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Symptoms of an Unknown Disease

The Grizzlies are in a weird place right now, both on the court and in the front office, and it's not helping matters in close games against .500 teams.

Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Brothers and sisters, we gotta talk. There’s a desperate edge to the way I hear some you talking. I heard it from fans in the crowd at FedExForum for Friday night’s 86–84 loss to the Trail Blazers. The guy behind me yelled across the section to another Griz fan in what looked like a child-sized Zach Randolph away jersey: "Rudy Gay is Pau Gasol, Jr. He never goes to the rim!" Normally that kind of thing wouldn’t have stuck with me, but given Zach Lowe’s Grantland piece about Rudy Gay trades and the subsequent "Trade Rudy!" cries this Blazers loss seems to have raised, I’ve had a weird sort of feeling since Friday afternoon, and I can’t shake it. So here goes nothing. This started out as a recap of the Blazers/Grizzlies game Friday night, but that’s not where I ended up.

The Trade Rudy Movement

The dissatisfaction is growing among Grizzlies fans. It’s reached a level that’s impossible to ignore anymore: a certain segment of Grizzlies fans — who knows how many of them there are — want Rudy Gay gone. We’ve talked about trading Rudy here before, and talked about frustrations with his game, but this feels different. Instead of "we might have to deal Rudy because of salary cap reasons," it’s turning into "get this guy outta here." And that reminds me of the end of the Pau Gasol era in a way that makes me sad.

The problem with trading Rudy — and I think the only valid objection to trading him other than "don’t mess with a 20–10 team in January" — is twofold from a basketball standpoint. If Rudy is gone, then:

  1. There is no one on the team who can guard the elite-level small forwards of the league (your LeBron James, your Kevin Durant, your Carmelo Anthony) for the 40 or so minutes it takes to keep them from killing your team, and
  2. Who else on the team can create a shot out of nothing when there are 4 seconds left on the shot clock and the play has completely broken down? Who takes that shot? Sometimes, a contested iso jumper is the only thing you can take because it’s the only option available. Sometimes it’s a turd sandwich, but it beats starving to death.

The roster is thin at the small forward. What sort of trade asset would the Grizzlies be able to get to fill that spot at the small forward and do it at a high level? Remember folks, Rudy Gay may not be Kevin Durant, but he’s still very good at basketball. I wouldn’t put him in the top tier of SFs in the league, but he’s just barely below it. So.

So, back to last night. "He’s Pau Gasol, Jr." the guy said. "He never goes to the rim!" This is what it’s come to? Calling the guy Pau, Jr.? Circumstances are a little different in Memphis now, dontcha think? Don’t we remember what it was like to bottom out in those first couple of post-Pau Marc Iavaroni years? Is our collective memory really that short, that we want to take a 20–10 team and blow it up during the season? Or have we just not realized that this, a 20–10 team that is (or was, anyway) generating buzz as a legitimate title contender, is our reward for those bad, bad years?

Blow’d Up

The Grizzlies have to dump $4 million in salary to get under the luxury tax threshold. As we’ve discussed time and time again, the two biggest contracts the Grizzlies have to deal with right now are those of Zach Randolph and Rudy Gay. Both of these guys are important to the identity of the team as we know it — Z-Bo more than Rudy, especially because Rudy was hurt during the 2011 playoff run when Z-Bo caught fire against the Spurs and beat them into submission[1] — but let’s be completely honest with ourselves here: this is the NBA, and no one is untradeable. Except maybe Kobe. But I don’t want him anyway.

So is this what we want? Should we be a little more careful what we wish for? NBA cores, like the current Mike Conley-Tony Allen-Rudy Gay-Zach Randolph-Marc Gasol, have a definite shelf life. They don’t last forever. When they’re gone, in small markets, they’re usually gone for good, and there’s a bottoming-out process (which people like to call "The Thunder Model" as if it’s just some process by which if you suck for a couple years you end up with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook). What we have here is a relevant, winning, small-market NBA team, and while it’s not perfect, and we haven’t won a title, it’s important to take a second and savor this. It will pass. It always does. Except for the Lakers, but that’s why we hate them.

Uncertainty Stew

So as that was rumbling around, and Quincy Pondexter went down with an MCL sprain, and Zach Randolph missed last night’s game with "flu-like symptoms"[2], and every person in town was talking about how the Grizzlies’ offense flails around in the fourth quarter, and everyone was (and still is) wondering when new VP of Basketball Ops John Hollinger and Grizzlies CEO Jason Levien are going to make their first move and put some sort of stamp on the organization, the Grizzlies played a home game against the Portland Trail Blazers. The recap at Blazer’s Edge will give you a great idea of how it went.

In short? We lost. And in large part it was because the spirit was willing but the flesh was weak. The Grizzlies played hard, and they were obviously trying to return to the crisp ball movement and inside/outside play that won them so many games in November, but it just wasn’t happening. They were getting open looks, but nothing was going in. They only attempted 5 threes to Portland’s 27. They looked tired, and they looked discombobulated, and they looked like their best effort just wasn’t enough to make it happen. Marc Gasol had 3 steals and 8 blocks — let me reiterate that: he had 3 steals and 8 blocks in the same game — along with an awesome no-look alley oop to Marreese Speights, who had 16 points in the 3rd quarter — and it still wasn’t enough to put the Grizzlies over the top.

