Players acquired via free agency or trade:
Andre Brown (one year minimum)
Casey Jacobsen (one year minimum)
Darko Milicic (three years, $21.06 million)
Juan Carlos Navarro (rights acquired from Washington, signed for one year and slightly above the minimum)
Players acquired via draft:
First round: Mike Conley Jr (4th overall)
Second round: None
Tarence Kinsey (exercised team option)
Only three years ago, the Memphis Grizzlies surprised everybody (except me, and I can prove it in court) by winning 50 games in a season and making the playoffs, this ending the franchise’s entirely fruitless history up until that point. That year saw a line-up of General Manager Jerry West, head coach Hubie Brown getting his first full season with the team, and a 10-man rotation every night featuring some of my favourite players of all time: Jason Williams, Earl Watson, Mike Miller, James Posey, Bonzi Wells, Shane Battier, POW! Gasol, BO! Outlaw, Lorenzen Wright and Stromile Swift, with Jake Tsakalidis as the 11th man.
Frickin’ awesome, it was.
Now, apart from Pau Gasol and Mike Miller (and also Stromile Swift, who left but came back), it’s all change. From West to Watson via Brown and Bo, all of the above starlets have left the franchise, apart from those that haven’t.
The 10-man rotation was partly to blame. Despite its awesomeness, it led to alleged locker room discontent from those who felt slighted by the limited minutes that it gave them (namely Williams, Posey and Wells, although it also led to Stromile Swift signing with Houston). That discontent led to Hubie Brown resigning, and some players moves to be made over the course of the offseason and following season. Williams and Posey were dealt to Miami for Eddie Jones (a man who would never complain), and Bonzi Wells went to the Kings for backup guard Bobby Jackson. Watson and Swift were allowed to sign elsewhere, and Bo Outlaw was unexpectedly waived so that the team could keep Ryan Humphrey, a forward who went on to achieve nothing. Battier was traded to Houston in June 2006, and just like that, most of the 10-man team had been disbanded.
With it went the Grizzlies playoff days.
Last season saw the Grizzlies finish with the worst record in the NBA. Largely due to the broken foot sustained by superstar Pau Gasol, the Grizzlies also had some coaching drama, firing Mike Fratello shortly after Christmas. His replacement, the wonderfully-named and wonderfully-tailored Tony Barone, didn’t so much coach the team as he did the opposite. From the slow-paced micromanaging of Fratello, Memphis transformed almost overnight into a high-tempo running team, averaging 105.7 points per game for the final 52 games of the under Barone. It didn’t help them win any more, though, and neither did the return of Gasol, as Memphis limped to a 22-win season (or perhaps, it’s best called a 60-loss season).
The only way to make that worse would be to finish fourth in the draft, the worst position that Memphis could have. They achieved this, if that’s the right way to phrase it, missing out on Greg Oden and Kevin Durant, and drafted Mike Conley instead.
So in the end, all that losing was all for nought. Well, not for nought, but that’s how it must have felt after a long, slow season of futility. A bit like walking six miles home, in the rain, just to find that you’re locked out anyway. You can break into next door’s garage and sleep there for the night, but it’s not going to suffice, and you’re not going to be a happy bunny. And your neighbours will probably be pretty annoyed with you too.
Contrary to how I’ve outlined it above, though, it’s really not that bad of a situation in Memphis right now.
New GM Chris Wallace’s tenure in Boston was punctuated by his trade for former All-Star and alcoholic Vin Baker, a trade whose ramifications ended only this summer, when Boston could finally stop paying him. Having seemingly learnt from that mistake, Wallace decided to spend Memphis’s cap space this summer on Darko Milicic, a young talented big, rather than going balls out to sign someone like Stanislav Medvedenko (and don’t think he couldn’t do it, either). In addition to this, the Grizzlies traded a future first-round draft choice to Washington for the rights to Juan Carlos Navarro, whom they then signed to a one-year contract. This move, plus the drafting of Conley and the return from injury of Kyle Lowry, gives Damon Stoudamire a new reason to gripe, but more importantly it gives Memphis a decent guard rotation, something which they did not have last year. You can tell if a team has a good guard rotation or not by looking to see whether they have Junior Harrington on their roster. If yes, then that team does not have a good guard rotation.
Why they decided to sign Casey Jacobsen and Andre Brown prior to signing Navarro, severely limiting the amount of money they could give him (and therefore the number of years – Navarro’s actually losing money this season after paying his buyout, which is why he signed for only one year), I’ll never know. If they hadn’t done so, they probably wouldn’t be looking at having to spend part of all of their MLE next year on just keeping Navarro. In fact, why they waived Alexander Johnson just to replace him with Brown in the first place is also a mystery. But, you know, whatever.
The additions of Milicic, Conley and Navarro add to a young core which already featured the harshly named Rudy Gay, the immensely decent (until his wrist broke) Kyle Lowry, the valuable if limited Hakim Warrick, and last year’s surprise Tarence Kinsey. That’s not to mention superstar power forward Gasol, and the uber role player himself, Mike Miller.
Memphis has many ingredients for a successful playoff team. They have a talented roster at every position, with plenty of offensive talent, improved if still poor defence, and more than enough athleticism. But their biggest hole is experience. Recent Memphis teams had successful regular seasons and made the playoffs, but the franchise has never won a playoff game in 12 years. Indeed, all the players on the roster have only won a combined 56 playoff games, with only seven playoff series won between them. Mike Miller has won two playoff games, Damon Stoudamire has won 21 games and four series, Jacobsen two games, and Darko Milicic has 31 games and seven playoff series won. Plus a ring.
Yet, given that Jacobsen didn’t play at all in his team’s playoff wins, that Milicic played mere garbage time in his entire spell at Detroit, that Miller’s lone two playoff wins came five and six years ago (and also come alongside 18 losses), and that Stoudamire probably won’t be with Memphis by the end of the season…it’s really not an impressive run-down. Especially since they have a rookie head coach.
Still, the Memphis roster has plenty of talent to go along with one of the best inside players in the game, one of the best young coaches in the game (apparently), and the super awesomeness of Mike Miller. They also have Brian Cardinal, who I thought I should mention, if only on the basis that I managed to name everybody except him at some point so far. It won’t be this season, and maybe not the one after, but barring unforeseen disaster, the Memphis Grizzlies aren’t too far away from their former 50-win selves, based on the talent that they have accumulated thus far and should continue to add to. And so maybe THAT’S why they didn’t trade Pau Gasol.
Who knows, maybe next time around, they’ll win some playoff games as well.