TrueHoop: Memphis Grizzlies

Grit and grime

May, 26, 2014
May 26
4:18
PM ET
By Chris Herrington
Special to ESPN.com
Archive
Robert PeraJoe Murphy/Getty ImagesQuiet for much of his first year-plus as Griz owner, Robert Pera (left) has reclaimed the spotlight.
The morning of Monday, Nov. 5, 2012, was the first time most of Memphis laid eyes on Robert Pera.

The then-34-year-old tech entrepreneur, baby billionaire and new controlling owner of the Memphis Grizzlies sat at a dais with Jason Levien, an experienced operator within NBA circles whom Pera had known for roughly a year but still called his “best friend.”

Levien had just put together an ownership group with Pera at the helm to purchase the team from Michael Heisley, and at this introductory news conference in the lobby of FedExForum, Pera seemed quiet and uncomfortable. Levien did most of the talking.

[+] EnlargeMarc Gasol
AP Photo/Sue OgrockiThe future is uncertain in Memphis after a big front-office shakeup.
A few hours later, Pera, wearing Grizzlies warm-up gear, exited through the front door of the Westin Hotel across the street, heading to the Grizzlies' practice court to break in his new toy. As Pera was walking out, not 10 feet away, Heisley, not invited to Pera and Levien’s welcome party, sat having a “last supper” of sorts with his wife, attorney Stan Meadows, now-neutered general manager Chris Wallace and other confidants. Neither Pera nor Heisley -- they had spoken only twice at this point -- was aware of the other’s presence.

The contrast that day felt greater than the 41-year age difference between the two men. It was tech versus industrial. Soft-spoken versus blustery. Cool versus hot. Deferential versus assertive. Heisley had famously belted out the national anthem before a Grizzlies playoff game. When Pera was given the microphone that night to address fans before the game, he quietly muttered a single sentence. David Stern took it back to ask, for us all, “Is that it?”

Heisley, after a period with Jerry West at the helm, had seized control of the day-to-day operations of the Grizzlies. Pera, still building the company, Ubiquiti Networks, that had made his basketball purchase possible, seemed content to cede it to the more experienced Levien, who closely shepherded his new charge through his first day of NBA ownership.

Levien took on an unprecedented organizational role in Memphis as CEO and managing partner, overseeing all aspects of basketball and business operations and managing the large ownership group he had assembled. He overshadowed the absentee Pera and, from a distance, Pera seemed comfortable with that arrangement. Writing that day, I suggested that Pera seemed less visionary leader than willing vessel. For Levien to finally get control of an NBA team after falling short in Sacramento and Philadelphia. For minority owners in Memphis seeking to jettison Heisley, with whom their relationship had badly deteriorated, and further secure the team in Memphis without shelling out full price themselves.



Eighteen months later, unseen cracks in the foundation of this relationship have given way to a violent shift in the landscape of Grizzlies basketball. Levien has been deposed. A willing vessel no more, Pera is turning his “controlling owner” title into a day-to-day reality. And the most crowd-pleasing scene of this soap opera belongs to Wallace, back in the saddle, albeit with an “interim” tag: After a year on paid exile, the GM for four seasons before the ownership change was spotted at a Memphis clothier two days before the cataclysm, when hardly anyone in the Grizzlies organization knew what was coming, getting fitted for new suits.

The most unsavory ongoing -- unending? -- aspect of sorting through the debris of the past week has been the wildly imbalanced, conflicting narratives that would have you believe either that Pera is a lunatic or Levien is a scoundrel, with legitimate ammunition on both sides. The awful truth of their break-up, though, is likely more human-scale and unknowable.

In the one time after the introductory news conference that Pera addressed the media alongside Levien, the pair wore matching track suits, as if reenacting a scene from The Royal Tenenbaums. There was the weird announced one-on-one game with Tony Allen, appropriately and inevitably scuttled at the last minute. Pera’s Twitter avatar demonstrates his jump-shot form above this bio: “Change the Game. Don’t Let the Game Change You.” He’s achingly new to all of this and it’s showing in dramatic ways, his union of naivete and confidence -- his net worth, via Forbes, nearly tripling since he took ownership -- both palpable and disconcerting.

Levien has a history, and in Memphis he erected a structure with himself at the center of everything, all while maintaining a similarly comprehensive role with D.C. United, the MLS team he owns. The sense you get from talking to people around the situation is that, in taking on so much, he cut corners and was perhaps not as attentive to Pera as he needed to be, or as Pera increasingly demanded him to be. More than one person within the organization has reported epiphanies since Levien’s departure, as people who once operated through Levien have begun communicating more with each other.

And yet, though this break-up may look inevitable in retrospect -- Pera’s assertion of control incompatible with Levien’s total stewardship -- it didn’t have to be this messy or damaging to the team’s short-term reputation.

Whatever problems may have existed between Levien and Pera or on the periphery of that relationship -- and concerns about the influence of former Levien protege David Mincberg on Pera are so vast that they can’t be dismissed -- Pera has blown up a front-office core that seemed to be functioning smoothly and smartly. Levien, top lieutenant Stu Lash (collateral damage in this divorce) and VP John Hollinger (still on board until further notice) worked well and effectively together, with a roster-management track record that speaks for itself.

Sacrificing that about a month before the offseason officially begins, at a particularly precarious time in the team’s competitive arc, is a risk that we can’t be sure Pera has weighed as heavily as he needed to.



Wild stories about Pera continue to circulate, but the apparent retention of Hollinger, business-side honcho Jason Wexler and now head coach Dave Joerger -- Levien hires all -- suggests more stability than many outsiders will allow. Joerger, in particular, despite his seemingly near departure, may be returning in a stronger position, with a sweetened contract and more personal connection to his top boss.

Pera’s approach to both internal communication and public relations has been unconventional to say the least. He flew into Memphis last Monday to sever ties with Levien and met with a couple of key local figures, but then left town and communicated with other minority owners via conference call. The few people speaking on his behalf, such as Chris Wallace -- who has valuable experience with temperamental billionaires -- don’t really know him well. Does anyone?

Pera’s disregard for traditional media management and seeming discomfort with direct contact has left a news vacuum others are eager to fill and confusion on the ground in Memphis that Pera has begun to clean up in the past few days. Pera already seemed something like a voice in a machine, and then, on Sunday night, with unexpected reports emerging that Joerger -- presumed Minnesota-bound -- would return to Memphis, this happened:


Some things we learned from the chat:

  • Joerger, with whom Pera claims he had previously never spoken one-on-one, will be the team’s head coach next season.
  • He didn’t know who the Grizzlies’ barbecue sponsor was. (Oops!)
  • He wants Chris Wallace to stay with the organization in some yet-to-be-determined capacity.
  • He likes Dante Exum in the draft. (Double oops!)
  • He’ll entertain the luxury tax.
  • He’s all wrong about Kanye West album rankings. (“Graduation”? Please.)

The Facebook page for Pera’s Ubiquiti Networks says the company “designs and manufactures disruptive technology platforms.” Perhaps, as an NBA owner, Pera is what he makes.

By not pushing his side of the story through media channels, Pera has disrupted the usual chain of NBA information, ostensibly to his detriment. But while he’s going to have to speak publicly at some point, and take questions tougher than those he self-selects from a social media chat, there are elements of charm and charge in Pera’s apparent guilelessness, his disregard for standard procedure.

