Should the Memphis Grizzlies consider tanking the season?

Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

With many fans and talking heads alike starting to drop the "T" word, Joe and Keith take an in-depth look at what the best course of action would be for the Grizzlies as they play out the rest of this season. Break out your misting fans, this one gets a little heated.

With the injuries piling up and the out leak growing bleaker by the day, many fans and pundits are beginning to throw around the dreaded "T" word. Should the Grizzlies "tank," or is there enough time and hope to keep pursuing the best of possible outcomes for this season? Joe and I had a back and forth discussing both possible scenarios. I'm in favor of beginning to play for next season, while Joe isn't ready to give up the quest for the playoffs.


Southwest Standings

W L PCT GB STRK
San Antonio 19 5 .791 0 Lost 1
Houston 16 9 .640 3.5 Lost 1
Dallas 14 10 .583 5 Won 1
New Orleans 11 11 .500 7 Lost 1
Memphis 10 13 .434 8.5 Lost 3

(updated 12.17.2013 at 10:50 AM CST)


Keith: The Grizzlies are currently 10-13, near the very bottom of a stacked Western Conference, and Marc Gasol is still on crutches. A dirty word is starting to get thrown around. Should the Grizzlies "tank?" Let's get one thing settled first, I hate that word, and I hate the idea of purposefully losing games, so let's go ahead and change it up here and ask, should Memphis continue to pursue a playoff push this season, or begin playing for next year. I'm of the belief that we should have our sights set on next year, where you are still fighting for this season.

What do you think is the current state of the Grizzlies and why is it that you want to continue to push for the playoffs this year?

Joe: The current state of the Grizzlies is not a pretty one, and nothing you said above is incorrect. Gasol is reportedly not as far along in his rehab as we have hoped he would be at this point, injuries have absolutely crushed this team so far and the road to the playoffs in the West is a hard one for sure.

However, this season is not lost. The Grizzlies have played one of the hardest schedules in the NBA so far, have shown glimpses of great basketball when healthy and have an extremely young bench that will only improve as the season goes on. There are still 59 games to play; if the Grizzlies were able to go 36-23 over that stretch, that likely makes them a likely 6-8 seed in the West, and depending on match-ups likely to advance on when fully healthy.

Of course, the key word is "healthy." If they go into February without Gasol and are 10 games out of the playoffs, I will join your side. The only way to truly tank would have to be through blowing up the roster, with Zach Randolph the likeliest candidate to be the first to go. A major reason I am concerned about the idea of "Tanking" is the culture of losing that can develop because of it. Winning breeds winning, and losing breeds losing. How do you fend off that mindset from setting in on a roster if you go in the tank?

Keith: The season, as it stands right now, is not currently lost, but it doesn't exactly look like the dawn is coming. We are 3-9 since Marc got hurt, and if we project that out to a month from now (January 17th) we'll be sitting at 14-25 on the season. Even if we are winning at our current overall percentage, that puts at only 16-23. Here's what the standings would be on that date, even with some regression for especially hot and over-performing teams factored in. (And improvements for a few teams that were underperforming or just got back a Kobe Bryant.)

  1. Portland Trail Blazers: 31-8
  2. San Antonio Spurs: 32-8
  3. Oklahoma City Thunder: 32-8
  4. Houston Rockets: 27-14
  5. Los Angeles Clippers: 26-15
  6. Phoenix Suns: 24-15
  7. Denver Nuggets: 23-16
  8. Dallas Mavericks: 24-17
  9. Golden State Warriors: 23-18
  10. Minnesota Timberwolves: 20-19
  11. New Orleans Pelicans: 19-19
  12. Los Angeles Lakers: 21-19

So, even if we win 43% of our games, we are still 4.5 back of the 12th seed. The current projection for the record needed to lock down the 8th seed is 48-34. Now, let's assume Marc comes back right after January 17th, and let's assume he isn't rusty at all, and let's assume that we go right back to being the team we were before he was hurt, we would still need to go 33-10 (more realistically 35-8) through the last 43 games to surpass that mark of 48-34 to make the playoffs as the 8 seed. I believe that last year's squad at full strength could do that. But this current squad, with Marc Gasol having to round back into shape after his injury, and no Quincy Pondexter to come in off the bench, and the ghost of Tayshaun Prince getting 26 minutes a night...it's going to be next to impossible.

