Even with the bizarre soap opera of the last two weeks, even when facing with a second consecutive summer of significant upheaval that would have been even more significant had the owner not finally decided to meet his head coach, the Memphis Grizzlies are coming off the best five-year stretch in the history of their franchise. They have done so with a roster empowered by a consistency and stability that belies the relative turmoil going on around it.
In 2009, Chris Wallace traded the unsuitable Darko Milicic for the unwanted Quentin Richardson, then almost immediately traded Richardson to the L.A. Clippers for Zach Randolph. Z-Bo had just played his way out of his second team in a year and his value was absolutely at its lowest. The Grizzlies, needing giant infusions of talent however they could get it, bought incredibly low on a genuine talent at a time when he was genuinely unwanted.
The Randolph trade came less than 18 months after the controversial trade of Pau Gasol to the Lakers, yet it was the trade that landed Marc Gasol. Those two moves combined with the drafting of Mike Conley, a risky move at the time, to create the core around which the last five years have been founded. It was a circuitous route littered with mistakes that have been deliberately not covered above, but that trio salvaged it.
That core trio have grown together and improved year upon year, dragging the team with them. Gasol has become the best all-around center in the NBA, Conley has improved for seven consecutive seasons and become a fine starting point guard and Randolph has enjoyed something of an Indian summer while (mostly) staying out of trouble.
However, the time has come for decisions to be made about that core. Specifically, Randolph has a $16,605,000 player option for 2014/2015 that he may well not exercise.
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It is not yet known who will be at the helm of the Grizzlies going forward. It could well be Wallace, the man who both traded for Randolph and gave him the four year, $66 million extension from which he might now opt out. This perhaps bodes well for Randolph re-signing; Wallace, the man who both gave him the chance at redemption and gave him $66 million after he seized it, is clearly a fan of Zach.
However, Randolph's player option is a double edged sword for the Grizzlies. If he stays or if he goes, they might be in trouble either way.
Randolph might opt out due to the fact that, since he is turning 33 in July, this is likely his last chance at getting a large multi-year contract. And he may well get one, because there is plenty still to market. Despite never being in prime shape and suffering a few knee injuries over the years -- not least of which is the invariably overlooked microfracture surgery he had back in 2005 when still a Portland Trail Blazer -- Randolph has remained productive into his 30s, still averaging 17.4 points and 10.1 rebounds per game.
Yet in spite of those pretty averages, this was the year Randolph's effectiveness started to slip. Zach's elite offensive rebounding rate was down significantly this year and his finishing percentage at the rim continued an annual habit of tapering off, down to 52 percent against a league average of 59 percent.
Moreover, Zach's decline is one that has been more obvious on the defensive end of the floor. Never the best individual defender, Randolph has been somewhat hidden and somewhat effective in the strong Grizzlies defensive system of recent years, yet as his skills and mobility decline, this has become increasingly difficult to do to the point where perimeter-oriented power forwards are eating him alive. And Lord knows there are more of them than ever before these days.
Madness in Memphis
Madness in Memphis
The fact that Randolph's decline is most obviously defensive (the end of the court on which nothing is ever as obvious), plus the increased offensive load he shouldered in light of Gasol's early season injuries that actually led to a slight uptick in scoring and assist rates over last season, paint a worryingly deceptive picture of a man who looks not to have declined at all. He has, yet not in a way the market readily reflects. The market normally focuses on offensive production. Especially from noted scorers.
Zach, then, might get paid one last time. And for Memphis, this is a big cause for concern.
If he opts out, Randolph will not get the $16.6 million in 2014-15 that he is leaving behind. He may however still get a three- or four-year contract averaging $12 million or more annually. Such a deal would mirror what David West received from the Indiana Pacers last summer and is what double-double averages can earn you. Such a deal should also be a prohibitive cost for a declining player to a team on a budget, a budget that is mostly already spent.
If Randolph were to opt in, Memphis would have $68.4 million committed next season. This figures to be quite a way under the luxury tax threshold currently projected to come in at $77 million, yet it is an amount of space that can quickly be gobbled up. All it takes is one mid-level signing, and that flexibility is all gone. The rest of the money will be spent filling out the roster and incorporating everyone else's rising salaries. That amount also does not include free agent rotation players Mike Miller, Ed Davis and James Johnson (who, anomalous as his past season of work may have been, would be a real shame to lose in light of how fresh a breath of air he was).
The luxury tax threshold is further assumed to be an insurmountable object for the Grizzlies. They have paid it, but not since 2006, and thus every year of this five-year stretch has been done tax-free. Indeed, they have made moves to actively avoid it. Memphis' spending power is strictly limited, and thus, so are their options.
Even with these things in mind, it is plenty doable to envision a future for the Grizzlies in which they pay to keep Randolph, retain Conley and Gasol and stay under the luxury tax. The cap and tax figures are going up sufficiently to make this a plausible reality, perhaps even up enough over the next two seasons to make a $12 million estimated annual cost for Randolph a digestible amount even in spite of the diminishing returns it will yield.
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However, it is far less doable to envision such a future in which they keep Randolph, stay under the tax and still significantly improve the team. The team needs to get better, not merely be retained. They have improved year on year hitherto, but that improvement has reached its apex. Gasol turns 30 next year, Randolph will be 33 by the start of next summer and Conley is now in his prime years.
