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Memphis Grizzlies Front Office Fallout: The Dominoes that could Fall

What the recent shakeup means for the Grizzlies as the NBA draft, and other critical offseason issues, approach.

Joe Robbins

Before the playoffs began, I suggested the Grizzlies were becoming a model NBA franchise. Even a few days ago, that idea seemed plausible. Then Monday happened, the Grizzlies front office power structure was stuffed through a meat grinder, and no one knew when the bleeding would stop.

For now it appears the situation has stabilized, with only Jason Levien and Stu Lash being the victims (which is sort of like saying there was only one lizard in "Godzilla."). We may never know what happened, and this post won't delve into speculation concerning why Levien - who at one point ran both basketball and business operations, had corralled a myriad of owners and was even - and his running mate Lash were both told to shut the door and take a seat. And frankly, I don't want to even consider what Levien's absence (a part owner himself) will do to the Grizzlies' ownership structure. Instead, let's look at how the recent shake up will affect the key events in the upcoming offseason.

The NBA Draft

Chris Wallace has returned from what appears, on the outside, to be an extended paid vacation. It is unclear how much time, if any, he has spent around the team, reading scouting reports, and doing things GM's do.

In related news: the NBA draft is a month away.

Opponents to Wallace's drafting acumen will point to the fact that only one Wallace draftee - Mike Conley - remains in a Grizzlies jersey today. Wallace fans will counter that other Wallace picks - Demarre Carrol, Kyle Lowry and Greivis Vasquez - rounded into solid rotation players once they moved into more nurturing situations.

Opponents will counter that Wallace's track record in the lottery, where you pick from a narrow range of ultra-talented players is still questionable. Hasheem Thabeet and Xavier Henry flopped; OJ Mayo, rather than becoming a star himself, will always be better known for the star Memphis traded away to acquire him, Kevin Love. Wallace fans will counter that Wallace labored under a meddling owner who never let Wallace truly make his own picks.

And that's part of the problem, right? The same quality that allowed Wallace to linger in Memphis this long is perhaps his biggest weakness: when push has come to shove in the past, Wallace has bent. Sometimes keeping your job is more important than standing up for what you believe. There is zero shame in that. There is also zero credit. It may be that Wallace's fans are right to have faith in him. I sincerely hope they are right, but faith, rather than evidence, is exactly what it would be.

Toggling over to John Hollinger, we know even less about his drafting acumen. I direct you, instead, to a fantastic piece Chris Herrington wrote nearly a year ago, in which he compared ESPN's John Hollinger Draft Rater to actual Grizzlies picks.... made by Chris Wallace. Long story short: many Wallace picks were identical to Hollinger's simulated picks, however Hollinger's Draft Rater performed as well or better than Chris Wallace in every instance.

Hollinger has evolved beyond his ESPN Draft Rater, so that is far from definitive.  My sense is - despite Wallace's ostensible strength as a talent evaluator - given that Hollinger has been prepping for the draft for months while Wallace is just entering the fray, Hollinger should have the majority of the say in the Grizzlies draft. My other guess is that it is more likely now that Memphis sticks with the status quo and simply selects a player at 22, rather than entertaining any meaningful trades. Strategy that had been laid out to this point will at the very least be re-thought now that new voices are being brought in. We shall see.

Randolph's Extension

Even before Levien and Lash were dismissed, the Grizzlies offseason revolved around what to do with Zach Randolph. I had been gravitating towards certainty that Randolph would opt out and sign for more years, but less money per year. This scenario is beneficial for both parties: Randolph secures his future on a good team he is comfortable with, while the Grizzlies gain a bit of salary flexibility to add players and make the team stronger.

That scenario is less certain now. Randolph could decide he'll play the season out for $17mm, and see how things go. He could decide, with Levien and Lash gone, he's lost confidence in the Grizzlies' direction and simply opt to play elsewhere. Installing Chris Wallace as GM is a hedge against both scenarios. Wallace provides stability and a familiar hand to a negotiation that - despite everything Randolph has said - could get prickly in a hurry (tends to happen when you ask one of the best at what they do to take a pay cut).

And to an extent, that's what worries me. No matter who is negotiating the contract, a good agent pounces on instability. Losing most of your front office is one thing.... as long as the team comes back intact. Losing most of your front office AND one of your signature players is not a situation fans will take kindly to. The pressure isn't on Raymond Brothers (Randolph's agent) to bring Z-Bo back - Brothers already gave him $17mm reasons to come back. The pressure is on Chris Wallace to bring Z-Bo back at a reduced price.