Where Pera once seemed so different from the late Heisley, now the similarities are coming into view: Both self-made tycoons with a stubborn resolve to do things their own way regardless of public backlash, both making some messes along the way.

But if Pera is going to become a new-age Heisley and take a hand’s-on role in shaping his team, he’s going to need advice from somebody with institutional knowledge of the NBA. And how that manifests itself in the team’s current front office search -- and beyond -- is, like so much else around the Grizzlies right now, troubling and unclear.

Chris Herrington is an entertainment editor and NBA contributor for the Memphis Commercial Appeal. Follow him, @HerringtonNBA.

Gift of Love: 29 trades for 29 teams

May, 21, 2014
May 21
11:07
AM ET
Harper By Zach Harper
Special to ESPN.com
Archive
Kevin LoveBrad Rempel/USA TODAY Sports
The end is nigh. Or so it seems. Reports about Kevin Love’s uncertain future with the Minnesota Timberwolves are coming out left and right. Every team in the league is positioning itself to capture the star power on the market right now.

With the draft a little more than a month away, it would behoove the Timberwolves to maximize the trade market now while cap flexibility, draft picks and crushed lottery night dreams are fresh in the minds of the potential suitors.

The Wolves don’t have the upper hand in this situation, but they do have the ability to leverage ravenous front offices against one another and create a trade-market bidding war. As team president Flip Saunders and owner Glen Taylor face a gut-check moment of whether to risk Love leaving for nothing in summer 2015, here are the deals I would blow up their phones with if I were in charge of one of the 29 teams in the league.


Atlanta Hawks


The deal: Trade Machine

Hawks receive: Kevin Love
Wolves receive: Paul Millsap, Dennis Schroder, the rights to Lucas Nogueira, No. 15 pick in 2014

This is a big haul for the Hawks to give up, with three rotation guys plus the pick going to Minnesota. But pairing Love and Al Horford together in Mike Budenholzer’s offense would be an alien invasion without Bill Pullman and Will Smith to fight it off. For the Wolves, Millsap is a nice option you can win with now and flip if he isn’t happy; Schroder is the backup point guard they crave; and Nogueira would give the Wolves a tandem with Gorgui Dieng that makes Nikola Pekovic and his contract expendable.


Boston Celtics


The deal: Trade Machine

Celtics receive: Kevin Love
Wolves receive: Kelly Olynyk, Jared Sullinger, Brandon Bass, Phil Pressey, Vitor Faverani, Nos. 6 and 17 picks in 2014, Celtics’ first-round pick in 2016

Here, the Wolves are basically getting the picks and then a bunch of cap filler and former first-rounders. There’s no reason to pretend Olynyk and Sullinger would be pieces for the Wolves at all. Being a Wolves fan since they've come into the NBA, I am pretty good at recognizing overvalued first-round picks who won’t be as good as you hope they are. This is about the picks, and with Nos. 6, 13 and 17 in this draft, they could load up or move up.


Brooklyn Nets

The deal: Trade Machine

Nets receive: Kevin Love
Wolves receive: The 2003 Kevin Garnett

Look, I don’t know how owner Mikhail Prokhorov got his hands on a time machine, either, but billionaires have access to things we don’t. Let’s just take advantage of the opportunity to grab 2003 Kevin Garnett and get this team back into the playoffs.


Charlotte Hornets


The deal: Trade Machine

Hornets receive: Kevin Love
Wolves receive: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Cody Zeller, Gary Neal, Nos. 9 and 24 picks in 2014

The Wolves never got to truly test out the Al Jefferson-Love big man tandem because Love wasn’t that great yet and Jefferson hurt his knee. They get a redo in Charlotte in this scenario, and with coach Steve Clifford’s defensive stylings, it could actually work.

Wolves would get a former No. 2 pick with potential; Zeller, whom they were enamored with before last year’s draft; and two first-round picks. The Pistons conceding the No. 9 pick to the Bobcats makes this a very attractive deal.


Chicago Bulls


The deal: Trade Machine

Bulls receive: Kevin Love
Wolves receive: Carlos Boozer, Jimmy Butler, the rights to Nikola Mirotic, Ronnie Brewer, Nos. 16 and 19 picks in 2014

Of the most realistic trade scenarios for the Wolves in unloading Love for assets, cap relief and picks, this is probably the best move they could make, unless Phoenix is willing to be bold. You could also swap out Boozer for Taj Gibson, but his long-term money isn’t ideal for a rebuilding team. The Wolves could flip him to a contender later. The Bulls would be giving up a lot, but a big three of Joakim Noah, Love and Derrick Rose (assuming he's healthy) is an amazing way to battle whatever the Heat end up being after this season.


Cleveland Cavaliers


The deal: Trade Machine

Cavaliers receive: Kevin Love
Wolves receive: Tristan Thompson, Dion Waiters, Alonzo Gee, No. 1 pick in 2014

Why would the Cavaliers possibly trade the No. 1 pick in a loaded class, plus three rotation players, for Love? Because they seem to have a pipe dream of bringing LeBron James back to Cleveland this summer and this is the way to do it. It’s not stockpiling a bunch of young role players for James to play alongside. He wants to play with stars, and having Love and Kyrie Irving in tow would go a long way.


Dallas Mavericks


Mavericks receive: Kevin Love
Wolves receive: 2011 NBA championship banner and one free pass for a business idea on “Shark Tank”

I’ve always had a problem with teams hanging up “division title” banners in an arena because it seems like a lower-level franchise thing to do. Considering the Wolves are about to lose their best player and potentially miss the playoffs for an 11th straight season, it’s safe to consider them on that lower level right now.

It would be nice to take down the 2003-04 division title banner and replace it with a championship banner. And the extra revenue from getting a business idea funded through “Shark Tank” could give this organization a little extra money to play around with during the next few years. The Wolves are renovating their arena, so they could use the cash.


Denver Nuggets


The deal: Trade Machine

Nuggets receive: Kevin Love, Kevin Martin
Wolves receive: Kenneth Faried, Danilo Gallinari, Darrell Arthur, Randy Foye, No. 11 pick in 2014

Coach Brian Shaw gets his coveted big-time power forward and a nice offensive complement to Ty Lawson in the backcourt. While Martin isn't even close to being a defender, he at least has some size to utilize on offense.

The Wolves get a lot of quality players and a couple of veterans (Arthur and Foye) they can flip. They could even add a lottery pick here in this draft, although this sort of feels like a lot in return. Oh, who cares? The Wolves get to be greedy here.


Detroit Pistons


Pistons receive: Kevin Love
Wolves receive: Stan Van Gundy

I don't want your horrible Josh Smith contract and shot selection that makes most government agencies look like well-oiled machines. I don’t want an improbable sign-and-trade deal with Greg Monroe. I don’t want any of the young players. I don’t even want the pick. I want SVG in all of his coaching glory and I’m willing to relinquish this fake GM power to him when the trade is completed. I’m going full-on Veruca Salt on this one. I want Stan Van Gundy to coach the Wolves and I want it now!


Golden State Warriors


The deal: Trade Machine

Warriors receive: Kevin Love, Kevin Martin
Wolves receive: David Lee, Harrison Barnes, Klay Thompson, right to swap picks in 2015 and 2016

I don’t actually think this is a good trade, but it allows me to bring up a point. I get the mindset of wanting to maximize the value you receive in a trade versus what you’re sending out. But there are Warriors fans worried about giving up Thompson and Barnes in a deal for Love, while ridding themselves of Lee’s contract. Back when the Clippers were trading for Chris Paul, there were fans and writers who thought it was a bad idea to include Eric Gordon. Think about that now. Sometimes it can get out of hand for players who probably won’t be All-Stars.


