‘Real Big Decisions’ Looming for Grizzlies

By Don Wade

The Grizzlies returned from Los Angeles down 2-0 to the Clippers, the idea of “Believe Memphis” being put to the test.

Thursday night, April 25, the Clippers and Grizzlies were to play Game 3 at FedExForum, and then Saturday, April 27, Game 4.

“We’re in the moment,” Grizzlies CEO Jason Levien said in a telephone interview between Games 2 and 3. “The series’ result will have an impact (going forward). Right now we’re living every possession, every quarter. But it’s important to have guiding principles for the future. We had the most successful regular season in franchise history (56 wins), but obviously we’ve got some real big decisions to make.”

Memphis Grizzlies guard Tony Allen (9), forward Zach Randolph and center Marc Gasol (33) are a major part of the core of a team that could see changes if success doesn’t come during the playoffs.

(Photo: AP Photo/Danny Johnston)

Go back through that statement. A phrase such as “living every possession” shows Levien, controlling owner Robert Pera and analytics guru John Hollinger weren’t giving up on this team and this series, but also that they would be studying every detail. The “guiding principles” bow to the game’s advanced metrics and put a premium on all manner of efficiency: offensive, defensive and, last but not least, financial.

Those “real big decisions” will continue to come down to that messy intersection where on-court ideals – having all the talented players you can – intersect with financial realities for a small-market team that wants to avoid the luxury tax.

So what’s hanging in the balance of this series’ outcome? Probably, the Grizzlies as we now know them. Asked point-blank about this after a Grizzlies practice the day before Game 3, point guard Mike Conley said: “If we want to keep this unit together, we have to win. We’ve known that all year long.”

Even if the Grizzlies were to rally and win four of five from the Clippers to take the series, it’s doubtful this group would return totally intact. Anything short of a series victory ensures that it won’t and the quicker the team’s postseason ends the more it invites major change.

The new regime dealt Rudy Gay mid-season because his contract was so much bigger than his production. Life goes on when the names on the backs of the jerseys change.

“Players are going to come and go,” Levien said. “We’re not going to have the same guys in five years. That’s the nature of pro sports.”

But what about next season? Zach Randolph is a two-time All-Star with the Grizzlies but the power forward will be 32 at the start of next season, and has more than $34 million coming to him over the next two years. Given Randolph’s sluggish second half of this season, his contract starts to look a lot like Gay’s contract: too much investment for the return.

The Grizzlies are not trading Conley or center and Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol. That makes Randolph the logical choice, if they want to continue re-making the mold.

Grindfather Tony Allen has been, appropriately enough, a steal for the Grizzlies with a $3.3 million annual salary. He’s an unrestricted free agent this summer and any number of potential contenders might view Allen as the player who could change their defensive culture as he did for the Grizzlies with Grit and Grind. Will the Grizzlies pay more with a new long-term contract to keep Allen, who is 31?

The guess here is yes, but it’s not a certainty.

And what of coach Lionel Hollins? His contract is up at the end of this season. As the Grizzlies fell behind 2-0 to the Clippers, the coach’s critics again questioned his rotations, his reluctance to play Allen more in Game 1, and how the team again could be in the position, for the third straight year, of having no truly reliable backup at the point for Conley.

Hollins, of course, is old school. It’s why the Grit and Grind fits him and this team. The advanced metrics? Hollins isn’t as sold on that as what his eyes and his gut tell him. If the Grizz rally and win this series, ownership might live with that for another year. If they lose, especially if it’s in less than seven games, they likely won’t.

Big picture, the team’s entire identity could be up for change. What would Grit and Grind mean without Allen, or Randolph or Hollins? Could the Grizz really still be Grit and Grind with a different cast and style of play?

“It depends how you define Grit and Grind,” Levien said. “The long-term principles behind that are we aren’t going to take anything for granted, we’re going to work hard and prepare to win. In that way, we’re going to hold to that identity of Grit and Grind.”