Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Rebuilding: Building A Contender vs. Blowing It Up

As this disappointing season continues its slow march towards another lottery pick, fans of the Memphis Grizzlies have divided into two camps regarding the future of the team. On one side, you have fans who wish to completely blow up the team, keeping only Rudy Gay, Mike Conley and perhaps Kyle Lowry. One of those fans writes for this very blog under the name MemphisX. I respect his opinion and understand his reasoning for wanting to see the team revamp itself. However, as anyone who has read my posts here or on the Grizzlies message board can attest, I am a member of the other group, which wishes to see this team built up, rather than blown up. My plan would be to build around Rudy/Conley as well, but while keeping Pau Gasol and either Mike Miller or Juan Carlos Navarro, but probably not both. With some help from ChipC3, I think I have compiled some evidence that this is possible and would be in the best interests of the team's chances for future success.

The impetus for this post came about after reading Tom Ziller's great article on Ballhype, that is best described as a study of the relationship between a team's average age and win totals. In the article, Ziller splits the results according to 4 categories: Good, Bad, Young and Old. Then the teams are placed on a simple graph to see how they line up. The Grizzlies not-so-surprisingly fall into the "Bad" category for the past season and a half. However, they also qualify for the "Young" designation, given that their average age is 25.3 -- 24.9 if you don't include non-contributor Brian Cardinal. With Damon Stoudamire on the team, the average age was still only 26, well within the "Young" range. It is Ziller's contention that it is acceptable to be Bad and Young, but being Bad and Old is the "no man's land" that should lead teams to blow things up and start over. The Miami Heat are the ultimate example of this theory according to TZ.

Since the article focused on the unprecedented success the very young Portland Trailblazers are experiencing this year, I decided to email TZ and see how this truly related to our own Memphis Grizzlies and see what his opinion was regarding whether or not this team should look to "blow it up" by trading Pau Gasol, Mike Miller or both. Here is the exchange:

Spartacus: Loved your post dealing with average team age in relation to wins. I know the focus of it was the success of Portland and the need for both the Heat and Clippers to rebuild, but how do you think it applies to the Grizzlies? A majority of fans are ready to go even younger (even though Damon got bought out and Cardinal rarely plays, making the average age very young already) by trading away both Pau Gasol and Mike Miller. In your opinion, should the Grizzlies "wait-and-see" if this team comes together and what they get in the draft? Or should they get rid of one or both of their higher paid veterans?

TZ: Memphis has been able to stay pretty young, probably owed to Conley/Lowry instead of Stoudamire/Atkins. The thing with Gasol and Miller: They aren't that old. (Miller always seems older than he is.) It really depends on how close Wallace and Iavaroni thinks the team is. I'd argue 'not close at all' -- Gay's been stupendous and Gasol's had a good recovery, and they still aren't winning regularly. Given Gasol's age, the team can afford to wait longer than almost everyone else, about four years. There are no guarantees, but you'd assume Conley and Gay will continue to improve, and Pau's not a player who'd be tragically cut short by a slight loss in athleticism. Do you think Miller's blocking Navarro? That'd be the only reason I'd rush a Miller trade; otherwise, wait until you get something real good for him. He'll have value until he
retires, everyone loves him.

In other words, Ziller sees no reason to trade either player in respect to their age or abilities, given the level of younger talent that will only get better in Conley and Gay. Of course, there are many fans who say that the team needs to change the culture of losing by shaking things up and trading one or both of their veteran players who have been with the team for quite some time. The notion of making a deal simply for the sake of making a deal appeals to them, because they believe that it will jumpstart this team and lead to a return to the postseason. To those people, I have some numbers for you: 3, 5, 57 and 7. That is 3, as in 3 GM's; 5, as in 5 coaches; 57, as in 57 players that have worn a Memphis Grizzlies jersey; 7, as in the 7 years the team has been in Memphis. If anything, this team needs less drastic change, not more.

I believe that part of this "make a change now" mindset is due to a certain level of unrealistic expectations for this season. How many fans (and even so-called experts) drew parallels between this team and the 50-win team of 2003/04? How many more fans called for the Grizzlies to double their win total of 22 last season? In fact, there is even a thread on the Grizzlies message board right now comparing this team to that groundbreaking squad that was the first in Grizzlies history to make the postseason. I typed up a response for that thread and then decided that it was more suited to this post.

Rather than compare the 03/04 squad to this year's team, why not see how the 03/04 team compared to the 02/03 team. That team won a then-team record 28 games under new coach Hubie Brown. That team had a "contributor's list" of the following players:

Pau Gasol
Jason Williams
Drew Gooden -> Mike Miller (mid-season trade)
Lorenzen Wright
Gordan Giricek
Wesley Person
Shane Battier
Stromile Swift
Earl Watson
Mike Batiste
Brevin Knight

The following year, here are the contributing players who made the playoffs:

Pau Gasol
Jason Williams
Mike Miller
Lorenzen Wright
Wesley Person -> Bonzi Wells (early season trade)
Shane Battier
Stromile Swift
Earl Watson
James Posey (free agent signing)
Bo Outlaw (offseason trade)

As you can see, the list is fairly similar in both accounts, and is as large as it is due to Hubie Brown's 10-man rotation, which got more players involved than the typical 8-man rotation most coaches use would have. Now let's look at the contributors for this year's team:

Pau Gasol
Rudy Gay
Mike Miller
Darko Milicic
Kyle Lowry
Mike Conley
Juan Carlos Navarro
Hakim Warrick
Damon Stoudamire
Stromile Swift

Since Damon has been waived, we can already discount him being here next season, as well as Stro as he has been placed on the trade block following his one game suspension. That leaves the Grizzlies with 8 guys who have an average age of 24. They will add a young player to that mix with their lottery pick this summer, dropping the average even further. I think that the last thing this team needs to do right now is to make a deal with the intention of getting younger. Young teams are bad -- just look at Seattle and Minnesota. Younger teams with a few key veterans can be good -- witness Portland and New Orleans.