Houston Rockets


The deal: Trade Machine

Rockets receive: Kevin Love
Wolves receive: Jeremy Lin, Donatas Motiejunas, Chandler Parsons, Jordan Hamilton, first-round picks in 2015 and 2017

This is an incredibly tricky situation because while the Rockets have lots of assets to move, the inclusion of Parsons makes the deal really difficult. The Wolves would need to pick up his team option for next season, but that means he’s an unrestricted free agent in 2015. How likely is it that he will want to stay in Minnesota?

Lin’s contract will cost more than owner Glen Taylor wants to pay for a non-winning team. Motiejunas would be the best prospect in the deal and you’re taking late first-round picks in the future. Can we just forget this deal and ask Hakeem Olajuwon to be an adviser to the Wolves instead?


Indiana Pacers


The deal: Trade Machine

Pacers receive: Kevin Love, Nikola Pekovic
Wolves receive: Roy Hibbert, David West

I want to see just how good of a coach Frank Vogel is. The Wolves were 29th in defending the restricted area this season, and I would guess the only reason they weren’t the worst is because of Dieng’s late-season rim defense. The Pacers were the best at defending the rim this season. Can Vogel keep that defensive prowess with these non-shot-blockers? Can the Wolves defend the rim with these two big men? These two teams don’t match up at all in the trade department, so we might as well experiment.


Los Angeles Clippers


The deal: Trade Machine

Clippers receive: Kevin Love, Kevin Martin
Wolves receive: Blake Griffin, Jamal Crawford

I don’t know why the Clippers would ever do this trade, but it’s unfair for other fan bases to have all of the fun and none of the depression. Griffin gets to receive alley-oop passes from Ricky Rubio while Crawford dazzles the media members with his dribbling and charm.

The Clippers get another shooter to stretch the floor to allow DeAndre Jordan to further develop. Martin wouldn’t exactly add anything to what the Clippers do now, but again, I’m sick of all the depression in these scenarios, so just take one for the team, please.


Los Angeles Lakers


The deal: Trade Machine

Lakers receive: Kevin Love
Wolves receive: Steve Nash, Robert Sacre, Nick Young, MarShon Brooks, No. 7 pick in 2014, future first-round pick, Flip Saunders gets a statue outside Staples Center, Minneapolis Lakers’ title banners

In this scenario, I suffered a head injury when I tried to pull off one of those 360 layups Swaggy P loves to do so much and I fell into the celebrating elbows of Sacre. It left me a little woozy, but I think I came up with a good deal to finally get Love to Los Angeles. Nash's deal is expiring, Sacre and Ronny Turiaf form the greatest bench-cheering duo ever, Young gets to teach me that layup and Brooks is cap filler. Those Minneapolis Lakers banners will look great at Target Center, too.


Memphis Grizzlies


The deal: Trade Machine

Grizzlies receive: Kevin Love, Kevin Martin
Wolves receive: Zach Randolph, James Johnson, Jon Leuer, Jamaal Franklin, first-round pick in 2017

This does one thing that’s pretty cool: It gives a Grizzlies team that struggled to score in the half court two very good half-court scorers. They lose some toughness but they can actually round out their overall game quite a bit. For the Wolves, it gives them the potential for a Pekovic-Randolph-Johnson frontcourt, which, if Randolph opts in this summer, will protect Minnesota when the zombie apocalypse happens. Nobody is taking out that frontcourt.


Miami Heat


The deal: Trade Machine

Heat receive: Kevin Love, Kevin Martin
Wolves receive: Chris Bosh, Norris Cole, right to swap first-round picks in 2016 and 2018

The Wolves are torn between a full-on rebuild (try selling that to the fans again during this decade-long playoff drought) and trying to still find a way to sneak into the playoffs. Granted, Bosh has to agree to this deal by not opting out of his contract this summer, but the Wolves would at least remain hyper-competitive on the playoff bubble. They’d also grab a backup point guard who isn’t as erratic as the incumbent, J.J. Barea.

The Heat get younger and give LeBron the chance to really have a great second scorer with him in his next deal in Miami.


Milwaukee Bucks


The deal: Trade Machine

Bucks receive: Kevin Love
Wolves receive: Larry Sanders, O.J. Mayo, No. 2 pick in 2014, Wisconsin has to pretend the Vikings are the best team in the league

Sure, Sanders has the potential to be a nice defender in this league for a long time, Mayo would be a possible cap-relief trade chip in a year and the No. 2 pick, whoever it ends up being, could be a major star in this league. But the win here for Minnesota is Wisconsin having to pretend the Vikings are the best. A fan base that was 27th in attendance in the NBA and 13th in attendance in the NFL doesn't really care how they make out in any Love deal. They just want the football win. Vikings fans aren't used to getting a lot of those.


New Orleans Pelicans


The deal: Trade Machine

Pelicans receive: Kevin Love, Chase Budinger
Wolves receive: Anthony Davis, Eric Gordon

Sure, you guys are laughing at me and how ridiculous this is, but in my head the deal has been made and I’m doing a little dance of celebration. Have your laughter, and I’ll have my delusional mind, and never the twain shall meet.


New York Knicks


The deal: Trade Machine

Knicks receive: Kevin Love
Wolves receive: [processing ...]

The Knicks gave up a first-round pick to get Andrea Bargnani. Comparable value means they’d have to give up the entire Wall Street district for Love. I can’t even pretend there is a combination here that works for the Wolves. Maybe they could do a double sign-and-trade and swap Love for Carmelo Anthony? Someone ask cap guru Larry Coon if this is allowed. Can we get a reality show just recording La La’s face when Melo has to tell her they’re moving to Minneapolis?


Oklahoma City Thunder


The deal: Trade Machine

Thunder receive: Kevin Love, Kevin Martin
Wolves receive: Serge Ibaka, Jeremy Lamb, Perry Jones III, Hasheem Thabeet, Mavericks’ first-round pick in 2014, Thunder’s first-round pick in 2017

I’m not going to be unrealistic and pretend Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook are in play here, but there’s no reason the Wolves can’t ask for Ibaka, while also unloading Martin’s deal (three years, $20 million left) and picking up young talent in Lamb and Jones, a first-round pick this year and an unprotected pick in 2017. Why 2017? Let’s pretend this Thunder thing doesn’t work out and Love and Durant both leave in 2016. In this scenario, the Wolves position themselves to take advantage of a team falling apart. It’s like what every team does to Minnesota every single time it trades a draft pick.


Orlando Magic


The deal: Trade Machine

Magic receive: Kevin Love, No. 13 pick in 2014
Wolves receive: Victor Oladipo, Andrew Nicholson, Jameer Nelson, No. 4 pick in 2014

I recognize that the Wolves getting the No. 2 pick from last year’s draft plus the No. 4 pick in this draft seems like a lot, but Love is a lot better than Oladipo and it’s not all that close. Even if Oladipo maximizes his potential, he’s probably not reaching Love’s status. Flip was enamored with Oladipo heading into the 2013 draft and would probably be willing to swap firsts with the Magic this year in order to complete this trade.


