Welcome back ladies and gentlemen to The Friday Three. The preseason chugs along tonight as the 3-0 (preseason) Memphis Grizzlies host the 3-0 (preseason) Oklahoma City Thunder. Something has to (preseason) give as these two (preseason) juggernauts square off in the FedExForum tonight in this battle of (preseason) unbeatens.
OK, so only so much can be taken away from these early season contests. As Kevin Lipe and myself discussed on last night's GBBLive podcast (which you can listen to here) more can be gathered from players struggling than playing exponentially well, and up until this point there have been no huge surprises, or disappointments. Matt Barnes and Brandan Wright appear to be settling in to their roles just fine, and the veterans on this team seem to be treading water preparing for the start of the regular season here in a couple of weeks.
With all this time to
kill mull over the ins and outs of Grizzlies basketball, it is a good opportunity to reflecton where this team was, where they are now and look ahead to a somewhat unclear future. With that as the motivation, let's begin...
1. How Will the "Grit and Grind Era" Be Remembered?
This is one that you could teach entire Grizztory classes on some 10 years or so from now. When you are in the thick of a period of time, it isn't usually until its twilight you begin to contemplate legacy and what it all really meant. Of course, these Grizzlies are still Gritting and Grinding along and will continue to do so as long as Tony Allen and Zach Randolph are members of this roster. One would imagine that will be through 2017, as they both have two years remaining on their current deals, assuming there are no trades made involving either of them (unlikely, but not outside the realm of possibility.) However, the Sun will set on this time in Memphis, and it is likely that we are closer to the end of the day of "Grit and Grind" than the beginning.
So, barring a move of seismic proportions, there are still two years (including this one) left in the days of the "Core Four." What will their resume include with regard to historical relevance? Assuming there are no injuries...
- Potentially seven straight playoff appearances. Only the San Antonio Spurs (again, assuming health) will have accomplished this as well in the Western Conference. Considering how loaded the West is, this is damn impressive.
- At least three appearances beyond the first round of the playoffs. 2011, 2013 and 2015. If the Grizzlies can win at least one more first round series between now and 2017, that would put them in the second round (or beyond) more often than not.
- A run of success that helped solidify the team in the city itself. It is easy to forget, especially for those of us new to the Grizzlies, that there was a time that the future of the Bears of Beale Street on Beale Street itself was in question. Now this team is more financially appealing, is selling season tickets at a record pace and has a solid footing regionally in the mid-south that the franchise hopes to continue to expand. That doesn't happen without winning and a winning group of personalities.
- A roster of players who are Memphis legends. And the term "legend" isn't tossed around lightly in Memphis. But the likes of Tony Allen and Zach Randolph especially have made their mark and risen to true Icon status in the Bluff City. Marc Gasol and Mike Conley are close to this stratosphere as well and will almost certainly reach it (if they haven't already) but Allen and Randolph are viewed on a different plain due to their personalities, stories and contributions to the city itself. The talk of jersey retirements and statues isn't just for laughs; these guys have fully reached their potential as players, and as men, in Memphis. And the city loves them for it.
The book is still being written on this incarnation of the Memphis Grizzlies. But it's going to be a heck of a story to tell over and over again once the final chapter is finished.
2. What Will Marc Gasol Do for an Encore?
"Big Spain" had a career year last season on his way to his first All-Star Starter and All-NBA First Team selections. He was a force on both ends of the court and after his big time contract is the unquestioned cornerstone of the franchise moving forward.
The question is, now what? What can Gasol do to continue to grow his game, and by extension his influence on the Association? All this talk of Memphis not having a superstar likely does not hurt Marc's feelings, as it has never been his focus or goal to be like Kevin Durant, James Harden, Stephen Curry or LeBron James. He just wants to play great team basketball and do what it takes for his team to win. In order for these Grizzlies to do just that, however, it will be up to Marc to at least maintain his production from last season and perhaps even add new wrinkles to his game. While this goes against scheme tendencies of Dave Joerger some, more looks for Marc in the low post to pass out to open shooters like Courtney Lee could make Memphis' offense less predictable and force defenses to respect perimeters a bit more. This and other adjustments could make Marc more dangerous while not forcing more energy to be exerted.
