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Fixing the Memphis Grizzlies

Ben Dowsett breaks down the Memphis Grizzlies’ present and future after an injury-riddled season.

Ben Dowsett

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Whether they were true title contenders or not, what happened to the Memphis Grizzlies this year doesn’t seem fair. An unreal succession of injuries detonated what was already a strange season in progress, robbing us all of the yearly pleasure of watching Grit and Grind give some title contender headaches in the early rounds. Marc Gasol turned 31 a couple weeks before foot surgery suddenly gave a very imposing feel to the four expensive years left on his contract after this season. Every depressing element was set against a backdrop of Mike Conley’s impending unrestricted free agency, and thrown into sharper focus suddenly Saturday morning with news of Dave Joerger’s dismissal.

In all honesty, the injuries may have obscured the unfortunate truth that this team was playing with house money all year long. Even while healthy, with point differential indicators pegging them as a non-playoff team, the win-loss results they managed painted them as one of the statistically “luckiest” teams in league history, a theme that held through the full 82 games: The Grizzlies became just the third team since 1946 to post an SRS rating (point differential adjusted for strength of schedule) at or below negative-2.0 while still winning at least half of their games.

Memphis was just 16th in the league for defensive efficiency even before Gasol’s injury, a big departure from recent years and a worrying warning light with a similarly anemic offense still struggling to break league average. The Grizzlies were once again in the league’s bottom third for attempts and accuracy from beyond the arc, not a surprise given a total lack of marksmanship in the perimeter rotation outside of Conley and Matt Barnes. Stifling defense wasn’t propping up a more old-fashioned attack built on Gasol and Zach Randolph bullying teams from the elbows.

Entering a summer that is unpredictable enough on its own, the Grizzlies are at something of a crossroads after a strange end to the year and the Joerger bombshell. Let’s break down a few of the biggest themes vital to their future.

The Big Picture

Were it not for this franchise’s resiliency over the last half decade or more, the more prescient vultures among us might already be starting to circle above Memphis in anticipation.

Randolph turns 35 in July, and his value in the modern NBA is diminishing along with his body. Gasol was having his worst year in several before he went down, struggling to make his usual defensive impact. The Grizzlies relied heavily on guys like Barnes, Tony Allen, Mario Chalmers and Lance Stephenson at various points this year, and the fact that Barnes’ potential departure legitimately damages their wing rotation is very worrying.

Worse yet, the future doesn’t look too bright. GM Chris Wallace has exactly zero blue chip youngsters or recent draftees in house, with 2014 first-rounder Jordan Adams and his 263 NBA minutes (due in large part to injury this year, to be fair) over the course of two seasons serving as their recent draft headliner. Adams was infamously taken one pick ahead of burgeoning Jazz guard Rodney Hood, a move Joerger wasn’t shy about reminding folks he was against at the time, and 2015 selection Jarell Martin isn’t blowing anyone away.

There isn’t too much help on the way, either. Their 2016 playoff berth ensured Memphis will keep their pick this year rather than sending it to Denver, but Wallace could quickly be wishing they’d sacrificed four ugly losses to the Spurs and missed out on the postseason entirely. The pick is just 17th after a lost coin flip, and Memphis keeping it this year means it becomes just top-5 protected next year.

A healthy Gasol keeps this team too solid for a tank job anywhere near that disastrous, but likewise isn’t enough to carry a playoff team on his own. A worst-case scenario sees the Grizzlies send a Denver a pick in the six-to-10 range in a 2017 draft that many league insiders consider much stronger than the 2016 class. If they manage to keep things afloat and stay in the playoffs for the next couple years, they’ll lose their 2018 first round pick as well (to Boston, protected top-12).

Such a bare cupboard doesn’t make things any easier on Wallace, who is already facing an uphill climb to continue a run of six straight playoff appearances. A coup in summer free agency – never likely for even the biggest markets, nearly impossible in places like Memphis – seems like their only faint hope for getting out of a very dreary position in the league’s middle, with little young talent coming up the pipe to take the mantle and few draft avenues available in the next couple of seasons.

