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The culture of opportunity in Memphis

In the interim, it will have to do.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Chicago Bulls Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

It’s a weird time in Memphis.

Their Grizzlies look pretty different than they did on opening night, with trade deadline deals sending four players out (Marc Gasol, Shelvin Mack, JaMychal Green, Garrett Temple) and bringing five players in (Jonas Valanciunas, Delon Wright, C.J. Miles, Avery Bradley, Tyler Dorsey). With the new faces comes new energy, which was evident early on with a win over the New Orleans Pelicans - a franchise arguably in more turmoil at the moment somehow than the Grizzlies - and a closer-than-it-should-have-been loss to the San Antonio Spurs. There was a refreshing wave of optimism coming out of those two performances, especially the Spurs game considering the absence of Mike Conley in that contest.

Maybe the play to convey strategy could have some legs after all.

Then a 12-point loss to the supposedly tanking Chicago Bulls cooled that momentum heading in to the All-Star break. Even in two losses, though, you see the impact the guys currently wearing the blue of Beale Street are making - Avery Bradley led the team in scoring and assists in both games, while Jonas Valanciunas paced the squad in rebounding. In that bad defeat at the hands of the Bulls, eight of the twelve players who got minutes were not on the Grizzlies roster opening night. That’s 66% of the roster, and 164 of the available 240 minutes, played by folks that have been in Memphis for just days or weeks, not months or years. And another 43 of those minutes were taken up by the two rookies on the Grizzlies roster, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Jevon Carter.

On the current Grizzlies team, only four players (Mike Conley, Ivan Rabb, Dillon Brooks, Chandler Parsons) were members of the team when the 2017-2018 season ended a little more than 10 months ago. Only one of them - Conley - has played more than 100 games with Memphis.

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Memphis Grizzlies Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

With the Grizzlies in a state of transition with no clear direction beyond “trying to convey the pick”, it will be impossible to establish whatever the identity, or culture, of the Memphis organization will be. In four months time (or maybe less) there may be a new coach and/or a new front office leader and structure. In six months we may be looking at Zion Williamson, or R.J. Barrett, as Memphis Grizzlies (a guy can dream) and a team without its conductor of over a decade Mike Conley. The next two months could easily become a death march of sorts as Conley, Chris Wallace, J.B. Bickerstaff, and others trudge towards an uncertain-at-best offseason.

So why watch, or have hope that the team can gel?

History...and opportunity.

Memphis has been the island of second (or third) chances for NBA misfit toys for some time. Where else could Zach Randolph become a franchise icon, or Tony Allen become a folk hero, or Marc Gasol an organizational cornerstone after being a perceived trade throw-in? With what other franchise could players such as JaMychal Green and Wayne Selden Jr. get the chances they did to prove their NBA mettle after being undrafted? In what other city could Tyreke Evans redeem himself with a tremendous season to earn another major pay day, or could MarShon Brooks or Bruno Caboclo go from China or G-League player to multi-year contracted NBA player?

Stories like these, especially those of Allen and Randolph, span the organization’s history and, to paraphrase the late great Don Poier, only could happen in the movies and in Memphis.

Who will be the next tall tale of Grizzlies lore?

The opt-in or outs

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Memphis Grizzlies Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

There are three players who have some form of an option, be it team or player, for next season. All three have different reasons to compete as well as they possibly can.

  • Jonas Valanciunas wants more. At least he should. With roughly half the league having substantial salary cap space this coming summer, it is likely that Valanciunas opts out of his contract and enters free agency. However, $17.6 million is a decent chunk of change to leave on the table, especially for a player currently averaging 19 minutes per game on the year (mostly with the Raptors) and 13.1 points and 7.3 rebounds with not much else statistically in those minutes. One would assume that Ivan Rabb will return to a reserve role after the break - he’s earned a rotation spot, but if Memphis is serious about conveying the pick he cannot start next to Jaren Jackson Jr. - and Jonas will hopefully become the starter at center and see roughly 25-30 minutes a night. His current career best per-36 minutes numbers (a strong 24.8 points and 13.8 rebounds) must be maintained in that increased workload if he wants the raise he is surely seeking, be it from Memphis (who could use a rebounding big to ease Jackson’s development there) or elsewhere. His conditioning on the court coming back from injury will be key.
  • C.J. Miles just wants to be. With Chandler Parsons returning to the Grizzlies rotation (more on him later) Miles, who almost surely will opt in to his $8.73 million contract for next season, needs to make the most out of limited opportunity. He should still get some burn with Dillon Brooks and possibly Kyle Anderson both out for extended periods of time, but J.B. Bickerstaff is coaching for his job. He will play who he thinks will win games. Miles must be more like his career average from three (35.9%) than what he’s been so far this season (31.6%) if he wants minutes, and the future larger-than-league-minimum deal he wants beyond 2020 that could come with it.
  • Avery Bradley wants to be a Grizzly...but don’t love him for it just yet. Bradley’s contract isn’t a full team option...but it’s pretty close. Of his nearly $13 million “owed” to him in 2019-2020, only $2 million is guaranteed. The Grizzlies have until July 3rd to either waive him (and save almost $11 million) or keep him around and fully guarantee the deal. They also could decide to trade him before that deadline, allowing another team to free up cap space (hopefully in exchange for a draft pick along with guaranteed/dead money), but that’s a tricky situation through the CBA and requires another team seeing value in such a move. It seems most likely he’s either a Grizzly next season, or he’s a free agent after missing out on some serious cash. As of now, bet on Bradley not being back. If Avery can show he is able to maintain his level of play of the last two games, or 90% of that level? Maybe he sticks around and is a valuable expiring contract at the deadline next season.

