When news broke about the Thunder's intentions to match Portland's
troll-job offer sheet of $70 million for Enes Kanter over four years, it gave Grizz nation a good opportunity to sit back and take stock of a pretty brilliant era of team management. With another half-decade of consequential basketball all but assured after re-signing Marc Gasol, let's kick up our heels and give a little credit to the guys who made this all possible: General Manager Chris Wallace and new owner Robert Pera.
It was never supposed to be this way: when Michael Heisley ordered a near-max contract extension be offered to Rudy Gay a year after the team decided to draft Hasheem Thabeet ahead of Stephen Curry, James Harden and literally anybody else (when Marc Gasol was already on the roster, no less), the organization seemed about as likely to score accolades for sound management as recently traded-for Grizzly Darko Milicic was to win the NBA's citizenship award. And to be sure, there have been missteps along the way (I see you Draymond Green... still on the board when the Grizzlies picked Tony Wroten), but mostly, there have been a series of prudent decisions that have allowed the team's core to stay together longer than it could have ever been reasonably expected under the new CBA, while adding complementary talent around them that never threatened to capsize* the boat. Often, some of the best shots are the ones you don't take.
*See what I did there.
The luster has officially worn off of Sam Presti, who backed himself and Thunder owners into a corner of having to pay Kanter, who team officials have acknowledged is probably going to play behind Steven Adams, a max salary over the next four years in spite of the fact that he may be the worst defensive center in a generation... maybe two.
Nobody's disputing that Presti is a wizard when it comes to evaluating draft prospects (picking Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, and James Harden in the span of three years classifies a person as such), but the team is coming off a lottery season, going deep into the luxury tax, and has a significantly diminished supporting cast around Kevin Durant as his free agency looms. How in the holy hell did the Oklahoma City Thunder end up with Dion Waiters (my vote for the 2014-2015 Least Valuable Player) and a center with a Defensive BPM worse than Jeremy Lin making a combined $21,538,430 next season?
Grizzlies fans can hem and haw until our faces turn blue about Vince Carter's lack of productivity last season or Jeff Green's inability to be Kyle Korver, but the fact is that while they may not have helped the Grizzlies get to the Finals (yet), neither one of these moves threatened the long-term stability of the franchise, or even put the team at risk for anything like the disastrous contract the Thunder just tendered to Kanter. And despite assurances from some very smart people, this contract is a colossal train wreck with long-term repercussions. Look, Kanter's a good offensive basketball player. That's well established. But his defensive ability is extraordinarily bad, and he plays the position where it's most critical. There's a common refrain among Thunder partisans that Serge Ibaka's presence on the block will somehow mitigate Kanter's deficiencies, but Ibaka's ability to raise havoc has always been the byproduct of playing alongside established rim protectors like Kendrick Perkins. NBA team defense requires all five players playing with purpose and poise - don't believe me? Ask Steve Kerr why Festus Ezeli was soaking up highest-paid-player-on-the-team David Lee's minutes all of last season.
So why didn't Presti call the Blazers bluff? This is, after all, the same guy who let James Harden go so the Thunder could stay below the luxury tax line. Well, obviously, the cap is going to skyrocket next season, so a bad deal this year won't look as awful next year, but the Thunder have now guaranteed Kanter somewhere around 20% of the 2016-2017 salary cap*, with max salaries (based on 30% of the revised cap) all but assured for KD and Russell Westbrook in the following years (not to mention Ibaka). Which is madness! This dude isn't even going to start! The prevailing logic was that they didn't want to look cheap as they woo the all-world Durant over the course of the season, but I'm sorry, I don't buy it. We're supposed to believe that KD's decision on where to play next year is going to be positively affected by the Thunder giving a max contract to the worst defensive center in the game who he's never played with that's going to average 15 minutes per night? Plus Dion Waiters is on the team? Wait, how far is DC from Baltimore again?
