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The Grits Justify the Grind: Memphis' Machiavellian Moment

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Revisionist history is a dangerous game. So is a lack of context in a debate of "process vs. results". As Memphis awaits Game Two, Machiavelli rises from his Renaissance grave, providing interesting perspective on the current state of the Bears of Beale Street

When it comes to Vince Carter as a Memphis Grizzly, do the ends justify the means?
When it comes to Vince Carter as a Memphis Grizzly, do the ends justify the means?
Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Ever hear of Niccolo Machiavelli?

An interesting character from Renaissance history, Machiavelli was one of those "Renaissance Men" you hear of alongside the Leonardo Da Vincis of the world. He was a diplomat, a politician, a writer, a historian, and (for the purposes of this article) most importantly, a theorist, whose most famous work was "The Prince," a manifesto of sorts on how best to achieve (and wield) political power. He is largely credited for analyzing effectively these key questions with regards to politics...

  1. Is it better to be feared or loved?
  2. Do the ends justify the means?

Machiavelli felt that all good politicians must be willing to get their hands dirty in order to not only overcome the lazy hereditary system of power changing hands but to also hold on to said power. He argued that morality has no place when it comes to gaining/using this power; in order to stay in the position you are in, you must sometimes push your moral code/belief system aside.

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In addition to these questions, as this article from "The Atlantic" puts it, "The Prince" brings attention to another potential issue, one that seems to concern the Memphis Grizzlies as their Second Round starts off on the wrong foot...

...the gulf between private conscience and the demands of public action.

The gulf of time that exists between the summer of 2014/the start of the 2014-2015 NBA season and now, and to a lesser extent between January and May, is one that can cloud judgment with regard to roster moves made by the Grizzlies Front Office. As players like Vince Carter and Jeff Green underachieve, questions and comments are asked and made regarding their value to the team and what was given up to obtain their services...

Wait...they signed Vince Carter for HOW LONG???

Quincy and Tayshaun could be doing what Jeff Green is doing...

That 2019 First Rounder looks mighty nice right now...

#FreeJordanAdams

Some of these thoughts bear merit. (Could Jordan Adams have played more in spots during the regular season? Sure.) Others...what is right is not quite as clear.

Vince Carter, at the time of his signing, was viewed as a potential super-sub that many (if not all) Grizzlies fans were excited about. His floor spacing, playoff experience, flare for the dramatic, leadership, and ability to play off of the pick-and-roll were all sorely needed for the Grizzlies, and he was seen as a potential upgrade from Mike Miller since he had more tools in the old belt to work with. Those paying closer attention to the financial aspects of the contract pointed out the partially guaranteed end of the deal, protecting Memphis to an extent if Vince's skill set were to fade by the time he hit that scary age of 40.

It would appear that those skills have diminished a good bit, at least for this season. Compare Vince this season with Vince in his last season in Dallas in 2013-2014:

Stat Category Carter 2013-2014 Carter 2014-2015
Minutes Per Game 24.4 16.5
Games Played 81 66
Field Goal Percentage 40.70% 33.30%
Three Point Field Goal Percentage 39.40% 29.70%
Assists Per Game 2.6 1.2
PER 15.9 9.6
Offensive Rating 109 94
Defensive Rating 110 103
Net Rating -1 -9
Offensive Win Shares 3 -0.5
Win Shares Per 48 Minutes 0.105 0.043

Offensive win shares measure offensive contributions to team wins, the major reason Carter was signed, whereas win shares per 48 minutes measures the number of wins contributed by a player per 48 minutes. The league average is considered .100.

A big drop off to be sure. Hindsight is 20/20, though, and most folks were excited for this addition to the roster and did not anticipate this big of a hit to Carter's production. Injury surely had a hand in the issues (preseason ankle surgery and his foot issue during the season) and his age may have finally caught up to him, as many players heal less effectively as they age. It was a calculated risk to bring in "Vinsanity"; sometimes those do not work out. Does that mean it was not worth taking in the first place? Not necessarily.

Jeff Green was a bit more divisive when the trade sending him to Memphis from Boston in exchange for Tayshaun Prince and a 2019 First Round draft pick occurred. Sure, Memphis got back Russ Smith (in exchange for Quincy Pondexter and a future 2nd rounder), but the key part of the deal was the large wing Green, who we hoped would provide the scoring in transition and explosiveness at the rim that his departing counterparts could not. Green's flaws were known from the outset and as his time in Memphis shows, to paraphrase Dennis Green, "He is what we thought he was" with regard to his issues scoring outside the paint and on the defensive end.

The acquisitions of Jeff Green and Vince Carter meant a new attempt at fixing an old problem: who else will score for Memphis? Memphis, however, had reached out about other wings. Luol Deng was one of the reported names that was asked about, and quickly became a no-go trade wise. Green was very likely the best player available that Dave Joerger, the head coach of the Grizzlies, would want - a bigger wing who can run and score. Arron Afflalo was later moved, but who's to say the package of Prince and a 2019 First Round pick was enough for Denver to part with him? They got a 2016 lottery-protected First Round pick, Thomas Robinson, Will Barton, and Victor Claver for Afflalo and Alonzo Gee. Is it possible that package was more attractive?