A winning culture already exists in Memphis, and I think that's why the players are so frustrated with what is happening, even though they understand they are several men down. Realistically, there are only going to be 4-5 players on this current roster back next year. Mike and Marc are the cornerstones of the franchise. Quincy, Vanilla Thunder, and Tony are under contract, but are our most attractive trade chips should we decide to make a huge deal (unlikely, I'd be surprised if at least 2 of those 3 aren't back, probably all of them though). I can't see a scenario where Tayshaun is on this team next year, same for Jerryd Bayless.

No one really knows what to expect with Zach Randolph, and I'm convinced someone will offer Ed Davis more money than the Grizzlies either can or will give. So even if we do finish in the bottom third of the league, there won't be that many guys left next year to carry a losing culture over, and the guys that will be here are either professional enough to overcome it, or will have missed enough of the season to not be effected by it.

Joe: Winning thoughts are a fragile thing, though. Professional or not, when you're losing, it is hard to get back on the winning track. You see it across all sports; my beloved Washington Redskins are a good example. Different faces across the past 14 years or so, but the results are mostly the same, losing seasons and disappointed fans. Losing can permeate through an entire organization, not just the players but coaches and front office personnel as well.

I do agree with you that the path will be difficult, and a lot of the road to redemption will be determined by the health of Marc, but here is a list of the teams that the Grizzlies will be playing in the next ten games- Lakers, Mavericks, Knicks, Jazz, Rockets, Nuggets twice, Bulls, Suns, Pistons. I would argue the Rockets are the scariest team on that list, so say that is a loss. Realistically speaking, though, a 7-3 run through those 10 games is not too big of a stretch, especially if Mike Conley is only out a game or two, if at all. That puts you back above .500 and back in the hunt, with wins over teams currently in front of you in the standings.

In addition, as your standings above shows, the Grizzlies are only 4 games back in the loss column from the 8 seed, despite all that has transpired. All it takes is a Jerryd Bayless or Zach Randolph hot streak to get this team on a 3 to 4 game winning streak. Now momentum is building, positivity is back, people start to see signs of life. That is key; my winning breeds winning applies both in the short and long term. Players feel a bit better about themselves, and things can turn around.

Another concern about tanking is who you bring in. Say the Grizzlies do tank and finish with the 7th worst record in the NBA; the major position of need is the 3, and this draft has 2 potentially damn good ones in Jabari Parker and Andrew Wiggins. Even if the lottery is kind to us and we move up to the 6th overall pick, you're not sniffing those guys. So who becomes available? Marcus Smart or Dante Exum, maybe? But he won't start over Conley or Allen. A big behind Zach or Marc? Is that worth tanking for?

I don't think the Grizzlies can get enough value out of a tank job; the main issue is the Small Forward position and shooting in my estimation, neither of which would likely be available where the Grizzlies would be most likely to pick.

Keith: With all due respect, Daniel Snyder isn't running the Grizzlies, so we don't have near as much to worry about as the Redskins do.

A 7-3 record seems pretty farfetched given how we've been playing and who we are facing. Keep in mind, this team just barely beat Orlando, and has been down double digits almost every time they take the court. Realistically, I think we're more liable to go 2-8 or 3-7 over that stretch. It's nice to think about Jerryd getting hot, but he's given us no indication he's even close to finding his stroke from outside, and Zach Randolph needs Marc Gasol to be effective enough to carry this team.

The Grizzlies are currently 4 games back of the 8 seed in the loss column right now, but projecting it out based off the current winning percentages, they fall even farther back than that. It's nice to say "We can still do this, all we need is for someone to get hot" but when all the logic and statistics show that they're not trending up or won't get hot, it's tough to bet on wins coming from this team with their current play. I will say that if Ed Davis can shake the problems with the ankle, the odds of 7-3 don't look as slim, but those can be tricky, and even if he can round into form, 4-6 or 5-5 is more likely.

This draft is crazy loaded, and even at 6, we could be able to land someone like Jerami Grant, Brandon Ashley, or my personal favorite of the small forward bunch after Parker and Wiggins, Glen Robinson III. But even if we fall into the 7-10 spot, and it becomes pretty clear there isn't a great fit for this team, other franchise will be hurdling one another go buy or trade for our pick. Again, this draft is filled to the brim with talent. (I'd honestly love to get CJ Fair in the second round). Some team will not only pay for this pick, but they'll overpay. The point is, we'd have options. We could draft someone to fill a need, or trade the pick away for a starting small forward, or a couple of key role players.