*For the record, I understand that the Thunder can re-sign Durant and stay out of the tax next year, but they're still going to have Kanter on the books for more than $18 million when they could've used that money to sign someone else along with Durant. They could have let him walk, almost certainly been no worse of a basketball team, and achieved huge flexibility heading into those negotiations. KD could've had his pick of running buddies, now he's stuck with Kanter because that contract is NEVER going to be traded until Sam Hinkie squeezes a first-round pick for it in 2018 right before it expires.
Elsewhere around the West, the Thunder's managerial incompetence might seem quaint, almost benign. As Grizzlies fans around the world took time to attend to their families safe in the knowledge that Robert Pera and Marc Gasol had struck a gentlemen's agreement over a glass of Rioja in the most beautiful city on Earth, all hell was breaking loose in Texas as the Mavericks' cult of personality imploded and the Clippers secured the return of their prodigal son while somehow managing to lose depth. Since they won a championship, Mark Cuban has received a lot of due credit for turning around the once-moribund Mavs with the help of the sweet, gullible Dirk Nowitzki. But since then, it seems Cubes has been his drinking own Avión, eschewing the draft and betting the future of his franchise on Chandler Parson's hospitality suite. Sure, it's fun to have a billionaire lothario run the team when Dirk's playing at his peak, but when Rajon Rondo quits on you in the middle of a playoff series and Lamar Odom is so disillusioned after a brief run in Dallas that he locks himself in a motel room with a bunch of candy and crack, I think that might be a sign of something rotten in Dallas. Other than the city of Dallas, that is. And let's pour one out for poor, old Dirk, who left $72 million on the table by signing a hometown discount deal with Dallas so he could spend the twilight of his career watching Raymond Felton eat cheeseburgers and Charlie Villanueva miss 9-footers on the way to the lottery. (It could always be worse, David West!) As for the Clippers, well, they avoided certain disaster by kidnapping DeAndre Jordan and convincing him to re-sign, but their Achilles heel - the borderline negligent lack of depth at every position - remains firmly exposed. Doc Rivers' squad will always be a fringe contender with their big three intact, but the DJ saga revealed just how mismanaged this team has been with Rivers running the front office. Their second unit is such a massive liability - and until Lance Stephenson proves otherwise, he's a liability - that it's almost impossible to see them competing against the upper echelon in the West. (Although they did win that Spurs series... geez, that Chris Paul guy is really good.)
Which brings us back to the low-key Grizzlies and their low-key free agency. The roster is probably better than it was last year, though not by much. They probably don't yet have the firepower to contend for a championship against the likes of the Warriors, Spurs, and Cavaliers. But they're still here, they're going to fun as hell for the foreseeable future, and with a top-3 center and a top-7 point guard, anything can happen. And let's be honest, this is a much different conversation if Marc Gasol had decided to play elsewhere. A lot of the team's success is attributable to drama-free Spaniard, but give credit to Wallace and Pera for not screwing this thing up.
"It was love at first sight," Brandan Wright said as he was introduced to the Memphis media after signing his new contract with the Grizzlies. The 3-year, $17 million deal was universally praised as a bargain for the talented, 27-year-old Nashvillian, and he acknowledged that he left money on the table to sign a deal with his home-state team. Zach Randolph and Tony Allen also took hometown discounts to keep the Core Four together. Hometown discounts certainly don't guarantee franchise stability (*cough!* *Dallas!* *cough!*), but it says a lot about the culture of the team that players would even consider such an arrangement. Never forget that once upon a time, Rudy Gay fielded condolence calls from players around the league after getting overpaid by the Grizzlies. Let me repeat that: Rudy Gay's friends felt bad for him because the Grizzlies offered him too much money to stay in Memphis. That's how much the rest of the NBA thought of Memphis in the pre-Grit'n'Grind era. Now, while Memphis will never be considered a destination city like New York or Miami or LA, we can always look back at the summer of 2015 and say we beat them out for the most coveted free agent in the league (not named LeBron, anyway). We've come a long, long way, due in no small part to the bean-counting and conservative roster management exhibited by Wallace and Pera.