VOL. 10 | NO. 19 | Saturday, May 6, 2017
By Don Wade
Had the flattering comments come from the Memphis Grizzlies’ own content producers, Grind City Media, they would have been easy enough to dismiss. After all, that would have been like what center Marc Gasol said at season’s end when stressing the importance of candid evaluation.
“Your mom is never gonna tell you you’re ugly,” Gasol said. “So you gotta be honest with yourself.”
San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is nobody’s partisan, much less their mother. He is blunt, often to the point of rudeness. So his statement after his team had defeated the Grizzlies 103-96 at FedExForum to win Game 6 and their first-round playoff series merits some evaluation of its own – and perhaps cues a re-evaluation of what and who these Grizzlies are.
Popovich had praise for first-year coach David Fizdale and for point guard Mike Conley, with whom he shared a prolonged and personal moment on-court after the game. Pop also had praise for the Grizzlies as a whole. A cynic might suggest this was just an established coach taking up for a new coach and his team. And sure, maybe there was a trace of that.
But truthfully, have you ever known Gregg Popovich to make like Dick Vitale and hand out smiling, sugary, platitudes?
No, Pop only says what he wants to say, when he wants to say it, and how he wants to say it. This is what he said after Game 6:
“All playoff games are taxing, but the Grizzlies – I congratulate them on a hell of an effort. Really impressive team … Fizz has done an unbelievable job with those guys. They’re together, they know what they’re doing … What a great group and I’m thrilled we were able to win because if we played 10 times, we each would probably win five. That’s just the way it is.”
Reaching for More
Is that the way it is? Was Popovich right? If the Spurs and Grizzlies had played 10 series, would the Grizzlies have won five?
Not with the roster they had, which was missing Tony Allen (calf injury) and Chandler Parsons (knee surgery) and featured 40-year-old Vince Carter as a starter and heavy minutes going to rookies Wayne Selden and Andrew Harrison.
Less than 24 hours after the Spurs ended the Grizzlies’ season, Fizdale passed on the chance to assign the season a grade. Too soon. But on commitment and belief, he gave his players an “A.”
Meantime, Gasol’s grading scale always takes in the process and not just the final exam; although he also makes more than the occasional reference to a season’s last test (hint: only the NBA champion gets an “A” on that one).
But Gasol also does not consider making the playoffs the only metric. The game-by-game grades leading up to the postseason matter, too. And ultimately those are pass-fail: W or L.
“The only number I care about is the 43 wins, which is way too low to be the team I envision us being,” Gasol said. “Forty-three wins is not acceptable.”
And why the Grizzlies were a lowly No. 7 seed meeting the No. 2 seed Spurs in the first round.
Fizdale and general manager Chris Wallace both make the point that the Grizzlies were competitive with some of the top teams in the Western Conference. They split their regular season series 2-2 with Golden State, the Spurs and Houston and won three of four from Utah, which is still – but not for long – in these playoffs.
As Fizdale likes to say, “We’ve shown we can beat anybody.”
But he also has admitted the Grizzlies showed they could lose to anybody, including the Brooklyn Nets, New York Knicks and Sacramento Kings (that’s just the hapless short list).
So the Grizzlies kicked away more than a few games and their inconsistency was evident in a 9-15 record after the All-Star break. Asked about theories, Gasol said, “Yeah, if I had any I wouldn’t share with you guys (media). A lot of it had to do with indoors, the locker room.”
Obviously, the Grizzlies continued to play a less-than-healthy Chandler Parsons. His lack of production and mobility became a drain on the team on both ends of the floor. And a political problem. Playing a compromised Parsons looked like a mandate from the front office – either with controlling owner Robert Pera’s direction or because of his perceived wishes – and something that Fizdale and the players just had to abide.
In any case, given that the Grizzlies invested four years and $94 million in Parsons, he is viewed as the straightest line to substantial improvement – if he can get his knees healthy and recapture his long-range shooting stroke and at least some of his agility.
“He’s a huge part of the team, like it or not,” Gasol said, seeming to give acknowledgment to the outside criticism of Parsons having dragged the team down both in performance and payroll. “He’s a huge part of who we want to be. He’s a big piece to the puzzle of how the front office envisions us playing.”
As are Gasol and Conley.
(Cal Sport Media via AP Images)
Fizdale pushed Gasol to become a 3-point threat and he averaged a career-best 19.5 points per game while knocking down 104 shots from distance at a 38.8 percent clip (he previously had 12 made threes in his career).