The fallout from Joerger’s firing has already begun, and isn’t making the destination any more attractive. Reports Saturday blamed internal discord and Joerger’s desire to discuss a move to another team (the second time in three years he’s asked for said permission), and were followed by even stranger indications that Wallace himself had secured his own approval to discuss a front office vacancy in Sacramento. The wheels are already possibly falling off from a talent standpoint, and a similar fate for the front office could signal impending catastrophe.

All of these circumstances don’t make Memphis the easiest sell at the moment, which is relevant because their most important agenda item this summer rests in large part on their salesmanship.

The Conley Conundrum

Conley’s unrestricted free agency has been the elephant in the room all year long, and with good reason. He’ll command a max salary somewhere as the top point guard on the market, an inconvenient reality for Memphis during a summer when all but a handful of teams can open up max room.

Conley has commented on his desire to see the right pieces put in place around him, but his own situation limits the team’s flexibility here more than one might assume – and might torpedo it altogether if he isn’t cooperative on the timing.

If the Grizzlies pick up Stephenson’s $9.4 million player option (a choice they must make by June 29, before free agency begins) and retain all their other contracts, they’ll sit right around $60 million already on the books before a Conley deal if they renounce their rights to guys like Barnes and Chris Andersen as expected.

Being at or below the $60 million mark with a cap projected over $90 million seems great, but this is where Conley himself comes in: His own $14 million cap hold counts against the team’s books until he’s signed in Memphis or somewhere else, nearly slicing their available free agency dollars in half. If Conley stays home and does management a solid by waiting on his own deal, it will allow the Grizzlies to play the market before signing him over the cap using their Bird rights – but even then, they’d have well under a max slot available to draw talent.

There are methods available to open up larger chunks of room, but all carry risks to one degree or another. The most straightforward in theory would be declining Stephenson’s option, but this avenue reveals how startlingly weak the Grizzlies are on the wing – moving on from Lance without any clue whether they’d be able to find a wing on the market could leave Carter, Adams and Tony Allen as the team’s 2-3 rotation if they strike out, a terrifying possible outcome. The timing on Stephenson’s player option combined with a huge lack of perimeter talent makes this a less preferable option.

Much simpler would be cutting ties with Carter or JaMychal Green, both of whom are on contracts that don’t guarantee until January 2017 and can be waived without penalty any time before then. Green is young and cheap enough to keep, though, and stretching Carter only yields another $3 million or so after some cap gymnastics.

The Grizzlies could also look to dump Brandan Wright’s $5.7 million somewhere if they needed that bit of space to get them over the top on a signing, and could do the same with Carter or even Adams if it came down to it. They’d better have some cheap depth options in mind in free agency if they take any of these routes, though – sacrificing any of the names listed above without a replacement coming back drops the number of rostered Memphis players as low as seven or eight depending on a few other fringe decisions.

Even if they’re able to carve out the flexibility, the Grizzlies are running uphill trying to add talent. They’re competing with 25 other teams for the top names, all of whom have similar or greater cap maneuverability. Gasol, an aging Randolph, a chance at Conley and a bunch of role players and replacement level guys aren’t a core that inspires awe in the top prospective free agents, particularly with the knowledge that one major signing eats up most or all of their available room.

It could be panic time in a hurry if Conley does leave. Maybe he’ll be kind enough to do it early in the process and let them use the vacated space to chase a max guy before all of them are off the market. However, even if that scenario arises, the chances are mighty low that a true impact player looks at this roster and sees his best option in such a crowded pool. The Grizzlies could be stuck with the unwanted scraps after the big boys pick all the good meat off the bone.

Team brass would have to strongly consider broaching the subject of trading Gasol and entering a true franchise rebuild in that scenario. There’s virtually no conceivable combination of mid-tier free agents attainable under Memphis’ available space who could make this roster sans Conley anything more than a fringe playoff contender at the very best, and we’ve already covered their limited draft and youth capital.

