MEMPHIS – There’s a pearly white Maybach 57S speeding away from the FedEx Forum on one of those early February afternoons that teases of springtime. It weaves past a rusty red van, passes an empty gas station and turns away from downtown, the tinted windows hiding whoever sits behind the wheel.
But this is Memphis. That’s the Grizzlies’ arena, there in the Maybach’s dust. This is Memphis, and cars like that don’t cruise by the edge of Beale Street regularly. This is Memphis, population 1.3 million, median household income $32,000, home of Sun Records and Graceland and so many other harbingers of a bygone era. This is Memphis, where the biggest celebrity is a rectangular granite slab draped with flowers out on Elvis Presley Blvd.
This is Memphis, and that, unquestionably, is Zach Randolph. No need for tinted windows. There are only so many Maybachs in this town of newly minted and reinvented stars.
The Grizzlies won the first playoff game in franchise history on April 17, 2011 in San Antonio, just two years removed from a 24-win season. That year, the team climbed out of the dregs of the NBA, and since then it’s proven that no matter how small the market or shaky the past, it can win.
It was Randolph’s second season in Memphis in 2011. That night, he and Marc Gasol scored 25 and 24 points, respectively, in nearly 40 minutes apiece, propelling the Grizzlies to victory. It was the beginning of something, built on the backs of the two big men, of point guard Mike Conley, shooting guard Tony Allen and of small forward Rudy Gay, who sat out that entire playoff run with a shoulder injury.
Two years after that run, Memphis is still a force, just as it was last season, when its .621 winning percentage marked the best in franchise history. Winning is expected, and now, with the playoffs just two months away, Memphis is knocking yet again, now on a seven-game winning streak to push its record to 37-18.
This time, just as in 2011, it’s without Gay, who was traded nearly a month ago, on Jan. 30, to Toronto.
This time, unlike in 2011, Gay is a memory fading fast, and if (when) the Grizzlies win a few games or series in the playoffs, no one will take it as a surprise. Not even after the trade, with the initial flurry of those cheap, expletive expletive expletive owners, after those muddled two weeks in which Memphis lost three of its first four post-Gay games and struggled to re-cement its identity. No longer does there seem to be concern, what with the picking apart of Gay’s shooting – in a nutshell: there’s a lot of it, and it’s not so great – and the team’s current streak.
How quickly we forget.
A month into these Grizzlies 2.0, things have calmed. Coach Lionel Hollins’ derogatory comments about champagne taste on a beer budget have faded. The new lineup, which first played together on Feb. 1, has amassed eight wins and now seven straight, and the lingering insecurity is dissipating – as much as it can for a small-market, underdog team, that is.
The last time Grizzlies general manager Chris Wallace swung a deal with this much publicity, he sent Pau Gasol to the Lakers and brought back his then-unheralded younger brother, Marc. The result was a PR disaster for a team on its way to a second consecutive 22-win season and with little to no fan support. “You’d come to our games, and literally you could put your kids there to do their homework,” Wallace said, laughing.
He can laugh, now. His arena draws well, well enough for Memphis, anyway, and his team expects not only to make the playoffs but also to win.
That said, Wallace still resents the firestorm that reverberated after the Gasol deal, which he swung nearly five years to the day before the Gay circus finally came to a close. Wallace still holds a grudge over the notable names – Gregg Popovich, Mark Cuban, Jeff Van Gundy – who publicly decried his decision. It hurt his business and his credibility at a time when business was stagnant and credibility was negligible, and it’s been a long road to recovery after a trade with results he knew would come as delayed gratification.
So why then, you ask, would Wallace give it all away? He was sitting in the catbird seat, the Grizzlies finally turned grizzly, even menacing in the West. He had arguably the second-best starting five in the NBA behind that of the Miami Heat, the best perimeter (and perhaps overall) defense, too, and he blew the thing up. He’d worked for years for Memphis to be something more than Memphis, and then he gave in.
He gave in to reality as dictated by new owner Robert Pera, CEO Jason Levien and the CBA. The Grizzlies may have masked their project with analytics – and advanced stats did guide the deal – but this was about money, plain and simple. Money and trying to get some kind of return before the whole thing eventually just became a salary dump.
Of course this was about money, but the more time passes, the more it appears that this was, like the Grizzlies have so forcefully insisted, also about basketball. Gay was selected as the player to deal for a reason, and the front office took those reasons and ran with them, citing his 14.2 PER, his lowest since his rookie season, among other wonkish measures. But Gay was also arguably the most overpaid third-best player on a team in the league, and Levien admitted that the timing of the deal was based in part on the best point at which to squeeze value from Gay’s deal. Tayshaun Prince is no superstar, but he’s a solid replacement in this world where the cheapest acceptable replacement is gold. As a former agent, the CEO knows a thing or two about maximizing value, and he believes his timing was spot-on.
