Monday, March 10, 2008

Guest Post: Blue Bear Rising

This is our second guest post from reader L3E. If he keeps this up, I might hang up my keyboard.

Blue Bear Rising (or Why the Grizz will be back sooner than you think)

"Off with his head!"

That was the general response in Memphis to Chris Wallace's decision to trade Pau Gasol in February. Even though he finally gave lots of fans what they said they wanted, they were upset that he got back so little in Kwame Brown, Javaris Crittenton and some draft picks. Doesn't help any that sports media continue to blast Wallace, thus making him Memphis' very own Notorious B.I.G.

Meanwhile, fans insist that the only sound they can hear coming out of FedEx Forum these days is the flushing sound of the team going down the toilet, right along with already tepid fan interest in the team.

Then again, there was a time when Galileo was considered a nutjob for saying that the Earth revolved around the Sun, instead of the other way around. Caused quite a controversy, because the way Galileo saw things were quite different than the established norm. . . . not unlike our boys Chris, Iavaroni and perhaps to a lesser degree, Heisley.

I'm not saying that Chris Wallace is Galileo. But it is worth mentioning that Galileo ended up being right after all. And maybe, while the rest of us are looking at the recent roster moves like checkers, Wallace is playing chess--putting his pieces in the proper position to execute his strategy.

I'm a decent chess player (either that, or I just play people who aren't as good as I am). Either way, I'm looking at the Grizzlies chess board, noticing the pieces and the positioning, and I'm thinking the Grizzlies will be back with a vengeance within two years. Here's the breakdown:

1. Who Stays, Who Goes?
Wallace will not blow up the team this summer. One, there's just too much good, young talent. Two, it would undermine Iavaroni's system by shipping out the few players that are familiar with it. That's not to say we'll keep everyone, but there are a few untouchables, I think.

Keepers: Rudy Gay, Mike Conley, Darko Milicic, Chris Wallace, Marc Iavaroni. Rudy is the closest thing Memphis has had to a young superstar ever. Aside from him being good for like winning, he's going to be more marketable. Conley continues to draw favorable comparisons to Tony Parker. That can't be bad. And despite his current label as a bust, Darko continues to improve. I think they ride out his contract. As for Wallace and Iavaroni, I think Heisley recognizes that the successful franchises keep their GM and Coach in place for many years. I don't see Heisley pulling the plug on them, unless they completely blow it this summer.

Trade Bait: Mike Miller, Kyle Lowry, Javaris Crittenton, Brian Cardinal, Hakim Warrick, Jason Collins. I like Mike. And he's our most tradeable asset. Lots of teams want him. Kyle, Javaris and Hak are all young players, who likely will be sought-after by teams needing to add youth. Not saying they're outta here, but they'll be dangled. Cardinal's contract is likely to get packaged with someone else's. Jason Collins' $6.2 million expires after next season, which will make his contract valuable in trades.

Free Agent Question Marks: Juan Carlos Navarro, Kwame Brown. I doubt Kwame's coming back, but thanks for the contract! Juan Carlos . . . tough read. Somebody's going to offer him a nice check. Unless it's outrageous, expect us to match it. I wouldn't be surprised to see Wallace let other teams set the salary, then match. This could lead to drawn-out negotiations for JCN, but that's just NBA business.

Outta Here: Aaron McKie, Casey Jacobsen, Andre Brown. McKie goes back to being an assistant coach somewhere, maybe here. Andre Brown plays in Europe. Casey plays at the YMCA.

2. Assets and Mo Assets.
It's widely accepted that in the offseason, it pays for a GM to have four key elements to work with: cap room, draft picks, young talent and expiring contracts. The Grizzlies are drowning in all four.

Cap Room: Wallace expects to have between $12-$14 Million under the salary cap this year. Contrary to popular belief, this will come in handy not just for signing free agents, but for facilitating trades. As Wallace told Herrington: "Teams are going to come to us to facilitate trades and we’re going to be able to go out and look at the needs of other teams and try to create trades that could help us by using that cap room. It’s a tremendous advantage to have that room; you don’t just have to sign a free agent."

Draft Picks: Grizz will have at least two draft picks this year, hopefully our high pick and the Laker's late pick after they win the championship.(!) That gives us two more assets to wheel and deal with in draft day trades.

Young Talent: See "Trade Bait" above.

Expiring Contracts: Okay, "drowning" is a strong word, but Jason Collins' contract is off the books in '09, and he is a serviceable reserve big man. I don't know if Damon's buyout means we still have that contract to trade. Somebody find out for me. (Ed. note: No, we cannot trade Damon's bought out contract.)

3. Picking up the scraps.
This is the actual fun part, for us Grizzlies fans.

In both conferences, but particularly the Western Conference, high expectations for the playoffs, along with the inevitable dashing of those expectations, means that some teams are going to be looking to revamp their rosters after they get put out of the playoffs. In short, there's just not enough room in the Western Conference Finals for Phoenix, San Antonio, LA Lakers and Dallas. PHX and DAL are not locks for the second round, really, and how will that fly after the Shaq and JKidd trades?