Philadelphia 76ers


The deal: Trade Machine

76ers receive: Kevin Love, Kevin Martin
Wolves receive: Thaddeus Young, Jason Richardson, Nos. 3 and 10 picks in 2014

The Wolves get a young asset, cap relief and two lottery picks in this draft in exchange for Love and getting rid of Martin’s deal. It sounds like the Sixers are giving up a lot here, but they have assets to spare. You’re teaming Love with a defensive-minded center in Nerlens Noel and a pass-first point guard in Michael Carter-Williams. Plus, the Sixers still have room to add another major player.


Phoenix Suns


The deal: Trade Machine

Suns receive: Kevin Love
Wolves receive: Eric Bledsoe, Timberwolves' first-round pick in 2015

This is the dream scenario. The Wolves would have to convince Bledsoe to want to play in Minnesota, and then execute a sign-and-trade. Most likely, they’d have to max out Bledsoe in the process. The Suns do it because of the knee concern for Bledsoe, and Love is a much better player who fits coach Jeff Hornacek’s style of play. Getting their top-12 protected pick back for dumping Wes Johnson in Phoenix helps, too. It’s a risk by the Suns and a concession by the Wolves, but this is the “fingers crossed” scenario.


Portland Trail Blazers


The deal: Trade Machine

Trail Blazers receive: Kevin Love, medium-quality bike lanes from Minneapolis
Wolves receive: LaMarcus Aldridge, second-best bike lanes from Portland

This needs to happen and it doesn’t have anything to do with basketball. I just want to see both fan bases reverse course on the vitriol thrown each other’s way when discussing which power forward is better. The Blazers fans would have to embrace Love as the top PF while the Wolves fans pretend they never meant the things they said about Aldridge’s rebounding.

The bike lane aspect of this trade would really help Portland take back its title as top cycling city in the country.


Sacramento Kings


The deal: Trade Machine

Kings receive: Kevin Love, Kevin Martin
Wolves receive: DeMarcus Cousins, Derrick Williams, Jason Terry

This one doesn't even involve a draft pick because Cousins has so much potential. The Kings can take a big man with the No. 8 pick this year and pair him next to Love. Martin returns to Sacramento and doesn't have Tyreke Evans to hog the ball and make him want to get out of town. Terry is salary-cap relief for the Wolves, and they can to try a do-over with Williams. This trade can’t happen until after July 1, so that and reality are the only two hang-ups right now.


San Antonio Spurs


Spurs receive: Kevin Love
Wolves receive: Gregg Popovich

This works out perfectly in a couple of ways. Let’s say the Spurs win the title this year and we see Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili ride off into the sunset. Love would immediately be the replacement for Duncan and give the Spurs a bridge from this era into the next successful one.

For the Wolves, I don’t even want to subject Popovich to coaching the team. He should just be a consultant for a month and let the organization know all of the awful ways in which they do things and the way the Spurs “would never consider something like this.” He’d essentially be The Wolf in "Pulp Fiction" for Minnesota.


Toronto Raptors


The deal: Trade Machine

Raptors receive: Kevin Love
Wolves receive: Jonas Valanciunas, Terrence Ross, John Salmons, No. 20 pick in 2014, Knicks’ first-round pick in 2016

It would leave the Raptors searching for a big man to protect the paint, but in today’s NBA, you could get away with a Love-Amir Johnson frontcourt against a lot of teams. The Wolves get the young assets they crave, the draft picks they need and the cap relief necessary to keep their options open. They’d have to move Pekovic next, and they don’t get rid of Martin's contract in this scenario, but it’s a good start to the rebuilding plan. This might be a lot for the Raptors to give up, but general manager Masai Ujiri can just fleece the next four trades he makes and even it all out.


Utah Jazz


The deal: Trade Machine

Jazz receive: Kevin Love
Wolves receive: Derrick Favors, Jeremy Evans, John Lucas III, Rudy Gobert, No. 5 pick in 2014

Requesting the Jazz’s top big man and the fifth pick is asking Utah to do the Wolves quite the ... Favor(s) ... you know? No? Wait, where are you guys going? I still have one more team to poach players from!


Washington Wizards


The deal: Trade Machine

Wizards receive: Kevin Love, Kevin Martin
Wolves receive: Bradley Beal, Nene

This would be an incredibly tough decision for the Wizards to make. They have one of the best young shooting guards in the NBA, and pairing him with John Wall would produce an awesome tandem for a decade. And yet, they could upgrade for Love while still keeping a scorer at the shooting guard position. In the process, they’d rid themselves of the long-term money owed to Nene. They would owe long-term money to Martin, though.

It’s not an ideal scenario in a few ways, but you’d be making this team a big threat. Plus, it would give coach Randy Wittman a chance to apologize for telling a young Love that he should abandon the 3-point shot.

Sleepless in Memphis

May, 1, 2014
May 1
11:00
AM ET
By Chris Herrington
Special to ESPN.com
Archive
ConleyAP Photo/Alonzo AdamsAfter four straight overtimes, everyone in Memphis and Oklahoma City needs to catch their breath.
Sometime after 11 p.m. CT on Tuesday night, while most of the basketball world was rightly focused on a momentous night in Los Angeles, two small cities in the middle of the country passed out.

Down a single point, Oklahoma City forward Serge Ibaka collected an offensive rebound off a now-ubiquitous missed Kevin Durant jumper and laid it into the basket at the precise moment that overtime expired. Ibaka’s teammates, momentarily exultant, leapt upon his supine body. Memphis players looked around in confusion and horror. Referee Bill Spooner signaled -- correctly, it turned out -- that the shot would not count. Tony Allen sprinted to the locker room and fans in both cities tried to pull themselves off the floor.

It's been that kind of series, and if Memphis seems to drift through its mornings in a civic stupor after such games, then I imagine Oklahoma City, on the wrong end of three of a record four consecutive playoff overtime games, is even more severely afflicted.

It’s not just the overtime game after game after game after game. It’s the hypnotic how of it all. Each time, the Grizzlies have lost a multi-possession lead in the final minutes, including three times in the final minute. Three times -- all three Grizzlies wins -- this collapse has included a Thunder four-point play. Each time, the team that builds a double-digit lead earlier in the game loses it but still prevails in overtime. Each time (to borrow a favorite passive-aggressive Allen observation about elite scorers he guards) Durant and Russell Westbrook shoot a lot of shots. Each time, Mike Conley, Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph cobble together just enough good-but-not-great play to hang around. And each time, a bench shooter -- Beno Udrih in Games 2 and 3, Reggie Jackson in Game 4, Mike Miller in Game 5 -- breaks the perpetual tie.

With a first-round matchup like this one, you almost start to look for signs to figure it out.

Maybe the Grizzlies were just better in Game 5 because Miller -- who drilled two 3s in the first minute of overtime after the Grizzlies could muster only three made shots in the fourth quarter -- chose Memphis over OKC in the offseason.

Maybe Oklahoma City cursed itself way back in the first half of Game 1, when the Thunder inserted Hasheem Thabeet in the second quarter. (Grizzlies fans -- who watched the former No. 2 pick bust out in less than two seasons in Memphis, only to become a solid defensive option in OKC -- took this as a taunt.)

Or maybe it was overtime in Game 5, when, coming out of a timeout, the Chesapeake Energy Arena played a Sun Records standard -- a Memphis song -- Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Great Balls of Fire.”

[+] EnlargeTony Allen
AP Photo/Mark HumphreyUp 3-2 heading into Game 6 at home, things are looking good for Tony Allen and the Grizzlies.
And after all that, there’s still the possibility that Durant will rise from his own ashes in Memphis on Thursday night to reclaim a 3-2 series that somehow could have just as easily been a Thunder sweep.

