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The Memphis Grizzlies and Tanking: It starts at the top

Players and coaches will never try to lose. Nor should they.

Memphis Grizzlies Introduce JB Bickerstaff as Head Coach Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

Imagine spending your entire life trying to achieve the goal of being a professional athlete.

You put in hours upon hours of work in the gym. You sacrifice your social life, friendships, relationships. You pull dead skin from your calloused hands to finish a set in the weightroom, or you scrounge to buy a second ankle brace with money you don’t have so you don’t miss a workout. You grind, and you go from high school to college, being told through it all that you’ll never make it. Until you do...and then you realize that you’re now someone else’s dream, and they want to take your spot.

Now imagine being told that you’re supposed to lose, or fail.

Not gonna happen.

Now imagine having the goal of being a coach at the highest level possible in the game you love. The film study is intense. The hours away from your family, the missed moments like birthdays and first steps and first games. You work your way up the ranks, from film coordinator or some other job like it to assistant to interim coach back to assistant, all the while waiting for your next opportunity. Then, it comes, and you’re ready.

Now imagine being told that the organization needs you to stop winning.

Silly, right? That’s because it is.

Philadelphia 76ers v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

Whether you’re a player on a two-way contract like Myke Henry, a franchise cornerstone like Marc Gasol, or an interim head coach like J.B. Bickerstaff, you got to where you are in your career through overcoming some sort of adversity. That isn’t to say that we don’t all face obstacles- life is a beautiful thing, but it is also very capable of beating you in to the ground regardless of connections or athletic prowess. To be truly elite, among the best of the best, it takes gifts and abilities only a select group possesses, plus an uncommon work ethic. That combination is what makes a pro a pro.

In the case of these Memphis Grizzlies, they all have something to prove. There are lots of chips on shoulders, from Tyreke Evans playing for a contract to Mario Chalmers trying to show he can still play to the various young players working to earn their keep on an NBA roster. The likes of Jarell Martin (late 1st rounder who was a possible candidate to be waived four months ago), Dillon Brooks, Ivan Rabb, Deyonta Davis (all 2nd round picks), and Wayne Selden Jr. (undrafted) do not have the pedigree of a lofty draft selection and are in the process of trying to show they belong at this level at all, much less on the Grizzlies. Your coach is also working for his next job, whether it is as the full Head Coach of the Grizzlies or elsewhere (seemingly counterproductive to a tanking philosophy).

Of course they’re going to do their best. It isn’t their job to lose.

The need to strive for a better draft pick is never on those actually playing or coaching the games. It comes from a front office that, unfortunately for the Memphis Grizzlies fan base, lacks a clear public image of who is actually in control and whose ability to make moves in the best interest of the franchise may be limited by ownership questions.

In fairness to the front office, it is working out pretty closely to what an attempted “tank” would look like. Mike Conley and Chandler Parsons remain without a timetable for a return, leading to questions from fans and media alike as to what the motivations are (insurance for contracts, for one). Brandan Wright, JaMychal Green, and James Ennis III have also missed games recently, leading to more minutes for younger players- a clear symptom of a tanking team.

Memphis Grizzlies Introduce JB Bickerstaff as Head Coach Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

There is still work to be done, however, to bringing Memphis closest to its best “tanking” self. The main piece of that is Tyreke Evans, who unless the Grizzlies perform an impressive feat of salary cap gymnastics (most likely trade JaMychal Green for a 2nd round pick or two and stretch provision Chandler Parsons) Memphis will not be able to bring back next season. Those moves necessary would be franchise-shifting, and are even more doubtful to occur now because of the uncertainty regarding the future of ownership. Evans is good enough to net Memphis an asset (young player and/or late 1st or early 2nd round pick) where the other expiring deals on the team (Ennis/Wright/Chalmers) may not be. He is not going to be in Memphis beyond June, and he takes minutes away from players who could figure to be in the Grizzlies long-term plans.

Due to all of this, between now and the time the trade deadline comes and goes in a little over two weeks, Tyreke Evans should no longer be a Grizzly. Even if the Grizzlies retain Mario Chalmers, Brendan Wright, and James Ennis III and let their contracts simply expire due to a lack of trade interest, Evans should be gone. If he is indeed traded? The benefit of the doubt can be given to those in the Memphis front office that they are doing the best they can in an accidentally bad season.

If Evans is still here February 9th, the day after the trade deadline, however? It will be a massive mistake. The Grizzlies are unlikely to have their 2019 first next season (it is protected, but if Conley and Marc Gasol are healthy it is unlikely Memphis is bad enough to keep the pick). If you hope to have one more shot at a run with a Conley/Gasol/Parsons core before Marc possibly hits free agency in the summer of 2019, then the lack of a sustained tank makes sense. In a way, the poor luck and record of this year could help the Grizzlies in the next, with a core of young players who got meaningful minutes in a lost season ready to contribute on a hopefully improved team. Add in a top-5 pick and the asset you got for Evans, be it another pick or another young, talented player? The long-term vision is able to be logically argued for.

Keeping Evans in particular goes against that possible vision, just as rushing Conley or Parsons back before they are ready would. Just like playing Wright ahead of Davis of Ennis ahead of Brooks would at this stage of a lost season. The Grizzlies organization still has time, of course, and does not need to pull the trigger on a deal just because. They do need to take advantage of a good decision they made in signing Evans and get a long-term resource for the short-term loss of a very good player.

They cannot allow for what is best for the organization to be clouded by a drastic unlikelihood (making the playoffs) that would lead to an almost certain end (loss to the Warriors or Rockets in the first round). If it happens because of the natural efforts of a young team and a hungry coach trying to show what they are capable of? So be it. They should continue to compete and improves as best they can. They earned the opportunity that is in front of them. If they can overcome the odds, they will go down as one of the best stories ever for a franchise full of them in recent history.

It should not happen because of a front office that isn’t willing, or able, to see what this team is and needs to be through the end of this season.

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