And again, let's stop using the word "tank." It's dirty and it makes me feel bad. I look at it more as playing for next year. If you can free up salary by moving Tayshaun and Bayless for next to or literally nothing, a la the way we gave up (on) Tony Wroten, you have cap space free to pursue someone like Luol Deng (long shot, he's going to get that money) or take a flier on Danny Granger, who will likely be had for cheap. (I understand the arguments against Granger, and he might even consider retiring, but you can't tell me for a second he'd be worse than Tayshaun.)

The point is, it gives us options to upgrade the roster, something we currently do not have.

Joe: How is it far fetched though? It isn't like the Lakers have been lighting the world on fire, and the Mavericks have benched Samuel Dalembert in exchange for 6'5" on a good day DeJuan Blair. The Grizzlies have a legitimate chance at coming out of this back-to-back at 2-0. The next 10 games are easier than anything this team has seen so far this season.

Jerryd Bayless is shooting at such a poor rate it is not sustainable according to the ol' law of averages. He is shooting almost 9% below his career average; statistics and sample size say he isn't this bad of a player. Don't forget, he was one of the Grizzlies' first inductees into this season's "Hall of Pain" when it comes to injury. There is no reason to believe he will play this poorly the entire season.

When it comes to the draft, I am surprised you are so willing to gamble on college players when the Grizzlies have been burned so badly in the past. Thabeet, Swift, Mayo, the list goes on and on. Heck, even Mike Conley was considered a bust by some impatient Grizzlies fans until a couple of years. Now, if the team had a better record he would be garnering more All-Star attention. Don't get me wrong, the draft is impressive on paper. Is it worth throwing away a season of Zach Randolph and Tony Allen while they're still effective? I am not so sure.

This is a theme I have noticed; Grizzlies fans are unbelievably impatient at times. The season is barely a quarter of the way over. It is like reacting to a double-digit first quarter deficit; ah hell, games over may as well pack it up and move on to the next one. There is so much game to be played, yet. It isn't time to make a call on a lost season when there are 3/4th of it yet to be played.

Sometimes in life, you have to call a spade a spade. You are suggesting tanking, blatantly losing games in order to try to get higher draft order. Gambling the team's future on a 19 or 20-year-old kid and the bouncing of ping-pong balls. You can call it whatever you want, but I call it possibly fostering a losing mentality. One that can stick around and disenfranchise fan bases a heck of a lot more than losing one player.

Daniel Snyder was not the owner of the Redskins when the losing started. It has traveled through multiple ownerships, front offices and roster combinations. Losing begets losing. While losing will happen sometimes, there is no point in rushing in to it.

Keith: "14 years of losing..." Dan Snyder bought the Redskins in 1999. Just mental math, bud.

There's calling a spade a spade, and then putting words in my mouth. I've never said I advocate intentionally losing games or trading away Tony Allen. I'm suggesting we start looking to next season, and freeing up cap space by trading players that most likely won't be here next season. There's a different between blowing up the roster and playing a bunch of D league talent and moving role players for assets that will help you in the future. I've said from the beginning that tanking cheapens the game. That's not what I've been advocating at all, I've made that as clear as I can, and to insinuate anything else is blatantly putting words in my mouth, or computer screen.

We also just barely beat the Lakers earlier this season, without Kobe Bryant, and with Marc Gasol for that matter, and have already lost to the Mavs, by double digits.

I'll admit that Jerryd Bayless is due to progress a little back to his career norms, but as long as we're playing by your hypotheticals here, let's wonder for a minute if he's just having a down year. Happens to everyone. Sometimes players, regardless of their talent level or precious accomplishments, have down/bad seasons where things simply don't go their way the entire year. It's entirely possible this is happening to Bayless, and that this is how the guy will play all season.

As poorly as the Grizzlies have done in the draft, and sweet lord have they been terrible, there's only one person still working in the front office from those drafts. (Also worth noting it's been well-documented Heisley kind of forced Wallace's hand into drafting Thabeet.) But you think if Hollinger is here we still use the number 2 pick on Thabeet? You think Levien swaps Kevin Love for OJ? We have better basketball minds at the helm at this point.

And again, the keyword is options. The Grizzlies have painted themselves into a corner with a lack of options. They have no tradable assets that they are willing to move and no cap space to sign someone to fill the holes they have. If you have a high draft pick in a loaded draft, you've got options.

And again, again, I recognize the amount of games left to be played, but you have to keep in mind that Gasol is still more than a month away, and Quincy Pondexter is done for the year. It's not like we are going to be able to play those games at full strength. If we could, then we'd have a lot farther to go before needing to look to next season. Unfortunately, we can't play those games at full strength, and at the current rate we are playing and winning/losing games, we project to be too far behind to catch up by the time Gasol is healthy enough to go. And if, GOD FORBID, if one other person (Conley, Allen, Miller for his shooting) were to go down, then you're basically done for the season anyways.