There’s a real chance Gasol would spend his final few productive NBA years dragging one of the worst supplementary rosters in the league to just enough wins to avoid the very top of the lottery, but nowhere near enough to compete. Big Spain loves Memphis and they love him right back, but a mutually beneficial move would have to at least be mentioned if things go really badly this summer. There are surely those in the “title or teardown” camp who would even prefer this avenue to Conley re-upping in Memphis – there’s a valid argument that returning Conley still leaves them well behind the true contenders barring a perfect additional string of events this summer.

However, even that sort of painful teardown wouldn’t be simple. Gasol has a 15 percent trade kicker attached to his deal, which would be at least a moderate disincentive to nearly any team in negotiations (the Grizzlies have to pay the extra dollar amount, but the incoming team has to absorb the new, larger number on their cap sheet). The Grizzlies would also find themselves miles below the cap floor, and would have to fill at least some of that gap with guys who didn’t threaten the rebuild by carrying them to enough wins to land their 2017 pick outside of the top five and force them to send it to Denver. They could accomplish some of this, plus help restock the draft cupboard if they took on an albatross salary or two in exchange for some picks, but these kinds of contracts become rarer by the minute in this new cap environment. It’s painful to consider for the Memphis faithful, but could be a reality of their situation.

The team’s immediate playoff chances drop to slim if Conley bolts, and their title aspirations with this group slide to nil barring a Kevin Durant-level miracle in free agency. It’s really not an exaggeration to say his choice may decide the fate of the franchise for the next several years.

Other Targets

The Grizzlies can still offer Conley more years and larger annual raises than any other team (whether he’ll want the years is another question), and things aren’t quite so bleak if they’re able to retain him – provided he waits, of course. Unless he takes a big hometown discount, forcing Memphis to sign him before they’ve acceptably rounded out the rest of the roster in free agency will virtually eliminate their ability to do so.

Assuming this happens, quality wings should be far and away the highest priority. The Grizzles could use a suitable backup for Conley, unless they think Bryce Cotton or Xavier Mumford are up for it, but the market here is more robust and easier to navigate with a cheaper budget. Real, NBA-caliber shooters on the perimeter are a massive area of need, and bonus points if any of them can defend multiple positions well or run some secondary pick-and-roll.

Here’s the thing, though: These guys are tougher and tougher to find in a league that puts a premium on them. All the top candidates are out of Memphis’ price range unless they’re willing to roll some pretty huge dice by declining Stephenson’s option, a massive gamble that one of a handful of max-level swingmen would even give the Grizzlies a meeting.

Eric Gordon should be a top target among “safer” options – a guy with plenty of talent (including shooting) who could reconcile a disappointing career if he could ever stay healthy and consistent is exactly the type of bet the Grizzlies should be willing to take. Memphis should give Joe Johnson a call if he shows any desire to leave Miami after their playoff run, and could inquire about a guy like Arron Afflalo if he turns down his player option in New York. Gerald Henderson has done a solid job in Portland this year, and Leandro Barbosa could be within Memphis’ price range as a combo guard to both back up Conley and play some wing minutes.

Whether any of these moves would be enough to pair with the incumbents and take another shot at the West is a tough question to answer. However, if we are being honest about Memphis’ current situation, the answer is “no” within most conceivable outcomes.

That isn’t reason enough alone to give up on Conley and break out the drills for the rebuild, of course. Winning an NBA title is a ridiculously low-probability event, and even more so for teams in these kinds of markets. The past six years are an unquestioned success for this Memphis franchise even without a conference final appearance, and they’d only need a couple lucky dominos to fall their way to eclipse it.

A fall from grace is just a couple wrong turns away as well, though, and seemed to become more likely with Saturday’s news. We’re a few months away from finding out which direction Memphis is moving in.

