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VOL. 10 | NO. 42 | Saturday, October 14, 2017

Turning The Page

Anticipation, anxiety, mystery abound as Grizzlies start season

By Don Wade

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The Memphis Grizzlies still cling to their old grit-and-grind identity – at least for marketing purposes and perhaps a subconscious need for comfort and security. But they also decided now was the time they had to initiate transformative change.

Memphis Grizzlies forward Chandler Parsons drives during a preseason game against the Philadelphia 76ers on Oct. 4. His performance this season will be critical to the team's success. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

On the eve of the new NBA season, there are fewer certainties about this team than at any point in almost a decade. Their seven-year playoff run stands as a tribute to their persistence and consistency. The 2013 run to the Western Conference Finals is a peak receding on a horizon where discarding Zach Randolph and Tony Allen would have been unthinkable.

But sports are not static. Athletes age. And today fades into yesterday as tomorrow rushes in with a full-court press.

Then the established veterans, Allen and Randolph – by virtue of their humanity – became older, slower, less efficient, less versatile and more of a hindrance to the Grizzlies finding their best selves in an escalating pace-and-space, small-ball NBA.

As the Grizzlies opened training camp this year, long-time general manager Chris Wallace, the man who brought Allen and Randolph to town, said the team had no choice but to get younger and more athletic.

“A necessity,” Wallace called it.

Marc Gasol and Mike Conley, once the young stars on the rise, are now the establishment and in the middle of huge, well-earned contracts. They are the known quantities, the remaining foundational blocks from the old Core Four.

They look into the future of the upcoming 82-game schedule and also see more mystery than in previous seasons.

“The unknown is what’s exciting about this team,” said Conley, 30, coming off his best offensive season (a career-high 20.5 points and 40.8 percent shooting from 3-point range). “For so many years, we sort of knew what everybody brought to the table.”

This, by the way, is not Conley or anyone else diminishing what their former teammates accomplished here.

Allen’s defensive intensity and hair-on-fire energy provided nutrition and sustenance to a team that too many times seemed on the verge of fainting from a lack of oxygen on offense. When the offense did get going, it was often feeding at the low-post table of Randolph, who also spiced up the menu with his jab-step fade away jumpers.

“I don’t want to discount the contributions of the guys that are gone,” said second-year coach David Fizdale. “Those guys will be always loved here, always have a home here.”

But not in a Grizzlies uniform this season.

Marc Gasol, left, David Fizdale and Mike Conley are the Grizzlies leaders in this new era for the team, and each must learn to massage their roles. (Memphis News/Houston Cofield)

Randolph signed a two-year contract with Sacramento, reuniting with former Memphis coach Dave Joerger (Vince Carter also signed with the Kings). Allen signed a one-year deal with New Orleans and The Grindfather will be here opening night, Wednesday, Oct. 18, when the Pelicans come to FedExForum. Or as we have known it for some time now, The Grindhouse.

“I would not want to change the nickname; I think The Grindhouse is beautiful,” Conley said.

“Who doesn’t want to be gritting and grinding?” Fizdale added. “That’s a great slogan for us. I don’t want to lose that edge, I just want to play a little faster.”

WHO’S ON FIRST?

“We’re gonna have some competition. Guaranteed contracts guarantee you get paid. They don’t guarantee anything else.”

That was Grizzlies vice president of basketball operations John Hollinger at the start of training camp. At this writing, with still one preseason game to go and opening night several days away, the Grizzlies had some roster decisions to make.

Most of the focus has fallen on backup point guard and the last front-line roster slot. Veteran Mario Chalmers, who showed well two seasons ago with the Grizzlies after being with Fizdale when he was an assistant in Miami, has returned after missing last year with an Achilles injury. The Grizzlies actually only partially guaranteed his deal, but the guess is he has won the backup point guard position.

“Fizz knows what I’m capable of,” Chalmers said.

That would leave the Grizzlies choosing between second-year players Wade Baldwin and Andrew Harrison. The former was a first-round draft pick, is considered to have the greater upside and, not insignificantly, represents the larger organizational ego investment. The latter was more dependable and played ahead of Baldwin last season, but is neither a good shooter nor especially athletic.

A late trade is always possible, of course, and for a long time it was presumed that big man Brandan Wright would be dealt after voicing his displeasure with limited playing time at the end of the season.

Wright is a better fit for the faster style of play and now it seems likely he will serve as Gasol’s main backup, and perhaps even get some time with Gasol. Deyonta Davis, at age 20, is a player the Grizzlies want to let cook a bit (you may have to go to Southaven to a Memphis Hustle G-League game to actually see him play big minutes), and thus Jarell Martin, a first-round draft pick in 2015, may be the odd man out among the bigs.

