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The Memphis Grizzlies? Gone till November

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Zach Randolph found little to enjoy in the Western Conference finals (Getty Images)

With every season that ends, for the playoff teams at least, we felt it right to take a look ahead. TNT already has the rights to "Gone Fishin'," and because we're sure that someone, somewhere, still likes that Wyclef song, we're going with "Gone Till November." And, yes, we know the season starts in October. Today? The Memphis Grizzlies.

They did it!

The Memphis Grizzlies cast out the old guard (former personnel chief Chris Wallace is still an employee but may be headed elsewhere during the offseason) in the front office, ownership switched hands, they somehow got Lionel Hollins on board with a new roster, and the team cleared massive amounts of salary (along with low percentage shooting) with a deal that sent Rudy Gay to Toronto. And though nobody knew what to expect from this roster heading into the postseason, the Grizzlies made the Conference finals for the first time in franchise history, setting the stage for what would seem like a natural next step past 2013 as the San Antonio Spurs get on in years, and the Oklahoma City Thunder struggle with their own payroll woes.

You’d think that, at least.

The last four months have been fantastic fun for the Memphis Grizzlies. The team finished the season on a 26-8 run, it topped the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round in a revenge bout against the team that sent them spiraling out of Western bracket last season, and did the same in the Western Conference semis against Oklahoma City while making up for a 2011 defeat to OKC. San Antonio got its own revenge for Memphis’ first round dismissal of the Spurs in 2011, sweeping the Grizzlies this time around, but not before Memphis was all over national TV while taking in seven home playoff games’ worth of revenue.

And that’s the high point, as this team will now be forced into several tough decisions that will be just as criticized or trumpeted as the Gay trade was regardless of which fork in the road the team decides to take.

Things start with the coach, as Lionel Hollins is a free agent starting at the end of June, one that will be highly sought after in a league that still has several coaching vacancies to fill. Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling was actually seen in attendance at FedEx Forum during Game 3 of Memphis’ series with Oklahoma City, ostensibly scouting Hollins as a potential Vinny Del Negro replacement, but the Clips aren’t the only team that would have designs on the irascible Hollins.

Though both sides have said the right things, there’s also the question as to whether or not Hollins and the Grizzlies are a good fit for one another. The team’s front office left the coaching staff with little bench to work with during the playoffs, and Hollins complained quite a bit about the Rudy Gay deal that helped shepherd in a more efficient (and, most importantly, winning) style centered around Memphis’ bigs. One big acquired in that deal, former Raptors lottery pick Ed Davis, never found footing or playing time under Hollins, and Lionel’s game-to-game adjustments were a step slow in the Spurs series, even though his players (Zach Randolph and Jerryd Bayless, especially, and Mike Conley to a lesser extent) did him no favors.

Hollins is the sort of coach you’d want to line up behind, so there is the fear that the Grizzlies front office would risk losing the locker room by parting ways with Lionel. Still, with rumors floating about flare-ups between Hollins and Zach Randolph out there, perhaps things aren’t as rosy as we’re assuming. Then there’s the nagging question about how much influence assistant coach David Joerger has on this team’s makeup, and how well the Grizzlies would possibly do with that well-respected second in command taking the lead.

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Lionel Hollins is in control (Getty Images)

This team is full of the nags. Would the group have even made it out of the first round had former Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro not ridiculously lowered Eric Bledsoe’s playoffs minutes per game against the team he dominated in last year’s postseason? And what if Russell Westbrook had been around to help steady Oklahoma City’s attack? The Grizzlies earned that Conference finals bid, this team (even as presently constructed) has third round talent, but the Grizzlies’ front office has to be mindful of how things went down in April and mid-May when it attempts to build things back up in July and August.

This is why they should listen to offers for Zach Randolph, assuming there are any. It was hard not to feel for Randolph during the Spurs series, as he was a clear target for the Spurs on both sides of the ball in his team’s final four games. Randolph shot just 30 percent against San Antonio, down from 36 percent during the regular season, while making just half his free throws. And his work in the screen and roll on the other end of the floor was disastrous, San Antonio attacked Randolph offensively repeatedly and there was little Tony Allen or Marc Gasol could do to help.

Zach is owed $34.3 million over the next two years between a guaranteed deal next season, and a player option in 2014-15 he’s bound to pick up. There is a chance Randolph could have a bounce back season next year after a rough injury-plagued 2011-12 and the tough ending to this year’s playoffs, but he’s also turning 32 in June and not the potent offensive threat he once was. This is why dealing the big man, even given his considerable skills, heart, toughness, will be a chore.

Just approximating the team’s work in 2012-13 during season will be a chore. If everyone comes back (no sure thing, given Bayless’ $3.1 million contract option that he’ll probably decline in order to become a free agent), the Grizzlies will be just under the salary cap next season provided they decline to offer Austin Daye the qualifying offer. A fine number, for a sure playoff team, but it still leaves the Grizzlies with just nine players in the rotation (including Jon Leuer, who we’re guessing the Grizzlies will keep with his qualifying offer), and Tony Allen left to sign.

Signing Allen to a reasonable deal would then put the Grizzlies over the cap, which would allow them to start to use exceptions to round out the roster. Which would then allow wonks like us to bust out our magnifying glasses to study each and every fringe move made by a front office now in the hands of Jason Levien and John Hollinger. Frankly, we can’t wait.

Because of the Rudy Gay deal, the Grizzlies now have room under the luxury tax to move around, and possibly reshape the team’s bench with trades. The problem for Memphis is that the team boasts a top heavy roster. The Grizzlies won’t be dealing Marc Gasol, they probably won’t want to move Mike Conley unless the team receives a significant upgrade at point guard (that is to say, “not happening”), and interest in Randolph and Tayshaun Prince (owed $15 million over the next two years, has shot 33.7 percent over his last two trips to the playoffs) will likely be cool.

So where does Memphis go? Only The Machine knows, apparently. From these sidelines, it’s going to be very interesting to watch.

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