Familiarity is supposed to breed contempt, but in this series it’s just breeding exhaustion. These teams don’t look like they want to fight; they look like they want to nap. Especially Durant, who has played 238 of 260 minutes and taken 125 shots through five games, much of it with Allen erecting a second home within Durant’s personal space. All this after leading the league in regular-season minutes.

Gasol, not long removed from a serious knee injury, has played 226 of 260 minutes. His final shot in overtime on Tuesday looked like he was shooting a medicine ball.

Can these teams hold up for what feels like two more inevitable overtimes? And what will be left of the victor? Has it really been only five games?

A victory in Game 6 could give the Grizzlies yet another first-round upset for its résumé, and give everyone in Memphis -- the players, the coaches, the fans -- some much-needed time to catch their breath.

Chris Herrington is an entertainment editor and NBA contributor for the Memphis Commercial Appeal. Follow him, @HerringtonNBA.

Why the Thunder will lose

April, 24, 2014
Apr 24
10:45
AM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
Archive
David Thorpe doesn't think the Thunder, as presently constructed, will beat the Grizzlies.

No bluff: Thunder are Grizzlies' best rivals

April, 24, 2014
Apr 24
10:06
AM ET
By Chris Herrington
Special to ESPN.com
Archive
Kevin Durant and Tony AllenAP Photo/Alonzo AdamsThe Tony Allen-Kevin Durant matchup has become the heart of one of the NBA's best rivalries.
If NBA fans around the country played word association with “Memphis Grizzlies” and “rivalry,” they’d probably see images of Zach Randolph and Blake Griffin rolling around on the floor. But while the recent battles between the Grizzlies and Los Angeles Clippers have generated more heat, the rivalry with the Oklahoma City Thunder has proven more momentous to Memphis.

On Thursday night, at Memphis' FedExForum, these teams will play for the 30th time in four seasons, including in three playoff series (counting this one). The Grizzlies hold a 15-14 edge, but the clashes have provided much more than that. The series has given Grizzlies fans six overtime games and the franchise’s first Game 7, and has paved the way for a first trip to the Western Conference finals.

Most of the lexicon of Grizzlies fan culture also has emanated in opposition to OKC: The boast-as-threat “We Don’t Bluff” traces to an altercation between Randolph and Kendrick Perkins in November 2012. The crunch-time penchant for converting “growl towels” into "Norma Rae"-style signs materialized organically during a Game 3 comeback against the Thunder in May 2011. Even “grit and grind” first came about on the sidelines of Chesapeake Energy Arena in February 2011. When Rudy Gay was traded, the team’s next game -- a loss, the “champagne taste on a beer budget" game -- was against the Thunder. When Marc Gasol unexpectedly returned from injury this season, in a win, it was against the Thunder.

If the Grizzlies-Clippers rivalry is embodied in Randolph vs. Griffin -- a prizefight of relative equals, made more compelling by their radically contrasting styles and personalities -- then the Grizzlies-Thunder rivalry is embodied in Tony Allen vs. Kevin Durant: an ostensible mismatch, the role player and the MVP, David and Goliath.

Last season, Allen was suddenly deemed too short for the assignment despite ample evidence to the contrary. He was kept off Durant for the first seven quarters of the teams’ second-round series, in which the Grizzlies lost one game and were headed toward losing a second. Finally let loose in the fourth quarter of Game 2, Allen held Durant scoreless for 7 minutes in a close win, stealing the ball for a meaningless-to-most exclamation dunk in the final seconds and then running by the scorer’s table, yelling, “First team, all-defense!”

Was he taunting his opponent? More likely speaking to some mixture of the basketball gods, himself and his coach. The Grizzlies swept the remaining games against the Thunder, with Durant increasingly overburdened.

This season, upon returning from injury, Allen reluctantly moved to a reserve role and averaged fewer minutes per game than increasingly limited starter Tayshaun Prince. But against the league’s most dominant scorer on Monday night, Allen played 35 minutes, while Prince played only 14. The Grizzlies won 111-105 in overtime to tie the series. As they say in Memphis, No. 9 when you need him.

Allen’s first couple of months with the Grizzlies didn’t go well, either. When he first came to the team, in 2010-11, he played behind rookie Xavier Henry and totaled nearly a dozen DNPs. He blackened the eye of teammate O.J. Mayo in a squabble over a card game. The first game after that incident was at home against the Thunder, and Allen spent the first quarter botching uncontested layups and suffering ballhandling misadventures. He ended it with 16 second-half points, a clutch 3-pointer (followed by a backpedaling shimmy), a violent block on a Russell Westbrook layup attempt, and several thousand new fans.

In Memphis, this became known as “The Tony Allen Game.” A February rematch that season in Oklahoma City, in which Allen had 27 points (still his high with the Grizzlies), 5 steals, 3 blocks, zero turnovers and brilliant late-game defense on Durant, rendered it “The First Tony Allen Game.” Following the overtime win Monday, Allen turned a postgame interview into an impromptu sideline soliloquy, warning of the dangers of the Ibakas and Sefoloshas of the world, but not before a now-familiar rallying cry: “It’s all heart. Grit. Grind.”

Oklahoma City brings out the best in Tony Allen. And now here he is again, matched up against arguably the best player of the 2013-14 season.

Grizzlies fans can work up a feverish, fun “sports hate” for Griffin and Chris Paul. Maybe even for smirking Westbrook or frowning Perkins or old-and-in-the-way Derek Fisher. But Durant? Not a chance. Grizzlies fans by and large don’t -- can’t -- dislike Durant. They regard him with a mix of awe and admiration, fear and resentment.

[+] EnlargeKevin Durant
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesTony Allen has come off the bench to find himself in a familiar role: locked up with Kevin Durant.
Instead, Durant’s greatness creates more of a sour taste. Memphis has never had a player like Durant, perhaps never will. Yet for Thunder fans, Durant is all they have ever known. Grizzlies fans (and the players they love most) often feel as if they’ve come up the hard way. They think Thunder fans have had it too easy.

The fan cultures also seem so different in these small, middle-American markets.

Oklahoma City’s crowd acts more orderly. Everyone dutifully puts on their themed T-shirts, bearing sincere, agency-sublimating slogans.

Memphis’ crowd seems more unruly. The Grizzlies used to try T-shirts come playoff time -- the “whiteouts” and “blue-outs” and what have you -- but had to spend too much time before games shaming reluctant fans into putting them on. The lockstep look didn’t fit, especially with unofficial Tony Allen T-shirts erupting into a local cottage industry. People preferred the towels. They lend themselves to more boisterous, physical expression.

It’s easy to be snarky from a distance, of course. To roll your eyes in the abstract. But Grizzlies fans who make the trip to Oklahoma City inevitably come back impressed by the intensity and the dedication Thunder fans have for their team, by the family atmosphere at games, and by the graciousness bestowed upon guests.

These are two great fan bases. But they are different.

And if Durant and Allen embody their teams -- the gifted favorite and the scrapping underdog -- they’re also perhaps fitting reflections of their communities.

Allen might not make sense as a cult hero in every NBA city, but he fits in colorful, big-hearted but rough-edged Memphis, where he’s embraced his “The Grindfather” persona so fully that he displays the nickname on a vanity plate on the front of one of his cars.