Ben Dowsett is a Deputy Editor and in-depth basketball analyst based in Salt Lake City. He covers the Jazz on a credentialed basis for Basketball Insiders, and has previously appeared in the Sports Illustrated and TrueHoop Networks. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.

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Mavs Guard Devin Harris on Personal Leave from Team

Basketball Insiders

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Guard Devin Harris will take an indefinite leave from the Dallas Mavericks after the tragic death of his brother, Bruce.

“I was with him yesterday and just encouraged him that when he’s ready to come on back,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “I don’t know when that will be. He can take as long as he needs.”

Source: Tim MacMahon of ESPN

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NBA PM: Patrick Beverley Set the Tone for Clippers in Season Opener

Patrick Beverley set the tone for the L.A. Clippers with his aggressive defense in their season opener.

Jesse Blancarte

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“The LA Clippers are going to the Western Conference Finals. Guaranteed.”

That bold statement was made by Charles Barkley during TNT’s coverage of last night’s matchup between the Lakers and Clippers.

While Barkley may have had his hot take canon primed and in mid-season form, that should not overshadow the fact that the Los Angeles Clippers put together a strong showing in their first regular season game since the departure of Chris Paul.

Blake Griffin logged 29 points, 12 rebounds, three assists, two steals and knocked down three of his six three-point attempts. Griffin was aggressive and showed no hesitation on his jumper, which seemed to open up lanes for him to drive to the basket (where he is most effective). DeAndre Jordan was fantastic as well, contributing 14 points, 24 rebounds, one assist and one steal.

While the Clippers lost some significant contributors from last season, including J.J. Redick, Luc Mbah a Moute and Jamal Crawford, the team had some returning and new players show that they are capable of filling the void.

Milos Teodosic was just 2-9 from the field, but knocked down two three-pointers and looked comfortable and effective running the team’s offense. Danilo Gallinarni shot just 3-13 from the field but looked healthy and spry, displaying the kind of mobility that is necessary to play the small forward position. His ability to act as a secondary playmaker wasn’t on full display, but there were moments where it was apparent that he could be a big help in generating open looks for his teammates. Lou Williams also looked good in his Clippers debut, scoring in a variety of ways off the bench and contributing six assists as well. Wesley Johnson continues to look confident and aggressive, a continuation from his preseason performances, and is starting to knock down the open shots his teammates are creating for him (which has been a problem for him in the past).

While the Clippers looked solid in their opening act without Paul, it should be noted that the Lakers are a young team overall and their defense has been a major problem for the last few seasons. While the Lakers have added some promising young talent over the offseason, like most young teams, they are going to struggle to slow down veteran teams with potent offenses. It would be a mistake to think the Clippers can replicate this sort of offensive performance every night, especially against the better defensive teams in the league. However, perhaps the most promising part of the Clippers’ season debut was the fact that they seemed to feed off of and embrace the gritty demeanor and style of play that Patrick Beverley brings to the court each and every night.

Last night’s game was the NBA debut for rookie point guard Lonzo Ball, who many predict will develop into a star player. Unfortunately for Ball, his opening night matchup came against Beverley, who earned a spot on the 2017 All-Defensive First Team. Beverley repeatedly guarded Ball past half court, pushed him around and did everything he could to throw him off of his game. He held Ball to three points, nine rebounds and four assists in 29 minutes of action.

Beverley, like every NBA player, has heard the hype and noise surrounding Ball and his future in the league (most of it from his outspoken father, LaVar).

“I just had to set the tone,” Beverley said. “I told him after the game that due to all the riffraff his dad brings, that he’s going to get a lot of people coming at him. I let him know that after the game. What a better way to start than spending 94 feet guarding him tonight — welcome the young guy to the NBA.”

Beverley is one of the more aggressive defenders in the NBA and is known for trying to get under the skin of his opponents, so Lonzo may not face this level of intensity in every game. But based on Beverley’s comments, it’s clear that he expects other players around the league to defend Lonzo aggressively as well.