Speaking of Portland, MemphisX recently had a post that compared the moves Portland made to the deals he would like to see Chris Wallace make in Memphis. The key to his post was the comparison of Portland trading away a proven 20/10 player in Zach Randolph while only getting a role player (Channing Frye) and a big contract (Steve Francis) in return, effectively netting them very little. Well, while the fans might be tired of Gasol's consistent production, the front office and coaching staff probably don't view him the same way that the coaching staff and team viewed Z-Bo, which is to say that, in no uncertain terms, Randolph was a cancer and a detriment to the team. Moving him for the proverbial ham sandwich was one of the cases where "addition by subtraction" truly took place. To take the Portland/Memphis parallel even further, last year was Nate McMillan's first year and the Blazers were not good, which netted them a high lottery pick for the second year in a row. This is Marc Iavaroni's first season and the Grizzlies will receive a high lottery pick and have already moved one piece that didn't fit this particular puzzle (Damon) and are looking to move another (Stro). Also, even though they traded Randolph, they didn't make wholesale changes from last season to this season. Here is the comparison of their 9-man rotation from the past two years:

06/07 ---- 07/08
Brandon Roy - Brandon Roy
LaMarcus Aldridge - LaMarcus Aldridge
Jarrett Jack - Jarrett Jack
Travis Outlaw - Travis Outlaw
Zach Randolph - Channing Frye
Martell Webster - Martell Webster
Juan Dixon - Steve Blake
Ime Udoka - James Jones
Jamaal Magloire - Joel Przybilla

For those of you counting at home, that is one starter changed and two new role players via a trade (Jones) and a free agent signing (Blake returning to Portland), as Przybilla was already on the roster, albeit injured for a good portion of last season. In other words, most of the wholesale changes that Portland made were made over a few seasons. That includes parting ways with Rasheed Wallace, Damon Stoudamire, Ruben Patterson and the rest of the problem children (perceived or otherwise) that earned them the moniker "JailBlazers" after years of faithful support from their fanbase. The argument can be made that the Grizzlies got rid of their problem children when they made the moves in the offseason of 2005 that saw the departures of Jason Williams, Bonzi Wells and James Posey. They took a slight detour in doing so by loading up with older veterans, but appear to be well on their way to building a solid core (Conley/Gay/Gasol) that should be the focal point of a perennial playoff team for years to come.

From a basketball standpoint, I see no reason to trade Gasol. He doesn't have to dominate the ball to be effective or efficient. He's one of the better low-post scorers in the game and is one of the best passing big man as well. While his detractors point to his lack of a killer instinct and his failures in the postseason, if he is the 2nd or 3rd option that suddenly doesn't matter nearly as much does it? The will also say that he's a max contract player who isn't the best player on the team. To that I respond: Andrei Kirilenko, Shawn Marion, Ray Allen, a Net (whomever you want to tab in New Jersey of Kidd/Carter/Jefferson), Rashard Lewis, Lamar Odom and Tracy McGrady. They all are or have been on playoff teams and are not currently the best player on their respective teams. Just because the organization is no longer building around Gasol as the cornerstone doesn't mean that he's been relegated to the trash heap in my honest evaluation.

From a business standpoint, the reason I hear to trade Gasol is that the fans have soured on him and won't return as long as he's on the team. My response to that is this: Poppycock. When the team starts winning again, the fans will return regardless of who is on the roster.

This fanbase wants to support the team, but the story of "too much, too soon" regarding their meteoric rise spoiled them (more on that in a later blog) and their level of expectations became less than realistic. That is what has contributed to the dissatisfaction with Pau more than his insistence on playing for his national team, more than his incredulous faces when protesting a call or lack thereof, more than his max contract without having the ability to lead this team. People expected too much and thus fell victim to their own unreached standards. If the front office decides to "blow it up" by trading Gasol and Miller and only receives young players, expiring contracts and draft picks in return and not a "proven commodity", then it will be another 3 years before this team is ready for a return to the postseason. By that time, contract extensions will be due for some big time contributors and the Grizzlies will find themselves in the same position the Bulls have been in for the past few seasons and will have the same difficult choices to make. You cannot keep a young team together for a long run -- the salary cap makes it impossible to do. Staggering salaries and ages allow a team the flexibility to keep players around that are vital while changing the role players around them as necessary, as we have seen with Detroit and San Antonio. Those are the two teams that this organization should model itself after in my opinion. Whether or not that means trading Pau Gasol, Mike Miller or anyone else remains to be seen. I for one believe that the benefits of keeping a player of Gasol's caliber and giving a team time to develop chemistry are the key factors in long term success for the Memphis Grizzlies. Time will tell which camp is correct though.


Anonymous said...

Nice post!

I agree.

I would keep Gasol, along with Rudy, Conley, Lowry, JC and Darko.

Use the draft&MM to balance the tema by getting another interior presence (beasley) & sg/sf defender (nocioni alike), and run the team 2 years more.

That makes sense for me.


Anonymous said...

You, Sir, are a voice of reason at a time when the crazies seem to have control of the internet. Very perceptive and accurate analysis. This site has become by far the best and most sane source of Grizzlies news and information since the unfortunate Chris Herrington died back at the end of November. Thanks to you and your amigos for your love for the Grizzlies and all the never-ending work at keeping us informed

ChipC3 said...

I wish I knew who anonymous #2 was because that has to be the best comment we have ever had on the blog!