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.
The NBA, as a movement, is already established that it’s just about done with shooting for mediocrity. The Milwaukee Bucks tried for as much last year, the league and its followers laughed down their sleeve at the franchise as a result, and when the chemistry, health and coaching didn’t pan out the Bucks ended up with the league’s worst record. Teams are either shooting for 16 or 60 wins in this modern era, doing everything it can to not remain a capped-out, potential-less team with a sound enough roster but little hope past a quick first round exit.
And weirdly, the Memphis Grizzlies are sort of an odd throwback to these sorts of teams. Capped out, defensive-heavy, aging, no high end draft picks, and out in the first round. The Grizzlies aren’t doing anything wrong in this regard, but the similarities are frightening.
Even if the team obsesses over analytics and the Modern Way. Even if the squad’s winning percentage following Marc Gasol’s return to health midseason rivaled that of the San Antonio Spurs. Even if a first round exit in the West, one made with the caveat of leading scorer and rebounder Zach Randolph’s tough Game 7 suspension, can’t be compared in any way to the Bucks losing to the Heat last year, or Larry Brown’s Bobcats losing in the first round a few seasons back.
That front office will now be charged with avoiding such stasis, mindful of the fact that the Western Conference is a hellacious landscape that doesn’t figure to get any easier, cognizant of the fact that they may have to hurt some feelings – fans, players, coaches alike – along the way as it makes the unpopular decisions. Luckily, this isn’t the sort of team that thinks that it’s an O.J. Mayo away from taking the next step.
Cognizance is one thing, executing and working around that above-average hand into something with better odds at winning the pot is something entirely different. As is the case with the similarly-winned-out Dallas Mavericks, nobody will be lining up to help these Grizzlies. Unlike the Mavericks, though, Memphis is already just a few million away from the luxury tax with its set of 2014-15 salaries.
Zach Randolph leads that list, and there’s been considerable talk that Zach would be willing to opt-out of his nearly $17 million contract for next season in order to sign an extension for less money up front that would guarantee him earnings from the Grizzlies as he bangs his way into his mid-30s. This would be a major boon to Memphis, which could use those savings to add some sort of scoring depth around the fringes with exceptions, while remaining under the tax threshold.
The Grizzlies badly need a shooter, because even with Mike Miller lighting things up from outside (nailing nearly 46 percent of his three-pointers), the team attempted the fewest long range bombs in the league last year, and its below-average percentage led to a rather average offensive mark overall for Memphis. With Randolph getting on in years and mid-season acquisition Courtney Lee (who started off hot, with his new team, before fading a bit) coming back to earth, to say nothing of the perpetual health uneasiness surrounding Miller, the Grizzlies are going to have to hit a series of unheralded ropers to the wall, and come into second base standing. These moves have to count.
The problem, in a league that is better scouted than ever, is finding these prospects. Outside of Chicago’s D.J. Augustin, no player taken from the scrap heap contributed more than James Johnson for Memphis this year, and even he barely shifted the needle in the playoffs. The team still has to figure out what it sees in young big man Ed Davis, who could be a restricted free agent this year, and both Miller and Johnson are free agents that will push the Grizzlies ever closer to that luxury tax line should the team open up its wallet yet again.
The team won 50 games last year, but 50 is the new 40 in the Western Conference, and even though quite a bit went wrong for Memphis last season (injuries to Marc Gasol and Tony Allen), quite a bit went right (great play from Johnson and Lee, initially, relatively healthy seasons for Randolph and Miller). And nothing is assured. And the Grizzlies may have to pay the tax again, even after ranking 20th out of 30 NBA teams in attendance. And it still might lead to a first round ouster, all over again.
Man, this conference is rough.
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