Snoop Dogg, the rapper and passionate Lakers fan, summed up the issue for Ball arguably better than anyone else has so far.

“His father put him in the lion’s den with pork chop drawers on,” said Snoop.

For his part, Lonzo complimented Beverley on his aggressive defense.

“[Beverley] plays hard. He knows his job. He does it very well,” said Ball. “He gets under people’s skin and plays defense and does what he can to help his team win.”

Beverley set the tone for the Clippers, who looked crisp and confident throughout the game. Griffin’s three-point shot looks like it could finally be a reliable part of his offensive arsenal. Jordan was very active on the glass, pulling down 24 rebounds (possibly inspired in part by his commitment to donate $100 per rebound this season to help the effort to rebuild his hometown of Houston after the damage inflicted by Hurricane Harvey). The rest of the supporting cast played with the sort of cohesion and confidence that takes at least a few weeks into the season to develop. Again, the Clippers’ performance could have stemmed primarily from the Lakers’ shaky defense, but it was encouraging to see the team play with such force and confidence in the absence of Paul.

The Western Conference is extremely talented and deep, so it’s unlikely that the Clippers will make it to the Western Conference Finals as Barkley predicted. However, challenging for a spot in the playoffs and perhaps even doing some damage once there seems to be in the realm of possibility. This is especially the case considering how much of an impact Beverley had Thursday night, both defensively and in setting the tone for the rest of his new teammates.

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Morris Bringing Leadership To Celtics

Marcus Morris chats with Basketball Insiders for a one-on-one exclusive.

Spencer Davies

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Returning just one starter from last year’s top-seeded team in the Eastern Conference, the Boston Celtics underwent wholesale changes this past offseason.

Gordon Hayward signed a super max contract. Danny Ainge pried Kyrie Irving away from the Cleveland Cavaliers in a blockbuster deal. Jayson Tatum was selected with the third overall pick in the NBA Draft.

In early July, though, there was an under-the-radar trade executed that hasn’t been mentioned much. Surprisingly, Celtics guard Avery Bradley was sent to the Detroit Pistons in exchange for Marcus Morris, a heady wing with size and versatility to add to a revamped core of players.

Bradley was a mainstay with the franchise for seven years and played a vital role as a part of Brad Stevens’ system, but Boston decided to move in a different direction. As for the man they got in return, he’s thrilled to be there.

“It makes me feel good,” Morris told Basketball Insiders of Ainge dealing one of his best former players for him. “It makes you feel wanted.

“This is my first time since I’ve been in the NBA I’ve been on a team with a bunch of guys that [are] All-Stars. With the maturity of the team being this high and having them high expectations on us, I’m excited to get the season going and see how far we can take this.”

The Detroit Pistons likely wanted to keep him, but the organization clearly felt Bradley’s skill set was too good to pass up. For Morris, he insisted there was no indication that his old team would send him away, but he hasn’t been bashful about talking up his new home.

“Had no idea that I was gonna be a Boston Celtic, but I’m ready for the challenge, you know?” Morris said. “I’m excited. Boston, being a Celtic—it’s something that growing up you don’t really see happening, but when it happens it’s an amazing thing.

“It’s like playing for the Patriots, you know what I mean? One of the most heralded teams and most heralded franchises, and Boston is one of those.”

Entering the seventh season of his career, Morris has remained a steady part of the league. During his time in Detroit, he started nearly every game for the Pistons and found a comfort zone that he believes will carry over in Boston.

“Just continue to be consistent, continue to build on my last past couple of years,” Morris said of his personal goals. “I really felt like I carved my spot in the NBA the last two years—averaging 14 a year and helping my team get to the playoffs one of those years, so I really think I’ve carved a niche in this league.”

The success has come thanks to his versatility and the NBA’s current direction pointing towards that type of game. All of a sudden, not having a defined position makes a player more valuable, something Morris is thankful for as he continues to bring a little bit of everything to the table.