Conley also reached career highs with a 20.5 scoring average and shooting 40.7 percent from deep.
“Kawhi Leonard’s a perfect example of a guy who wasn’t thinking selfish or anything, but was like, `I gotta win this game and I’m gonna do whatever I gotta do offensively to go do it,’” Fizdale said of the Spurs’ superstar. “His teammates understood that. And what Mike and Marc need to understand is our teammates understand that, they can do that and no one will bat an eye.”
Conley asserted himself in the playoffs, scoring 24 or more points in five of the six games while dishing out 42 assists to just 12 turnovers. Conley received the NBA’s richest contract ever last off-season but TNT’s Charles Barkley held Conley up as a guy, unlike so many others in the league, who has “earned every dime.”
“He’s never gotten his due,” Popovich said. “I’m not saying that to be nice because we won and all that sort of thing. I’ve said it probably five times during the playoffs, he’s been the most underrated point guard in the league for a while now.”
And yet with progress of Conley and Gasol, the Grizzlies won 43 games in the regular season and were bounced from the playoffs in the first round for the third time in the last four years.
Which begs the question in a league dominated at the top by the Warriors of Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, and the Cleveland Cavaliers of LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love:
Should just making the playoffs, something the Grizzlies have done seven straight years, fairly be considered good enough?
“No,” Allen said. “It’s never been enough.”
Is the Future Now?
Long-term contracts given to Gasol in the summer of 2015 and Conley last year locked down half of the Core Four. But Allen and Zach Randolph, each 35, along with Carter, are unrestricted free agents this summer. Forward JaMychal Green, who turns 27 in June, is a restricted free agent (the Grizzlies can match another team’s offer and keep him).
So tough decisions loom. The Grizzlies do not currently have any 2017 draft picks, but that could change at the 11th hour. Then in July, the free agent process begins.
All four players have expressed their desire to return. Randolph accepted the sixth-man role during the season and vows that he’s not set on starting next season – be it here or elsewhere.
“I came off the bench the whole season,” Randolph said. “So it’s not a factor.”
Allen perhaps has been the most vocal and optimistic about remaining in Memphis.
“Like I’ve stated before, I can’t see myself being nowhere else,” he said. “This is where my heart is. I pretty much laid the foundation down with the Grit and Grind thing. I want it to continue.
“I ain’t trying to break the bank or nothing. But I definitely feel I can give you a lot on the defensive end. Like I say, we’ll come to an agreement when the talks come.”
It’s easy to imagine that one day outside FedExForum, aka The Grindhouse, there will be a tribute of some sort to the Core Four. The idea of them being reduced by two, or even one, is difficult to comprehend even if practical basketball truths and cold economic realities make it inevitable.
Next season Conley will make $28.5 million, Parsons $23.1 million and Gasol $22.6 million. So that’s $74.2 million right there. Next season, the projected salary cap is $101 million with the luxury tax line projected to be $121 million.
Asked if Pera would be willing to pay the luxury tax, Wallace said: “Those are internal discussions. I won’t go into that.”
Translation: It’s going to be difficult, if not impossible, to keep all the free agents.
“It’s tough to see it without them,” Conley said of Allen and Randolph, alias TA and Z-Bo. “I can’t imagine it. To have them not here would not be normal.”
Said Gasol: “We’re so fortunate to get to do what we do for a living. The down side is you don’t get to do it with the same guys forever. You cherish every moment. Every second with it, because nothing is forever. Not even me and Mike, we won’t be here forever. It’s that simple.”
And that complicated.
Another fan/media theory that was gaining traction when the Grizzlies fell into an 0-2 hole against the Spurs in the playoff series: trade Gasol, “blow it up” in NBA parlance. Hoard draft picks, get younger, face the fact that the 2013 Western Conference Finals appearance under Lionel Hollins is as good as it is ever going to get with this group.
Trading Gasol seems unlikely, though never say never in the NBA. And Grizzlies management won’t – can’t – sign off publicly on the current group having hit its postseason ceiling.
“We always think we can make a run,” Wallace said.
“That’s the reason I’m here,” said Gasol. “That’s the reason I stayed … you work toward making the franchise as good as possible, make it a championship contender, a franchise well-respected around the NBA, not a team that’s just going to fight you and compete.”
Meaning, if you’re honest with yourself, even winning the hard-earned praise of a crusty championship coach, after again losing in the first round, will never be good enough.