If all this happened to an NBA team in New York or Los Angeles, the plot would absorb fans and media like a prestige cable drama -- palace intrigue, layered characters, symbolism and a battle of ideas. But Memphis resides in a place called “the Mid-South,” a region that lies between the richer New South, the dynamic megapolises of Texas, and the old Midwest.
Chances are you might just be tuning in, so we’d like to introduce you to the cast of "Memphis Grizzlies: The Cable Drama."
Soon after the dinner episode, the new regime trades away the team’s leading scorer and ships off two key bench contributors. The transactions are both financially motivated and, in the case of the highly paid player, an expression of the new group’s efficiency-based philosophy.
The process incenses the head coach, who feels his solid track record and steady management of the roster warrant more consultation. The coach, who isn’t under contract for next season, goes public with his gripes, and much of the fan base agrees. After the team drops a couple of games, the team’s rotund power forward sounds off about the offense.
Meanwhile, speculation swirls about the fate of the incumbent general manager, who has assembled many of the key pieces and compiled a ton of institutional knowledge, but seems increasingly like a third wheel.
Just as the debate over the trades peaks, the coach bows to his better judgment. The team wins 14 out of 15, but in its first two playoff games, it gets pushed around by the same opponent it lost tragically to last season.
But the team comes home and to the surprise of even some inside the organization, rallies around its identity as a squad every bit as unvarnished as its city to win the series and exact revenge. It sustains its momentum and dismantles its next opponent, the West's top seed. Now one loss from elimination against the team it upset two years ago, the moment when it first established self-belief, it must rally.
That should bring you up to date with the events. Now here is your cast of characters:
LIONEL HOLLINS, the head coach
Hollins is one of our drama's most layered characters. The Grizzlies have improved each season under Hollins' reign, and the team's rugged identity is very much an expression of his sensibilities.
Hollins can be prickly, and there are those who might not care for his mode of communication. Soon after the transition, a salty Hollins went public with his misgivings about data-driven approaches to basketball, as well as the Rudy Gay trade. Aware that if the gripes continued much longer, he could jeopardize not only his future in Memphis, but as a candidate elsewhere, Hollins eventually pulled back and rallied his team to the conference finals.
Hollins values authenticity and is leery of anyone perceived as an operator. He's also immensely proud of the work he's done with a flawed roster that lacks shooting and speed. He's given Mike Conley incredible confidence, and understands how, when and to whom on his staff to delegate game preparation. He communicates exceptionally well with his players, both favorites and non-favorites.
Hollins isn't under contract after this season, and with his stock on the rise, he could have his choice of jobs ranging from the Brooklyn Nets to the Los Angeles Clippers. The question for Hollins is whether he wants to continue to coach under the new management group. And the question for management is whether it wants to pay Hollins a dollar figure that might exceed its approximation of his value.
ROBERT PERA, the whiz kid
Viewers drawn to tales of wish fulfillment will live vicariously through our 35-year-old billionaire who bought the toy he'd always wanted -- a professional sports franchise. Less than a decade ago, Pera was just a young engineer, a cog in the vast professional landscape of Silicon Valley. Now he's exporting wireless technology to remote corners of the world.
Brilliant and quirky, his sartorial sensibilities lean toward fleece and Kobe 8s, not tailored suits and Berlutis. Pera believes that basketball is a lingua franca and that the game's global reach is infinite, particularly in Asia, where he has a home in Taiwan. Pera inherits a team that has been operating in the red since its existence. He's also promised to improve technology at FedEx Forum. Will Pera make the Grizzlies the league's next marquee franchise, or is he a faddist who will have trouble penetrating the old boy's club of the NBA?
JASON LEVIEN, the CEO and managing partner
The team's new CEO will almost always be at the eye of the storm of each episode. Smart and ambitious, Levien has evolved from a counselor at Five-Star basketball camp to a young agent who specialized in identifying bargain-bin talents like Kevin Martin, Udonis Haslem and Courtney Lee, to an assistant GM with the Sacramento Kings.