The import of time has shifted, though, from finding the time at which to act to amassing it. The more time, the clearer the Grizzlies’ identity, the more it seems that nothing has changed – or at least that certain tendencies have been reinforced. There have been improvements, sure: in the early days, ball movement was a hot topic, and the team has averaged 23.1 assists since the trade when before it was averaging 20.6. But more than anything, the team has just continued its defensive dominance, allowing opponents an average of 88.4 points with its new roster in place. In fact, that marks an improvement; the old-look Grizzlies with Gay in the starting five allowed an average of 89.5, still best in the league but not as good as what’s come after.
There’s no mistaking it: the Grizzlies got back basketball value in addition to some financial flexibility. Those are both good things. But for a team supposedly so reliant on ABPRmetrics, the sabermetrics of basketball, it sure is touting a lot of amorphous variables. There’s plenty of talk of Prince’s ring, from 2004 in Detroit, of Austin Daye’s potential, of what Levien refers to as the qualitative. Much of it is true – for instance, Prince is an intelligent, experienced leader who knows he needs to move away from posting up as much as he did in Detroit and to focus on moving without the ball – but it’s hardly rock-solid crunched numbers.
No matter the justifications or ramifications, the Grizzlies are as they stand, the trade deadline nearly a week past. They are as they stand, and that for them is a blessing; they can learn who they are and know that’s who they’ll stay, and with identities crystallizing, there’s no longer a need for the Gay comparisons that were lobbed at Prince’s locker in those early days.
“I can’t control that,” Prince said of the comparisons. “I’m not going to control it. … The only I can do is worry about what I can do to help this team. … I’m not too concerned with trying to show people that I’m going to replace somebody. That’s something that I can’t do.”
That, then, will be the final step. No one is replacing anyone. There’s no possible way to cobble together the skills of Prince, Daye and Davis with the Grizzlies’ added financial flexibility and engineer some post-CBA version of Rudy Gay. Instead, the team is going in the other direction, toward a Spurs-esque model, knowing full well that Tayshaun Prince is not Rudy Gay, and won’t do Rudy Gay things, like score 20 and win a game in its final seconds on command. (He also won’t attempt 25 shots and make only seven of them, as Gay did Dec. 8.) Hollins isn’t going to ask him to, and the Grizzlies are attempting to skew their game toward Randolph and Gasol, and the whole thing sounds like a pretty decent plan.
It’s a pretty decent plan, that is, for a playoff team, one with a good shot at a four, five or six seed. One like the Grizzlies. It’s a plan for a squad that’s expected to win its first-round series, or at least to go down fighting like Memphis did last season to the Los Angeles Clippers. It’s a plan for a team that’ll have some playoff success, a team that will maybe make it to Oklahoma City, Los Angeles or San Antonio.
It might not be a plan for a team to beat the West’s big three of the Thunder, Spurs and Clippers. It might not be a plan for a championship team. Prince’s ring from Detroit does not make the odds of one in Memphis any greater than did Gay’s relative youth, and therein lies the disconnect.
Memphis saw a potential champion, a glimmer of sports greatness for the small southern city where basketball is king. It saw an underdog story finally coming true this June, or at least having the darndest chance to. It saw Gay as an All-Star, a lynchpin, a foundation. But he is none of those things, not for them, at least.
If Memphis wins a championship this season, it won’t be because of Prince, Daye and Ed Davis — the fruits of the Gay trade — and it won’t be because the odds have ever been in its favor to. It’ll be because of Randolph, Gasol, Conley and Tony Allen, a strong bench and a good coach. It’ll be because of good luck, fortuitous pairings and late-season momentum. And if it loses in the first round, or the second, or really anywhere along the line, it will not be because of Rudy Gay.
The ceiling has not changed precipitously, not if Memphis gets its collective head screwed on straight and manages to play through its new core, to keep up its ball movement and allow Prince to “get his legs back,” as he claims he needs to. Memphis is still Memphis, the mighty underdog, slapped around but still fighting.
“It’s a process, a transition,” Gasol said. “It’s a matter of the team shifting, the roles are shifting a little bit, and when everything gets to the right place and the team functions the way that it will, it will work. It takes a little process, I think. It won’t happen overnight.”
But it’s happening, or perhaps it’s even happened. Memphis knows it, and it knows how it got there, through change both individual and team-wide. Just three years ago, Gasol was Pau’s formerly fat little brother, hardly anything to howl about, known affectionately as the Big Burrito. Randolph was a player with a checkered past, known for his days on the Jail Blazers in Portland and little more.
Now, the Grizzlies’ offense is running through them. Now, it’s those two plus Allen and Conley, good players but hardly superstars, who form the steady core, the players the team is building around. Gasol is one of the league’s best defenders, Randolph a guy who wins community service awards. Neither fat, neither criminal, and the team that took 16 seasons to win a playoff game has six such victories to its credit in two years.
And people say Hollins hates change. Just look at what he’s done.