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Memphis Grizzlies: One F’d Up Title Contender

The Memphis Grizzlies have advanced to the Elite Eight of the NBA playoffs, pose a real threat to Kevin Durant’s Oklahoma City Thunder advancing to the Western Conference Finals, and have to be one of most poorly run franchises in the NBA.

The Grizzlies are on par with Donald Sterling’s Los Angeles Clippers, the Great Swamp in New Jersey, the point guard obsessed Minnesota Timberwolves and our nation’s capital, Washington Wizards, who have been plagued by federal and District of Columbia handgun laws.

Somehow, the Grizzlies have stumbled through a maze of personnel moves that would make most moderately intelligent Chasing 23.com NBA fans shake their heads, and have miraculously morphed into a good professional basketball team. TNT analyst Charles Barkley predicted the 8th seeded Grizzlies would knock off the #1 seeded San Antonio Spurs, and Memphis got the job done in six games.

How did this happen and what was the master plan?

The Grizzlies are owned by Michael Heisley, who bought the then Vancouver Grizzlies in 2000, and assured British Columbians that he would keep the team in Vancouver. Pulling a Clay Bennett – before there was a Clay Bennett in NBA history – Heisley moved the Grizzlies to Memphis in 2001. In 2006, Heisley agreed to sell the team to former Coach K acolytes Christian Laettner and Brian Davis, but the Dukies (suffering from a mediocre college education that lacked basic business acumen) couldn’t come up with the down payment on Heisley’s $300 million asking price. (Laettner and Davis should have gone to Lehman Brothers for financing options.)

Are you a sensing a pattern here? It doesn’t appear that Heisley has the deep pockets to successfully run an NBA franchise, and he was ready to get out of the game in 2006, but he has soldiered on.

Heisley does deserve credit for hiring former Lakers playing legend and front office guru, Jerry West, to run the basketball operation in 2002 but that only lasted until the end of the 2006-07 season. In West’s tenure, the Grizzlies drafted Pau Gasol and dealt Shane Battier to the Houston Rockets for their first-round draft pick Rudy Gay and Stromile Swift. One can speculate why The Legend left Memphis, but something says that West didn’t see a true commitment to winning from Heisley, which he had experienced with Dr. Jerry Buss in Los Angeles.

Heisley looking to replace West, decided to hire former Boston Celtics front office executive Chris Wallace, who is considered by some to be one of the worse general managers in NBA history, but probably came a lot cheaper than Jerry West, and wouldn’t pack up his things and head home when Heisley refused to listen to his basketball staff.

Chris Wallace broke into the biz by creating the Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook in 1981, while he was a student at Kansas, and continued producing it from his parents’ West Virginia home. This would lead to Wallace becoming a scout with Pat Riley’s Miami Heat, then landing a series of front office positions with the Boston Celtics, and ascending to his current position as the Memphis Grizzlies’ General Manager and Vice President of Basketball Operations.

Chris Wallace is credited with being a seemingly sane and willing participant in some of the NBA’s most controversial personnel moves. Since we are discussing the Grizzlies, and not the Celtics, we won’t fully dissect Wallace’s acquisition of boozing baller Vin Baker or the Celtics dealing Joe Johnson ostensibly for Rodney Rogers and Tony Delk.

Let’s take a look at Wallace’s personnel moves in Memphis. This gets lengthy, but the pay-off will be worth it.  (Wallace’s transactions have been edited, because no one should have to suffer through reading all of these moves that resemble a John Hollinger PER spouting 14-year-old Fantasy Basketball owner, but the sheer number of transactions are mind-boggling.)

Memphis Grizzlies’ Transactional Insanity Starring Chris Wallace

July 13, 2007 – Signed forward Darko Milicic and waived forward Alexander Johnson.

August 16, 2007 – Traded a future first-round draft pick to the Washington Wizards for the draft rights to guard Juan Carlos Navarro.

February 1, 2008 – Traded forward Pau Gasol to the Los Angeles Lakers for guards Aaron McKie and Jarvis Crittenton, forward Kwame Brown, the draft rights to center Marc Gasol, first-round picks in 2008 and 2010 and cash.

2008 Draft – Selected forwards Kevin Love (5th overall pick) and Donte Green (28th overall pick). Traded forwards Mike Miller and Brian Cardinal, center Jason Collins and the draft rights to forward Kevin Love to the Minnesota Timberwolves for guards Marko Jaric and Greg Buckner, forward Antoine Walker and the draft rights to O.J. Mayo, acquired the draft rights to Darrell Arthur and traded forward Donte Green and a second-round pick in 2009 to the Houston Rockets.

December 13, 2008 – Signed forward Darius Miles.