It took until the start of training camp, but forward JaMychal Green signed a two-year contract and will start at forward. But will it be at the three or the four?

Green was pegged for power forward with Chandler Parsons slated to start at small forward. Parsons, the $94 million man who only played 34 games and averaged just 6.2 points in a third straight season derailed by a knee injury, looks healthier than he did last season. But his jump shot and agility have still been elusive and Fizdale has seemed more comfortable using him as a “stretch four,” which could leave open the possibility that he starts the year playing off the bench.

Memphis Grizzlies guard Tyreke Evans (12) shoots over Houston Rockets center Nene Hilario (42) during a preseason game Wednesday, Oct. 11, at FedExForum. Evans, a former University of Memphis star, is a new addition this season. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

This would especially make sense if Fizdale opts to start Tyreke Evans at shooting guard, as Evans was expected to serve as main scoring option and a veteran presence on the second unit. Under that scenario James Ennis might start at small forward and Wayne Selden, who showed some defensive props as a rookie, would be playing with the second wave. Parsons would also give that group playmaking ability. Fizdale also might start Parsons but have a quick hook, essentially using him as second-unit player but beginning games with him and allowing Parsons a brief chance to again feel his once-lethal 3-point shot.

So, yes, it’s Parsons who would seem to hold the key to unlocking the vault of possibility for the Grizzlies. Conley has called him the team’s “X-factor” and Parsons understands he wasn’t signed to just blend into the rotation.

“I think I’m a huge piece to the team and look forward to doing the things they brought me here to do,” he said.

PAGE HAD TO BE TURNED

Just a rookie, Selden was thrown in the playoff fire last spring in the first-round series vs. San Antonio. He found it both instructional and inspirational.

“Motivates you to get back there and do better,” he said. “You see the magnitude of every small play in that environment and you just want more of it.”

As an organization, however, the latest sweep out of the first round was more like an echo. It marked the third time in the last four seasons the Grizzlies did not advance to the conference semifinals.

In the 2015 playoffs after beating Portland in the first round, the Grizzlies actually jumped out to a 2-1 lead on Golden State before the Warriors reeled off three consecutive wins on the way to the NBA title. The Grizzlies’ defensive commitment and unique ground-and-pound approach on offense frustrated the Warriors.

For a while.

“There’s no question people hated playing against us, and our style did give people trouble,” Hollinger said. “Not only were we up 2-1, but the one was with our third-string point guard playing. Everyone forgets that. Mike and Beno (Udrih) were out of the first game.

“But, at the same time, we won 42 games and 43 games the last two years and we didn’t make it out of the first round. The solution to that wasn’t getting older. You have to turn the page at some point. It was time. We needed to get a whole lot younger and so that’s what we’ve done.”

Like Conley, Gasol had great appreciation for what Allen and Randolph contributed. Asked what it will be like when he and Z-Bo go up against each other for rebounds, Gasol laughed and said, “Of course, he knows what the deal is gonna be. He already knows. We talked about if one day we play against one another. I feel bad for him.”

The respect that Gasol had for those veterans, these young players will have to earn. Gasol, 32, is intrigued about the new possibilities, too. He also believes there is a right way and a wrong way for the young players to integrate themselves into the team’s fabric.

“There’s an opportunity for a lot of young players to fill a role,” he said. “Not for them to showcase what they can do, but to fill a role and make the team better. When you’ve got an opportunity, you look at it one of two ways: You can make the team better or you can say now I can show what I can do. If you think about yourself, I couldn’t care less about you.”

The irony, of course, is that if this season were to go horribly wrong for the Grizzlies then the next turn-of-the-page might result in trading Gasol at mid-season to a contender looking for that last piece to put it over the top.

“Look, it would be disingenuous of me to say you can’t trade anybody,” Wallace said. “I mean, you see the guys that have been traded around the NBA. I can never say that. But we’re not looking to move anybody and we’re very happy with Marc.”

For a long time now, Grizzlies fans have been proud of and happy with their professional sports team. Led by the Core Four, the Grizzlies won their hearts and minds. And they did this even as the more savvy fans understood that in the modern NBA, a team without true superstars might never contend for an NBA championship.

Thus, while the ultimate destination has never been reached, the journey always has taken fans far enough for every game to matter. For anticipation to arrive with the start of each new season. And so it does again, if with an uneasy vagueness, as the Grizzlies attempt to bridge the best of their past with a future they have been forced to embrace on the fly.

It’s going to be different even as everyone – at some level – can’t quite let go of it also being the same.

“We’re a tough-minded team, we’re gonna be an outstanding defensive team, grit-grind lives on,” Wallace said. “But we’re gonna be more athletic, more versatile.

“We feel this team can be a playoff team again and make noise and be heard from. Our expectations in how we look at things haven’t changed at all.”

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