I remember when Chris Wallace joined the Grizzlies back in June, 2007.
The team had missed the playoffs and finished the season with just 24 wins. Those 24 wins were the lowest total in the league but the Grizzlies missed out on the top pick in the lottery. They missed out on the 2nd and 3rd picks as well and were just a week away from drafting Mike Conley with the 4th pick.
Wallace had left the Boston Celtics where he had been replaced in importance by Danny Ainge, who was about to deliver Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett to Beantown. Wallace was reviled in Boston for trading Joe Johnson to Phoenix for Tony Delk and Rodney Rogers. The Celtics reached the conference finals that season but Wallace took the brunt of criticism as Joe Johnson became a perennial all-star and the Celtics declined.
Wallace came to Memphis as the hand-picked successor of Jerry West, the logo of the NBA and an almost mythical personality in the NBA. The man is actually the logo of the league for goodness sake. Wallace was hired AFTER new Coach Marc Iavaroni had been hired. He was given a lesser title than West and a far smaller salary to boot. At Wallace’s first press conference, he announced his goal was to win an NBA Championship in Memphis.
Within the year, Wallace and owner, Mike Heisley, decided that the team couldn’t win a championship. So, over the next few months, the team traded Pau Gasol, Mike Miller, Brian Cardinal, and their 2008 draft picks Kevin Love and Donte Green, thus initiating the much-maligned 3 Year Plan.The Grizzlies received O.J. Mayo, Darrell Arthur, Pau’s little brother Marc and the valuable cash needed for the Grizzlies to continue to remake the team.
But Wallace wasn’t done. Over the next few months, he traded Kyle Lowry and Hakim Warrick to Houston and Phoenix, respectively. He replaced Marc Iavaroni with Heisley’s good friend, Lionel Hollins. He made numerous small deals that facilitated other teams improving while doing little but bring in cash to the team. Then came the horrendous 2009 draft where the Grizzlies picked Hasheem Thabeet with the 2nd pick in the draft.
These were not good times in Memphis. Chris Wallace appeared to be a figure-head GM who was more of a “yes man” for a meddlesome owner than a man with a vision. The 3 Year Plan was considered more of a plan to sell the team than to build a winner. People in this town didn’t believe — couldn’t believe really.
But what people were missing was that Wallace was building the nucleus of a winning franchise. While drafting Thabeet will always be debated among Grizz fans it must be remembered that having Thabeet allowed the Grizzlies to trade Darko Milicic and bring in Zach Randolph. He signed an oft-injured backup SG from Boston named Tony Allen for a very reasonable contract. In just over three years, Wallace had added Conley, Allen, Mayo, Zach and Marc Gasol, the little brother who grew up to be a big man, with holdover Rudy Gay and the Grizzlies’ future was in place.
Wallace didn’t sit on his work either and this season Wallace has done possibly his best job yet. After Darrell Arthur went down with a torn Achilles heel, Wallace signed Dante Cunningham. He traded fan favorite Greivis Vasquez for Quincy Pondexter. After Zach Randolph went down, he traded Xavier Henry to New Orleans and a 2nd round draft pick to Philadelphia for Marreese Speights.
The fans in Memphis thought Wallace had lost his mind. Some disagreed and said Wallace never had a mind and he had sold the Grizzlies future for some patchwork solutions. He was making the same mistake he made in Boston when he traded a future All-Star for a short-term fix. Starting the season with three losses to San Antonio, three losses to OKC and an embarrassing 40-point loss in Chicago did little to shake people’s opinions either.
But what the fans didn’t realize was that Wallace knows players. He founded the Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook. He trained under some of the greatest basketball minds including Jack Ramsey, Pat Riley and Red Auerbach. What some people saw as madness, Wallace saw as valuable pieces that would fit together in the tapestry he was trying to complete.
Despite the injury filled start and the roster shake ups, the Grizzlies started winning games. They slowly recovered from their terrible start and began the arduous climb up the standings. Still, the team was missing something, and Wallace knew this. He needed to find a backup PG. His rookies weren’t performing well enough. Something had to be done.
Then a certain blog reminded Wallace about Gilbert Arenas. Everyone in the league knew Gilbert Arenas was available after Orlando used their amnesty clause on him prior to the season. The hallowed L.A. Lakers worked out Gilbert Arenas three times. No one offered him a contract. Only Wallace worked him out and offered him a contract.
Now, the Grizzlies have a team that is deep, plays together, and knows how to win. The Grizzlies have defeated the Lakers, Thunder, and Heat — all on the road. They are the only team in the league to accomplish that trifecta. They defeated Miami and Dallas, the conference champions from last season, in back to back games. Something no one has accomplished since the 2003-04 season.
The Grizzlies haven’t accomplished anything great yet. They won’t likely win their division. They may not host a home playoff series. All they have done is get the fans of this town believing and, in some ways, that may be the greatest miracle of all. And they have one man to thank for that.