In many ways, the rebuilding process started in Memphis when Zach Randolph and Tony Allen departed the franchise as free agents this past summer. Now it is time for the Grizzlies to finish saying goodbye to their glory years by trading Marc Gasol and Mike Conley. Memphis isn’t facing anything new. It’s hard to move on from the players who have formed the best run in your franchise’s relatively short history.
Gasol began his career with the Grizzlies considered to be a throw-in when Memphis traded Pau Gasol to the Lakers. Gasol joined forces with Conley, who was drafted fourth overall a year earlier. In 2009, the team acquired Zach Randolph from the Clippers, and one year later they signed Tony Allen. Over the span of four consecutive summers, the Grizzlies brought in the core of a group that would make seven consecutive playoff appearances from 2011 to 2017.
During this run, the Grit and Grind Grizzlies won 333 regular season games. Gasol became an All-Star and Defensive Player of the Year. Conley garnered the moniker of “Best player to never make an All-Star game”. Randolph became beloved as much for his off-court work as the nightly effort he put in on-court. And Allen, as mentioned above, became one of the NBA’s most feared wing defenders.
Along with the success, came financial windfalls for the players. Gasol signed a five-year maximum contract in 2015, followed by Conley signing his own five-year max contract the next summer. The team also gave a four-year max deal to free agent Chandler Parsons. Therein lies the current quagmire for Memphis. Their success bred long term, big money contracts that now leave the franchise in a precarious spot.
Memphis is annually good enough to make the playoffs, but not a title contender. But like most actual title contenders, they have three max players under contract. The team has also chased depth, by signing or trading for several role players over the last few years. Combine it all and you have a franchise that is capped out for the foreseeable future, with little room for improvement.
The improvement is capped by a few different things. First is lack of cap flexibility. Conley, Gasol and Parsons are owed a combined $78.7 million for the 18-19 season. When you add in the rest of their guaranteed money for next year, Memphis has just over $101 million on the books against a $101 million cap.
Exacerbating the situation is that the three highest paid Grizzlies (Conley, Gasol and Parsons) are becoming increasingly more injury-prone. Parsons isn’t able to play in back-to-back games and continually struggles with both knee and back soreness. Conley has played in just 12 games this season, as he is experiencing soreness in his left Achilles’ tendon, which may have to be managed for the remainder of his career. Gasol has missed time in recent years with foot/leg injuries, as well as dealing with the general soreness that comes for all aging 7-footers.
Committing max money to your best players is a fine strategy, provided those players meet a few different criteria. Ideally, they are All-Stars, they have a clean health history and the team is a contender. Memphis can’t check off those boxes for their three max players. Re-signing Gasol to a max deal was perfectly fine, as he is the lone All-Star on the roster. Parsons was a worthy gamble at the time, but it hasn’t worked out. Committing five years and max money to Conley was questionable when it happened and has only gotten more so as he’s missed games.
The second limiting factor for improvement for the Grizzlies is that they have just one player, rookie swingman Dillon Brooks, who projects to continue to improve as a rotation player. The lack of young talent is in part attributable to consistently picking late in the draft. However, the Grizzlies haven’t made much out of their draft picks since they picked Conley in 2007. In the last 10 years, the team hasn’t drafted a single impact player, never mind an All-Star. The first round picks are littered with lottery busts like Hasheem Thabeet and Xavier Henry, to late round picks who failed in Memphis like Tony Wroten, Jordan Adams and Wade Baldwin. Some of those players suffered injuries, but many of them simply failed to pan out. In addition, the team has traded several first round picks, as they’ve chased established players to fill holes on the roster.
Add it all up and you have a picture of franchise that is on the brink of disaster. Memphis currently finds themselves with one of the NBA’s worst records. The good news is that this draft class is loaded.
Gasol still has enough left to offer a contender that he should garner a package of draft picks and young players that would help set Memphis up for the future. When healthy, Conley is one of the NBA’s most underrated players. The challenge is finding a team willing to pay him more than $30 million for each of the next three years. If the Grizzlies can get out from under Conley’s deal, they should jump at the chance. Even if the return is minimal, clearing up the cap sheet is a win. Memphis also has other tradable players, such as Tyreke Evans and James Ennis, who could net them a small asset.
Beyond that, it is imperative for the front office to improve on their past draft failures. There are several highly-touted big men available that could replace Gasol. Or the team could add Conley’s replacement at point guard. Or they might finally land the scoring/playmaking wing they’ve long sought in a player like Luka Doncic. No matter what, Memphis should come away with their future franchise player this year.
It’s hard to say goodbye to the past, especially such a beloved one, but the Grizzlies have to do so to avoid a long, slow decline. Trading Gasol and Conley for assets and to clear up the cap, along with a high pick this year, would set Memphis on the quickest course to building a contender.