As most know by now, the Grizzlies fell to the Spurs last night ending their title hopes. The question becomes, was it just for this season or long term? And for Celtics' fans, does it matter in any way to us?
First, in the last four seasons, the Grizzlies missed the playoffs in 09-10, lost in the first round in 10-11, lost in the second round in 11-12, and now lost in the third round this year. It is an encouraging progression with each season getting a step closer to the Finals. Does it mean that next year is their year? Maybe, maybe not.
This "run" started with the addition of Zach Randolph. He joined Marc Gasol, Mike Conley, and Darrell Arthur to be the only four to remain with the team the entire period. (Tony Allen has been there the last three.) It has been a great core, but is it enough going forward?
Conley has shown steady improvement and is on a very friendly contract. Allen is a great defender that puts the team in a bind in certain situations due to his lack of scoring. Arthur has a low cost contract and is a very reliable back-up. Which brings us to the dynamic duo. Gasol is what he is, a very fine center with extremely solid fundamentals, but has largely plateaued. He will give you roughly 14 points and 8 rebounds per game year after year. His contract will cost almost 15M next year and almost 16M the next. Randolph on the other hand is still a fine player, but his stats suggest that he has peaked in terms of production. More ominous is that the Spurs found a way to neutralize him. He will be 32 heading into next season and is probably beginning his downhill slide. He is scheduled to make almost 18M next season with a player option for 16.5M the following year.
While the surrounding cast has changed continually with incremental improvement, the core continues to age. The core is also a group that the new owners and new management inherited. Although the owners assured everyone that they would spend as needed, the fact remains that Memphis is a small market. Previous moves have gotten the payroll down from taxpaying territory, but not below the anticipated cap. Management is analytics driven by the addition of John Hollinger. This could well be the time they decide that they are at a crossroads and move to take the roster in a new direction. The players that were brought in from the trades already suggest they are migrating away from "big ball" to "small ball." So Randolph and/ or Gasol could well be on the market this summer.
Looking at a few other crumbs, no effort has been made to lock in Lionel Hollins when all conventional wisdom says he should be. Unless you don't think he is not the right person for the new direction.
Another is to look at the trades. Not so much for who went out as for who came in. Nearly everyone looks at the Rudy Gay trade superficially and concludes that it was a salary dump. While it was, it also brought back Ed Davis who was beginning to become the player many expected coming out of college. And of all the players they could probably have gotten from Detroit, they chose Austin Daye.
More revealing is the trade with Cleveland. Again considered a salary dump, Marrese Speights and Wayne Ellington should have been plenty to get Jon Leuer who to that point had only played 646 minutes total in his season and a half in the league. Yet Memphis threw in Josh Selby and a first round pick! I have read that Hollinger ranked Leuer as the fourth best prospect of his draft class, so I think this goes past a run of the mill dump. They wanted this guy and it would make sense if you are going to small ball and think Leuer is your center in that scenario. Just maybe, from Memphis' perspective, these were not dumps, rather calculated targets. If I am right, Hollinger will end up looking like a genius or a fool.
So what does any of this mean for the Celtics? What if Memphis is executing a strategy not unlike Boston where they are moving out the expensive "old guard" and building around a core of Conley, Leuer, Davis, Jerryd Bayless, and Quincy Pondexter? There are a number of teams that would love to have Randolph, especially if they could make a trade similar to the last two.
For Boston, the Grizzlies had strong interest in Courtney Lee last season. Now this almost borders on fantasy and I myself give it maybe a five per cent chance of happening, but a Lee for Gasol straight up swap works in the ESPN trade machine. It only works because of the 14.4M in trade exceptions that Memphis racked up in the previous trades. So while most think that Gasol is untouchable, there is a sliver of hope. If they are changing their style and building around a new core, then trading down in salary makes perfect sense. It would leave them around 5M in exceptions to use in a Randolph deal, not only keep them out of the tax, but put them significantly below the cap to be able to carry out the rest of their make over. If that is indeed their plan. They could well decide to "run it back" one more time.