clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The stakes for the Memphis Grizzlies

No biggie, just the future of the franchise.

NBA: Detroit Pistons at Memphis Grizzlies Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

The roof may come off FedExForum.

It is Game Seven of the 2022 Western Conference Semi-Finals, and the Grizzlies are in the fight of their lives against LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and the Los Angeles Lakers. No one expected this Grizzlies team to be here - Jaren Jackson Jr. had developed in to the All-NBA player Memphis fans had hoped he could be, earning his second nod on that team this season, but the rest of the squad was either young, supposedly “fatally flawed”, or both.

By a stroke of “luck” the Grizzlies saw their 2019 1st round pick convey, allowing them to fall from 7th in the lottery to outside the top-8. Their 2020 1st enabled them to select James Wiseman, a Memphis native, and in subsequent drafts they used picks they gathered through moving on from Marc Gasol and Mike Conley to build a rotation focused on length and versatility. The focus is on Jackson, as it had been since those two moved along in 2019, and he knows it. He isn’t afraid of the moment.

Memphis is up 103-101, with eight seconds left. The decision is made by Grizzlies head coach Jarron Collins to have Jaren defend LeBron James, who at this stage of his career is a full blown power forward. This moment has a lot of storylines attached - LeBron’s impending free agency, Jaren’s recently signed five-year extension to stay in the city he loves. Memphis has invested in Jackson, helped him grow, and they structured their organization around him. This is his time - the Grizzlies already know that. Now it’s time for the league to know it too.

As Grizzlies General Manager Shane Battier looks on, the ball is put in to play by the Lakers. It goes exactly as Memphis thought it would - screen to get LeBron one on one with Jaren. James has lost a step, but he’s still “the man” in these moments. A pick comes from Anthony Davis, which Jaren goes under with Wiseman hedging, and LeBron gets past him after a hesitation step. Thinking he has the shot, and the win, he pulls up for a baseline jumper with .8 seconds left...

Jackson, though, was counting on that move from the older James. He plants and explodes toward LeBron, swatting his shot in to the 5th row of the stands. The horn sounds.

The Grizzlies, who gave up much of what they had known of their past in the hopes for something more, just beat the Los Angeles Lakers.

And Memphis exhales, looking to a future of unlimited possibilities.

These are the stakes.

The Memphis Grizzlies are entering arguably the most important 48 hours in the recent history of their franchise. Between now and Thursday’s 3 PM trade deadline, a lot of things may, or may not, happen. One of, or both, of the franchise’s cornerstones - Marc Gasol and Mike Conley - could be dealt...and that is just the tip of the iceberg. Memphis has multiple expiring contracts that, if they are willing to take on some bad money for a year or two of a contract, could bring back valuable draft pick compensation.

It could very well be a fire sale...everything must go. And the earth of the Grizzlies would likely be scorched, at least for the next couple of seasons.

But considering the simple truth that Memphis, with a healthy Marc Gasol and Mike Conley, is 3-17 in their last 20 games, it is likely time to burn it down anyway. Gasol and Conley do not equal the postseason any longer, and as the best trade assets the Grizzlies have (aside from Jaren Jackson Jr., who should not be traded at this time) Marc and Mike being shipped out makes sense.

It doesn’t mean, however, that problems will be solved. They could just be beginning.

This will be the start of a long, and arduous, process. There will be much losing, and many mistakes made, and thorough ass kickings that Memphis will endure the rest of this season, and probably most of the next season or two. When a 19-year-old kid suddenly becomes the best/most important piece of your team, that is to be expected. Whatever comes back in any trade the Grizzlies make, they will make up a roster in the next season or two or five or ten, depending on picks and contracts, that will have little chance to win on most nights.

While that is a necessary evil in the NBA, especially for a small market team that will not win most free agency battles, that doesn’t make it any more fun for the players. There must be a vision.

And beyond Thursday, that is what must come next for Robert Pera and his Grizzlies.

Memphis Grizzlies v Denver Nuggets Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Regardless of who wears the blue of Beale Street, the steps that follow matter just as much, if not more, than the first ones on this journey. While it is hard to move on from front office personnel and coaches in-season, any personnel change on the court will mean little if there aren’t drastic adjustments made off of it.

If you believe this is going to be Chris Wallace’s rebuild, you are likely mistaken. He is probably not longed for the Memphis Grizzlies - in fact, it would appear from the outside that he has slowly been phased out as a group think situation, including Chris Makris, Tayshaun Prince, and of course Pera himself, takes hold.

But when Wallace, and John Hollinger and whoever else may head out in the wake of the deadline, leave, who replaces them matters.

