Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Grizzlies at the Halfway Point: Ten Commandments

Posted By on Tue, Jan 16, 2018 at 11:28 AM

click to enlarge The Grizzlies are hanging out at the halfway point of the season. (See what I did there?) - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • The Grizzlies are hanging out at the halfway point of the season. (See what I did there?)

Technically the halfway point of the season came before yesterday's MLK Day game, in which the Grizzlies beat the Lakers 123-114 in front of a sold-out crowd while wearing the new and very attractive "City" jerseys honoring the 1968 Sanitation Workers' Strike. But we're still close enough to the exact halfway point that it makes sense to stop and take stock of where the Grizzlies are, and of what the rest of the season should like from here.

Needless to say, it has not been the season Grizzlies fans expected, or the one that most observers predicted. It has been pretty close to the statistically-based projections people like myself scoffed at back in October, when the excitement about the depth of the roster started to take hold. If Conley and Gasol had both stayed healthy and the rotation had set in the first couple of weeks, maybe that optimism would’ve seemed justified. Instead, the season promptly fell off a cliff, and the team has only recently (after Christmas) started to look like they might know how to play basketball. With that in mind—along with the fact that the Grizzlies have their own pick in the upcoming draft, after not having a first rounder last year and before giving up next year’s first to Boston (for Jeff Green. Remember how great that was? Remember how well that worked out?)—I thought it was worth setting out Ten Commandments for the Second Half, creating a decision-making framework for the 40 remaining games of the season that will steer the Grizzlies toward the best possible outcome.

The Ten Commandments for the Second Half

I. Thou Shalt Not Try To Make The Playoffs

I’ve been saying this a while now, and so has everybody else. The playoff streak is dead. It was fun while it lasted, and in some ways permanently altered the trajectory of Memphis as a city (though, of course, one has to be careful to avoid the hyperbole that the Grizzlies have healed all of our various divisions. They’re a salve, not a cure-all). Faulkner famously said “the past isn’t dead; it isn’t even past.” Faulkner also didn’t live to see the 2017-18 Grizzlies.

Surely the Grizzlies organization realizes the mode they’re in, right? Surely they realize that losing games this year helps them secure a better future, and maybe even a better 2018-19 season? The worst thing they could possibly do is win 37 games and finish 9th in the West. Give up on being good, if just for a year. Be like Queen Elsa and let it go.

II. Thou Shalt Sell at the Deadline

click to enlarge Tyreke Evans has been too good not to trade. - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Tyreke Evans has been too good not to trade.

If the Grizzlies do not manage to flip Tyreke Evans for an asset at the trade deadline, it's probably time to contract the franchise. He's having one of the best seasons of his career, and he's been the best player on the team most nights, and even if he were only going to sign for the mid-level this summer—which I doubt—the Grizzlies still probably wouldn't keep him. This is a textbook example of a must trade player. I'm not sure a first round pick is out there to collect, but even if it isn't, there has to be something out there that could be considered a good/fair return for Evans.

Evans isn't the only guy the Grizzlies should be looking to trade and/or dump at the deadline. Brandan Wright is a good player on a cheap expiring deal, and while expiring deals aren't nearly as valuable as they used to be, and Wright's skill set means he's only a great fit with a few teams, he's still another good player unlikely to be back next year. JaMychal Green's deal is acceptable, and he's underperformed a bit for the Grizzlies this year. Maybe there's a team who has a need they think he fills, and who thinks he could be a part of what they're doing longer than the end of his current two-year deal?

Then there are the "dumpables." 42 games in, Ben McLemore's new contract is probably already too bad to be dumped without giving up something too precious. Maybe he could be pawned off on some abominable team for the Tony Wroten Special (a.k.a. the second round pick with so many protections that there's no way it will ever convey). But Mario Chalmers could probably be flipped for a trade exception or some other CBA-related curiosity that would allow the Grizzlies to sign Kobi Simmons for the rest of the year (thus also freeing up a two-way roster spot). If the Grizzlies aren't sure what to do with James Ennis, he's a decent enough player on a cheap deal that he will find a spot somewhere. If they'd like to have a fire sale, the Grizzlies certainly have the pieces. I think they should. They need to be in extreme asset-collecting mode, both at the deadline and probably this summer as well.

III. However, Thou Shalt Not Trade Gasol at the Deadline

Asset-collecting has its limits. No matter how frenzied the rumors get—and I fully expect them to get as crazy as they were in the run-up to the Rudy Gay deal, if not worse—I don't think the Grizzlies should deal Marc Gasol at the deadline. Gasol's a little harder to trade than I think most of the "Trade Marc" crowd is willing to admit, and because of that, I don't think the Grizzlies would be able to make that sort of a deal at the deadline. I think there's too much pressure at the deadline to get something done—pressure that makes it easy to get ripped off.

Patience is the highest virtue here. It seems unlikely to me that the Grizzlies would be able to make a Gasol deal at the deadline that wouldn't be a better deal if they waited until the summer. I don't even think they're willing to trade him then, not assuming Robert Pera remains in control of the team. But if the Grizzlies are looking to make such a move, they're not thinking clearly if they do it at the deadline. And if they're not thinking clearly at the deadline, this down year could very well last a lot longer than anyone wants to admit.

IV. Thou Shalt Play Thine Young Players

click to enlarge Who cares how inconsistent Deyonta Davis has been? Play him anyway. - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Who cares how inconsistent Deyonta Davis has been? Play him anyway.

Repeat after me the mantra The Grizzlies Internet has been screaming for years: The only way basketball players get better is by playing basketball. This is especially true of young players. So, unless interim coach JB Bickerstaff has determined that he needs to lose games and that the best way to do that is to play his older guys, there's no excuse for Brandan Wright to play minutes at the expense of Deyonta Davis (especially when Davis is playing poorly; isn't the point to be bad?).