To that end, Memphis has done well in being able to create a mostly young and cheap bench with demonstrable potential for future growth, vital parts to any franchise's sustained period of success. In particular, the Grizzlies enjoy great post depth.
The ludicrously one-sided Darrell Arthur trade with Denver saw them land Kosta Koufos, one of the league's best backup centers and a 25-year-old player who, offensively at least, figures to be able to co-exist alongside Gasol in a large front-line pairing. Additionally, the incredibly underused man Ed Davis is currently on the bench -- given the right opportunity, the always-productive Davis could grow into an Amir Johnson-like player, which is all any team requires alongside a player as good as Gasol. With Randolph out of the picture, this could be that opportunity.
Memphis targeted these players in trade no doubt with an eye towards the future. That future is now. They can let Randolph leave and re-appropriate the money they save from it elsewhere while barely losing much in the frontcourt rotation anyway.
There is more business to do this offseason outside of the Randolph situation -- the cluttered wing rotation bereft of star power yet full of role players that render each other superfluous, for one thing -- yet it is the Randolph situation on which it all hinges. What they do with him determines what else they can do, and Davis and Koufos could make the possibility of him walking a tolerable one.
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Complicating the problem, however, is that Randolph is more than just a decent player for the Grizzlies. As much as they are easy to overlook in the vacuum of transactions, sociological factors play into roster management decisions, and Randolph has value to the franchise off the court. Randolph has been the face of the turnaround. He, along with Tony Allen, has embodied the underdog spirit that has given the fans and the city a team finally worth their support. These have been the Grit'N'Grind Grizzlies, the ones whose determination and upstart nature serve as a rebuke to the years of mismanagement and wasted seasons that had previously come to identify the Grizzlies franchise. Randolph is a big part of that identity. Losing him weakens if not terminates it.
However, Randolph and Allen are now a combined 64 years old. The Grit'N'Grind team they defined, as root-for-able as it has been, has not pushed them over the top and stands no realistic chance of doing so in any variation of its current guise. It is hard to give a prognosis to this current Memphis team that ever puts them as a perennial top four seed in the Western Conference, let alone ever having a window as a true NBA title contender. They are good, but not great.
Committing to retaining the good, with the aforementioned budgetary restraints within which they must operate, shuts out any chance at the great. Conversely, if they let Randolph go, with the right concurrent moves, they potentially open up a championship window. It relies upon a significant talent acquisition or two from somewhere, yet the potential is there with the financial flexibility that his departure would open up and the trades assets with which to do so.
It is potential that can only be realized, however, if the Conley/Gasol duo remains. Memphis only goes as far as those two take them, yet those two are not tied together long term. Gasol's deal expires after next season, while Conley has only one extra year on his. The pair will both be eligible for an extension come this summer, yet neither is likely to take it given the extra year that a free agency contract could offer.
To get them to come back, without the security of restricted free agency to control it, Memphis will need to sell them on what they have. The Memphis market lacks the glamor of others, thus they are automatically behind in any bidding war. And bidding wars there will likely be.
The Grizzlies will need to sell the duo (and specifically Gasol, who is up first) on the chances of winning going forward. They can offer the opportunity to finish what they have started, the prospect of leading an underdog team to a place no one ever thought it could get, and in theory, continue the aforementioned bulldog spirit the team has come to embody.
However, it is difficult to sell the 'we give you a great chance of winning' message when not one year before, you let the double-double guy walk free in free agency, the player whose arrival coincided with and was certainly not merely coincidental to the best stretch in franchise history.
"We want to win, and we'll pay to ensure it, but only if you're young." That is the message the actions send out, no matter what the words say."We want to play Memphis ball, but only if it is frugal to do so."
If the team's loyalty has its limits, so will the player's reciprocation. Players go where they feel loved, and when they see their fellow soldiers felled for purely business reasons, they feel the limits of that love. (See also: how tough it was for some Bulls players to stomach the Luol Deng trade.) Letting Randolph walk, then, has more than just financial and basketball ramifications. The personal ones matter too.
There are of course other options for a resolution to the Randolph situation other than re-signing expensively or outright losing him. Randolph could theoretically opt into his player option season and sign an extension; he could also opt in and play one more year before leaving, or he could potentially be shipped out in a sign and trade.
However, the latter of these does not assuage the anxiety for the other players that would come from losing such a vital cog. The former is not likely without a significant discount and the middle one is less likely still as it offers Randolph the least in terms of long-term security. More than likely, Randolph is going to get a big payday this offseason, and Memphis has to decide whether it will be from them.
The Grizzlies therefore face a tough situation. They are damned if they do, and yet damned if they don't. To best maximize their chances of both staying good and getting better might necessitate losing one of the pieces that makes them good. If they lose one of the pieces that makes them good, it might further cost them the other two that do, at which point the window closes altogether and the lottery beckons anew. Yet if they keep the good player to appease the others and the fanbase, they might not be making the best roster management decision and are stuck in a situation where due to age and expenses, they have so few bullets to fire.
Ultimately, finances will determine the outcome. The Grizzlies work on a budget, and it has its strict limits that are lower than most. If Randolph names a price, and that price is too high, then the decision is made and everyone and everything else will just have to follow. Those of us leaning towards the lure of future flexibility and the chances of a sustained window of success, then, are hoping Randolph sets that price too high for his retention to be viable.
The Pacers paid the cost to not quite be the boss. Memphis must not do the same.