Yes, it is. Jeff Green was likely the best Memphis could get for the package they were willing to give up. He is flawed, but is his threat of scoring at the rim better than the lack of skill that Tayshaun Prince had at that at this point in his career? Is Green's size more suitable to playing multiple forward spots than Prince and Pondexter? Is Green's build and versatility in transition potentially a better fit in Joerger's system than Pondexter?

Joerger himself called for a change in his post-game presser after a loss to the Atlanta Hawks January 7th, the second to last game before the major trade. He clearly was not pleased with the way things were rolling against the NBA's best.

We have to get another playmaker on the floor. We have to.

And the numbers for Memphis BG (Before Green) and AG (After Green), while different, are not so drastic as to say that Green's addition has been that big of a detriment.

Stat Category BG (Before Green) AG (After Green)
Record 26-11 29-16
Win Percentage 70.3% 64.4%
Field Goal Percentage 46.5% 45.2%
Three Point Percentage 35.8% 32.3%
Offensive Efficiency 105.1 101.4
Defensive Efficiency 102 98.1
Net Rating 3.1 3.3

Offensive rating drops, but is that Jeff Green's fault or the fault of a cooling Courtney Lee or an injured Mike Conley? It is more likely that the two are interconnected, with circumstance leading to issues alongside the acknowledgement of Jeff Green's limits as a player.

Is he still an improvement over those he replaced? The tape says yes due to his ability to get out in transition and get to the rim. Numbers tend to agree as well after the trade where each played the most games (Prince's nine games in BOS are not included in the chart below...)

Stat Category Jeff Green Quincy Pondexter Tayshaun Prince
PER 14.2 11.1 11.8
Offensive Rating 108 116 105
Defensive Rating 105 112 108
Net Rating 3 4 -3
Total Win Shares 3.1 2.3 0.9
Win Shares Per 48 Minutes 0.111 0.089 0.072

Quincy scored the ball well but was miserable defensively with the Pelicans. Green's net rating of +3 is better than the combined number of +1 from Pondexter and Prince. Aside from the PER, the major stat that jumps out is the win shares per 48 minutes. So numbers appear to back up what tape has shown and what most saw the trade to be - two below average NBA players for an average-ish NBA player who absorbs their 30 or so minutes per game.

Was standing pat worse than making the moves? Was taking on a player with the issues of Green better or worse than the known quantities that were Prince and Pondexter? Do you sacrifice the future to an extent in return for a better possible present? What ends would justify their means given the way the season ended? All fascinating questions without perfect answers.

What if the moves had not been made? When Mike Conley and Tony Allen went down at the end of the season, how much worse could the tail spin have gotten with larger contributions from Tayshaun Prince and Quincy Pondexter? Considering both Tayshaun and Quincy were playing worse for Memphis at the time of the trade than they did post-trade in Detroit and New Orleans respectively, it may have ended in an even more drastic drop and a potentially tougher first round opponent like the Los Angeles Clippers or San Antonio Spurs.

Vince Carter and Jeff Green have also had their hands in the Grizzlies' playoff successes (and failures) so far. One can argue that without Green and Carter (especially Green) Memphis may not have escaped Portland in Game Five in Memphis. Vince Carter hit three shots from beyond the arc in Game Two to help win the game for the Grizzlies. Consistency has not been the friend of these two players, but how much better would the Millers, Pondexters, and Princes of the world have been considering the Mike Conley injuries? Their issues with coaching, the lack of athleticism? They would have existed still.

Given how the season played out, Memphis may not be in the second round of the playoffs without the moves made. The grits justify the grind in this way...don't they?

__________________________________________________________________

Machiavelli teaches us that the ends can indeed justify the means. However, sometimes the means come about regardless of the ends. Given the way this regular season ended for the Memphis Grizzlies, 55 wins and a first round series win is a success. They are without their second best (and arguably their most important) player playing against arguably the best team in the NBA since the 1995-1996 Chicago Bulls: a juggernaut that won 67 games out of 82 and lost only twice at home all season. They are outmatched.

This does not mean the series is over by any means. Mike Conley's health, out of the hands of most involved in this story, stays at the front of that issue. What it does mean, though, is that a potential loss of this series does not condemn the moves made by this front office preparing for this run. It is merely a part of the story, one that has been full of peaks and valleys. Green and Carter have shown inconsistent flashes.

So did Pondexter, Prince, and Miller.

And Zach Randolph.

And Courtney Lee.

And Marc Gasol.

Would the alternative, running it back with the same crew, have been preferable? Or the definition of insanity, using the same personnel but expecting a different result?

The ends can justify the means, just as the means can develop despite the ends.

Professional sports, and politics, are worlds of judgment based on results. Life itself is very similar, to an extent. However, much like in politics and life, in sports there are varying levels of success, of right and wrong, moral and immoral, within the context of the story. The process is what ultimately determines long-term success, a success that this core of the organization has had (albeit without the ultimate success of a championship). The roster has evolved and grown while improving. It is possible, however, that it is still not good enough.

Memphis is currently in the middle of a Machiavellian moment. Do the grits justify the grind? The answer lies somewhere in the middle and depends on your definition of "ends" and "means".

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Stats provided by basketball-reference.com and NBA.com/stats.