Grading the 2013-2014 Memphis Grizzlies: The Front Office
As my high school's geriatric security guard used to say... "Well, well, well."
I'd like to welcome you to an article that has been cooking for nearly three weeks. I warmed up the oven, got out the cookbook, brought things to a nice, slow simmer, and then, without warning, Robert Pera burst into town like... well, a bit like this:
I'm determined not to let the recent bumps in the road derail this piece, since the front office was fully operational until two weeks ago, and they made several moves this year worth reviewing. For the purposes of this article, I will grade the guys who made the basketball decisions this year, including Jason Levien, Stu Lash, John Hollinger, and their staffs. This article will not cover Robert Pera, because he is not - or at least until two weeks ago, was not - directly involved in basketball operations. It should also be noted that his decision to split up the management team was not performance based. By the end of this article, I hope that much will be clear.
With that out of the way, here are the significant moves made by Levien & Co. since they decided not to re-up Lionel Hollins after the 2012-13 season.
June 27: Named Dave Joerger Head Coach
No level-headed observer that I've read, heard, or talked to since January is unsatisfied with Joerger's work as rookie head coach. The man faced an unenviable line of injuries, a super-powerful Western Conference, and a dollop of locker room melodrama, some of which he may have been responsible for. He came in with high hopes of rejiggering the Grizzlies' offense, but mostly abandoned this plan after a mediocre start to the season and a council with Mike Conley. He turned a 10-15 start into a 50-32 finish. He had an established three-man core to work with and a personal history with the team to lean on, and he utilized both. He worked alongside the front office but did not kowtow to their demands, including the reported incident in which Pera went into the locker room before a game and told certain players they'd be playing.
After their recent pillow talk, it seems Joerger and Pera are now on the same page and committed to moving forward as a team. This is good news for any number of reasons, most of which have to do with chemistry and vision - in a small market especially, unification within the coaching and front office ranks is an absolute necessity, and the positive effect trickles down to free agency, the draft, contract negotiations, and other roster-related decisions. You can say it doesn't effect how the players play, but it certainly effects which players play.
Joerger shows all kinds of promise after year one, enough to garner the attention of at least four off-season suitors (reportedly Utah, Cleveland, L.A., and obviously Minnesota). His in-series and in-game adjustments against OKC in the playoffs were his crowning achievement, undercut and overshadowed by Z-Bo's suspension from Game 7.
Whatever you think of the decision to let Lionel walk, and there are plenty of holdouts still left, you have to admit that Joerger has been more than competent in filling his shoes. This seems to have been a solid decision that has plenty of room to grow into a great one.
July 15: Resigned Tony Allen and Jon Leuer to multiyear contracts.
After murmurs of interest from Milwaukee, Denver, Dallas, and New York, signing Tony Allen to an utterly reasonable 4 year/$20 million all-guaranteed contract was an easy decision, and it had the side benefit of placating a still unsettled fan base. Allen may have sucked some momentum out of the regular season with his sink hole shooting stats and prolonged mid-season injury, but when it came time to do postseason battle with the league's leading shooter, TA earned every last penny of his paycheck.
Jon Leuer continues to impress in every 30-second spurt he sees for the Grizzlies. Levien's front office saw potential enough in Leuer to help them pull the trigger on the pre-Rudy trade (Mo Speights, Wayne Ellington, Josh Selby, and a first-rounder to Cleveland), so it was no surprise they followed through by keeping him on for the foreseeable future. This move paid off when Marc Gasol went down with injury and Ed Davis and Leuer were used ice-climbers style to fill the void.
At just under $1 million/year, Leuer is the perfect example of a good value for money player that is essential in small market team-building. His local fan base grew substantially this year, resulting in the nom-de-Grizz "Jonny Badger" (a big improvement over last year's "Jon Whoer?"), and we optimists think he could continue grow into a Udonis Haslem or Matt Bonner-style roll on a contending Grizzlies team in the near future - if only he can find the minutes behind Ed Davis.