The Grizzlies' roster isn't exactly loaded with youngsters who are sure shots to be rotation players. But Wayne Selden and Dillon Brooks seem to be, and Deyonta Davis will be if he can learn how to be more consistent. Andrew Harrison is a heady player who has several valuable skills, but his lack of speed and his inconsistent shooting mean he's a work in progress. Jarell Martin plays well when the pace picks up and he doesn't have to operate in the halfcourt, but that's probably not good enough.

Still: the only way to get value out of these guys, even if the goal is to trade them and move on, is to play them and let them learn the ropes. The only reason not to do that is if doing so will cause the Grizzlies to play their way into the nightmare scenario (38-44, 9th or 10th in the West) described above, and while the Grizzlies' young guys are starting to figure some things out, I highly doubt they're that good.

Play 'em. Don't play the veterans trying to win and still lose; that's a loss on more than one front.

V. Thou Shalt Not Let Mike Conley Play

click to enlarge Remember Mike Conley? Save him for next year. - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Remember Mike Conley? Save him for next year.

This is (1) the easiest path available to the Grizzlies for staying bad and improving their draft status and (2) the best way for Conley's Achilles injury to actually heal. The only way that injury goes away is to rest it, and even if Conley wants to get out on the floor and play through pain and be the hero, there's no upside to it at this point. Better to save him for next year (when, I suppose, the Grizzlies will try to be good one more time with a Conley/Gasol/Chandler Parsons core, which is starting to seem more quixotic by the day) than mess up a golden opportunity to get a high draft pick and then bring back three healthy good players to lead the team next year.

VI. Thou Shalt Honor the Sabbath (On Back to Backs)

Rest. Parsons is already missing time with knee soreness (or tightness, or season-tank-itis, or whatever you want to call it), but before that he was being held out of one night of every Grizzlies back-to-back. Do that with Marc Gasol, too. He'll hate it, and he'll complain about it, but who cares? If attempting to reduce mileage on old guys during a meaningless season makes them so mad they want out, that shouldn't be the Grizzlies' problem. Rest guys. Rest young guys. Do whatever it takes to be bad and also not incur any more injuries. Play McLemore 40 minutes on the second nights so the Grizzlies are guaranteed to lose. Seems like a good idea to me.

VII. Thou Shalt Release Ivan Rabb From His Bench Prison

This one goes in tandem with some of the other roster-clearing options, but Rabb has been killing it for the Memphis Hustle and I think it'd be prudent for the Grizzlies to see what he looks like in real NBA game action. Maybe they've seen enough of him in practice to know that it's not going to go well, but I'd like to get a look at him, too. Play him. See what happens.

VIII. Thou Shalt Do Likewise with Kobi Simmons

See also commandments III, IV, V, and VII.

IX. Thou Shalt Hire a New GM Once The Ownership Situation is Settled

click to enlarge Is JB Bickerstaff the Grizzlies' coach for the long term? - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Is JB Bickerstaff the Grizzlies' coach for the long term?

This deserves its own series of posts, and will probably get that treatment farther on down the line, but this seems obvious. The Grizzlies need a change of direction (or else they'd have won more than 14 games), and it's probably time to instill that change from the top. Whether the controlling owner next year is Robert Pera or Steve Kaplan, this much seems imperative: bring in a new GM and let that new GM hire a coach. The Grizzlies have had coaches not hired by the GM in charge (Hollins, Joerger) and it never ends well. Don't do anything rash. I'm not even opposed to promotion from within, if ownership feels like Ed Stefanski or John Hollinger is right for the job. I just think we've seen enough of Chris Wallace's work to feel uncomfortable with the idea that he can build two successful playoff cores in a row here. I remain extremely unconvinced that his model of team-building is one that will work a second time for the Grizzlies.

X. Thou Shalt Not Kill (Marc Gasol)

Marc Gasol is playing 34.6 minutes a game, which is his highest total since the 2012-13 season if Basketball Reference is to be believed.

Marc Gasol is a 33-year-old big man not far removed from a broken navicular bone who has played international basketball almost every summer since he was a teenager.

These two facts do not square with each other. There is no reason to put this kind of workload on Gasol, even if the Grizzlies are worried that he'll be mad and demand a trade. I understand that Gasol is a player and wants to play—that basketball is his whole life's work as of yet, and that he wants to play every minute that he can because he knows someday he won't be able to play anymore. He's specifically said that much. But this workload doesn't make sense in the context of a lost season, one in which it's clear that the playoffs aren't likely and shouldn't be the target anyway.

Through the second half of the season, the Grizzlies' medical staff needs to be much more mindful of Gasol's minutes. Don't put him back in a 16-point game in the 4th quarter, as Bickerstaff did down the stretch of yesterday's game. There's no reason to subject Gasol to these minutes, no matter how badly he wants them. It's bad for his longevity, which is bad for Marc Gasol and bad for the Grizzlies at the same time.

click to enlarge Marc Gasol is playing too many minutes. - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Marc Gasol is playing too many minutes.

Conclusions

These commandments all seem pretty straightforward. Failure to adhere to them will net the Grizzlies a worse draft pick, worse development of their young players, shorter careers for their max contract veterans, or some malignant combination of all three. If the Grizzlies are willing to live the next 40 games—a curious parallel to 40 days and 40 nights, since we're already in this Old Testament frame of mind—abiding by these commandments, the 2018 draft may bring manna from heaven in the form of a future franchise cornerstone. The rest is up to them.


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