And that reduced price just went up. Randolph has made it clear he would take less money to stay in Memphis long term, but it is still unclear what "less money" means to him. If the Grizzlies hoped to get Randolph to take a $7mm pay cut next year - and getting anyone to take a 41% pay cut isn't easy - it isn't likely to happen now. Randolph could sign for something like what David West got - 3 years $39mm, which would clear up about $4mm in cap space for Memphis and allow Randolph to appear like the magnanimous veteran who sacrificed money for the greater good. There's just one problem.

Randolph isn't worth that much. He won't get that much from any other team (okay, maaaaaayyyyybeee the Lakers). Signing Randolph to a longer contract with anything less than a significant decrease will severely handicap the Grizzlies ability to add talent. Worse, it would prove Rust Cohle right and land Memphis in the exact same place they were in during Rudy Gay's last days.

And the bigger problem is this: all evidence from Wallace's reign as GM suggests he would gladly sign Randolph to that contract. His M.O. under Heisley was to lock up guys, regardless of the price, and kick the can down the road a bit.

Again, Hollinger could help here. Hollinger has gone on record saying that salary cap optimization (i.e. paying as little as possible for talented basketball players) is the most important job of a GM. During his tenure, no Grizzlies player was given a troublesome Player's option year on the back end of their deals. Meanwhile, Wallace handed out player's options to Rudy Gay (ostensibly under a mandate from Heisley), Randolph (understandable), and Marreese Speights (....wut?). During Hollinger's tenure, the team has instead managed to tack favorable team options onto minimum salary players like Jon Leuer and Nick Calathes, creative solutions to filling out a roster with role players.

And there's another, very large, very Spanish elephant in the room adding pressure to the Randolph situation, and that is....

Marc Gasol is a Free Agent Soon

On the surface, everything is fine. Gasol grew up in Memphis. He loves the city, the team, the fans. We've never heard a whisper of him wanting to play elsewhere, and the Grizzlies have been really good lately.

All of that can change next year. Losing Randolph will likely mean taking a step backwards, and that isn't something you want to do right before the best player in franchise history becomes a free agent. Gasol is eligible for an extension sometime during the next season, and the Grizzlies will want to lock him up as soon as possible.

But what if Randolph is gone and the Grizzlies are scuttling along outside of the playoff picture (you know, like they were for most of this year). How certain are we that Gasol wants to be here? How quick do writers like Bill Simmons and Chris Broussard start dreaming up Gasol to Lakers or Celtics or Mavericks scenarios? The answers are, respectively, "not 100%" and "as fast as they can type."


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Gasol's extension is just one more factor that could bend Wallace with its gravity. You can give Wallace the benefit of the doubt that he will sign Randolph to a contract more favorable to the organization than to the player, but doing so would, ignore nearly every contract he ever negotiated. Only two contracts - Darrell Arthur's extension (which had one of those pesky player options Wallace loves so much) and Tony Allen's original contract - were instances where Wallace managed to capture a player below market value at the time they were signed. Conley's deal was signed with the idea that he would play up to it, and he has done so and more. But that doesn't happen most of the time. Most of the time mistakes follow you - most of the time Javale McGee never becomes Serge Ibaka; Josh Childress never becomes Andre Iguodala; Conley rarely becomes Conley. And just because it happened this once, does not mean it is sound negotiating strategy.

If this sounds like doom and gloom, that's because it is. Levien, Lash, and Hollinger had more or less proven they were the perfect team. They were measured, thoughtful, and decisive. In trading Rudy Gay and moving on from Lionel Hollins they had given long term success precedence over short term status quo and had, more or less, pwned every move they made.

Only a third of that troika remains, and big decisions loom. Hollinger and Wallace may be able to recreate that success, but it will be a tall task. Despite how much I love Hollinger and his analytic mind, I am also realistic about how much is possible for someone to achieve just 18 months on the job. Ditto for Wallace, a basketball lifer, who has apparently been in some form of exile for the same amount of time.  I think that, long term, it would be highly valuable for the Grizzlies to seek to bring in a third voice, either a player evaluator, or an astute negotiator of contracts, to help augment these two incumbents.

And, after all my doom and gloom, there is a part of me that is genuinely excited to watch it unfold. How unthinkable is it that John Hollinger, less than two years removed from writing for ESPN, is now one of two voices running an NBA franchise? How much more unthinkable is it that Chris Wallace, went from basketball exile to the same position? Above all, the last forty-eight hours is a reminder that the NBA is made up of an extraordinarily diverse group of actors, and each one of those actors is human, and humans are extraordinarily unreliable. But that's part of the reason why building anything great is so, you know, great. It's really freaking hard, and should be cherished.

The Grizzlies aren't starting from square one. The roster is good already, and Wallace and Hollinger have a chance to do something that is really great.