A Marriage of Convenience, Minus the Marriage
The Memphis Grizzlies and Allen Iverson have found each other, in a late-offseason pairing that is guaranteed not to wow basketball analysts.
You know how a few days before the prom certain bizarro high-school pairings arise? That guy many thought would sit the dance out asks that gal who everyone knew was a lock to stay home?
But they both really want to go to the prom, apparently, so they find each other, even though there's little evidence they actually like each other.
This feels like that. Iverson has had this offer sitting on the table. He has been eight kinds of evasive when asked if he was willing to come off the bench. And he reportedly was hoping to hear from more desirable teams that never materialized.
Although he's chipper about the whole thing on Twitter today ("I feel that they are committed to developing a winner") it's hard to know how seriously either party is taking the pairing. Didn't Iverson relent to the unpopular kid's overtures as a way to strut his stuff for a short period before getting himself back in the limo with the cool kids? Aren't the Grizzlies relenting to a flawed and aging egocentric hoping to fire up a lackluster fanbase?
If the marriage is meaningful, why's it just a one-year deal?
The Other Way to Rebuild
Sam Presti of the Oklahoma City Thunder, David Kahn of the Minnesota Timberwolves, Kevin Pritchard of the Portland Trail Blazers and Chris Wallace of the Memphis Grizzlies ... Four NBA front office executives who are at various stages of essentially the same task: Shake a franchise down to its core, build a new winning culture, and kiss goodbye to a past of mediocrity.
With their actions and words, all have demonstrated that draft picks and cap space rule their long-term strategy. In each city, a few wins here or there may be nice in the short term, but nothing is more important than the development of key young players. If Kevin Durant, Jeff Green, James Harden, Russell Westbrook begin to really matter in the NBA, the Thunder will matter, too. In Minnesota, Jonny Flynn, Kevin Love and Al Jefferson will determine the fate of the franchise, much like Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge and Greg Oden do in Portland.
For the Grizzlies, O.J. Mayo, Mike Conley, Rudy Gay and Marc Gasol headline the group that will or will not one day make the much-maligned Chris Wallace look like a genius.
Almost all of those players listed above, on all four teams, are still on inexpensive rookie contracts. That presents powerbrokers like Presti, Kahn, Pritchard and Wallace a profound and enduring conundrum: To use cap space on questionable veterans or not?
Sure, it's all about the long-term development of key young players -- but why not shine up the process with contributions from veterans?
There are exceptions (Pritchard just added Andre Miller, Kahn is dabbling with Ramon Sessions), but for the most part, those general managers haven't been surrounding their youngsters with hired guns.
Chris Wallace, and his team's majority owner, Michael Heisley, once appeared to agree. But this summer they have clearly changed tactics, having signed not just the icon of me-first basketball, Zach Randolph, but also now Iverson.
Why don't young teams bring in veterans? General managers and others have shared wisdom:
The free agents who are available to rebuilding teams are generally second-tier players (the best ones get to play for elite squads). Many have baggage on or off the court. With so much riding on the development of young, often impressionable players, there is a school of thought that it's better not to risk introducing the bad apple that spoils the whole bunch.
They're too old! If your team is aiming to start making noise in the playoffs in, let's say, three years, what's going to happen to older veterans who ought to be in serious decline by then? Best case, the veterans will be key players right now. If they are, then down the road you'll have major holes to fill. Or perhaps they won't be key players immediately ... and what's the point?
To developing players, minutes and touches are like oxygen. Any possession dominated by Randolph or Iverson is a play where Gay, Mayo, Conley or Gasol miss an opportunity to improve. Meanwhile, Randolph, Gay, Mayo and Iverson were all, last season, in the NBA's top 75 in using possessions. To be wanting the ball more is to be human. To be wanting the ball more, while being a really bad team, is often to breed dissent -- A player begins to believe the team would win more if only he could shoot more, and quickly you're building the opposite of a winning culture.
Nothing to Lose?
In signing Iverson and Randolph, the Grizzlies have gambled. They have gambled that these kinds of veterans, even with mediocre-to-horrid rankings from stat geeks, will help them win more games, draw more fans and matter more in the world of basketball.
And in one sense, the analysis is hard to argue. The team hasn't even managed 25 wins in any of the last three seasons. The two players they added (neither with long salary commitments) are, today, arguably their two best players. This team had no right to expect much, so there is not much risk in messing it up.
On the other hand, look at how hard it was for Memphis to get good, young, affordable players like Conley, Gay, Gasol and Mayo. It might not be an All-Star team, but it is something to build around, which was very hard to come by. Assembling that crowd took giving up two of the NBA's more productive big men: Kevin Love and Pau Gasol. It took years of waiting and draft picks. And the payoff will take many more years of nurturing, and plenty of good luck.
If the demanding presences of Randolph and Iverson do anything at all to derail that process, their signings will have to be considered nasty mistakes.
On the other hand, if the new veterans play well -- you have to assume Iverson will be on his best behavior, eager to prove he's worth minutes and money from a winning team -- and the young Grizzlies continue developing apace, then Wallace and Heisley will look brilliant. We'll have to wonder if it's not the Grizzlies who are being too bold, but the other rebuilding teams who are being too timid in not introducing more veterans.
The experiment is on.