Joe: I'm a history teacher, Keith; math isn't my strong suit, haha. My point with the Snyder/Redskins example is that losing can breed losing, regardless of ownership.

In regards to me putting words in your mouth, you're polishing a turd, friend. "Looking to next season", "trading role players for future assets", this is tanking, however you choose to dress it up. Purposely not putting out the best product you can with a focus to future opportunity is tanking. Why are your hypotheticals better than mine? "God forbid there's another injury?" While there has certainly been a rash of them for Memphis, that is as unpredictable as anything. It is just as likely that TA and Ed get fully healthy and this team goes on a run these next 10 games against weaker teams. You can't play games planning to get injured. You play the best that you can moving forward and make smaller moves to add shooting to a roster that desperately needs it.

The season is not lost, even without Gasol for an extended period of time. The sample size, while sad, is not large enough to say that with certainty. Just as you cannot say with certainty that a higher lottery pick makes this team better next year, or any year for that matter, or that this draft class will stay healthy, or stay as strong moving forward. With certainty, you can say you have an all-NBA defender, an all-star power forward and top-10 to 12 NBA point guard in a golden era for the position. Those three should keep you around .500 through January 15th. Reevaluate where Gasol is at that point, and then move forward. Now is not the time to be making the call that the season is lost.

Keith: But there is a huge difference in bringing in scrubs to play out the season and keeping your core of Mike, Tony, and Marc when he's healthy and playing competitive games.

No hypotheticals are good, which is why I've tried to do mine based off stats and facts rather than ifs and buts. If you're playing with positive hypotheticals though, you also have to take negative ones into consideration, thus I brought up injuries. You're arguing that all we need is to get healthy, but you have to take into consideration due to the rash of injuries we've had, we are basically one away, depending on who the player is, from it being one too many to overcome.

Joe: Well, the Bayless hypotheticals and the statement of what is on this roster is pretty statistically backed up. Bayless will improve, and this team will not get worse as the year goes on, they will get better. Levien stated that Calathes is a developmental player that they hope will be better as the year goes on, Ed is young, Bayless and Koufos are young. There is room for growth on that bench. This is not the end product, by any means. With a roster tweak here or there, this Grizzlies team can still make it to the playoffs. In the West this season, outside of OKC and the Spurs it is a toss-up. Get to the six seed; get the Clippers, or Trailblazers or Rockets or Warriors. See where it goes, give yourself a chance.

It beats the hell out of losing.

Keith: I wouldn't say its a toss up. I don't think Portland is playing that far above their heads, and I for one don't want to go into Rip City as a lower seed.

Overall, the question you have to ask yourself is this: What was the Grizzlies goal coming into this season? That goal was to bring a banner to Memphis. Not to just advance to the playoffs, but to win a title. This team, with no Quincy Pondexter, and without acquiring some wing help, which the Grizzlies certainly don't appear able to do with their limited cap space and unattractive trade assets, cannot win a championship, and that is the point.

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Could we keep trying to grind, hope Gasol comes back at full strength and that the team goes on an extended run of winning. We could, yes. And then we'd be set up for a first round match up in San Antonio, Oklahoma City, or Portland, and with this current roster, I think we all know what our odds are. (Not to mention we then have to win series against the against one whichever one of those three teams we didn't face at first and the Clippers/Rockets/Warriors, followed by the Heat or Pacers, if by some stretch of the imagination we were to get there.)

At the end of the day, what is more valuable to this franchise? Making the playoffs and being ousted in the first round, or sitting this dance out in order to come back with a stronger, more complete team next season. I think the answer is pretty clear. I don't like losing, and as a single guy in his mid-twenties, I live and die with my teams more than most fans. But what I want, what's most important to me, is that Memphis is able to win a championship in my lifetime, and I prefer sooner rather than later. While this season may not be completely lost from a "just make the playoffs" standpoint, this current roster, due to the injuries and inability to make a move for a role player, cannot win a title.

But if we are able to free up cap space with players who won't be here next year anyways, and secure a top 10 pick and draft a starting small forward or trade the pick away for quality assets, then our core of Conley, Gasol, Tony and Quincy, and whichever one of Zach or Ed is here next year, is set up in much better shape to return to the playoffs and advance farther than they could ever hope to advance this season.

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