“For guys like me, it’s great,” Morris said. “Coming into the league, I had this ‘tweener’ thing on my back and now it’s like [freaking] great to be a ‘tweener’ at this time. I’m actually happy that it’s switching to my position and guys that can do multiple things are being utilized more in this league.”

Putting the ball in the basket has come fairly easy for Morris, who averaged 14.1 points per game on 42.6 percent from the field over 159 games with Detroit. He’s able to stretch the floor and provide solid spacing offensively, and he envisions doing more than that for this Celtics group.

“And leadership,” Morris said. “I’m not too much of a vocal guy, but I’m a passionate guy on the court. I think that’ll rub off on guys. I love scoring. I love shooting the ball. But that’s not the only thing I do.

“I’ve been a tough defender around this league for the last past years and I’m really looking forward to hanging my hat on that again and just doing whatever it takes for my team to get to that next level.”

Stevens is aware of the impact Morris can bring in the locker room and on the floor. When he returns from a sore knee to make his debut for Boston, that’ll show through his play.

“He’s a guy that can stretch the floor at the four,” Stevens said. “He’s a guy that can guard two through four. He’s tough. He’s smart. He works the right way. We’ll be better with Marcus Morris for sure. The versatility is a very important part of what we want to be.

“Whether he is starting in a couple of weeks or whether he’s coming off the bench, at the end of the day he’s gonna be a critical, critical part of our team.”

While he’s waited to come back, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum have stepped up in his absence. With Hayward likely sidelined for the rest of the season, that success will have to be sustained. Morris is a big believer in this promising duo and sees how grounded they are to make that happen.

“They’re mature guys for their age,” Morris said. “Jaylen, I think he’s 20. He’s definitely a lot more mature than I thought. Jayson, too. He’s way more mature than your average 19-year-old.

“At the end of the day, it’s just basketball. I think those guys, they’re ready for the challenge. They love the game. They always in the gym, so I think it’ll be easy for ‘em.”

Part of Morris’ role is guiding those two and the other younger pieces that Boston has as they try and establish themselves as professionals. He’s kind of a coach per se, which is somewhat fitting considering what he did this summer.

Most basketball fans are aware of “The Basketball Tournament” that takes nationwide. For those that aren’t, it’s a single-elimination competition between 64 teams in which the champion receives a $2 million prize. Morris was the head coach of Team FOE—standing for Family Over Everything.

Along with his fellow Kansas alums, including his brother Markieff and Thomas Robinson, Morris coached his team to the final game. Team FOE was in front most of the game but ultimately fell to Boeheim’s Army, a squad filled with former Syracuse Orangemen.

“I was on my way man,” Morris said of coming close. “I actually liked it. I’m a smart guy. Me and basketball stuff, I can put it together real well. I was kinda upset we lost in the fashion that we lost, but we’ll be back next year.

“I’m a smart player,” he said regarding a potential future on the sidelines. “I know the game really well. Coaching comes easy for some guys and I’m just one of those guys.”

You could hear “Coach Morris” down the line, but for now and for years to come, Marcus is focused on his first year with Boston. It’s a team that surely has the talent to be the top team in the East it’s pegged to be. Stevens is a basketball savant with great leadership.

Even without an All-Star like Hayward and a 0-2 start, the Celtics should still be a force to be reckoned with. There’s an even greater demand for them to achieve their potential, especially knowing eyes will be on them, but Morris welcomes the challenge.

“Man, it’s pressure on every team,” Morris said. “It ain’t like it’s just all on the Boston Celtics. It’s pressure on every team. What’s a game without pressure anyway?

“Pressure makes it the best thing. That’s what we need to do anyway. I enjoy the pressure. Me personally.”

Shouldering the load won’t be easy, but if it comes down to it, Morris will be swimming instead of sinking. When all is said and done, he shares the same aspirations as most players do—raising the Larry O’Brien trophy in the summer.

“I want to the win the championship,” Morris said. “You put this type of team together to get to those positions. I’m looking to be playing in June and trying to get to a championship.”

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