After leaving Sacramento, Levien assembled a group to buy the Philadelphia 76ers. After serving in an executive capacity after the purchase, he realized that herding fat cats didn't fulfill his goal, which was to run an NBA team's day-to-day operations without much interference. In Pera, Levien found a professional soulmate who has empowered him with unencumbered control over the Grizzlies. Levien doesn't act without thinking five moves ahead and studying the ramifications. Advocates love his vision and intelligence, but a few in our cast find him to be the classic embodiment of the slick, untrustworthy agent who can spin anything.
JOHN HOLLINGER, the guru
Nobody has a more fascinating character arc than the affable advanced stats guru tapped by Levien to help run Grizzlies basketball operations. Every time Hollinger has embarked on a new venture, he's encountered skeptics. When he rose to become a lead NBA analyst at ESPN.com, there was resentment from the old-school writers who felt a peering into the souls of players was the way to cover the game, not crunching numbers. And when Hollinger took the job in Memphis, veteran management types saw him as the barbarian at the gate, the incarnation of the Big Data movement that's infecting the game.
Hollinger's projections and metrics have consistent and proven track records as predictive tools. Now as a decision-maker on the inside, his pure approach will be challenged by some of the inconvenient realities that surface when the many irrational variables of the NBA come into conflict with empiricism.
MICHAEL HEISLEY, the former owner
A mercurial, self-made American success story, the man who brought the Grizzlies to Memphis made his money in the old, industrial economy in stark contrast to his successor as team owner. Whereas Pera applies rigorous analysis to every decision, Heisley's gut and unpredictability often ruled.
A character who could be both lovable and abrasive, Heisley was a notorious meddler in basketball decisions and forever tried to prove he was no cheapskate owner. The result of those efforts were often outsized deals for players, even as he strong-armed staffers into accepting less than industry standard.
He started the season sitting on the sidelines, then fought for his life after suffering a stroke. Heisley relied on regular counsel from Stan Meadows, his lawyer and consigliere, who negotiated on Heisley's behalf and performed many of the less savory duties of presiding over a franchise, particularly when Heisley fell ill. Through it all, Heisley's imprint on the franchise and the city -- the team's centrality to the community as well as its facility the public paid for -- is indelible.
CHRIS WALLACE, the general manager
The good-natured basketball lifer is a somewhat tragic figure in our drama. A generation of basketball junkies grew up on Wallace's venerable Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbooks, which got the outsider in the door first in Miami, then in Boston.
As Heisley's charge and a man guided by traditional instincts, Wallace has no natural place in the new hierarchy. He's had virtually no say in the team's major personnel decisions since Levien arrived. But despite being neutered, Wallace is a strong community man capable of performing ambassadorial duties for the new outsiders.
He has time left on his current deal, and management feels no pressure to relieve him of his duties -- so long as Wallace knows those responsibilities have diminished. In the meantime, Wallace can survey the field for potential opportunities elsewhere, where he'd be a better fit.
MIKE CONLEY, the point guard
Along with Gasol, the diminutive point guard represents the franchise's future -- they are a big-small tandem in their prime, each on a favorable contract. Conley and Gasol are two of the only current players guaranteed to be on the opening-night roster in October, one reason why Pera and Levien saw fit to invite the pair to dinner at a four-top table in San Francisco in January.
Conley is just beginning to learn how good he can be, but sometimes needs to be reminded. Off the floor, Conley is classy, quiet, but accessible to teammates.
MARC GASOL, the big man
The Spanish center is the straight cop in our series. If there's a team discussion about a set play the opponent is running successfully, chances are Gasol -- along with Tony Allen -- will be leading the discussion about how to defend it.
An intensely serious dude, Gasol is the kind of guy who will stay half an hour after practice is over to play one-on-one with a young teammate on a nonguaranteed deal. He also might be the only player in the Grizzlies' locker room with the authority to call out anyone, though it's a privilege he'd use in only the rarest of circumstances.
ZACH RANDOLPH, the redemption story
Our epic antihero was acquired by Wallace from the Clippers in what many felt was a salary dump in 2009. As Chris Herrington documented in his sublime Griz Glossary, Randolph embodies everything Memphis and uttered the show's most quotable piece of dialogue in 2011. "I love this city and they love me back," Randolph said moments after the Grizzlies eliminated the Spurs. "It's a blue-collar town. I'm a blue-collar player."
