chairman Robert Pera and CEO Jason Levien in a Feb. 12 press conference aimed at advancing the narrative of unity – within the team and within the community.

Over the next 20 minutes Pera and Levien did a pretty good job of staying on script. Asked about coach Lionel Hollins’ contract, they said they liked Hollins, enjoyed sharing coffee and croissants with Hollins – or whatever they had for breakfast that morning – but kept the option of changing coaches on the table.

“All that for now is confidential,” Pera said. “A final decision will come down to Jason and I’ll approve whichever direction he wants to go.”

Veteran Grizzlies like Marc Gasol, left, have welcomed new teammates like Tayshaun Prince into the fold after a blockbuster deal that sent longtime Memphis star Rudy Gay to Toronto. The team is 4-3 since the trade and in fourth place in the Western Conference heading into the All-Star game.   

(Photo: AP Photo/Danny Johnston)

“I don’t think it behooves us to speak publicly about any kind of contract situation,” Levien said, which is never a positive sign if it’s your contract in question.

Whether the players or the fans agree with this wait-and-see approach on Hollins is not the point. And truthfully after two trades, including the deal that sent Rudy Gay to Toronto where we now learn what he missed about Memphis is exactly “nothing,” everyone should be getting used to the new hierarchy.

What’s so unreasonable about Pera, Levien and new front office staff vice president of basketball operations John Hollinger and player personnel director Stu Lash determining the Grizzlies didn’t have the right roster to get past the Oklahoma City Thunder, Los Angeles Clippers or even the San Antonio Spurs in a seven-game series?

Pera didn’t speak to that point, not directly, but edged toward it in explaining why, as much as he liked Rudy Gay and thought he was an “awesome” talent, Rudy didn’t really fit.

“The offense we run is really traditional, inside-out, grinding type of offense,” Pera said. “And Rudy’s talent, his potential, couldn’t be maximized in our system.”

Of course, once you change course it’s left to the coach and the players to navigate the waves left behind. The Grizzlies went 1-3 after Gay was traded, but are now 4-3 post-trade and on a three-game winning streak with a record of 33-18 heading into the All-Star break.

“We’re taking steps to getting better, getting the team to where we (were) when the season started,” said forward Zach Randolph, who will represent the Grizzlies at the Feb. 17 NBA All-Star Game in Houston. “It’s a chemistry thing. Everybody’s getting comfortable.”

Or maybe less uncomfortable. Early on, there was more than a little of that. It showed up in lackluster play on the court and in comments of frustration from Hollins that seemed to point a disapproving finger at new management. Finally, before the win here over Golden State that started the three-game winning streak, Hollins met with the media pre-game to try and tidy up the public relations.

The coach’s bottom line: He’s a team player, trading Gay was “emotional” for him, but “I don’t want to be taken that I can’t move forward.”

Clearly, the Pera/Levien meeting with the media was about trying to further move everyone forward with the new culture of change. Levien said he has learned, “maybe the hard way,” that Grizzlies fans want and need more communication and not less.

So they reassured fans that no, Z-Bo, was never the subject of serious trade discussions this season. And for those afraid Pera was in this ownership thing for the money, well, he cleared that up, too.

“I run my real business, Ubiquiti Networks, definitely for profit,” Pera said. “For the Memphis Grizzlies I definitely don’t want a profit in any way. My primary goal is to win and make the city of Memphis proud.”

Said Levien: “My role (is) to be out there talking about our vision for the team, and Robert’s vision for the team, what our strategy is. But we also can’t be too transparent about our strategy because we have 29 other competitors that are listening to what we say. If we’re playing chess, we want to be a little bit careful. But that said, it’s important to articulate a vision and engage the fans, engage the community.”

Yes, it is. Especially now that the honeymoon is over.