Makris and Prince may make a formidable team, but how much difference would exist with them at the helm potentially being more beholden to Pera? Makris is home grown, having come from the former G-League farm system Iowa Energy, and Prince got the opportunity through Wallace and Pera to be in Memphis. Are they equipped to utilize the assets that likely will soon be at the disposal of the Grizzlies? The next two days will tell us a lot about that possible process - this may well be a job interview for them.

Is the answer currently outside of the organization? Shane Battier obviously has a Memphis connection and is a rising front office star - could he be the “outsider” who is a shot of energy in a franchise that needs it in its basketball operations? Having Pat Riley as a mentor surely doesn’t hurt, but all this assumes the Grizzlies become a more attractive destination for someone like Shane.

32nd Annual Great Sports Legends Dinner To Benefit The Miami Project/Buoniconti Fund To Cure Paralysis - Arrivals Photo by Mike Coppola/Getty Images for The Buoniconti Fund to Cure Paralysis

The same questions surround the coaching staff. J.B. Bickerstaff has struggled mightily in less than a year as the full-time Head Coach, and he doesn’t appear to be able to lead the on court product of an NBA team at this time. Will Pera and whoever is calling the shots make the necessary call to move on, be it after the deadline (with Jerry Stackhouse as interim Head Coach the rest of the season) or after the season concludes in April? It isn’t fun to eat money and pay someone to not work for you, especially after the way you hired him, but if the reset button is fully hit is Bickerstaff really the man you want to develop Jaren Jackson Jr. and others?

Who is next? Could Stackhouse work, following a similar path to Bickerstaff? Possibly - he is just as much a question mark regarding NBA success as a head coach as J.B., but in his previous job running the G-League team for the Toronto Raptors he showed the ability to at least develop talent. If you want a clean break, a retread or hot-shot college coach probably isn’t coming to Memphis. There are only 30 NBA head coaching positions in the world, though, so an assistant - Jarron Collins, Becky Hammon, Johnnie Bryant, Juwan Howard - may be the best bet. But you’d better make sure, to the best of your ability, that they can teach and lead while establishing a culture.

For that is what is lacking in Memphis - a culture. Grit and Grind is no more. There is nothing to believe in. The next GM, the next coach, must prioritize establishing a core system...a code...and they must be able to sell it to Jackson, Kyle Anderson, and the other new players who come to the Grizzlies in the coming months and years. Without that, any move that is to come involving Marc and Mike will be futile...action for the sake of action.

That will cripple this franchise. That is what is on the line not just this week, but in the weeks and months ahead. The journey isn’t over with the potential/likely departures of Gasol and is just beginning. Is Robert Pera capable of leading this charge and making the choices necessary to get this organization out of basketball hell and back in to the light? A sports franchise’s version of nuclear winter awaits if he isn’t...

These are the stakes.

The roof may come off FedExForum.

The Denver Nuggets are in town, and have the opportunity to clinch the best record in the Western Conference playoffs with a win in the season finale over the Memphis Grizzlies. It is April 14th, 2025, and things have gotten bad in Memphis. Owner Robert Pera looks over the crowd that is a sell out...but 80% of the crowd is rocking the colors of Denver, who have built quite the following after years of success and smart free agency and draft moves. Nikola Jokic and others dominate the league now, much like the Golden State Warriors did before them. Their fans are loud, and proud...and Grizzlies fans are very much the opposite.

Pera sees apathy all around him - the product has not improved in years, and star Jaren Jackson Jr. has asked to be traded to a contender this summer. He is sitting out the season finale, not even with the team at this stage of the season. He won’t take questions at end-of-season media availability, and by August 1st he will be opportunity lost.

Robert Pera leaves the arena before the game ends - Denver was up 93-72 at the end of the third quarter - and heads up to his office. As he sits at his desk, he knows he must clean house - the front office, the coaching staff, everyone. There is no on-court leadership, no off-court discipline or direction. He has done this twice already since 2019, and the overturn has made working in Memphis...less than desirable. You cannot hire Gregg Popovich or Danny Ainge if they do not apply, and Pera wonders what it will take to get the team right...maybe a change of scenery is in order. “Perhaps now is the time to build toward relocation”...he thinks to himself.

Across his office, a mirror stands next to the door. Pera looks up from his computer at the reflection, a man whose solution to his problem cannot be found because he wishes to not see it right in front of him.

In the arena, the horn sounds. Another season, and era, is ending...

And Memphis exhales, thankful that it is over.

Follow @sbngrizzlies