Meanwhile, the Knicks, Pacers, Heat, Bucks, Nets and Bulls are likely all looking at serious roster shakeups, and all those teams have at least one or two interesting pieces that might work for us. If the Hawks don't make the playoffs, look for some roster changes there, too.

And just guess who's waiting with plenty of cap room, picks and young talent? In other words, it's likely to be one wild offseason, and the Grizz are perfectly poised to capitalize on it. It's far too early to speculate on who we might be able to acquire, but those who think that name brand players won't come to Memphis obviously haven't been presented with a 8-figure check. And free agents who decline our offers, there are still other GMs who will want to make moves, and some will need our help.

Even if teams don't completely rebuild, you can expect key pieces on several teams to be on the trading block after this season. I'm thinking players like Boris Diaw, Leandro Barbosa, Jason Terry, Vince Carter, Richard Jefferson, David Lee, Udonis Haslem, Michael Redd, Ben Gordon, Luol Deng, Emeka Okafor. This doesn't include free agents like, Elton Brand, Allen Iverson, Ron Artest, Gilbert Arenas, Antawn Jamison, Monta Ellis, Baron Davis and others. Clip this paragraph, because you'll probably see at least one of these names on our roster next fall, maybe two. (Yeah, I said it.)

Remaining Questions.
Is Chris Wallace savvy enough to make the right moves? On one hand, he's often blasted for the job he did with the Celtics. On the other hand, most of those questionable moves were actually mandated by Danny Ainge, who himself essentially went from being a zero to possible Executive of the Year after last offseason. And on the other, other hand, many people forget that on Wallace's watch, before Ainge arrived, the Celtics posted 49 wins in 2001-02 before going to the Eastern Conference Finals. They also made the second round the following year. In short, even with the Gasol trade, the results say that Wallace is a better GM than most think he is. Even that misconception may come in handy in the offseason, if he can do like Ray Charles and play "country dumb."

Can Iavaroni get over the rookie wall as a coach? Undoubtedly, a number of our losses this season weren't all lost by the players; Iavaroni is a first time head coach himself and probably made some bad subs, bad plays, etc. But this fall, he'll be a year older and a year wiser, and have his own history with the returning players. That should count for something.

Will Heisley stick with it? I can't see why not. Heisley needs only to look at our division neighbors in San Antonio to see that a small-market team can thrive as the only pro franchise in town. He also hasn't overlooked that Gregg Popovich has been with the Spurs for nearly 15 consecutive years, and R.C. Buford for 11 years. Not to mention, the Grizzlies own history of instability. I have to believe that as long as Wallace and Iavaroni show progress, Heisley will stick with them.

Will the incoming players mesh in Iavaroni's system? Will our current young players improve their individual play and team chemistry? Will they actually play defense? In all cases, we'll have to wait until November to even begin to get an idea.

As they say, it's always darkest before the dawn. But believe it or not, the Grizzlies are perfectly positioned to reload for the next campaign. And with luck, chemistry and the blessing of the health gods, this time next year, April will bring postseason hopes instead of offseason blues.


BallHype: hype it up!


Tim said...

Well written post and well thought out. But dont believe most of it will happen. Why would Heisley all of a sudden start spending money this summer when he has shown lately that he wants the cheapest team on earth.

You can tell that by the fact that the two biggest trade pieces we have ever had (Pau Gasol and Eddie Jones) ended up giving us nothing. We actually bought out Eddie Jones instead of trading is huge expiring contract for something useful. And i know it might end up being ok but the Pau trade was still a joke in my opinion and a slap in the face by Heisley to the fans.

I think Wallace might have some good ideas but I have no reason to believe Heisley will allow him to do any of them. Jerry West had his hands tied and so does Wallace.

In the end i hope you are exactly right but ive lost my hope the last few months.

Anonymous said...

I meant to include it in the column, but I think that Jerry would LOVE to be in Wallace's shoes right now. And in fairness, Chris Wallace owes Jerry for the "assist."

The same way that Danny Ainge built on Wallace's work in Boston, Wallace has the chance to build on Jerry's work here.

As for Heisley, it does him no good to put a losing team on the floor year after year--not if he wants to make money, not if he wants to sell. So I'd look for Heisley to give Biggie some wiggle room this summer.

Also, if we're going to follow San Antonio's model for success, the key will be reasonable contracts. I think the prototype for this is Darko's contract: Bigger check for fewer years. That gives you flexibility when it comes to roster moves.

Even if Darko doesn't continue to improve, we're only on the hook with him for two more seasons.

I'm hoping that we'll be able to lure a star free agent with a similar deal. For example: If everyone else is offering Antwan Jamison $7M/5 years, and we offer $10M/3 years, I think that's a classic case of money talks.

We'll see . . .


Jason said...

Excellent post. Very well thought out and it was a great read.

Optimism is contagious. I just hope that it isn't crushed by the lottery or Mr. Heisley.