Gasol's next five seasons will not all likely be as dominant as last year was. Logic tells us that last season may have been the peak of Marc's powers, and expecting any more of him is not only unlikely but also not entirely fair. Memphis needs him to be close to that level of player consistently, however, in order to remain contenders in the short term and relevant in the Western Conference in the long term.
3. Who Will the Grizzlies Be in 2017 & Beyond?
There is no guarantee that Zach Randolph and Tony Allen are gone from Memphis at the end of the 2017 season. They may well remain in Memphis on one year deals, perhaps at a hometown discount, to remain in the city that has helped make them the legends they almost certainly will be. It also may well be time to move on by then, and some would argue moving on would not be the worst thing in the world considering how the landscape of the NBA is shifting toward a more shooting/small ball style of play.
So, assuming that the end of the "Grit and Grind Era" is that 2016-2017 season, how Memphis adjusts and rebuilds will be fascinating. There will be plenty written about this in the coming months and years, so this merely serves as a beginning of a conversation, one that has already happened almost certainly in the Grizzlies' front office. Who could potentially fit a future Memphis roster built around Mike Conley and Marc Gasol? Will the full implementation of "Joergerball" rule the day? Will there be a renewed emphasis on spacing, on ball movement on the perimeter, on athletic wings and bigs who are able to switch on ball screens and pick and rolls?
There will be intriguing options becoming available in the next couple of years, and as Memphis gets more cap space with expiring deals and the growing NBA Salary Cap this team can look vastly different. Can they attract a big time star via free agency? History tells us no due to Memphis' small market status, but if winning and playoff contention is the goal of a star player Memphis should be as attractive an option at this point as any.
Some interesting names who will be available (and potentially realistic) possibilities in free agency...
- Harrison Barnes (Restricted: 2016)- A talented wing who can play that valued small-ball four and shoot the three/play with athleticism.
- Terrence Jones (Restricted: 2016)- A big who can put the ball on the floor and score off the dribble while defending all sorts of Power Forward types.
- Luol Deng/Joe Johnson (2016)- Two aging players, yes, but perhaps one (or both!) could be had for one year deals worth approximately $11 million or so each. Both are veterans with experience who would fit the "win now" mentality next year's squad will almost certainly have. This is of course assuming they remain productive this season.
- Al Horford (2016)- This one is a bit of a stretch due to the fact that Zach Randolph will still be on the roster more than likely next season. But Horford playing the four alongside Gasol would be a dream, as they would almost certainly be the most skilled front court tandem in the NBA.
- Ryan Anderson (2016)- #swoon. This is a guy I have loved to watch play for years. A floor spacing big who would play well alongside Marc Gasol or Brandan Wright, the offense would open up a good bit with him on the floor. Is he a Z-Bo replacement? Possible, but unlikely. What he would be is a tremendous sixth man type scoring off the bench.
- Bradley Beal (Restricted: 2016)- Washington will almost certainly keep Beal and pay him what is necessary. But if Memphis made him a near-max offer (whatever they will possibly have) it may be difficult for the Wizards to match, especially since Kevin Durant will be such a focus of their 2016 off-season. If Kevin Durant comes home, and Beal is left as second fiddle in the eyes of John Wall, perhaps he will want to look for a place where his skills will be appreciated. They most certainly would be in Memphis.
- Rudy Gay/Gordon Hayward (Player Options) & J.J. Redick (2017)- If Memphis plays the long game, these three players could potentially be available in the Summer of 2017. Memphis fans are of course very familiar with Rudy Gay, and the games of Hayward and Redick both would make Memphis that much more dangerous offensively.
There will be options. There will also be potential players to sign to try to stay the course with regard to style; Greg Monroe (Player Option) would be a 2017 example of that. The opening to start to advance forward from "Grit and Grind" is coming, and it will be up to the Grizzlies' front office to decide how soon, and how far, they want to move on from the longest stretch of success this franchise has ever known.