December 24, 2008 – Traded a conditional 2001 second-round draft pick to the Houston Rockets for guard Steve Francis, a 2009 second-round draft pick and cash.

January 27, 2009 – Waived guard Steve Francis and named Kevin O’Neill special ass’t to the general manager.

February 19, 2009 – Traded guard Kyle Lowry to the Houston Rockets for a first-round pick.

June 25, 2009 – Traded center Darko Milicic to the New York Knicks for guard Quentin Richardson and cash.

Draft 2009 – Selected center Hasheem Thabeet (2nd overall pick) and forwards DeMarre Carroll (27th overall pick) and Sam Young (36th overall pick.)

July of 2009 – Signed draft picks Thabeet, Carroll and Young.

September 10, 2009 – Signed guard Allen Iverson.

November 14, 2009 – Signed guard Jamaal Tinsley.

November 16, 2009 – Waived guard Allen Iverson.

February 18, 2010 – Traded a protected future first-round draft pick to the Utah Jazz for guard Ronnie Brewer.

Draft 2010 – Selected guards Xavier Henry (12th overall pick), Dominique Jones (25th overall pick), Greivis Vasquez (28th overall pick) and Terrico White (36th overall pick). Traded the draft rights to Dominque Jones to the Dallas Mavericks for cash.

August 5, 2010 – Signed guard Acie Law.

October 28, 2010 – Exercised the contract options on guard OJ Mayo, forward Darrell Arthur and center Hasheem Thabeet through 2011-12.

December 5, 2010 – Waived guard Acie Law.

February 7, 2011 – Signed guard Jason Williams.

February 24, 2011 – Traded center Hasheem Thabeet, forward DeMare Carroll and a future first-round pick to the Houston Rockets for guard Ishmael Smith and forward Shane Battier.

*** Thanks to hoopshype.com for providing the Transactions.

[Looking at the dizzying amount of Transactions, did anyone else catch the basketball bromance between Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey and Chris Wallace?]

A Transactional Breather

Have you got all of that? Do you understand the grand plan devised by Heisley and Wallace that doesn’t involve signing everyone who has ever appeared on the NBA Police Blotter report? The Jail Blazers have nothing on Wallace’s Grizzlies.

It’s apparent that Wallace has fired a ton of crap at a wall, and he hoped and prayed that something would stick. Is this the principle of chaos in effect or were all of Wallace’s machinations an elaborately researched plan to defy NBA orthodoxy and find a new formula for winning?

A fan would need a Mormon genealogy expert to remember where each draft pick came from, and Ayn Rand disciple Alan Greenspan to deduce the thin slice of salary cap room that allowed Wallace to extend meager contract offers to iconic hoops figures such as Allen Iverson, Darius Miles and Jamal Tinsley. It’s almost as if Wallace has been running a college basketball program, and he had tryouts, or that Wallace had organized a Midnight Hoops League for ballers who were on a first name basis with David Stern’s legal team. Anyone with a pulse, his own ball and a rap sheet could come on down.

Memphis is one of the rare NBA markets that can lay claim to a diverse and open fan base. Acknowledged as a tough town, Memphis Grizzlies’ fans have proven to be more accepting of players who have been deemed basketball pariahs in previous destinations. Only two years ago, Heisley and Wallace thought it would be a good idea for the previously mentioned Allen Iverson to pull on a Memphis jersey, and that had to have been an idea spawned by a desire to fill the seats with A.I. fans, since Iverson wasn’t signed to mentor O.J. Mayo or to boost win totals.

Memphis is one of the smallest television markets in the NBA, the Grizzlies are nearly at the bottom in league-wide attendance numbers, the most popular quasi-professional basketball team is the University of Memphis Tigers, and yet Memphis owns the 9th highest payroll in the NBA. (Lionel Hollins’ contract is nowhere near what Coach Cal pulled down with the Tigers.)

Let’s talk head coach Lionel Hollins. He was an interim coach, who was hired on the cheap, and has defied all elements of logic to assemble a winning basketball team. No one mentions Lionel Hollins’ name when prime jobs are available, but Hollins’ Grizzlies took down perennial Coach-of-the-Year candidate Gregg Popovich’s San Antonio Spurs.

Marc Gasol used to weigh over 330 pounds and is now an elite NBA center. Zach Randolph used to like to booze more than ball, had more contact with the cops than he did with his man on defense, and now is a Top 15 player. Rudy Gay suffered a season-ending injury in March, Gay was replaced by Shane Battier who was acquired for the former #2 overall selection in the 2009 NBA Draft (current Michael Olowokandi doppelganger, Hasheem Thabeet) and the Grizzlies now play better with Battier in the lineup. Tony Allen punched out O.J. Mayo over a card game, for most of the year was a seldom used reserve seated in Lionel Hollins’ dog house, played the critical role in shutting down San Antonio’s Manu Ginobili and Allen is now a valued member of the rotation.