Durant’s persona, of course, would play anywhere. But more befitting pious, respectful Oklahoma City, Durant has declined the similarly fun and intimidating moniker “Slim Reaper,” asking instead to be called “The Servant.”

Now it’s back to Memphis, with Allen’s team holding home-court advantage and his matchup with Durant squarely in the spotlight. In what has become one of the NBA’s most compelling rivalries, the best is yet to come.

Chris Herrington is an entertainment editor and NBA contributor for the Memphis Commercial Appeal. Follow him, @HerringtonNBA.

Penn Station: Thunder duo lack synergy

April, 17, 2014
Apr 17
11:54
AM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
Archive
In a new feature, Penn Station, ESPN NBA analyst Tom Penn uses some advanced stats to show that Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant and guard Russell Westbrook are fantastic, but lack a certain synergy typical of championship duos.

Grit and grind (your teeth)

April, 14, 2014
Apr 14
9:39
AM ET
Stein By Marc Stein
ESPN.com
Archive
With the final few nervous days of the regular season looming, we take the pulse of Memphis star forward Zach Randolph.

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Pau Gasol's final scene in Lakerland?

April, 14, 2014
Apr 14
1:39
AM ET
Adande By J.A. Adande
ESPN.com
Archive
LOS ANGELES -- Pau Gasol looked out onto the court, where the team from his past played the team of his present, then looked up to the scoreboard, where the clock ticked down toward the start of his future.

The Memphis Grizzlies, Gasol’s team from draft night in 2001 until the 2008 trade that sent him to the Los Angeles Lakers, were finalizing the Lakers’ 55th loss of the season. Same old story for the Lakers: hang tight for a half, lose by double digits. And a frustratingly frequent tale for Gasol: sidelined by injury, missing his 20th game and counting, with a bout of vertigo guaranteed to keep him sidelined for the Lakers’ two remaining games on the road.

He’ll be a free agent this summer, which means this might have been his last home game at Staples Center. It certainly meant he felt the emotional impact. As the game drew to a close he reached toward the seat to his right and tapped teammate Jordan Farmar’s leg to signal that it was time for them to leave. Except Gasol wasn’t really ready to leave. He congratulated his brother, Grizzlies center Marc Gasol, then playfully shoved Marc away so he wouldn’t sweat on Pau’s nice, movie-ticket-taker- burgundy red jacket. He moved on to other players and coaches, stopped to talk to a couple of fans, then chatted with courtside regulars Jimmy Goldstein and Dyan Cannon.
[+] EnlargeMarc Gasol
Robert Hanashiro/USA TODAY SportsMarc and Pau Gasol, the brothers who were traded for each other in 2008, greet each other Sunday.

He stopped and signed autographs for fans on the other side of the courtside seats. He leaned in behind a woman who took a selfie with her phone. He entered the tunnel and accommodated more fans who reached through the rails to have him sign programs, hats, tickets and -- just when he was ready to cut things off -- a fan who dangled a No. 16 Gasol golden Lakers jersey.

Finally he said no mas.

“I gotta go in,” he said. “I’m sorry.”

He blew the fans a kiss with both hands, bowed and moved on to the Lakers' locker room.

“I always appreciate the fans,” Gasol said. “You never know. The last couple years when I walked out of this building it’s been emotional. This year it’s been a little bit different because we haven’t been successful as a team, we had a lot of injuries, I haven’t been able to finish the season playing. So I kind of had it more in my mind.

“The last couple of years I didn’t know if I was going to be back. This year with even more reason, because now I’m a free agent. It’s just a way of me appreciating everyone and our fans.”

The fans showed their appreciation, giving him a warm cheer when he was showed on the scoreboard video screen late in the game. Will the Lakers do anything similar -- something along the lines of the golden parachute they granted Kobe Bryant? The Kobe contract might actually preclude a Gasol gift by eating up too much salary cap room. Gasol can’t expect to match the $19 million he made this season; he might get about half of that, from what some general managers say. It's also possible that the Lakers could sign him to a short deal that would give them the possibility of using him as a trade asset next season.

But a multi-year contract would alter any Lakers plans to make a big splash in the 2015 free agent market -- or even to bring in the additional pieces the Lakers would need around Bryant and Gasol.

That’s why Sunday was the night for sentiment. Come July 1 it will be all business.

“You’ve got to put heart and emotions aside a little bit and think what’s going to be the best position for me to succeed, not just individually but collectively,” Gasol said. “And hopefully help put myself in a position where I can win a championship. That will be the goal. Where can I win and where can I be a key piece to help a team win, whether it’s here or another team? I don’t know exactly what’s going to be the structure or the roster [with the Lakers], so there’s going to be a lot of question marks here. But I’m open to listen. I’m a good listener. I will listen to what’s offered.”

Then there’s the possibility of playing with his brother in Memphis.

“It’s appealing,” Gasol said. “We have a lof of fun always in the summers [playing together with the Spanish national team]. But I don’t know if it’s going to be completely 100 percent up to me, because there’s going to be a lot of teams that are going to be probably limited or conditioned to a trade, and the Lakers will probably have some say in that. We’ll see. It’ll be an interesting process. I don’t know if the Grizzlies are one of the teams that are most interested.

“I’d love to play with Kobe more, because he’s a friend, he’s a winner and he’s a guy that I’ve been through a lot and won championships with. I would love to play with my brother, but you can’t have everything. Just try to think where is the best position for me to succeed collectively and individually.”

Time passes so quickly in the NBA, turning from ally to enemy. Gasol made the Lakers championships contenders when he arrived in February of 2008, and they were on their way to three consecutive NBA Finals. In April of 2014, the only player in uniform who was around for that heyday was Farmar. It’s no accident that he was sitting next to Gasol.

“[The bond is] even sweeter for us because we lost one [NBA Finals] first,” Farmar said. “ We got all the way there, we lost, and then we learned as a group and came back to win back-to-backs. So we’re a little closer. It’s a little more special. It’s experiences you can’t really teach. You just have to go through it and know what it takes. It’s hard to pass that knowledge on to young guys. There’s just no way they can understand the dynamics of a championship team unless you’re on that caliber of a team.”

You can see why playing for another team consisting primarily of those young players wouldn’t appeal to Gasol at age 33. You also can see how a 33-year-old who has missed 53 games over the past two seasons with injuries stretching literally from his feet (plantar fasciitis) to his head (vertigo) might not have GMs filling his voicemail inbox this summer. But he’s still an experienced big man who averaged 17.4 points and 9.7 rebounds this season.

“In this league, no one person can do it by themselves,” Farmar said. “You need to put a team together of guys that understand the importance of winning,
that are committed to it and fit well together. I think that’s what it comes down to. The front office knows that. I think Pau, whether it’s here or someplace else, will be on a team like that.”

For the past three seasons we’ve wondered if the Lakers would send him someplace else before the trade deadline. Now it could be of his own volition. That’s why this wasn’t just another night in Staples Center, the building where the two most recent Lakers championship banners hang as a result of his handiwork.

That's Zach Randolph's music!

April, 9, 2014
Apr 9
9:42
AM ET
By Chris Herrington
Special to ESPN.com
Archive
Zach RandolphAP Photo/Chris CarlsonZ-Bo has re-energized NBA ball in Memphis, but the city's love for him stems from its wrasslin' roots.
Memphis has taken to calling itself Hoop City in reference to its affinity for basketball at the pro, college and high school levels. A more reasonable appellation might be the one longtime Grizzlies executive Chris Wallace bestowed on the city for the same reasons: The Basketball Capital of the South.

