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The Memphis Grizzlies' conundrum: When staying good goes wrong

A critical injury has exposed holes in the Memphis Grizzlies' foundation. Is there anything they do to continue their run as one of the top organizations in the West?

Kevin C. Cox

The Memphis Grizzlies are struggling. They are last place in the strong Southwest division with a 13-16 record, they're 0-8 in divisional play, and while this record would still be good for seventh seed in the East, it leaves them floundering far away from the playoffs in the West. The Grizzlies are falling away from .500 rather than gaining ground on it, and it's not about to get any easier. Over the next 15 games, Memphis will play Houston twice, Phoenix twice, Oklahoma City, Portland, San Antonio and Atlanta, along with one more game against the plus-.500 Denver Nuggets.

Last season, the Grizzlies were highly fortunate with injuries. All four of Mike Conley, Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol and Tony Allen all played at least 78 games, as did Jerryd BaylessRudy Gay was also healthy for his half season of play before being dealt. So were his replacements, Ed Davis and Tayshaun Prince, and so was Marreese Speights prior to his midseason departure. But this year, their luck ran out. Gasol has been injured, and it has cratered the team.

Counting the game in which he played only 9 minutes and got hurt as one in which he didn't play (which seems fair), the Grizzlies are 7-5 with Gasol in the lineup and 5-11 without him. Considering that Gasol is both the reigning defensive player of the year and a nightly triple-double threat, this is no surprise. No one can replace a player that good, even if they do have one of the league's best backups at that position (and in Kosta Koufos, the Grizzlies do). Ewing Theory anomalies notwithstanding, a team can't offset the loss of a star, and the Grizzlies are feeling his irreplaceable loss in all facets of their game. That much is unavoidable.

What Gasol's injury also does, however, is expose the fragility of the Grizzlies's current build. And this is far more avoidable. When a team is built to win now, but isn't coming close to doing so, holes in the approach become magnified.

The Grizzlies's roster is fairly young overall, but not the rotation, which is fairly old. Gasol is about to turn 29 and, when healthy, is at his career apex. Randolph is 32 and starting to slowly decline (although being so unreliant upon athleticism may make said decline a mercifully slow one). Allen is about to turn 32, while Prince is about to turn 34 and has lost his athleticism, jump shot and effectiveness. Mike Miller, the bench leader in minutes, is to turn 34 in a few weeks and is limited now to a one dimensional shooting specialist. The only rotation players to still be short of their primes are Conley (26), Bayless (25), Davis (24) and the sneaky-good Jon Leuer (24).

The Grizzlies, then, are a veteran team. But that doesn't absolve them of responsibilities for the future.

In a previous piece, we talked about the struggle good teams face of staying good. Being good is difficult enough to do, but to remain good is a further worry. And, arguably, it is of no less importance. The Grizzlies's 2013/14 campaign serves as a testament to this. For the first time in franchise history, Memphis has build a legitimately good team for multiple years, capable of challenging for the conference title in the last two in particular. But right now, they are not close to this standard. Staying good relies on being good in the first place, and if you're not good in the first place, you need every means to become so.

Memphis made one of the steals of the summer in acquiring Koufos. Taking advantage of Nuggets' upheaval, the Grizzlies acquired a legit starter for the cost only of an inferior backup (Darrell Arthur) and a very late pick in a weak draft. It was a perfect move that benefitted the team in the short term, filled a specific need, upgraded the talent level and, in light of Koufos's age, helped the future too. It was the type of deal that would help a good team stay good.

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Along the way, however, they have made mistakes that have handicapped this future. Last year's trade with Cleveland saw them give up a 2015 first round pick to move Wayne Ellington, Speights and Josh Selby in a salary dump designed to get under the tax, only for the following week's Gay trade to move them significantly under it anyway. The pick is heavily protected -- both 1 through 5 and 15 through 30 for 2015 and 2016, protected only 1 through 5 in 2017 and 2018, and unprotected in 2019 -- yet potentially expensive. It was the classic example of sacrificing the future to preserve the present, made doubly painful by its redundancy in light of the following week's deal. Only Leuer, who arrived from Cleveland, salvages that deal.

Furthermore, an unnecessary part of the Gay deal saw them opt for Prince and Austin Daye over keeping Jose Calderon and his expiring deal. (Calderon eventually went to Detroit). Daye is already gone, while Prince will cost $7.7 million next season to perform like the backup-caliber player he now is. And in an underappreciated, but increasingly sore mistake, the team moved last year's first-round pick, Tony Wroten, to Philadelphia exchange only for a second rounder, then dealt another second rounder for the rights to Nick Calathes. Wroten, four years younger and considerably more athletic, is averaging 13.8 points and 3.6 assists per game as one of the league's best sixth men, where Calathes has struggled badly on his way to 2.8 points and 2.6 assists.

The Grizzlies have some useful young pieces but nothing substantial. Conley and Koufos provide a decent duo, as does Leuer on the wing, yet they are at best complimentary talents. It remains to be seen whether any of the troika of Bayless, Jamaal Franklin and Quincy Pondexter (already extended long term, but underachieving and now out for the season) can add much to it.

At the end of the season, Randolph has a player option he may use. Should he do so, and leave in free agency, that is likely the end of the Grizzlies' conference title competitiveness for the foreseeable future. At that point, the Grizzlies have an in-his-prime Gasol and an apexing Mike Conley, flanked only with a couple of decent role players and a host of rotation and offensive questions. But should Randolph opt out, but re-sign, Memphis is capped out in commitment to a declining team built to win in the short term without ever doing so.

To build a brand, a franchise with long term respectability and viability, requires a sustained period of good success or a brief period of great success. In their current guise, Memphis are built for neither. They still have much to play for this season when Gasol returns and could very well make a run for a playoff seed. However, even once he does, more focus must be paid to the future.

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