It is the hottest debate in Memphis right now. It's called, "If Mike Conley Leaves." This thought process (brought about most recently by ESPN's Ian Begley in a blurb about Memphis' Front Office getting nervous about Conley's free agency) has everything; a minority of Grizzlies fans that thinks it would be OK-to-great if it happened, a majority of Grizzlies fans who would be quite upset if it happened, and all of them wondering what would become of the Memphis Grizzlies if it did indeed occur.
The most interesting thought in all of this is whether or not this would be the official end of the "Grit and Grind Era". There are those who argue that Mike Conley is replaceable- Rajon Rondo, Mario Chalmers if healthy, Matthew Dellavedova, Jeremy Lin...there are options if Mike does indeed walk, and his durability has become a viable concern in recent years. There are even those who think that players like Rondo are more talented/better than Conley, or that Chalmers (again, if healthy) is a better fit for the Grizzlies.
Then, there are those who see Mike as an indispensable part of the future of the Memphis Grizzlies organization. He is one of the few (well, the only really) fully homegrown Grizzlies who has had good-to-great success as an NBA player. He is surely one of the top free agents available in this class of 2016, and Memphis has the home-court advantage when it comes to keeping him because of that elusive fifth year of a contract they can offer.
That almost $40 million is no chump change...it should be enough to keep Mike in the fold. But is Mike worthy of all that money? Therein lies the heart of the debate, and if Memphis decides he isn't, and someone else (New York, Indiana, etc.) decides he is, the Grizzlies will be up a certain creek without a paddle. And then they will have an even theoretically tougher decision to make...
To carry on without Conley and end an era slowly, or to blow the whole damn thing up? If you feel the team can contend without Mike and with a, say, Rajon Rondo, you perhaps would be on the side of carrying on.
However, if you're of the thought process that there is no winning a title (or even being good enough to make the playoffs) without Mike as your point guard? Then the dark task of slamming shut "Grit and Grind" falls upon you. Here are three trades that would do just that.
Now this exercise is pure speculation- this is if Mike Conley were to leave Memphis how I would potentially approach it. I am for Mike staying and believe he will stay. If he doesn't though...
It's (hypothetical) fire sale time.
A Moderate Shutting of the Grit and Grind Door
Philadelphia Receives: Tony Allen, 2019 First Round Pick (via LA Clippers- Lottery protected in 2019 and 2020)
Memphis Receives: Robert Covington, 2019 2nd Round Pick (via New York), 2020 2nd Round Pick (via Brooklyn)
Recent changes in the Philadelphia Front Office have signaled a hope to compete in the here and now. Add that on with the likely selection of Ben Simmons with the #1 pick in the 2016 NBA Draft, and Covington becomes more expendable. Philly would surely enjoy having a veteran defender the likes of TA to help cultivate a tougher, defensive-oriented mentality among their younger players, and in a new space Allen would have no pressure to have to start. He could even have the Kevin Garnett in Minnesota role- start out of respect, but play limited minutes.
For Memphis, Covington brings shooting potential and a longer frame on a very friendly contract. He also is entering his prime at 25 years old and would at worst be a rotation player for Memphis, but could probably be a starter on a retooled Grizzlies team. It also saves Memphis about $4.5 million in 2016-2017.
An Even Stronger Turning of the Page
Indiana Receives: Zach Randolph, 2017 2nd Round Pick (via Miami), 2018 2nd Round Pick (via Charlotte)
Memphis Receives: C.J. Miles, Lavoy Allen, 2017 1st Round Pick from Indiana (Lottery protected in 2017, 1-10 protected in 2018, unprotected in 2019)
Indiana brings Zach Randolph back home for one season alongside young Myles Turner and Paul George. Randolph again would perhaps benefit from a reduced role in Indiana, or at least reduced minutes. He still had a productive season for Memphis taking on far too much of the load as the season (and injuries) wore on. Imaging Zach on a team where he could average 25-28 minutes a night and doesn't have to carry the load? He can be a stud third option at this stage of his career.
