Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
The great American poet Robert Frost is arguably the most famous, and misunderstood, of his era. His words are quoted throughout literature, and American culture, and many take inspiration from what is perceived to be a truly deep and interpersonal look at the human experience...even if the poem literally says the opposite. “The Road Not Taken”, arguably his greatest literary achievement, is a tremendous example of this.
As David Orr wrote back in 2015, “The Road Not Taken” is probably the most misread poem in America. In the same way government officials and candidates ironically play Born in the U.S.A. by Bruce Springsteen in a patriotic way - when it in fact supposed to be an anti-war anthem - people look to Frost’s signature work as a motivating force for taking a road less traveled. But these people miss the point of Frost’s masterpiece - the direction isn’t what matters.
It’s the journey through it.
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
The Memphis Grizzlies themselves are a misunderstood franchise, to an extent. Folks are quick to label Memphis as a dysfunctional mess, and in fairness, there is evidence of such things despite the fact they recently made the postseason seven years in a row. The way Chris Wallace and J.B. Bickerstaff were led to the fire on Thursday to face the media and take questions about a future they would be a smaller part - or not be a part of at all in the case of Bickerstaff - stinks of an owner in Robert Pera is at best is out of touch with media/public perception and at worst simply doesn’t care about the perception that decision created.
But perception is reality. And a move that should have been almost universally celebrated was divisive, not because of the ends, but because of the means used to achieve them.
Machiavellian exploits aside, now that Pera’s deeds are done and the front office is in a state of flux, decisions have to be made. Jason Wexler, who has done a remarkable job on the business side of things for the Grizzlies, as an overall spokesman for the franchise makes a ton of sense. He is a visionary worthy of investment - and an executive that has clearly earned Pera’s trust, which may mean more than anything else.
Others, we know less about. Zachary Kleiman, who has been promoted to Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations, is a more recent addition to the front office in general and has rapidly shot up the ranks of leadership. It is widely assumed that he, not Wallace, has been in charge of the show for the Grizzlies since roughly the trade deadline. Because of this, some have said the moves made Thursday - keeping Chris Makris and Tayshaun Prince in their current roles, re-assigning John Hollinger, etc. - is simply rearranging furniture on the Titantic.
That’s unfair...until it isn’t.
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
The benefit of the doubt escapes Robert Pera, and for good reason. When public leadership is lacking, as it has been in Memphis for some time now, the hole is filled by suspicion and paranoia. That is of Pera’s own doing - having more of a face to the franchise that can be trusted will go a long way for an owner who is clearly averse to doing such things himself, for whatever reason. While Wexler is a good first step in the process of regaining the public trust, what comes next will be vital for Grizzlies fans to take the initial hope that these moves should create and convert it to positive energy for a franchise that desperately needs it.
Kleiman may well be a worthy head of basketball ops, and by all accounts Prince and Makris are sound thinkers in the front office themselves. Hollinger’s reassignment is more about being closer to his family than anything, according to Chris Herrington of the Daily Memphian, so he figures to still be involved roughly as he was before. But in order to add much needed stability and legitimacy to an organization that desperately needs it, more needs to be added.
It seems unlikely someone higher than Kleiman will be brought in, so a name like Shane Battier or some other possibly top-level younger executive may not be in the cards. A veteran - Chris Wallace, but not Chris Wallace - would be a possibility to provide guidance and a listening ear to an inexperienced top of the organization. Think Jerry West...a steadying presence.
As far as head coaches go, Dave Joerger probably isn’t coming back to Memphis. Chad Forcier is an attractive prediction because he’s a long-time assistant, is already in Memphis, and would be a relatively simple selection to make. But the Grizzlies did that last time with Bickerstaff..and that went pretty poorly. Firing someone after a year is admitting a mistake without saying it. Would it be wise to repeat history?
While the college ranks would be fun to pursue (Tony Bennett, Jay Wright), it’s probably more likely that a current NBA assistant gets the call for the Grizzlies (after what will hopefully be a lengthy and extensive interview process, unlike last time). Dan Burke from Indiana, Jay Larranaga of Boston, Adrian Griffin of Toronto...and yes Becky Hammon and Ettore Messina of San Antonio, should all be called for interest and an interview. Memphis would even be wise to pursue former head coaches like Mike Brown, Frank Vogel, Monty Williams, and David Blatt to gauge the possibilities and pick their brains.
They should not simply say “they have their man”. The truth is, they don’t. And they need to learn. The best way to do that is through meeting with folks and getting their takes on the organization, and where it needs to go.
What road it needs to take.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
There are many ways to interpret art. “The Road Not Taken” is a shining example of that truth. Orr writes that the poem is not the quintessential “wolf in sheep’s clothing” of perception as a french literary critic wront, but it is both the wolf and the sheep. The misreading of the poem isn’t really a misreading at all- it is a case study in the human experience. In the pursuit of finding meaning in a world where irrelevance is a reality, and the realization of such things can be both invigorating and exasperating. The selection of path you take is not really the point - it is the belief and philosophy behind why you made the choice, and your efforts in the pursuit.
That quest begins for the Memphis Grizzlies now. They could hire a retread head coach with experience, or go after a young upstart assistant. There will be interest in the job - there are only 30 such NBA head coach positions in the world, and to suggest that even in their current state the Grizzlies wouldn’t be attractive to a name mentioned above would be foolish. While the front office hires may be less clear, there is more possibility for a real direction now than there was just days ago thanks to the restructuring. The character and identity of a franchise is ready to be molded - that holds value, too.
Whatever direction Pera, Wexler, Kleiman and the “new”-look Grizzlies front office go, more important than that is the conviction behind the route they choose. The time for an in between is over. No more treading water, or selling hope when it’s a bad buy. It’s time to, with feeling, dive in to the deep end of a rebuild. Or, it’s time, with purpose, to double down on Mike Conley and find ways to put as much around him to maximize the final two seasons of his contract as possible. There will be debate about which path is best, and whichever one they travel down will have dips and bumps. Time will tell on those fronts.
Regardless of road, the time has come to choose.
And that pursuit of the path, not the path itself, will make all the difference.