None of this makes sense. Show this entire operation to a business school student, and a person would be laughed off campus. This is completely nuts, but the Grizzlies are a legitimate title contender.

And we still haven’t mentioned Wallace handing two NBA titles to the Los Angeles Lakers via the Pau Gasol deal, and that Wallace’s first move was to sign Darko Milicic.

This all seems fantastical and completely screwed up. It is. Someone should ask Jerry West’s take on this improbable experiment and he would probably be unable to figure it out. Sure, Memphis has been granted a yearly supply of high draft choices, but youth seldom wins in the NBA. The proven record of success has been to win with veterans, but once again, Memphis is an anomaly with the contributions of Mike Conley, Marc Gasol and O.J. Mayo.

Is Wallace a diabolically clever genius or just plain lucky? The evidence would suggest the latter, but sometimes luck is more important than “Rick Pitino’s Master Plan to Rule the NBA Universe with Tim Duncan” or Portland’s “Greg Oden as Optimus Prime Extravaganza.”

It all does seem incredibly far-fetched, but this team is for real.


10 Responses to “Memphis Grizzlies: One F’d Up Title Contender”

  1. Great article Dave. The only thing I would mention is that the Gasol trade may have worked out pretty well for both teams in the end. Although I do not think that was Chris Wallace’s intent at the time.

    Posted by TFK | May 7, 2011, 12:15 pm
  2. TFK, thanks for the read. The trade did benefit both teams, but I agree with you that Wallace never thought it would be this successful.

    Posted by Dave Sheridan | May 7, 2011, 6:35 pm
  3. wallace may not have been trading for the marc gasol of the 2011 playoffs; i have a hunch that was a bonus. however, the cap space that dumping pau created allowed us to sign zbo.

    Posted by andy | May 7, 2011, 9:10 pm
  4. Andy, thanks for the comment and the read. I still don’t believe that Wallace had any idea that ZBO would become a poor man’s Moses Malone, but Randolph has become a force of nature on the block.

    Posted by Dave Sheridan | May 7, 2011, 9:49 pm
  5. I think Billy Knight drafted Pau, not me, I drafted Kendrick Perkins and traded him for Troy Bell and Dahntay Jones and I once walked out of the draft room when our pick was due because I was throwing a hissy fit because Gerald Green was off the boards. I also gave Brian Cardinal a 6 year $39 million dollar deal because Heisley wanted me to get something done. I maxed Pau and landed Jake Tsakalidas as well. I traded our best wing defender in Shane Battier for Rudy Gay even though I should’ve pushed for Mike “Glass Everything” Miler as a sharpshooter instead. I left that guy Chris Wallace with Pau, Rudy, Mike Miller, Tarrance Kinsey, and Brian Cardinal. That crazy guy turned it into Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph, Rudy Gay, Darrell Arthur, O.J. Mayo, Mike Conley, Sam Young, Tony Allen, Shane Battier, and Greivis Vasquez. Plus Haddadi and Powe which aren’t bad signings and that kid Xavier Henry sitting on the bench was the youngest guy in the NBA this past year I believe. I also ran the coach of the year the previous year away in Hubie Brown because I sided with the players over him.

    It’s a shame they let me go in ’07, I was hoping to get another overpriced extension, I really felt I could do some more ‘Isiah Thomas-ing’ to the franchise….

    Posted by Jerry West | May 7, 2011, 10:15 pm
  6. To much info to go line by line. I have watched this team for 10 years and I can tell you Jerry West didn’t do anything here. Made some real stupid moves like signing Brian Cardinal. Chris Wallace has done a good job getting the Grizz out of the burden of bad contracts. Said it would take three years and it has. They have talked about this every week to the public and they have delivered exactly what they said they would. As far as Thabeet and Iverson those moves were directly from Heisley and he has acknowledged he needs to stay out of basketball operations. Hopefully he can. Chris Wallace has actually done a good job.

    Posted by wish I had something better to do | May 8, 2011, 8:31 am
  7. You forgot the most important move-trading Richardson for Zach Randolph.

    Posted by J.T. | May 8, 2011, 2:05 pm
  8. dysfunctional

    Posted by Gil Meriken | May 8, 2011, 7:40 pm
  9. Oh and you forgot that the Griz still have OJ Mayo because they didn’t send the trade paperwork in by the trade deadline!

    Posted by jack | May 9, 2011, 1:57 pm


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