July 26: Signed Jamaal Franklin
The Grizz took athletic combo guard Jamaal Franklin in the draft purely because they could -- they never expected the SDSU Aztecs' leading scorer to be available at 41, so they took the opportunity when it fell in their lap. Franklin is no lights-out shooter, but he seems likely to make a career for himself, which itself is rare for second-rounders. Even if he doesn't work out with the Grizzlies - he looked very much like a rookie in his limited floor time this year - he may prove valuable in the trade machine, thanks in no small part to his sterling performance in the D-League this year: 16 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists, and 43% shooting. As much as I hate to use the word "potential," Franklin has it in spades.
July 30: Signed Mike Miller
Luring two-time champion Mike Miller away from more decorated suitors in free agency was a big, big coup for the management team. Miller's durability surprised everyone, his leadership and enthusiasm were valuable alongside a rookie head coach, and his shooting was superb. Even if the Grizzlies are unable to keep Miller past this summer (which seems unlikely - rumors are that he wants to stay), this was an excellent get by the front office and gave them support in the community. This turned out not to matter, obviously.
October 31: Signed Quincy Pondexter to a Contract Extension
This move will be hard to judge until Pondexter returns from his knee injury, but at the time, it seemed like a good idea: Q-Pon was extremely valuable in the Western Conference Finals a year ago, and started the season thirsty for more floor time and ballhandling responsibility. His competitiveness caused a minor friction with Joerger, but time heals all wounds. Quincy might be just the man to fill the void if the FO can't get a high caliber small forward in return for Tayshaun Prince.
December 16: Signed James Johnson from Rio Grande Valley (D-League)
Oh, James. You gave us Neck Tattoo Night. You gave us the ultimate posterization of Matt Barnes. You gave us so much nickname material we fell to infighting. Joerger sat you when it mattered down the stretch because you don't bring nukes to a conventional weapons fight or else everybody on both sides dies. There's no way the front office could have predicted they were actually calling up a Tazmanian Devil, or that you would jolt the tepid Grizzlies' bench into a formidable 30+ ppg (if streaky) arsenal, but they did know that athletic 3s who can guard 4s and attack the rim are just what the doctor ordered for this team. Keeping you around should be a high priority, as should be finding a way to maximize your offense and clean up your defense.
May 6: Entered into a single-affiliation partnership with Iowa Energy (D-League) for 2014-15
You might not see the effects right away, but I suspect this partnership will pay off in important ways. Having a dedicated D-league affiliate will give Memphis the chance to farm their own players and familiarize them with Joerger's style and schemes well before they hit the floor in Memphis. And with Joerger now on an extended contract, it gives him more time to develop his playbook and coaching styles in the long term to be passed down to the Energy.
This partnership will also drum up support for the Grizzlies in a wider geographical area, and is apparently already doing so. This will matter more to the team's bottom line than it will to the fans in this area, but the more rooted this team is in the Mid-South, the harder it will be to dig it out in the future.
Things seem to be settling down with every passing day, but the front office remains (mostly) empty. The next challenge is finding a GM - actually, the next challenge is finding someone to find a new GM, since most of the parties left in the organization have conflicts of interest and Pera is currently in Asia (wearing a Captain American T-shirt, I guess?). There's no summer vacation for the basketball ops team like there is for the players - draft workouts, the draft itself, and free agency are all looming large. The immediate roster concerns are Randolph and Gasol (in December, I believe, for reasons having to do with the lockout). Mike Miller, James Johnson, Beno Udrih, and Nick Calathes are also on the table this summer. As bumpy as the last two weeks have been, things can get much more serious once the roster is in play.
Final Grade: A-
The Front Office hit on nearly every shot they took this year, but there is work left to do on the current roster to take this team to the next level. See Joe's latest Armchair GM piece for some excellent hypothesizing, and let's hope next year's version of this piece is just as positive.