With just several weeks left in the NBA regular season, the Grizzlies new ownership is about to put their first season at the helm in the books. For better or worse, Majority Owner Robert Pera and his posse have made some major changes since the 34-year old tech tycoon took over the team on October 25, 2012.
Dedication to Memphis: B+
The question to which every Grizzlies fan wants a definitive answer: Is Robert Pera dedicated to keeping the team in Memphis for the foreseeable future? So far, the answer seems to be a resounding yes. Pera has gone to great lengths to make sure the Grizzlies and the franchise’s fans believe he has no interest in moving the team.
Pera has taken on a handful of minority local owners to have a say in their city’s team. The main names from the local ownership are singer/actor Justin Timberlake, former congressman Harold Ford Jr., Memphis Tigers legend Elliot Perry, Tigers legend and NBA great Penny Hardaway, and Ashley Manning, better known as Peyton Manning’s wife.
There are other local figures with a minority stake in the Grizzlies, but the list above, to be blunt, carries infinitely more weight than local businessmen. Pera must know that involving local celebrities that are Memphians through and through will make it exceptionally difficult to move the team out of Memphis if that is ever under consideration by the young billionaire. The only reason Pera did not receive an A in this department is because he does not come to many, if any, of the games. As of right now, he seemingly has no plans to get a house in Memphis. Fans should not read too much into this, but it is a bit of a concern going forward over the next decade or so as the relocation issue is sure to arise again.
As previously stated, Robert Pera has not been very visible around Memphis. He does not frequent Grizzlies home games, and he has only been heard speaking at several press conferences. While Pera might not be visible in the flesh, he has been visible recently on the World Wide Web. Pera recently joined a fan message board over at Grizzlies.com to interact with fans and to let the fans know their voice is heard. Whether this is a clever PR ploy or not, it will endear Pera to many of the Grizzlies faithful.
As for transparency, Pera has been up front and honest in all of his answers to the media. He has not attempted to mask the direction the team is taking and what his priorities are. Additionally, Pera was honest about why the front office dealt Rudy Gay. Rather than give a generic, bureaucratic response after the trade, Pera showed his basketball savvy and justified the Gay trade in a quote to the Commercial Appeal by saying "This team was built for playoff basketball. In playoff basketball, getting defensive stops and creating high percentage scoring opportunities under pressure becomes much more important." It is not often owners and big wigs of NBA franchises give such intelligent and brutally honest answers to tough questions.
Amidst a change in ownership, front office staff changes are to be expected, too. The first notable move by Pera was to bring in Jason Levien as CEO and Managing Partner of Memphis Basketball, LLC. Levien brings tremendous experience to the ownership group especially in the way of player contracts. Previously a player’s agent, Levien negotiated massive contracts for then clients Luol Deng and Kevin Martin. He also adds previous front office experience to the table. He served as Assistant General Manager for the Sacramento Kings from 2008–2010.
Understanding contracts from both the player side and the team side should help Levien when it comes to negotiations with agents. In simpler terms, Levien’s role with the Grizzlies places him over the entire organization on a day-to-day basis. If a signing or trade is to be made, it goes through Levien first.
The reason this is important is to symbolize the shrinking control General Manager Chris Wallace will have going forward when it comes to trades, free agency signings, contract extensions, and the draft. The new ownership group has already made it clear that it will be taking a hands on approach to managing the roster.
Another move made by Pera rendering Wallace ever more powerless is the hire of John Hollinger as Vice President of Basketball Operations. Hollinger is well-known in NBA circles. The stats guru worked for ESPN for many years, and he is responsible for creating the Player Efficiency Rating, which is a widely used metric by front offices and writers alike. In Hollinger’s own words, Player Efficiency Rating, more commonly known as PER, "sums up all a player’s positive accomplishments, subtracts the negative accomplishments, and returns a per-minute basis of a player’s performance." This hire clearly shows that Pera and Levien are advocates of objective thinking and using advanced statistics in basketball.
Front Office Moves: A+
Two big roster moves have been made since Pera took over the team and brought in Levien and Hollinger to oversee the roster. First, a little under a month before the trade deadline the Grizzlies sent Josh Selby, Marreese Speights, Wayne Ellington and a protected 2015 first-round pick to the Cleveland Cavaliers for Jon Leuer. It is hard to see how this was more than solely a financial move for the Grizzlies. The move saved Memphis $6 million in cap space, and more importantly, the deal placed the team well under the luxury tax threshold for this season. The move most likely is not going to make the team any better or worse. This move depleted the Grizzlies bench depth, and Coach Lionel Hollins was forced to work with limited options.
