Appearances can be tricky, but at this point in time it seems as if we have survived the apex of the mass hysteria that has consumed the greater portion of this young Grizzly offseason.
Robert Pera has spoken, albeit in his own unconventional way. Coach Joerger is back in the fold, and even locked up for an extra year for a layer of added stability. Sure, there’s a GM search to be conducted, and a very crucial decision to be made on somebody’s end regarding the future of one Zachary Randolph in a Grizzlies uniform, but amid all the madness, there remains just one outstanding question that supersedes the rest:
Turn down for what?
A lot of chatter has been dusted about the Grizzlies Message Boards and other public forums regarding whether or not this current incarnation of the Memphis Grizzlies, the Grit n’ Grind era if you will, has reached its ceiling as an NBA contender. If I come across another lazy “we’re the new Atlanta Hawks” comparison recklessly peppered about to accompany the aforementioned assertion, I may blow a gasket… pending what that phrase actually means.
Now while I admit that there is some legitimate smoke and fire residing on both sides of this discussion, I’m not here to argue whether or not this group can or will ever truly make a deep and serious run for a title, because my answer remains the same either way:
Turn down for what?
Assume that the Grit n’ Grind era’s ultimate destiny is in fact to be a “tough out” in the playoffs for a few more years to come before riding off into the sunset. A sobering thought to say the least, but perhaps it is so. As Sir Charles likes to remind us, father time is undefeated, and it’s no secret that the major performers on the Grizzlies roster aren’t getting any younger. Professional sports rosters go through rebuilds all the time, and it may turn out to be true that this team’s shortest avenue towards true title contention lies along that road.
But I don’t think it’s the proper road for the Grizzlies to take just yet.
As die hard fans, we tend to divorce ourselves from the notion of the team we cheer for actually being a business, but the fact of the matter is that at the end of the day the Grizzlies that we know and love are a brand, just like any other. And just like Apple, Coca-Cola, Nike, or any other of the fan favorites on the block, the Memphis Grizzlies have to build up enough equity in their brand to accentuate the good times, and carry as much as they can over the minefields the bad.
This is why embracing “Grit n’ Grind” has been so pivotal to the Grizzlies and their fan base, alike. Without a preconceived history of what it is to be an NBA team in Memphis, it was imperative to have something tangible to gravitate towards and latch onto. A culture, a personality — specifically one that holds to the city in which it resides a mirror image of itself manifest on the hardwood, has proven to be just the thing.
The Grizzlies as an organization are still among the younger franchises in the league, and the effect is exaggerated even greater if you exclusively consider their time in Memphis as part of the venture. Being in your relative infancy when weighed against the rest of the league means that brand development is still paramount with regards to the growth of the team, even if it means standing in the way of a “quicker” path to title contention.
Of course winning a title is as lucrative an outcome as can be, but if I was running the organization — and I hate to say this — it ranks a distant second, behind building this team’s support wheel to spin this thing into a sustainably viable NBA franchise. Of course the promised return of going the young and reckless route is enticing, but on the best of days it’s a gamble of fortune. Squeezing as much as you can out of a highly favorable era, on the other hand, is an investment. Unless I’m the second coming of Haralabos Voulgaris, I’ll take the sound investment over an afternoon at the casino any day of the week. For what it’s worth, he probably would too.
As much as the “title or bust” blowhard would like to discredit the Grizzlies’ recent success, the mere illusion that Memphis could contend for the title through a puncher’s chance, while trotting out tough series after tough series against legitimate title built teams like the Oklahoma City Thunder, goes a long way in establishing the Grizzlies’ legitimacy as a franchise. Myself included, fans have build more connections with the Grizzlies brand in these past few playoff battles than any of the regular seasons leading up to them combined. National media is paying more attention to the organization than ever before, and to be frank, I’m not quite sure we’re used to it yet.
At this stage of the game, continually banging your head against the ceiling is acceptable; even necessary. And we’re not the Hawks for doing so, because we weren’t the Hawks before we entered this phase. When you’re building a brand, context is everything.