Memphis perhaps does this trade because it sends Zach to a team where there will be a playoff run and it is in Zach's home state, so they are not crushing him or the fan base by sending him to say, Brooklyn or the Clippers. They get another first round pick out of the deal down the road, a shooter in Miles and a back-up big in Allen who are serviceable and on nice, cheap veteran contracts.
Don't like that trade? How about Zach for Omer Asik and a 2018 unprotected first from New Orleans, as Matt Hrdlicka recommended to me recently in a conversation we had? Asik's deal is unmovable...unless you attach a first, and Zach on a rebuilding Grizzlies team makes little to no sense, especially as he ends his NBA career. Send him out with a chance to compete...
Which leads us to...
Officially Blown to Hell
Sacramento Receives: Marc Gasol, JaMychal Green, 2019 2nd Round Pick (via Boston)
Memphis Receives: DeMarcus Cousins
Marc Gasol is gone. Memphis' only All-Star starter, only All-NBA first teamer, shipped out to the West Coast and his old Head Coach Dave Joerger. The Kings potentially do this deal because they perhaps assume "Boogie" is gone in two seasons anyway. Maybe the damage is done in Sacramento and regardless of a new Head Coach he will want a free start. He is replaced by a guy who they know they have under contract for four seasons, who Joerger has experience with using as a pillar of scheme, who can defend and create and score...when healthy.
They also get a good value contract in JaMychal Green as a rotation forward and a 2nd rounder to use, or send out in another deal. They don't lose Cousins for nothing.
Memphis does this because they will get two seasons to try to create their masterpiece of reclamation projects. Who better to try to turn around than DeMarcus Cousins? Marc Gasol was seen as an add-in to the trade that brought him to Memphis, Zach Randolph was a cast-off, and Tony Allen was sent away after winning in Boston, Lance Stepheson played very well in his time in Memphis last season after lackluster showings elsewhere. Story after story after story of rebuilding reputation and setting up a new life for yourself in the Bluff City- and Boogie would be the latest, and greatest, of these examples.
If all goes well, Cousins becomes a Memphis icon, like Allen and Gasol and Randolph before him, and signs a max deal to stay in the Bluff City. Now you have a 27 year old in 2018 in the prime of his career, plus new young players through various draft picks acquired in other deals, plus cap space to sign guys to build around Boogie.
Those trades above save Memphis roughly $10 million in cap space in 2016-2017, and stretch provisioning Vince Carter would save you another $2 million or so. You can focus on youth and depth a bit more in free agency. Imagine a 2016-2017 potential starting lineup of Mario Chalmers (if healthy, maybe Dellavedova or Lin if not), Allen Crabbe, Robert Covington, Brandan Wright, and DeMarcus Cousins.
Couple that with a bench potentially of Xavier Munford/Andrew Harrison, C.J. Miles, Kent Bazemore, Lavoy Allen, and Jarell Martin, plus whatever you decide to do with your #17 and #57 picks. Defensively challenged, perhaps, and surely rebuilding, but offensive fire power, athleticism, and youth would rule the day.
David Fizdale would have plenty to work on with player development, and you've got two additional future firsts in your back pocket that you wouldn't have had otherwise, plus a young superstar who you have two years to convince to stay and succeed in Memphis as the team is built around him.
Again, all theoretical, and there are many different ways to get to the same point when it comes to this level of speculation. That overall point is this- if Mike Conley leaves Memphis, there is no more reason to pursue a retirement tour for "Grit and Grind". There will be no "hey, we aren't going to win the title, but at least we made the playoffs and still had a chance!" Conley's departure would signal the need for a new direction, an abrupt end to arguably the best era of professional basketball the city of Memphis has ever known.
There are no Band-Aids if this were to play out. The logical choice would be to look ahead and secure as much of a future as possible in the face of a potential free agency catastrophe.
Conley likely will not leave Memphis. If he does, though, the rest of his "Core Four" mates probably should go with him.