If it sounds like excuse-making, it's because we're actually making excuses. The Memphis Grizzlies' were hit by two body blows early in the season when it lost Darrell Arthur for the season, and Zach Randolph for the bulk of the campaign soon after. Randolph came back to the active roster following his MCL tear, but he failed to consistently bring the sort of sturdy low-post presence that he provided in spades for this group in 2010-11. As a result, the team couldn't rely on its horse as much in Sunday's Game 7, and the Grizzlies lost to a limping Clippers team at home.
That's going to sting until the fall, but Grizzlies fans have to be realistic about what to expect from this group. Everything centers around Randolph, and though Marc Gasol is one of the best pivots in the NBA and Mike Conley had a fabulous postseason until Game 7, scoring is scoring and scoring is important and the Grizz win when Zach puts it in. And because he never could get into basketball shape or strength (not his fault, rehabbing that injury takes time), the Grizz couldn't unleash their game changer at full capacity.
Perhaps we're being too optimistic, but this is still a team to fear entering 2012-13. Arthur's presence was exactly what the Grizzlies needed in Game 7, as the Clippers bench ran roughshod all over Memphis' pine, and Randolph will hopefully be at full strength (he's been known to go a bit pear-shaped over the summer) by the time training camp sparks up. Before then the team's front office can settle in for some tough decisions. Very tough.
For one, Arthur is a restricted free agent this summer. Same with O.J. Mayo, a guy that has been on the trade block ever since he was drafted back in 2008, and a guy finished off his Grizzlies season with a tough 1-11 shooting afternoon on Sunday. Marreese Speights, who meshed quite nicely and provided sound scoring punch off the bench, saved Memphis' bacon more than a few times this season.
The problem is the offseason. Plenty of teams have cap space, and despite talk about newfound fiscal conservatism on the NBA front, owners tend to get a little giddy with the cash in the summer months, when everyone's tied for first. So should a team whiff on a bigger name free agent, they may pounce on what the Grizzlies have the rights to match — namely Arthur, Mayo, and Speights. To an outsider, this might seem like a good thing — letting the market dictate the value and matching the contract offer only if the price is right. Something the Grizzlies didn't do with Mike Conley a year and a half ago, though he's earned his contract extension thus far.
Memphis isn't just any other team, though. This is a small market outfit with major contracts to pay off in the coming months. In 2014-15, Gasol, Randolph, Conley and Rudy Gay will combine to make over $60 million, and that's with eight other roster spots to fill.
Which leaves me wondering if owner Michael Heisley has any interest in owning this team by then. He's been rumored to want to sell the club for a while now, and the way he spends or doesn't spend his cash this summer as the group attempts to retain and attain depth will be telling.
It's not just the holdovers that need attention. The Grizzlies badly need a point guard, because Gilbert Arenas just isn't cut out for NBA action anymore, and O.J. Mayo clearly struggles attempting to work as a hybrid point/shooting guard. Retaining all the necessary restricted free agents, re-signing center Hamed Haddadi (who, once again, played solid basketball in very limited minutes, and deserved his spot in the rotation when he was actually, uh, in the rotation) and adding a point guard might push the Grizzlies into luxury tax territory. Again.
That's significant. Memphis got four playoff home games out of the team this season, and six last year, but acting as a tax-paying team that market can't be something Heisley wants to continue. Then again, maybe he doesn't think he's going to be around for long. Maybe he'll sign and re-sign and let someone else deal with the back end.
Again, this is complete and utter speculation on my part, and I struggled all Monday with posting as such. But when an owner of a small market team gives player options to big time earners like Gay and Randolph for 2014-15? It makes you wonder.
This will be a telling offseason for the Grizzlies, but before they dive too far off the deep end in the wake of one game gone wrong, the team and its fan base needs to understand that a pretty significant and possibly Finals-worthy core is in place.
Considering the financial implications of retaining that core, though, the team might be forced into relying on them more than ever in 2012-13.