The city sees itself in Randolph, a primary reason why his name is announced last during lineup introductions. But will Randolph be around when the 2013-14 season gets underway? He has two years and $34.3 million remaining on his contract, and this management group is less likely to be swayed by sentimentality. As the NBA aphorism goes, better to trade a guy a year too early than a year too late. Whether the Grizzlies pursue that line of thinking will be one of the offseason's more intriguing cliffhangers.
TONY ALLEN, Mr. Grit 'n' Grind
Like Randolph, Allen is idiosyncratic, intense, rough around the edges, has a checkered past, doesn't always see eye-to-eye with his coach -- but the personification of Memphis Grizzlies basketball. "All heart, grit and grind," was coined by Allen.
The defensive specialist loves to hoop, a quality that rubs off on everyone in the Grizzlies' locker room. He works tirelessly to keep himself in shape and serves as an NBA tour guide to younger players who need a little direction in the art of being a professional baller.
Allen is a free agent this summer and the Grizzlies don't have a lot of payroll flexibility, even after the midseason trades. Allen certainly helps the Grizzlies more than he hurts, but at 31 and with achy knees, will he fit into a Grizzlies roster that needs to get stretchier on the wings?
RUDY GAY, the gunner
The lanky 6-foot-8 forward wanted to be the face of the franchise, and the franchise wanted it for him. But Gay could never reach those heights, and his five-year, $82 million contract served as a millstone.
Gay was regarded as quiet and courteous, if a bit difficult to get close to. Being The Guy in the NBA means being challenged about your shortcomings on a daily basis. That's a pretty intense experience, and Gay was rarely comfortable embracing that intensity. As a result, he was often treated with kid gloves, a condition that bred resentment among certain teammates, even those who liked him personally.
For the new guard, the decision to trade Gay was made with both a financial and basketball calculus.
STU LASH, the basketball guy
The Grizzlies' new director of player personnel and basketball development has a longstanding relationship with Levien and serves as a key liaison between management and the staff on the ground. When critics cite the lack of basketball people among Memphis' new decision-makers, Levien will point to Lash, who cut his teeth with the Nuggets as a scouting coordinator and video coordinator and in player development for five seasons under George Karl. He also served as an agent in Levien's firm.
Hollinger's approach to the game will focus on the quantitative, while Lash will pay more attention to factors like coachability and culture when evaluating talent.
DAVE JOERGER, the lead assistant
The Grizzlies' lead assistant and defensive coordinator has a sterling track record as a minor league head coach, but the top bullet-point on his résumé is the work he's done constructing the league's No. 2 defense.
Joerger is a tireless worker and has an intuitive sense of the craft, but he wouldn't be in the conversation to be an NBA head coach without Hollins' trust, something Joerger is extremely grateful for. This makes the current situation in Memphis all the more interesting. Joerger undoubtedly wants an opportunity to sit in the first chair and would be a leading candidate if Hollins goes elsewhere.
A student of basketball analytics who also has the respect of the locker room, Joerger is well-liked by the new administration and affordable -- but in no way does Joerger want to demonstrate disloyalty to his mentor. That's why Joerger has kept his nose to the grindstone and avoided any palace intrigue in Memphis, something that has been noted by parties inside and outside the organization.
BARRY HECKER, the exiled
The Grizzlies assistant and longtime friend of Hollins was at the center of a bizarre storyline. Hecker was dismissed from the team during the Western Conference semifinals for what Hollins termed personal reasons.
Hecker, who has spent decades in the NBA in several capacities, has a reputation for being volatile and has been known to get into verbal altercations with fans from his position behind the Grizzlies' bench. The organization has been reluctant to talk about the specific grounds for Hecker's dismissal, while Hecker has retained legal counsel.
WARREN LeGARIE, the agent
Unknown to many fans, LeGarie is a back-room NBA power broker who is at the focal point of the drama in Memphis. LeGarie represents Hollins, Joerger and Wallace, and has had a prominent presence in the Grizzlies' power structure for years.
He'll be the point man in negotiating on Hollins' behalf with Memphis, in addition to other suitors for Hollins' service. And if LeGarie is ultimately able to find a different spot for Hollins, he would likely then lobby the Grizzlies' management on behalf of Joerger, who is well-liked by players and the new regime. LeGarie will also be looking for a new home for Wallace.