They missed their last ten field goal attempts. There’s no way to win a close game if you miss your last ten field goal attempts.

On top of all of that, Rudy Gay, who missed the 12/26 game against Philadelphia because he got stranded while traveling to see his ill grandmother, lost his grandmother. He tweeted about it on Wednesday after the team beat the Celtics in Boston. One could hardly blame Rudy for being distracted last night. Normal people with normal jobs usually miss more work than that when they have a loss in the family, but Rudy didn’t have that option.

This is when the cliché is to say that he’s "playing through it" or "playing basketball is his release" but c’mon, now: he’s having to go to work. No matter how much he loves his work, it’s still his work. So the fact that he came out last night and gave everything he did means he gave more than we, as fans of a pro basketball team, have any right to ask of him. And he did it the same day as a major website posted a big column about places he would end up if the Grizzlies trade him.

The Grizzlies are a good team, but there’s a world of uncertainty swirling around them: everyone’s talking about their sputtering offense, Grizzlies players — the Grizzlies player who’s been on the team longer than anybody else — are popping up in trade rumor pieces, the coach’s contract is up at the end of the year, there’s new ownership and new management, there are injuries, Tony Wroten and Josh Selby are on a perpetual yo-yo back and forth between Memphis and Reno. This stuff adds up. These guys love each other and play hard together, but things are getting weird.

The inability to close out mediocre to decent teams in close games is a symptom, not the problem. But what’s the problem? What can you change to fix it, without looking stupid for screwing around with a 20–10 team?

What Now?

At some point, Grizzlies fans, the status quo is going to change. It’s in the air. The guys in the locker room feel like they’re getting better — better than they were in December — but they’re still not there yet: they’re a work in progress. But what do we expect out of this year’s team? We want to win an NBA title. Is that going to happen with this year’s team? (Look, if they play the way they were playing in November, the answer is emphatically yes. If they play the way they were playing in December…)

If Grizzlies fans want Rudy Gay to be traded — and I wonder what percentage of them really want that and what percentage are just frustrated with basketball problems that could just as easily be pinned on the coaching[3] — are Grizzlies fans willing to suffer through the aftermath if they make the wrong move, or they bank on some draft pick or unproven prospect to pan out, and it never happens? It seems obvious that someone’s going to be wearing a different jersey next year. We, as fans, don’t have any choice but to be okay with that.

This team has got to get going, and it’s got to get going soon. This week the Grizzlies are on a three-game West Coast road trip, with stops in Phoenix (where they’ve already lost one), Sacramento (where the Kings have been playing pretty well as of late with a rekindled DeMarcus Cousins), and Golden State (who have a better record than the Grizzlies), and then once they’re home they get to play the Spurs on Friday the 11th. That’s not going to be easy. It wouldn’t be easy under ideal circumstances, but going into this stretch of the schedule, which sees the Grizzlies playing the Spurs twice, Warriors, Mavericks, the Clippers, and the Bulls again in the next two weeks, the sputtering offense and the trade rumors and the general and growing sense of frustration coming from the media and the fans is only going to intensify the pressure.

We’re going to find out what this team is made of, and whether they can fix their problems. That, or the roster is going to look different. One of those two things is going to happen.

All that is to say: the Grizzlies can’t keep losing two point games to .500 teams at home or on the road. It can’t keep happening if this team is what we and everyone else is saying they are. Last night was a symptom of all of these things swirling around the team and the franchise. But the problems need to be cured, before things get ugly.

  1. The argument from the "Trade Rudy" crowd — and note that I’m not saying that the "Trade Rudy" faction of Grizzlies fans is stupid, and I’m even saying they’re entirely wrong — is that the 2011 playoff run was made possible because of Rudy’s season-ending injury, not in spite of Rudy’s season-ending injury. ESPN columnists certainly got a lot of mileage out of that story. But are we really going to say that that same team with Rudy Gay swapped for Shane Battier wouldn’t have been better? That the problems with last year’s playoff run weren’t just limited to Rudy Gay but also the entire team? If I chop off one of my fingers, but I can still play piano, is it reasonable to say that I can play piano because I’m missing a finger?

  2. What are "flu-like symptoms"? Does anyone in the NBA ever come down with an illness that isn’t flu-like? Can you have "flu-like symptoms" and still play, or would you be running the risk of infecting the other team? Would biological warfare be a valid NBA tactic, inflicting a communicable disease on your opponent? In hindsight, is that what Michael Jordan was doing in "The Flu Game"?

  3. I’ve been giving Lionel Hollins the benefit of the doubt since 2011. I like him. I think he’s a great guy, and overall I think he’s a great coach. I think he’s not great at knowing which guys to put on the court at which time. But I’m still on the Hollins bandwagon so far.