That is, until the Rudy Gay trade took place a week later. The Grizzlies sent Rudy Gay to the Toronto Raptors in a three team trade that also involved the Detroit Pistons. The Pistons received Jose Calderon from the Raptors and sent Austin Daye and Tayshaun Prince to the Grizzlies, while the Raptors sent Ed Davis to the Grizzlies in return for Gay and Hamed Haddadi. This trade has been critiqued innumerous times since it occurred, and comes up in the topic of conversation between the broadcasters at least once every single Memphis game.
While there are still mixed reactions abound from the trade, the Grizzlies have not skipped a beat since shipping Gay north of the border. The Grizzlies are surging in the Western Conference Standings, and currently sit a game out of the third seed in the playoffs. Not that it needed to, but the Grizzlies defense has not improved since the trade. In the 44 games the team played with Rudy Gay this season, the team’s defensive rating was 97.1. Since the trade, the team’s defensive rating is 97.3. This is a marginal decrease, and the sample size is still too small to know whether the Grizzlies defense will be improved with Tayshaun Prince taking Gay’s spot in the starting lineup.
Now for the side of the ball that caused the Grizzlies front office to deem Gay dispensable. On the offensive side of the ball, two of the most important metrics used by coaches and front office executives to measure shooting are effective field goal percentage and true shooting percentage. Effective field goal percentage measures field goal percentage adjusting for the fact that a 3-point field goal is worth one more point than a 2-point field goal, and true shooting percentage calculates shooting percentage adjusting for the value of free throws and three-point field goals. Before the trade the team’s eFG% was 46.6% and the TS% was 50.8%. Since the trade, the team has improved roughly two percentage points in both categories, with the team’s eFG% at 48.7% and TS% at 52.4%.
The main reason this trade has been beneficial for the Grizzlies can be boiled down to two words: ball movement.
Rudy Gay had a real knack for holding the ball and playing poor isolation basketball, which hurt the team’s overall offense. Again, in the 44 games the Grizzlies played with Rudy, the team’s AST% was 56.8%. Since the trade, that number has improved significantly to 63.1%. What this means is that before the Gay trade, the Grizzlies were assisting on 56.8% of the shots the team made, whereas now the team is assisting on almost 7% more shots. That is an astounding difference. To the casual fan that is not into advanced basketball metrics, that means the Grizzlies are getting a lot more easy looks since the trade.
Not only does the Rudy Gay trade improve the Grizzlies from a basketball standpoint, it also will keep the Grizzlies under the luxury cap threshold for next season, too which will allow the team more flexibility when pursuing trades and free agents this summer and into next season.
This grade might seem harsh at first since analytics were a huge factor in the Rudy Gay trade. Also, the Grizzlies sent John Hollinger and other representatives to the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference this year, which is the most important sports conference every year without a shadow of a doubt. However, truth be told the Grizzlies lag behind at least half of the teams in the league when it comes to using advanced metrics and analytical tools on the court.
If Robert Pera really wants the Grizzlies to be an NBA leader in analytics as he has said, he needs to put his money where his mouth is and shell out for the latest tools in analytics. Specifically, Pera needs to invest in a SportVU system. As of right now, sixteen progressive teams are using the system. According to SportVu’s website, http://www.stats.com/sportvu/basketball.asp , SportVU is a video system that is installed in the arena of these NBA teams that provides "detailed player and team statistics, including speed/distance, shooting information, passing details, touch breakdowns (drive, elbow, post, etc..) and never seen before defensive statistics."
The most important thing the system does in my opinion is allows teams to breakdown defense more soundly. It is often hard to judge defense, even for NBA coaches. Right now, there are no defensive statistics that really paint the whole picture of each player’s individual defense. The revolutionary SportVU would be an excellent start and give Coach Hollins and his staff more data to rely on when making critical in-game decisions.
The Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder, two of the most innovative, smart front offices in the NBA, have already installed the system. The Grizzlies need to get on board before the team falls behind. For a small market franchise like the Grizzlies, the front office should constantly be looking for ways to outsmart other teams since they cannot necessarily afford to outspend the big teams. The SportVU system would go a long way in helping the Grizzlies become trailblazers for advanced statistics and different ways to measure player performance objectively. With Vice President of Basketball Operations and advanced stats guru John Hollinger on board, it should not be long until the Grizzlies install this system.