Saturday, April 14, 2007

When Should the Logo Leave?

West said he had extended his deal and would be staying at least through July 1. He will work the draft and -- as he put it -- "put together a wish list of the players we would like to add." West didn't say if he'd have an active hand in recruiting those players, but it's hard to believe he'd cut all ties with the team now that he's finally put it in position to make some dramatic moves.
-Geoff Calkins, Commercial Appeal Editorial, 2/16/2007


This commentary from Geoff Caulkins has eaten at me for months now. Calkins wrote it in response to a question from a reader asking if Jerry would be continuing in his present role until July 1st or just with the organization. July 1st is the starting date to recruit free agents and with the Grizz having $6 to $10 million available under the cap (depending on things like re-signing their own free agents, the cap number and their draft location) this would appear to be the absolute worst time for a new GM to take over the reins. Ideally current ‘interim’ coach Tony Barone, Sr. would have returned to his role as Director of Player Personnel, a new coach would have been hired and the lottery selection all would have been done before the free agency period began. Right in the middle of this great upheaval of change the VP of Operations retires? That is not the most ideal timing.

Jerry West came to Memphis in April of 2002 with the goal of making the franchise one of the premier teams in the league. Lofty goals for a franchise that had never won more than 23 games in a season and had been called by one sports publication as the worst franchise in professional sports. Prior to this season he had come close to accomplishing that goal, being one of only 9 teams to reach the playoffs the last 3 years and finishing the 2005-06 season with the 4th best record in the Western Conference. Jerry accomplished this while battling constant obstacles. He had to change coaches in the middle of the season twice. At the end of the 3rd playoff season West had only one full time starter (Pau Gasol) remaining from the original squad that won 50 games and reached the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. With the core of Mike Miller, Shane Battier and Gasol, Memphis appeared to have reached the pinnacle of success the group could attain. Instead of allowing his last season as VP of Basketball Operations to slide quietly into history West orchestrated a draft day deal that sent local fan favorite Shane Battier to Houston in exchange for former Grizzlies player Stromile Swift and the eighth draft pick, Rudy Gay. Later the same night he traded a future second round pick for Alexander Johnson. Combined, those two moves and the drafting of Kyle Lowry, piqued people’s interest in what West was doing in Memphis. The expectations were that this was the first step in a more complete retooling of the roster.

The next major move never happened. The biggest move was re-signing Chucky Atkins to a one year deal. Rumors began to circulate that Michael Heisley had found a buyer for the team and all roster moves had been put on hold. If that actually happened the timing was rotten. The retooling was frozen mid-change. Pau Gasol then broke his foot playing for Spain and the season was basically over before it began. Throw in questionable injuries to Eddie Jones and Stromile Swift with the break in Kyle Lowry’s wrist plus the deterioration of Brian Cardinal’s knee and what was supposed to be a ‘step back to move ahead’ became a free fall.

It is understandable that West would want to atone for this season. However, using the top four lottery pick, picking the new coach and then turning over the keys is not the most beneficial series of events for a team. West would force the new GM to deal with West’s selection of a new coach and draft pick while putting the onus of finding the other missing pieces on the new GM. West must realize that selling a professional basketball player on a small market like Memphis is no easy task. The new GM must hit the ground running around the country talking to players. That means he won’t be in his office getting adjusted and building good will with the city and its fans.That isn’t leaving the team in a position to succeed. That is setting up his successor to fail. Memphis deserves better. West didn’t ask to have his contract extended and it would be difficult to turn his back on this salary once offered. However, West needs to make a decision. Either sign up for four more years and see these decisions through or, if West doesn’t plan on staying at the helm during the rebuilding, step aside after the last game and let a new GM make the big decisions. If West in fact chooses not to remain at the helm for the next few years then he should step aside prior to the draft lottery. If things don’t turn out well for the franchise it won’t look like West stepped down because of the outcome. Also, West doesn’t have to leave the franchise altogether. His contract allows West to stay on as paid consultant to help smooth the transition. West’s role would be to assist the new GM to continue to make this franchise one of the premier franchises in the NBA. West’s time in Memphis helped turn an embarrassment into a success. This last season won’t change that.

Now is the time for West to make the tough decision. Either stay on board past the July 1st date or let a new person take over while the exciting parts of the job are still to be determined. The next GM should be in his position for at least the next 5 years and hopefully longer. It will be far more interesting to a prospective GM that he be allowed to pick his own coach, his own draft pick and determine his own FA signing. That excitement and responsibility is what drives successful minded people to the job. Wait until after that time and the interest will drop dramatically. Currently, Heisley doesn’t care about anything but how much money he can get from the sale of the team. West needs to force Heisley’s hand and retire as soon as the last shot is taken in Minneapolis. Force Heisley to make a move to reinvigorate the team or sell the franchise for less money to the local owners. Don’t let Heisley continue this charade of concern any longer.

Anything less would hurt West’s legacy. He needs to be bigger than Heisley and do what is right for the franchise and the city.

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