The Restricted Free Agent

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Chicago Bulls Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

Delon Wright wants to get paid. For a player that turns 27 in April coming off of his rookie contract, Wright is in a unique spot. Memphis probably gives him a qualifying offer in restricted free agency, worth about $3.6 million, to have the ability to match any offer made to him. From there, the market for the combo guard will be interesting to see. The idea of Wright - a big guard who can create off the dribble, defend multiple positions, and score in a variety of ways - is worth a decent bit in the modern NBA. Yet Wright’s age will hurt him (27 doesn’t necessarily scream “upside”) and he has never really had the chance to show whether he can be an NBA starter, or sixth man, for an extended period of time. The most minutes per game he’s played in a season are 20.8 last season, where he also posted a career high in net rating (+9) and win shares per 48 minutes (.152).

He will get that opportunity in Memphis.

Look at Wright like Kyle Anderson - a player that shouldn’t be overly expensive, almost certainly no more than Anderson’s deal, but is entering or at his prime and can be a good rotation player. Wright’s advanced numbers are good-to-great, and his career per-36 stats (13.6 points, nearly 5 assists and 5 rebounds per game) and shooting numbers (44.8% overall, 34.9% from three) are promising. He is malleable with most lineups, and can play both the point guard position with Mike Conley out in addition to lining up alongside Conley more effectively than Shelvin Mack or Jevon Carter (at this stage in his development).

It’s unlikely that a player like Wright gets overpaid. Delon being in Memphis next season for roughly $7 million per season on a three year deal would be optimal, having Anderson-esque levels of success as a player that can facilitate and fit well next to Jaren Jackson Jr,

The Other Opportunists

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Chicago Bulls Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports
  • Some guys just want to be in the league. Joakim Noah and Bruno Caboclo fit the bill here. Joakim was on the sidelines for a while earlier this season after a buy out from the Knicks, and whether it is with the Grizzlies or elsewhere he simply wants another deal to play in the NBA beyond the next two months. While Caboclo signed a new deal with Memphis for next season, nothing is guaranteed beyond next season in that contract and Caboclo is still young. He doesn’t want to return to the G-League, or have to go overseas.
  • Older guys setting up their next move. Justin Holiday is an expiring contract, and considering all that was given up for him in the trade with the Chicago Bulls you’d imagine this Grizzlies front office values him a good bit. Maybe he sticks around in Memphis as a reserve wing for similar money...but considering the fact this front office may not be here four months from now, the new folks (if there are indeed new folks) may move on from Holiday. He needs to display the ability to defend and hit the three consistently to hold free agency value among contenders and non-contenders alike. Then you have Chandler Parsons, who wants to prove he can still play and that while this contract in Memphis was a disaster, he can still help an NBA team moving forward. He doesn’t want to be done as a professional basketball player at the age of 31. That is on the table at the moment.
  • Young guys who are looking to the next deal. Ivan Rabb and Jevon Carter are free agents after next season, and both hope to figure in to the long-term plans of Memphis since, in theory, the Grizzlies will have the best opportunity to extend and pay them. Carter is a mixed bag at this stage - a defensive stud still finding his way within NBA schemes, and an offensive liability that shows flashes of potential on that end as well. Rabb is much the same - he gets bullied on the block at times, but his build and offensive game/ability to clean the glass rebounding is valuable. They both need to show growth in the weeks ahead to stick in Memphis. Dillon Brooks is in a similar boat, but his efforts will have to be deferred to next season due to injury.

Stability is absent in Memphis.

The security that comes with a coaching staff, front office, or a star who sets the course for years to come doesn’t exist because of the unpredictable nature of who will even be in Memphis beyond the summer (or because of age in the case of Jaren Jackson Jr.). There must be another driving force for the Grizzlies. Chris Wallace, J.B. Bickerstaff, and the rest of the organization appear to be betting on the motivator that is basketball survival to possibly save their own posts is Memphis. The latest hoopster hodgepodge for the Grizzlies is flawed in multiple ways, and while they are led by a true pro in Mike Conley they have little time to practice and gel. They have even less time to establish identity - who they “are” as a team.

The only certainty for most of the ambiguously assembled Grizzlies moving forward is uncertainty. And within that controlled chaos is opportunity for further disaster...or for new stories, new heroes, and new improbable moments that can only be made in Memphis.

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