After an unplugged vacation and another week of playing catch-up on more pressing matters, I've missed a lot of Grizzlies news over the past couple of weeks. I'm going to try to get up to speed over the next few days with a series of (hopefully) small posts, starting with the mess that is the Xavier Henry situation.
Salaries for first-round picks are on a scale based on where players are selected, but with some negotiation room: Teams are allowed to play players up to 120% of the scale, a practice that has been commonplace since the league introduced the rookie scale. Typically, teams set up minor requirements — participation in Summer League, reporting to camp on time, offseason workouts, etc. — for players to meet to get the 120%. This is what the Grizzlies have always done — until now.
The Grizzlies have been demanding performance incentives in order for Henry to obtain the full 120%. According to the Commercial Appeal, these meeting one of three goals: playing in NBA rookie/sophomore game during All-Star weekend, earn an all-rookie selection, or averaging 15 minutes in at least 70 games.
On the surface, this sounds reasonable, and perhaps something like this should very well be the norm in the NBA. But it isn't. And Henry's powerhouse agent, Arn Tellem, is balking at what he considers to be disparate treatment for his client. And he's right.
If other teams aren't making similar demands, then the Grizzlies are essentially asking Henry to take less guaranteed money than players who were taken after him. And to do so to play for a small-market team with a bad on- and off-court track record.
For the Grizzlies, this is not worth fighting, neither for monetary reasons (the financial difference this season will be something like half of a percent of the team's total payroll) or for setting a perhaps justifiable precedent. (A precedent, by the way, it's hard to see Tellem being a party to setting.) Let someone else be the canary in that particular coalmine, not a team trying to climb into the playoffs that needs the bench shooting Henry is supposed to provide. Not a team that already has a history of struggling to get prospective players to come in for pre-draft workouts or otherwise get enthused about playing in Memphis. Not a team with a reputation for an erratic and at-times penny-pinching operational style.
And yet, here we are. And in the absence of compelling evidence to the contrary, one has to assume that this is all coming straight from owner Michael Heisley, who paid handsomely for Rudy Gay this summer on one hand and has spent the rest of the summer careening in the opposite direction — selling a draft pick (and it's a wonder the team didn't sell two), refusing a very reasonable qualifying offer for free agent Ronnie Brewer, and now playing hardball with draft picks over a relatively paltry sum.
And not only is there no evidence that this isn't driven by Heisley. There's plenty of evidence that it is. For one thing, Heisley — as has been far, far too often the norm since Jerry West's departure — is the lone Grizzlies source quoted directly in the Commercial Appeal's story today, underscoring that he's the de facto head of basketball operations. For another — and this is my favorite part of the story, really — the Associated Press piece on the situation quotes Henry thusly:
"Whatever team I go to, I'm going to try to bring my best," he said. "If it is Memphis, I'm still going to try to bring my best even though this contract thing is going on, because I know the coaches have called me, they're saying it's just like the owner and the organization, so it's not them saying we don't want to pay you 120 percent. So I still know my coaches and my teammates want me there, so I'm going to give them my best effort."
Now, let's acknowledge that the true meaning of this revelation is not crystal clear. Did Henry say that the unnamed coaches in question told him it's "just like" the owner to do this, meaning, essentially, "Heisley does this crap all the time." Or was it more "just [pause] like," meaning, "hey, this is an ownership thing and we don't want to get mixed up in that, we just want you here."
If it's the former, it is certainly impolitic of Henry to make that exchange public, but is it at all surprising that a Grizzlies coach might have been grousing off the record about the way the team is run? Of course not. Though you will never hear it publicly for obvious reasons, my sense is that frustration with Heisley's management of the team is palpable throughout the organization. And this incident highlights the organizational dysfunction that coach Lionel Hollins and his starting lineup almost overcame to the point of a near-winning record last season: The erratic, stubborn owner runs the show. The only quasi-effectual general manager tries to make progress where he can but isn't able to or hasn't asserted the kind of control you want top executives to have. Frustration runs down the organizational chain, where people try to do their jobs despite the hurdles presented to them. And, along the way, shortsighted battles do potentially lasting harm to an organization that doesn't need more stories like this.