But in a football-crazed region, if any sport -- or "sport," if we must -- rivals basketball for the collective, historical heart of Memphis, it’s professional wrestling. In the days before the then-WWF monopolized the wrestling world, Memphis was one of the great hotbeds of the sport's territorial system. For 20 years, a local, live Saturday morning wrestling show that broadcast from a midtown Memphis television studio drew staggering ratings. The Mid-South Coliseum, which now sits empty in the center of the city, was home to Memphis State basketball games but is probably more associated with weekly Monday night wrestling events that drew rabid fans from around the area.

Zach Randolph’s cultural connection to Memphis has been well-chronicled, most convincingly by Randolph himself when he spoke to Doris Burke in a playoff postgame interview three years ago. Things never came easily to either him or his adopted city, Randolph said, words that might have been penned by “Soul Man” songwriter David Porter, himself a Grizzlies season-ticket holder.

[+] EnlargeJerry Lawler
Joe Murphy/NBAE/Getty ImagesJust some silly WWE color man? In Memphis Jerry Lawler is indeed king -- especially at Griz games.
But one secret to Randolph's Memphis appeal is that he’s a figure who evokes the city’s wrestling history more than its basketball history. With his big personality and combination of the physical and theatrical, Z-Bo's lineage descends more from local wrestling legends such as Sputnik Monroe, Jackie Fargo and Jerry Lawler than from local hoops legends such as Larry Finch and Penny Hardaway.

Randolph’s Grizzlies changed the tenor of playoff basketball in Memphis in part by being competitive after a prior history of postseason sweeps. But these Grizzlies also put playoff basketball in a more familiar local context, the tough but flamboyant personality of the team feeding the fan base’s wrestling-bred conception of sport as working-man’s opera, yielding “We Don’t Bluff” theme songs and "Whoop That Clip" chants. The former was plucked from a Randolph postgame interview after an altercation with Kendrick Perkins, the latter charged up by a Randolph vs. Blake Griffin rivalry that frequently unravels into double fouls and floor burns.

Like an old-school wrestling card, there's a tinge of violence in the air, but it’s just for show. There is no intent to harm. This connection is made explicit each spring when Lawler appears during playoff games to hype up the crowd. Nationally, he’s mostly known as the cartoonish commentator for WWE broadcasts. But Lawler dominated the Memphis wrestling scene for decades as a charismatic good-ole-boy badass. Memphis wrestling, embodied by Lawler, fostered a culture where good guys aren't so clean-cut. They throw fire. They use chairs. They sometimes send Hollywood interlopers away on stretchers. And Lawler returns each spring to re-enact these rituals against jobbers wearing opposing teams' jerseys.

One of Lawler’s trademarks came when he'd suffered enough punishment and was ready to put down his opponent. Lawler would pull down his shoulder strap as a silent signal that a comeback was about to commence, sending the Coliseum crowd into an involuntary frenzy.

Randolph's ever-present headband is the foundation of a similar sartorial sacrament. When physical play from an opponent dislodges it, there’s a ripple of anticipation that runs through FedExForum -- a collective "oh no he didn't" -- as Randolph grimaces and growls and snorts.

Tony Allen, who leaps up to flex his muscles when Randolph makes a bully-ball bucket, is the hype-man manager in this basketball-as-wrestling blend. Marc Gasol is, of course, Randolph's tag-team partner. And opposing stars play their proper roles.

In the territorial heyday, Lawler was a Memphis constant, but bad guys -- monster "heels" of the week -- would come and go. Visitors such as Hulk Hogan or King Kong Bundy may have been bigger stars elsewhere, but when they came to Memphis they were just foils. And so it is with Griffin and Kevin Durant and Tony Parker.

In a season of injury-related upheaval and win-loss regression, Randolph has been reliable and resurgent. While fellow core components Gasol, Allen and Mike Conley have all missed significant stretches to injury, Randolph has been absent for only three games. While the Grizzlies are struggling to secure a playoff bid, this is the healthiest and most productive homestretch Randolph has had in three seasons.

Randolph was freshly returned from a major knee injury when the Grizzlies lost a first-round series to the Clippers two years ago. Last year, a March ankle injury had Randolph limping, literally and figuratively, into the spring. But right now, at age 32, Randolph’s jab-step jumper is as feathery, his first step as quick, and his post play as physical as it’s been since that New Year's Day knee injury in 2012. Randolph looks at older power forwards such as Dirk Nowitzki, Tim Duncan and David West -- all with games based more on toughness and skill than athleticism -- and believes he can maintain his current level of play for several more seasons.

Yet Randolph may be the one member of the team's core heading toward a summer of uncertainty. Randolph has a $16.5 million player option for next season, and while both he and team management have hinted at an interest in a multiyear deal at a smaller per-year figure, what each side deems reasonable may not necessarily mesh. Randolph’s heart may be in Memphis, but neither his agent nor the Grizzlies' front office is likely to be as swayed by sentiment. And Randolph’s defensive decline may weigh as heavily as his offensive resurgence as the Grizzlies plan for their future.

[+] EnlargeZach Randolph
Joe Murphy/NBAE/Getty ImagesThe love is mutual in Memphis. Beyond all the bully-ball, Zach Randolph has found a place to call home.
But whatever happens this summer, Randolph has made clear that he’s put down roots, buying an 11,000-square-foot home in East Memphis that he envisions as his forever house, declaring himself a Memphian, whatever his future status with the Grizzlies may be. And that’s a profession of commitment no other NBA import has ever made.

Randolph’s wish to retire in Beale Street Blue seems like an even bet at best, which means Randolph could be playing his final few home games at FedExForum. The city of Memphis could possibly lose Z-Bo, the basketball player, for a little while. But a city that loves Zach Randolph in a way that once seemed impossible can take solace in the faith that it will ultimately get him back.

With the Grizzlies staggering toward the season’s finish line and a once presumed certain playoff spot very much in doubt, the curtain is threatening to close on what’s been one helluva show. But if the Grizzlies are fortunate enough to enter the postseason this spring and Lawler makes his annual appearance, my mind will flash to the future, a decade or more from now. The Grizzlies will be in the playoffs again, and during a third-quarter timeout it's not Lawler making an entrance but Randolph.

Maybe he'll perform the Blake Griffin choke-slam of 2013 with a plant in a Clippers jersey or have a stare-down with a Kendrick Perkins look-alike. Maybe, poetically, it will be a co-conspirator in a Blazers jersey who knocks off Randolph's headband and cowers in the presence of his mean-mugging, provoking a mass “Z-Bo” chant for old-time's sake and again turning FedExForum into a Monday night card at the Coliseum, Southern Heavyweight Title on the line and the hometown hero about to rally.

Chris Herrington is an entertainment editor and NBA contributor for the Memphis Commercial Appeal. Follow him, @HerringtonNBA.

Grinding it out

April, 4, 2014
Apr 4
10:00
AM ET
By Chris Herrington
Special to ESPN.com
Archive
Zach RandolphAP Photo/Greg Wahl-Stephens.
A season that began in the afterglow of a first-ever conference finals appearance and the perhaps even headier September designation from ESPN The Magazine as -- wait, what? -- “the best franchise in sports” is in danger of ending with a return to the draft lottery.

