Being the head of the Memphis Grizzlies, or any professional sports franchise for that matter, has to have the feeling of a high wire act at times.
Imagine being Zachary Kleiman, almost a 90’s baby, and getting the job of your dreams. You’re now running an NBA team’s basketball operations. It is literally a billion dollar enterprise, and your two bosses are either absent a considerable amount (Controlling Owner Robert Pera) or somehow perhaps even more inexperienced on the basketball side of things as you (Grizzlies President Jason Wexler, who is extremely skilled at running the business aspect of the franchise but is pretty new to on-court decisions). You’re not alone, per se, because you’ve assembled a “brain trust” of folks around you to help you make decisions.
But, in reality, you’re alone as the ringleader of this circus. It’s you as the lead executive. You’re the one who must lead the discussions, make the calls, and eventually take responsibility for what happens as you try to take the good fortune of lottery night and turn it in to a competitive NBA team again.
That spotlight is bright...and hot.
Beyond the (likely) Ja Morant selection, things get tricky. And even that has become a bit more muddy after the report that Morant has had knee surgery to remove a “loose body”.
The first step - logically, at least - is to hire a head coach. Shams Charania of Stadium and The Athletic reported that Taylor Jenkins of the Milwaukee Bucks interviewed a second time recently for the Grizzlies head coaching job. Seven names have been made public, and they run the gauntlet from career assistants to international coaches to recently fired former head honchos.
Which path do you take? Are you able to convince your new bosses that the head coaching position is actually worthy of investing in? If not, and you have to choose from a list of folks searching for the first gig regardless of importance placed on it by ownership, who among these names will help establish a culture?
A swing and a miss here would be quite costly.
Once you (again, logically) cross that off your list, the Mike Conley situation needs to be addressed.
Or is it Jonas Valanciunas?
Vanalciunas must make a decision on his player option by June 13th, as reported by Chris Herrington of the Daily Memphian. Considering that is roughly a week away, we can safely assume that unless a whale of a trade offer comes through for Mike before the draft a Jonas opt in or out will occur first. That drastically impacts direction, and perhaps even what you’re hoping to achieve in any theoretical Mike Conley deal.
Say Jonas opts in, and there is no extension attached. Just one year, $17.6 million, and Valanciunas wants to see how things play out. This is, probably, the most likely scenario - one season of $17.6 million would probably be enough for Jonas to swallow being on a young team not likely destined for the postseason. If he decides he likes the new coaching staff and roster, he can always negotiate an extension if the Grizzlies want him around beyond the 2019-2020 campaign.
But what if they don’t?
What if the new coaching staff believes in Jaren Jackson as a modern-NBA center now? Where does that leave Jonas?
The balancing act continues when it comes to trade value for Jonas, if it comes to that down the road. Is he worth a 1st round pick? Two seconds? What if he opts out entirely, seeing the writing on the wall with a Conley trade and/or not liking the head coaching hire? Do you suddenly become a player in the watered down free agent center market? Do you draft a big in the 2nd round, or with the returns of a Conley trade?
Will, and should, the Valanciunas decision impact what happens with Mike Conley?
If the Grizzlies do get another pick in this draft in a Conley trade - Chicago at #7, Minnesota at #11, Miami at #13 are all realistic options. Are you really confident enough in Jaren and Ivan Rabb as centers to not bring in another big, or will they want a Cristiano Felicio/Gorgui Dieng/Hassan Whiteside or Bam Adebayo type in exchange to eventually replace Jonas? Do you use that 2nd selection to take a young big like a Jaxson Hayes or Bol Bol, who both (in very different ways) have modern NBA skill sets.
You can argue whatever you get back for Mike should not be driven by the need for bigs. You should be able to sign an effective reserve free agent big man - Khem Birch, for example - for relatively cheap, compared to a Valanciunas contract. This sequence matters, however. A Valanciunas opt-in or opt-out impacts a Conley deal, and the level of money available in free agency. Depending on return, a Jonas departure and Mike trade in to cap space could leave the Grizzlies, surprisingly, with a max contract slot this summer.
You’re only two steps away from that. Add in a Chandler Parsons stretch provision (unlikely, but possible) and all of a sudden you’re swimming in cap room and on a completely new adventure.
Maybe Klay Thompson or Tobias Harris wants to be the “star” of a young team, and the Grizzlies could provide that opportunity. Perhaps Memphis wants to sign Kristaps Porzingis to an extremely player-friendly offer sheet, forcing Dallas to hurt themselves down the road to keep a key piece in their future. Maybe you’d want to split that money up and bring in Malcolm Brogdon and Thaddeus Young, or Julius Randle and Jeremy Lamb. The possibilities with such cap space would be endless, and would allow a new front office structure and coaching staff to build a roster around Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. that fits their skill sets and development needs.
That, or course, is assuming that Ja Morant is the pick at all.
Morant should be the pick. He is a Memphian without knowing it. He’s explosive, and flashy, and has a game tailor made to be alongside the litness that is Jaren Jackson Jr. Yet reports surfaced of a requested (and rejected) workout from RJ Barrett for Memphis. Barrett has an offensive repertoire more advanced than Ja’s at this stage, and his frame is more conducive to defensive versatility down the road. While Ja’s fit in Memphis should win out in the end, the question of Barrett is not as far fetched as some would say...especially after the procedure Morant just underwent on his knee.
And you’ve reached the end of the tightrope, one that has brought you full circle around the continued uncertainty that surrounds the Memphis Grizzlies. This off-season is potentially as consequential as any Memphis has had in a long time, largely because just about anything could happen. A Morant/Brogdon/Kyle Anderson/Jackson/Valanciunas starting five is possible...but so is a Conley/Dillon Brooks/Barrett/Anderson/Jackson one. There is a lot of room for variance, and while it’s easy for me here at GBB to say Conley should be traded, and Jonas’ future shouldn’t be tied to any decision long-term, and Morant should be the pick...I am not the one performing the high wire show.
Zachary Kleiman will be taking the stage soon enough. His first act at the helm of the Grizzlies will truly be impressive if he can make it to the end of the tightrope in one piece.
It’s unlikely the “brain trust” would be around to catch him, if he falls.