It's been an interesting season for the Memphis Grizzlies. From the rough start — which included the only 50-point loss in franchise history — to Marc Gasol's likely season-ending broken foot against Portland, it seems the season has been a progression of obstacles.
No doubt the Gasol injury now casts the season — its goals, its methods for getting there, its ultimate value in a Western Conference where there's very little doubt as to who will emerge victorious — in a new light. Coming as it did right before the All-Star Break, the prospect of playing out the stretch without the team's best player provides maybe the ultimate opportunity for evaluating, for taking stock.
The Foot of the Spaniard
There's no question that Marc Gasol had been struggling this year. It's been one of the worst seasons of his career, with a defensive rating worse than any season since 2009-10. And yet, he's had some of the best single games of his career. A new career scoring mark, several 30-point games, the first triple-double by a Grizzly since his older brother did it, and some huge plays in close games.
When I talked to Gasol during the preseason for a Memphis magazine profile, he said team practice was the first time he'd played basketball all summer. I think he thought he could play his way into shape, taking it easy at the front of the season in order to be in his best shape at the end of it.
That's not how conditioning works, though. Going from "no work" to "trying to play the same way I always do" is a guaranteed recipe for fatigue, for injury, and for strain, and Gasol's movements on the court had been labored since the first night. That's not what you want from a 31-year-old in the first year of a five-year, $110 million deal.
In the short term, a Griz team that was already a little light in the frontcourt — with a rotation that Dave Joerger was already leaning on Ryan Hollins to bolster — is now even lighter and will have to rely on either Hollins to play productive minutes or JaMychal Green to 1) be played by Joerger and 2) keep his foul rate down during the minutes he gets.
Given that this is a team with a long history of deep playoff runs and that just about every player on the team is playing below his career averages, it's still entirely possible that they make the playoffs, albeit as a seventh or eighth seed. But it's also possible that they just can't play .500 ball without Gasol, and that some of the other teams around the middle of the substantially weaker West get it together just in time to push them into the lottery.
I hope this injury puts to bed forever whatever notion Gasol has that he has to play through every injury. Sometimes doing the right thing means missing two or three games so you don't miss two or three months. He and Mike Conley both have been playing through injuries big and small for years now, and there's no question that it's probably cost both of them years off their careers. But this is the first example (that we know of) of one of them playing on an injury, aggravating it, and missing serious time that he might not have, otherwise.
Going forward, it's important for the training staff, the players, and the coach to be on the same page about this stuff. "If Marc Gasol says he can play, he's going to play" isn't going to cut it anymore.
Ah, Trade Deadline. Ah, Humanity!
The interesting wrinkle to the Gasol injury is that it's happened just before the trade deadline. It's no secret that the Grizzlies would like to see if they can turn some of their expiring contracts into some sort of future asset. Between Jeff Green, Courtney Lee, Matt Barnes, a partially-guaranteed Vince Carter, Mario Chalmers, and (well, it's got to be said) Mike Conley, the Griz have a lot to work with here. In the interests of preserving this season, though, it's probably safe to say that Conley, Barnes, and Chalmers are off the table, so that leaves Green, Lee, and Carter as the most likely expiring deals being shopped.
Expiring contracts aren't worth as much with the cap projected to rise dramatically this summer, and since the Grizzlies have been holding their own as of late (albeit against weaker competition than at the start of the season), the front office is probably more likely than not to hold on to what they've got, unless they can persuade another GM into giving up draft picks for a player on an expiring deal.
Conventional wisdom among some of the NBA commentariat is that the Gasol injury provides the Griz all the reason they need to look for a deal for Conley that nets them young players on long contracts. I get the argument, but I think that's a worse and riskier alternative than re-signing Conley to the right deal and absolutely not what the Grizzlies are interested in doing. What About the Draft Pick(s)?
Because of the trade made in 2012-13 that sent Marreese Speights, Wayne Ellington, Josh Selby, and a pick to the Cavaliers in exchange for Jon Leuer (remember JONNY BASKETBALL?), a salary dump that cleared the way (ostensibly) for a better Rudy Gay trade, the Grizzlies owe their first round pick to the Denver Nuggets this year if it is higher than 5th but lower than 15th. Basically, if the Grizzlies are horrible or make the playoffs, they get to keep their draft pick this season. If the pick doesn't convey this season, it's likely to next year when it's only top five protected.
Because of the Jeff Green deal, the Grizzlies also find themselves owing Boston a pick that can't be conveyed until two seasons after the Denver pick conveys. Granted, I don't think they're worried about whether it conveys in 2018, 2019, or 2020 at this point, but it is on the radar.
From everything I've gathered, the Griz have no intention of tanking to miss the playoffs. They want to make the playoffs, keep the pick, and get a quality guy on a rookie contract for next year to add to their growing roster of young guys (Jordan Adams, Jarell Martin, and James Ennis). There also seems to be a fear that a pick in 2017 will cost them a lot more money than a 2016 rookie contract because of changes to the NBA's collective bargaining agreement (CBA). I've heard that from more than one Griz executive, and they seem pretty confident that they can grab a player with this year's pick. Given that if they make the playoffs, it'll probably be as a very low seed (7th or 8th), they'll probably be picking in the 16-20 range, and good talent is almost always available in that range. I find it very unlikely that they'll do anything to bolster this year's playoff odds at the expense of future cap flexibility.
What all of This Means for Now
I think you're going to see the Grizzlies' — the players', I mean — backs against the wall, trying to win every game they can. They've been playing much better lately, even if it's been against non-elite teams. The schedule is still fairly relaxed through the rest of February and early March, but then it ramps up again. If they can still make the playoffs, I'm not sure they'll have much of a chance of advancing, but that was likely against the Spurs or Warriors, even with Gasol playing.
This year, from opening tip, was not going to be a championship year. The worst thing the Grizzlies could do would be to sacrifice future flexibility or ability to acquire talent in a misguided effort to make the playoffs for no real reason this year. Unless six Warriors and three Spurs break their ankles, the Western Conference title isn't really up for grabs.
I'd like to see them try to flip expiring contracts for players on rookie deals, or maybe some extra picks. If those deals aren't there, and I don't expect them to be, they might as well just hang on to those guys and try to keep the pick this year. No player making more than $4 million or $5 million next year is really worth the future cap space.
Gasol's injury is a weird blow to a weird year. How the Grizzlies react to it, and whether they're able to use it to shore up their position for next season and seasons beyond will tell us a lot about the the organization's ability to set a course and stick to it. The rest of the year should be used by everyone involved to win as many games as possible while figuring out who they want to be, and how they want to get there.
Kevin Lipe writes the Flyer's Grizzlies blog, Beyond the Arc.