You might think that would reflect poorly on an ownership and front office in its first full season on the job in Memphis (and among those still stinging from the messing-with-success decision to part ways with Lionel Hollins, it probably does). But there’s more to this story.

When controlling owner Robert Pera and CEO Jason Levien took charge of the Grizzlies at the beginning of the 2012-13 season, they were fortunate enough to inherit Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph, Mike Conley and Tony Allen -- the best Memphis quartet since Booker T. & the MG’s. But they were also passed some oddly persistent problems with the rest of the roster, a bunch of small deficiencies that added up to a big multiseason drag on the team’s contending core.

A revolving door at backup point guard spun so fast between not-ready rookies and often past-expiration journeymen that it had become a running joke locally. Behind Gasol, at center, the options were to go small or force-feed minutes to should-be third-stringers. The lack of 3-point shooting was borderline anachronistic and, especially after Rudy Gay was traded, the dearth of above-the-rim athleticism was glaring.

Once the team anted up for Allen in free agency, attending to these myriad small wounds became the focus. But the first aid kit was pretty bare. Trading Gay clarified the team’s pecking order, but it didn’t create much in the way of flexibility. It merely bent the team’s salary trajectory to ride just under the tax line rather than soaring over it. There was no first-round pick in the 2013 draft (a delayed payment to the Rockets for taking on busted-out No. 2 pick Hasheem Thabeet), and using the full mid-level exception would have put the small-market team into the luxury tax. There were a lot of holes to plug and not much in the way of resources to plug them.

Yet at the cost of only a rapidly diminishing Darrell Arthur, an underperforming and positionally miscast Jerryd Bayless, a soon-to-expire trade exception from the Gay deal and a few slivers of cap space, the Grizzlies addressed every one of these nagging issues in significant if not uniformly satisfactory ways: corralling Kosta Koufos, Nick Calathes, Mike Miller, a re-signed Jon Leuer and James Johnson -- a center, a point guard, two shooters and a sometimes game-changing athlete -- for slightly more than the cost of a mid-level exception.

Courtney Lee displaced Allen in the starting lineup, giving the team a badly needed starting wing who could provide above-average defense with above-average shooting. Miller rivals Shane Battier as the most locally popular Grizzlies player during the Hubie Brown/Mike Fratello years, and the 34-year-old has not only brought nostalgic good vibes in his second tour in Memphis but also some desperately needed spacing (55 percent from 3 since the All-Star break). Johnson, an athletic X factor plucked from the D League, is just the kind of Z-Bo-like redemption story Griz fans groove on. The kickboxing journeyman is a classic Grizzlyan defender who has tattooed his name in team lore with one play against the Clippers and spurred a local cottage industry in nickname creation (people’s choice: “Bloodsport”; runners-up: “Kid Dynomite” and “Dr. JJ”).

The Grizzlies remain a very low-volume 3-point shooting team, but now have the ability to field lineups with multiple 3-point threats. With this supporting cast, the Grizzlies would likely have put up more of a fight against the Spurs in last season’s West finals, and they likely wouldn't have lost a home Game 7 against the Clippers two springs back, in which Hollins reached down to his bench in the fourth quarter for Gilbert Arenas and Hamed Haddadi. By contrast, new coach Dave Joerger struggles to even find minutes for better options Beno Udrih and Ed Davis.

Yet the Grizzlies are still in danger of missing the playoffs entirely after three straight years in the West’s top eight. The front office has done a great job of building out a full roster, but it’s still the heavy hitters who will decide the team’s fate, and injuries have plagued this team’s core all season.

Gasol and Conley combined to miss a mere 11 games in the previous three seasons. This season, with Gasol going down to a November knee injury and Conley sidelined by a January ankle sprain, they’ve missed a combined 32 games. Last season, the full four-man core took the court in 69 of 82 games. Even with full health the rest of the way, that group will only hit 36 games this season.

[+] EnlargeMarc Gasol
AP Photo/Matt SlocumEarly injuries to major contributors like Marc Gasol could leave the Grizzlies in the dark this postseason.
Since Gasol’s return, the Grizzlies have shown glimpses of what they can be at their best: Conley controlling the game and knocking down open shots; Gasol picking apart opposing defenses with his high-post passing and shooting and anchoring the Grizzlies’ defense at the other end; Randolph scoring and rebounding on the low block; and a deep, diverse cast of role players pitching in – Miller and Lee hitting 3s; Allen hounding ball handlers; Prince defending long wings and blending in; Koufos providing a paint presence on both ends; Calathes keeping Conley fresh; and the trio of Davis, Johnson and Leuer providing athletic and/or floor-stretching options.

The Grizzlies are 30-15 this season when Conley and Gasol both play, a .667 winning percentage not far behind last season’s franchise-best mark and one that would place them fourth in the West. Even with Gasol still wearing a heavy knee brace and Conley, by his own admission, playing at about 75 percent, the Grizzlies have the league’s sixth-best record since the All-Star break. But heading into Friday’s game against Denver, Memphis is 44-31, and in eighth place in the West thanks to a tiebreaker over the Phoenix Suns.

The Grizzlies struggled early with a full roster and have shown some strain in the past week despite being at full strength again. Going 1-3 in four road games against teams ranked among the league’s 10 fastest-paced highlights concerns about how well Joerger, in his first season as an NBA head coach, has deployed the team’s improved depth and athleticism. Joerger has acquitted himself well in his debut season by any reasonable standard, but he won’t get a pass from most Memphis fans if the Grizzlies fall short of the playoffs, especially given Hollins’ recent success in that regard. Even if the championship-caliber core has been hurt, it’s a championship-caliber core nonetheless.

Near the season’s lowest point, in mid-December, Grizzlies player personnel director Stu Lash was asked by a season ticket-holder at a pregame “chalk talk” about an ESPN.com article that cited the Grizzlies’ “Playoff Odds” -- a system designed by the team’s own VP, John Hollinger -- at under 2 percent. Tanking, the article said, may be the Grizzlies’ best option.

“We’ve got a veteran team that knows how to win in the playoffs,” Lash responded. “Our focus now is simply on getting there.”

That sounds like a good spin, but it was also what the front office believed. With what they inherited and what they added, the Grizzlies have assembled a team that should be capable of competing with anyone in the postseason. If they can get there.

Chris Herrington is an entertainment editor and NBA contributor for the Memphis Commercial Appeal. Follow him, @HerringtonNBA.

The odd lottery

January, 24, 2014
Jan 24
9:06
PM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
Archive
The idea is that the NBA draft will help the weaker Eastern conference catch up to the West. And it might. But ... some good West teams will be rewarded with much better picks than they'd get in the East. Here I reiterate a point I first learned about from Curtis Harris.

 

Courtney Lee and the Code of Hammurabi

January, 23, 2014
Jan 23
10:43
PM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
Archive
Memphis Grizzlies guard Courtney Lee chats about his new team, how he got traded and the Code of Hammurabi.

video

Renting a starting spot

January, 7, 2014
Jan 7
12:53
PM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
Archive
Around the league players like Darren Collison, Kosta Koufos and Kendall Marshall are filling in for injured stars. David Thorpe on the art of being a fill-in.

 

TrueHoop TV: The state of the Griz

December, 5, 2013
12/05/13
4:13
PM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
Archive

Thorpe grades coaches

November, 15, 2013
11/15/13
5:12
PM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
Archive
David Thorpe hands out early-season grades for Jason Kidd, Jeff Hornacek, Brett Brown, Dave Joerger and Doc Rivers.

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