MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- The Memphis Grizzlies probably shouldn't be here.
Not just leading the Oklahoma City Thunder 2-1 with a chance to pull another postseason upset as a low seed -- but in the playoffs at all. Getting into the postseason was a feat that required not just a phenomenal second half but a series of maneuvers from their front office that appeared marginal but ended up keeping them afloat when it seemed like a lost season.
When the NBA calendar flipped last summer, the Grizzlies had a problem on their hands. Their core of Mike Conley, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol was in place and under long-term contracts. However, they badly needed to add some depth and 3-point shooting but had almost no money to do it.
Gasol had played the most minutes of any center in the league last season, and that didn't include the Olympics the previous summer. He needed a backup. The team also needed a stable understudy for Conley and was lacking on the wing, where it was one of the worst-shooting teams in the league.
Last season was the team's first under a conglomerate of new owners led by Robert Pera, and it was clear by their actions that they were under some payroll pressure. They made two midseason trades aimed at shedding money to get under the luxury tax, giving away a future first-round pick in one and offloading Rudy Gay's huge contract in the other.
Heading into this season, they again were only narrowly under the tax line when allowing for the potential hefty bonuses their stars had in their contracts. Randolph, for example, had a $438,000 bonus for making the All-Star team, and Conley had $600,000 in reasonably achievable bonuses in his deal.
All of this was before they were dealt a series of injury blows that season that significantly taxed their roster. They lost Quincy Pondexter for the season with a foot injury just 15 games in and were without Gasol for 23 games and Tony Allen for 27 games with injuries.
To manage this, their front office, led by CEO Jason Levien and assistants Stu Lash and John Hollinger, orchestrated moves that required serious deliberations in light of the team's limited financial options. Not everything worked out and some of the moves were just tourniquets, but, in the end, the Grizzlies ended up out of the tax and in the playoffs.
" It started in June when the team made a draft-night trade with the Denver Nuggets, swapping forward Darrell Arthur and a second-round pick for center Kosta Koufos. It got Gasol the needed true backup, and Koufos ended up starting 22 games. The move also saved $200,000 in salary, which, at the end of all this, ended up mattering.
" In July, the Grizzlies won a competitive battle to sign Mike Miller to help their 3-point problems. They were able to get him on a minimum contract -- a significant discount -- because Miller was being paid $6 million this season by the Miami Heat after he was released via the amnesty provision. Miller ended up playing in all 82 games and shooting 46 percent from 3-point range in a boost to the offense.
" Also in July, the Grizzlies got point guard Nick Calathes' rights nearly for free. They already owed a 2016 second-round pick to Dallas as part of an old deal. The pick was protected within the top 40, which meant that, if the Grizzlies finished with one of the 10 worst records next season, they would not have to forfeit the pick. To get the rights to Calathes, who had been playing overseas for four years, Memphis merely removed that limited protection. The Mavericks had drafted Shane Larkin and were about to sign Gal Mekel and didn't need Calathes. They let him go somewhat cheaply when they couldn't find a better offer.
" The Grizzlies signed Calathes to a minimum contract that would pay him $480,000 this season, although they paid $500,000 to his Russian team to get him out of his contract. That buyout didn't count against the salary cap, however. Calathes ended up becoming a productive backup and was named Western Conference Rookie of the Month in March. His season recently took a turn, though, when he was suspended 20 games for a failed drug test.
" With Calathes in the fold, Memphis traded backup point guard Tony Wroten in August, essentially giving him away to the Philadelphia 76ers for a conditional second-round pick that likely will never actually convey. But the point was it offloaded $1.1 million from their books. The Grizzlies preferred more experienced Calathes, and the swap saved an additional $600,000 in cap space when tallying the difference between the two contracts.
" In August, the Grizzlies traded Donte Greene for Fab Melo in a deal with the Celtics. Motivated to get under the luxury tax themselves, the Celtics covered all of Melo's $1.3 million salary plus a reasonable fee for doing the deal, money the Grizzlies used to help offset Calathes' Russian buyout. Then they used what is known as the stretch provision to waive Melo and stretch his salary hit over three years, opening an additional $865,000 in cap space.
The Grizzlies now had room under the luxury tax line to sign a few minimum salary players, plus they'd opened a few million dollars in space where they could make a trade to take on money if they found one they liked. When Pondexter and Allen went down early in the season, they ended up having to make those moves.
In December, they signed James Johnson out of the D-League in an attempt to get some help at the wing spot. Johnson ended up being one of the most successful D-League call-ups of the season, averaging 7.4 points and 3.2 rebounds while on an affordable minimum contract.
In January, they made their biggest move by trading backup guard Jerryd Bayless and a second-round pick to Boston for guard Courtney Lee. That trade added a badly needed shooter and defender on the perimeter, and the Grizzlies paid for it, adding $2 million to their salary rolls this season. They didn't have the flexibility to make such a move in July and avoid the tax, but their moves leading up to the trade made it possible six months later.
Within his first two weeks with the team, Lee made an immediate impact, scoring 15 points in a win over the Atlanta Hawks, 24 in a win over the Thunder and 19 in a win over the Houston Rockets. Soon after the deal, Gasol returned from a knee injury, and the combination helped the Grizzlies go 12-1 in their first 13 games after the trade to turn around their season.
Then, finally, in February, they made their final move when they claimed Beno Udrih off waivers from the New York Knicks. Udrih had reached a buyout agreement with the Knicks and was looking at several teams to sign with. The Grizzlies probably would not have been able to persuade Udrih to sign outright because they already had two guards getting heavy minutes: Conley and Calathes.
But barely, just barely, the Grizzlies had enough space under the luxury-tax line to claim Udrih on waivers before he hit the open market. They picked up the balance of his minimum contract, voiding his buyout deal with the Knicks. The Grizzlies had been looking for a third point guard all season but had to focus on plugging injury holes first, then finally found a veteran they had tried to sign the previous summer.
This has turned out to be a pivotal move because Calathes' unforeseen suspension made Udrih extremely valuable in the postseason. He has had huge performances in Games 2 and 3, making 11 of 14 shots and displaying the value of his experience in 39 career playoff games.
Conley, Gasol and Randolph earned a combined $42 million this season, and they truly did the heavy lifting. Rookie head coach Dave Joerger was nimble all season in altering his game plans to fit his changing personnel, scrapping an early-season objective to play more up-tempo and piecing together a lineup that ended up finishing strongly.
Without all that, none of these dime and quarter deals really make that much difference. But they did, and the Grizzlies were able to put it together to become one of the league's most dangerous teams.