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Selling hope in Memphis

There’s no money in despair

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at Memphis Grizzlies Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

If you were watching game number 82 for the Memphis Grizzlies last night, you would have seen a lot of unusual things.

You would’ve seen, as Peter Edmiston of The Athletic put it, “the highest-quality Summer League game” ever.

You would’ve watched, jaw dropped, as Memphis scored 86 points in a single half of basketball.

With your own eyes you would have witnessed a third straight triple-double from Delon Wright, and 32 points scored from Jevon Carter.

Essentially, it was a G-League All-Star Game, with appearances from some NBA players (and stars in the case of Golden State).

As those with working memories of MarShon Brooks and the end of last season recall, however, these numbers often ring hollow. Especially on the final night of the regular season, where superstars play limited minutes (or not at all in most cases) and defense is not really a top priority as much as getting out of the game uninjured is, just about anyone with NBA skill and a will can produce.

What was far more important to observe was the absolute lack of what could be seen as a future for the Memphis Grizzlies.

When you’re getting excited for the empty numbers of 2nd round picks and former G-Leaguers, there is viable cause for concern.

When you look out and see nine players out with a variety of ailments, for one reason or another, there is probable cause to question what the hell the medical staff, and front office as a whole, is doing with regard to managing the roster.

When you see your General Manager, Chris Wallace, at center court giving out the Don Poier Scholarship, a very important and meaningful award to many, and your first thought is “I wish it was someone else”, but seriously doubt that hope will become reality?

You’re nearing an end game you want to avoid, that could be coming closer with every day that passes:

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies-Press Conference Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Apathy.

There was a USL Soccer match in Memphis last night, the local club playing on national television. The excitement was evident, despite the loss, and over 7,000 folks went to Autozone Park, cheered, and gave terrific support to the team. Several social media posts showed folks choosing between that match and the Grizzlies game, and choosing the soccer match on multiple occasions.

No offense to Memphis 901 FC, which has represented the city well in their short time as a team and will hopefully have a long and prosperous run, but that would not have been a question if the Grizzlies were playing meaningful basketball.

Or even if they had any semblance of a direction.

The lack of vision is leading season ticket holders to wonder whether or not they should indeed renew their tickets. The flawed front office is forcing franchise icons like Mike Conley to stop thinking about what is best for Memphis, and start pondering what is best for him and his legacy. In the absence of leadership - real, public leadership - speculation and stress run rampant, and the void is filled by noise and concern.

In the vacuum that exists, there is doubt. And doubt does not bring people in the FedExForum. Doubt does not sell season tickets.

You know what sells?

Hope.

And hope can come back to the Memphis Grizzlies...but it is going to cost them.

NBA: Golden State Warriors at Memphis Grizzlies Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

It is going to cost them their leading scorer in franchise history. Mike Conley made it pretty clear in his sit down with Peter Edmiston (link above) that he is not sure where the Grizzlies are heading, but it probably isn’t towards a championship. He wants to remake his legacy and be remembered for more that just being the guy that at one time was the highest paid player in the NBA. He wants accolades, he wants to compete for titles, he wants to shape what his NBA twilight looks like in the years ahead.

It is going to have to come at the expense of their front office head Chris Wallace, who has become a pariah in the public eye. Brain trust or no brain trust, the name “Wallace” has become synonymous with “incompetent” in Memphis, much like Ernie Grunfeld had in Washington (Grunfeld has since been fired). His mere presence leads many fans to wonder how in the world Robert Pera, even with his wealth and success, can be so inept as to keep a man that has had as many missteps as Wallace around in a position of relevance, even if it is less relevant than it once was.

It will, if a new front office is constructed either through an outsider (unlikely) or a promotion from within (more likely - watch for Chris Makris or Tayshaun Prince), possibly come at the expense of J.B. Bickerstaff’s job. Bickerstaff has more of an argument for staying than Wallace - he has dealt with a remarkable amount of overturn and, much like Conley, has been “the good soldier” for the franchise - but he has still not shown a consistent ability to be a competent NBA Head Coach. Of the three listed here - Conley, Bickerstaff, and Wallace - J.B. is probably the most likely to return...but that’s no guarantee.

All these moves mean interviews, and trades, and revamping team chemistry. It will mean more speculation and intrinsic evaluation of how the Grizzlies do business, and will probably require some outside the box thinking regarding personnel and organizational structure. It will make for a busy off-season.

It will also open a door that seemingly is closing more and more by the day - a path to something greater on the horizon.

A Conley trade should be able to net a return of a good first round pick and a young prospect, or two future firsts. Those can be building blocks alongside Jaren Jackson Jr. The removal of Bickerstaff could mean an actual interview process - one that should have happened last season, but didn’t - and the opportunity to exchange ideas and information with young and bright coaches. Even if they don’t get hired, those interactions hold value as you try to learn how to get out of the hole your organization finds itself in.

And a new front office would signal that controlling owner Robert Pera does indeed hold people accountable. That there is a cost for multiple mistakes, and that while it may take some time there is finally a search under way for someone to lead the Grizzlies down a path back to the postseason.

You can sell the hell out of that. And Jaren Jackson Jr. And a younger, more exciting brand of basketball that has a purpose. A direction.

A pursuit of identity.

NBA: Sacramento Kings at Memphis Grizzlies Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

The view of the floor of FedExForum Wednesday night was a disappointing one. The realization of another season gone, and while missing the playoffs is disheartening most fans understood that the end of the Core Four era would likely mean lean years ahead. What is more depressing is the lack of a sales pitch for what is next. Jaren Jackson Jr. alone is not enough. He needs help - and the Grizzlies front office and leadership have not presented how that assistance will be acquired. The race to convey has concluded, and is not dependent on a random drawing to come this Friday and the bouncing of balls on May 14th.

It has failed.

The fire that has been the Grizzlies these two past seasons can lead to an eventual rise from the proverbial ashes, if Robert Pera is willing to pay the price to get there. It will take actually getting involved in person. It will mean acquiring a leader of the day to day operation of the franchise that fans can believe in. It will require the ability to make a series of tough decisions, and being willing to explain why those decisions were made and what the overall vision for the Memphis Grizzlies is in the future.

It will be a long summer, and still a tough sell. But it will be a lot easier to buy if there’s is something worth investing in again in Memphis.

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