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2015-2016 Memphis Grizzlies Evaluations: The Front Office

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The Grizzlies season was a disaster, but how did the front office do?

Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Amidst a tumultuous season, the Grizzlies front office did an admirable job. If you don't agree, and want to get out now, here's your chance. I just saved you reading 2,000 words. The front office isn't blameless, and we'll get to that, but to have any honest discussion of their work notes that the results of a move are only a fraction of the discussion. Process and context at the time of the move are important factors that must be considered.

Last Summer

Marc Gasol, the best player in Grizzlies history, never met with another team. He was so comfortable with the direction of this team, and his ties to the city, that he signed a 5 year max contract. If you are worried that that contract was a bad deal, consider that Hassan Whiteside and Demar Derozan will both sign larger deals this summer (not to mention Chandler Parsons and Bradley Beal, both of whom struggled with injuries as well. Bradley Beal has even discussed a minutes limit going forward).

Gasol's deal had built in protection against risk. He signed in the last summer before the new TV deal (something I've been talking about for two years now), when new money floods into the salary cap, making every previous contract look 30% better.

The fact that Gasol was a free agent the year before salaries exploded is happenstance, not a credit to the front office. We should not forget, however, that there was more than one pundit, Peter Edminston and Nate Duncan among them, saying that Gasol should entertain a one year deal.

They were not wrong. Even after suffering what could possibly be a career altering foot injury, Gasol would easily command the same starting salary, and probably more, on the open market this summer. Again, I cannot stress to you enough: Bismack Biyombo is probably gonna get 80% of what Gasol got last year. Imagine Gasol and Conley both being free agents this summer. Yikes.

The credit lies in Gasol's willingness to tie himself to the organization. Perhaps the front office palace intrigue we all perceive now, the fracture between coach and front office, was present then.

But Gasol still never took another meeting, signed a 5 year deal, and that was arguably the most important transaction the front office will ever pull off.

In lesser moves, the Grizzlies added Brandon Wright for the Mid Level Exception, and while Wright hardly played and I am still somewhat skeptical of his fit given the rest of the roster, only people who can gaze into the future would have known last summer that the Wright signing was not a coup. To those people, please don't waste your talents on basketball twitter. You can see the future! Go win the lottery, or at least solve crimes or something. This is free advice.

Wright and his contract still pass the asset test. Faced with the decision of paying a center $16mm or more this summer, Brandan Wright's $5.7mm salary might be an attractive trade chip. So even though last year was the worst possible year for Wright, he is still an asset on his contract. Would the Bulls, faced with a gaping hole at center, swap the 14th pick for Wright and a late 2nd round pick? Maybe not, but it's the type of trade that several teams would consider, given the alternatives.

The Grizzlies traded the draft rights to Janis Timma for Matt Barnes. This is the definition of drawing water from the rock, and retaining an older veteran like Barnes on a short deal may be the one market inefficiency this summer.

The last piece of the offseason puzzle was the draft. I hated the Jarell Martin and Andrew Harrison picks at the time, but since have become very optimistic about Martin's potential (I wrote about it here), provided he is able to overcome the injuries that sidelined him. For his part, Harrison was merely swapping one expiring asset (Jon Leuer) for one with a longer life. Harrison will probably get a league minimum salary this offseason, and be another chance at getting production from minimal dollars invested.

It is hard to see the Grizzlies offseason as anything other than great process. They had limited resources to improve, yet added a backup center, a rotation wing, and a rookie big who might eventually become a starter. All of this without trading away future assets. The results were mixed, largely due to injuries.

In-Season

An NBA record twenty-eight players suited up for the Memphis Grizzlies this year, and this too should be viewed as a front office success. While we can quibble about how often Ryan Hollins was signed, or the team keeping Jordan Farmar, the team was committed to cycling through players on the back end of the roster until they found the right guy.

Say what you want about the Grizzlies, but they do not fall prey to the Sunk Cost Fallacy: when they want to cut ties on a guy, they do so quickly, and without regard for the time they already have invested in them. Tony Wroten was jettisoned for nothing. Jarnell Stokes was jettisoned for James Ennis, who was then jettisoned for a roster spot and, wow, we had a lot of young guys on this team.

The reality is this: it is hard to find a rotation level player outside the lottery. It is even harder to find one in the 2nd round. It is even harder to find one among the undrafted masses in the D League. Change for change's sake isn't a good thing, but keeping a player you are pretty sure can't play is even worse.

The most precious resource an NBA team has is their fifteen roster spots. You can't acquire more. The front office went through Russ Smith, James Ennis, Jarnell Stokes, Briante Webber, Ray McCallum, and a bunch of others I've already forgotten to find Xavier Munford, who they wisely locked up through 2017.

The jury is out as to whether they chose the right player. Briante Weber may turn out to be better than Xavier Munford; both may never be good enough to play meaningful minutes on a good team.

Neither outcome is an indictment of the front office. Ray McCallum might go on to be a star, but he has severe flaws right now that limit him. One day he may overcome them. That doesn't mean the Grizzlies made the wrong choice. You get these guys ten days at a time, and you have to get them at the right time and give them the right situation.

The most important part is the process of churning the back end of the roster in search of cost controlled production. Use the information at hand to make an imperfect, but hopefully closer to optimal decision about whether a player can contribute at some point in the future. You will be wrong. A lot. Finding dribs and drabs of production among minimum level contracts is essential, and if the Grizzlies have a single competitive advantage in their front office, this is it.