I‘m not proposing that the Grizzlies stick this course forever, but the NBA is a hard business. It’s a zero-sum game; for every winner there is a loser. Given the difficulty of chasing success, a young brand like the Grizzlies has to milk the horse of good times, so to speak, for all it’s worth.
When you reach a point of diminishing returns — when this stuff stops spinning the wheel to get more people more interested in the Grizzlies, then it’s time to do what you must to trim the fat and move on. But until then, it’s all about making the team as competitive as possible to maintain the illusion of the puncher’s chance.
Where the tipping point actually lies is a major decision that the front office will be facing next summer when Gasol’s contract is up, or even at the trade deadline if things are really looking down, but there’s certainly the requisite momentum to exhaust for the time being.
Even if one does not believe this to be the case, consider the stance of the Grizzlies going forward.
In order to have a successful rebuild when the time comes, it’s important to make the proper preparations to set yourself up to do so effectively and efficiently. What you do not want to do is dive into a rebuild haphazardly, leaving your recently invigorated fans without a light at the end of the tunnel. There is a lot of hoping, praying, and clutching onto rabbit feet involved in the process of a rebuild. If you’re careful in your execution, you mitigate those three factors to the best of your ability.
With the wonky protection installed on the draft pick that has been traded to Cleveland, the Grizzlies have placed themselves in a precarious position, where it gives them additional incentive to remain in win-now mode for the next few seasons. The protection has the Grizzlies withholding the rights to the selection if they end up either picking in the top five (which is standard) or making the playoffs, and carries for the summers of 2015 and 2016. For the subsequent two years (2017 and 2018), the selection holds only the typical top-five protection, and becomes unprotected thereafter.
Given the way the lottery is constructed, in order to ensure maintaining their pick if they miss out on the playoffs next season, beyond any doubt, would have to finish as either the worst or second worst team in the entire league. Ask Philadelphia — that’s not as easy as it sounds. And ask Detroit — it’s no fun to lose out on a lotto pick, when you could really use one. Why adventure into the muddy waters of a rebuild now, only to put yourself at risk of losing the benefits that a full-blown shake-up promises to yield?
If you ride out the strange pick-protection phase as a tough out in the postseason for the next three years, presumably garnishing the team resume with a few exciting runs along the way, the pick that ultimately transfers to Cleveland in 2017 falls somewhere in the 15-30 range. Former Grizzlies CEO Jason Levien initially stated when assuming control of the team that they believed in a window of 5 years with the current core, which would drag them directly into this theoretical 2017 summer. From this point of reference forward, you are relieved of the risk of surrendering the lottery pick that you’d find yourself in desperate need of as you prepare to undergo a period of serious roster renovation.
Long story short, unless the Grizzlies find a way to orchestrate a trade that nets them that pick back from the Cavs, it makes little sense to accelerate a rebuild within the next 3 years.
Hence for a final time I pose the question that rings ever-present: turn down for what?
There will come a time to begin anew, but as outlined above, the clock has not struck twelve just yet. And just to be clear, I’m neither advocating for Grizzlies brass to simply hang tight and reap the benefits of prior construction, nor is this a disguised anecdote in favor of keeping any specific player on the Grizzlies roster next season or beyond. No single player is bigger than the name on the front of the jersey, and I’d move whoever it takes to keep this team competitive.
What I do mean to implore is that now is the time for the Grizzlies’ braintrust, whomever such a title may entail, to give it all they’ve got. Make this team as damned good as you possibly can for the next 3 years, without compromising the future by trading away unrealized draft picks. Heck, make the Western Conference Finals again. Keep the spirit of the most enjoyable era of Grizzlies basketball alive and well.
Success is a fleeting master, and support is a fickle beast. Treat them with care when they are on your side.
Don’t be shy to drop me a line on Twitter @StevieDanziger and give me your take on the preservation of the Grit n’ Grind era!