Nick Calathes and James Johnson. Jon Leuer becoming Andrew Harrison. JaMychal Green. Xavier Munford. If dribs and drabs are all you get, turn them over for the next guy before overpaying them.

In the final synthesis, the Grizzlies have JaMychal Green, Xavier Munford, and Jarell Martin all locked into extremely low deals, representing a combined 3.4% of the salary cap this year. That is an entire bench big rotation and a 3rd point guard for 3.4% of the salary cap. It is this type of cost control on the back end of the roster that will facilitate the type of overspending this summer that every team must do to add talent.

In-Season Trades

The Grizzlies traded fan favorite Beno Udrih for Mario Chalmers. Chalmers went on to hit buzzer beaters, play great defense, draw a ton of shooting fouls, and he probably had as much to do with the Grizzlies making the playoffs as any player on the roster.

In fact, I'll just say it: the Grizzlies would not have made the playoffs if this deal wasn't done.

They also flipped Jarnell Stokes for James Ennis in this deal. Miami wanted to save money without sending out another first round pick. Memphis was able to do that for them. Great process, great results.

Despite all of these moves, injuries caught up to the Grizzlies and it became apparent to everybody that this team simply didn't have the horses to make noise the playoffs.

The Grizzlies pivoted, making three trades near the deadline that sent out Courtney Lee and Jeff Green for Lance Stephenson, Birdman, a 1st round pick, and three four 2nd round picks. Another resounding victory.

Netting future assets without missing the playoffs or taking back long-term salary is so hard to do. You have to find a willing trade partner who either has a surplus of picks and values your player (Charlotte), get creative to save a team money (Miami), or find a team who will make a mistake (Doc Rivers). The latter is becoming harder to find (although when I tore down the Grizzlies, I too started with the fish at the table). The middle will nearly be extinct once the salary cap explodes the next two years. And the former requires constant digging.

Teams constantly evaluate their own situation relative to the rest of the league. They aren't static; their needs aren't static. Finding the right trade partner requires constant attention to where other teams are, having open lines of communication, and above all, a lot of leg work.

The added picks give Memphis a crucial fallback position this summer in acquiring talent. There will be teams in free agency who need starters and miss out on them when the money starts flying. Those teams have a choice: pay a bench player starter money (over-overpay, as it were), or trade picks to bring in a starter. The Grizzlies now have that vital option available to them, and I'd encourage them to trade a few of those picks for a player even if they get the player or players they target in free agency.

And Yet

Seemingly the Grizzlies' house will never be fully sorted. Dave Joerger and the front office could never quite get on the same page. Those on the outside - despite what all the sources and media say - will never know exactly why this situation could never be repaired. Perhaps reports that owner Robert Pera tried to fire Coach Joerger mere games into his rookie season proved to be a bridge too far for the young coach. Perhaps once Levien et al. were ousted, both sides knew there was an expiration date on their engagement.

{Hrdlicka note: Joerger's actions irked me as a fan, but I totally understand them and might have done the same in his shoes. A subject for another time, perhaps.}

Either way, I think it's fair to say that there is fault on both sides, and that the front office should examine how they've handled their coaches. There might be a temptation to simply write Joerger off as an unhappy coach who wanted to move on. Maybe there is no lesson. I think that line of thinking excuses self-reflection, something I think is integral to success. And that goes from the owner on down.

Maybe nothing could have been done to keep Joerger around. That doesn't eliminate the possibility that something could have been done better. Having the humility to acknowledge your own role in every situation, and evaluate it objectively, is vital.

Organizations of all types fail because they wear rose-colored glasses about themselves. Everyone else is the enemy. We did everything right.

Memphis should have serious conversations on, among other topics, their training staff's diagnosis of injuries, how information best flows between coaching, training staff, and front office so that all parties feel part of the process (trios are notoriously difficult to navigate, as they yield a "majority" where one party always feels in the minority), their commitment to playing young players, the reliance on minutes from players over the age of thirty-four, how to guard the three point line better, how to capture player performance data in real time, and communicate it to the players in concrete ways that make sense, how to best build a roster around Marc and Mike, and what assumptions must be changed now that both have had significant injuries.

Most importantly: how good are we? How good are our players? How good can they be? How much longer can they be good?

Descending from my soapbox, I must emphasize that however foggy the Memphis decision-making tree appears to us on the outside, and however much I think a good deal of introspection is needed, this fogginess did not hamper the Grizzlies' ability to maximize the transaction game last year. Every move made sense given where the team was at the time.

Fans not knowing who pulled the trigger didn't stop the Grizzlies from making shrewd trades that improved the team without handicapping future flexibility. Once Memphis knew its die had been cast, it didn't stop them from cashing in a few chips now for future assets.

It didn't stop them from making the playoffs.

Uncertainty looms. Mike Conley is a free agent. The Grizzlies owe two future picks that could very well be lottery picks if things turn sideways. The Grizzlies only have two players on the right side of thirty who are in their NBA primes.

But the bulk of that damage was done before this year. The Grizzlies find themselves, for the first time in franchise history, with cap space alongside a history of winning. Every contract on their books is an asset. They did their best to replenish their store of future picks. The 17th pick in the draft is the highest pick in the Grit and Grind Era, and the player they draft will be added to a cadre of young players who not only have already played, but look like decent bets to improve.

Bring on the summer!