This is the continuation of a long interview with Chris Wallace of the Memphis Grizzlies.
Wallace has been in Memphis for 6 years and ran the basketball operations as the team went from a deep lottery team into a serious challenger for the NBA title this season. However, after Michael Heisley sold the Grizzlies at the start of the season, Chris Wallace had his role on the Grizzlies seriously diminished under the new management. As a result Wallace has been rumored to be interested to be looking to find a new and more influential role with some other team.
3 Shades of Blue decided to sit down one more time with Wallace to discuss the way he sees the NBA today. Part 1 and 2 dealt with the problem with people under contract moving to other teams, his time with Boston and with Memphis.
Part 3 continues the discussion on Wallace’s time in Memphis.
3SOB: You’ve been here in Memphis for 6 years. You’ve seen the team go from 22 wins and a back to back high lottery picks to 56 wins this season. What happened to change the culture here?
CW: For example, for the Celtics to win the championship in 2008, it’s never one dynamic, that earthquake so to speak, that turns things around. That makes that happen. It’s links in a chain. If any of those links hadn’t been there or pulled out, the who chain would fall apart. You have players coming in, new players, during that time that became some of the best at their respective positions. Like Marc Gasol, like Zach Randolph, like Mike Conley although he started rather slow he’s found his game now. You have Tony Allen who became an elite defender, a first team all-NBA defensive player who can cover multiple positions.
Lionel Hollins came in and really helped change the culture. He’s one of the few coaches I’ve seen in my time who came in and grew up with a young team and was still there when the fruits of his labor came to maturation. Usually coaches are sacrificed somewhere along the way. He stayed the course. He didn’t stop or doubt himself when injuries and trades occurred.
And Michael Heisley brought so much to this process. I readily say this. I didn’t hire Lionel Hollins. Not that I was against him but I didn’t know him. We looked at a couple of guys and Heisley came in and said “you know. I should have hired this guy twice. I’m not going to pass on him again.” That says a lot about Michael Heisley. A lot of guys wouldn’t say they made a mistake when they passed over him in a previous process. Once you get passed over once that is usually it. That’s the end of it. Not many guys have the ability to say I passed over him twice and that was a mistake but Heisley felt Hollins had something that could help this team during the bad times. He went out and hired him.
That hasn’t gotten enough publicity not only locally but nationally. He passed over this guy twice and still had the courage to reach out to the bench of a middle of the road team at the time, in the middle of the season. That never happens. Tell me the last time you’ve seen a franchise go out and hire a guy in the middle of the season who’s an assistant coach on another team’s bench. They either elevate one of their own assistants like P J Carlisimo was there’s a guy from the outside. Wasn’t Hubie Brown brought in here that way?
So it’s never done that way. He’s never gotten credit for that. Then he told me early on, when he was getting criticized for being cheap, that “i’m not going to spend a lot for us to go from 24 wins to 30 wins at this point, but I will spend when I think this team is winning.” So we held onto cap room after the Pau deal even though we were under great criticism. But when we spent it a big bulk of that money went to Zach Randolph. It was impactful. He didn’t want to go spend a few million here to get a back up point guard and a few million more to get someone else and blow that money we had to spend. He wanted to save it for someone impactful.
He created an atmosphere in decision making. It was very important. He said I didn’t get to where I am by playing it safe, by not taking risks. Where we are for this team and the market size” – we were back in the pack in all statistical performance numbers back in 2006-2008 – and we’re not likely to be able to pull off a Miami type of deal where we get LeBron and Bosh to make a transformation in free agency…
3SOB: We don’t exactly have the beach for that
CW: (laughing) Well now they haven’t seen that beautiful Delta area yet!
But we are a team that’s going to have to take risks to get where we want to go. So he created an atmosphere and it was supported and encouraged and we took some risks. And the risks more than panned out, especially the bigger risks. That cured us. So you can’t just sit here and expect this all to come to us in nice neat packages. It’s not going to work that way.
And he was right. Absolutely right!
3SOB: I remember when you held a Chalk Talk for season ticket holders two days after the Pau Gasol trade had gone down and you tried very diligently at that time that Marc Gasol was really the secret ingrediant in that trade. Did you believe at that time that you had a guy who would become who he is today or were you just telling people something to be optimistic about?
CW: Well I’ll tell you this. It is something in between. I can’t honestly say I knew Marc Gasol would become the first European player to be named NBA Defensive Player of the Year. That he would have a season, what is it his fifth years in, where experts would say he was the best center in the NBA this season. I can’t say that I knew that.
We felt though that he had everything necessary to be a Top 10 center in the league. He was drafted 48th but by the time we were talking to the Lakers he was on pace to be the MVP of the ACB, the Spanish League. That’s very meaningful. That’s more meaningful than being an MVP in the ACC or the Big 12 or any of our college conferences. It’s the #1 national league in Europe. It’s stronger than college basketball because he is playing against men. These teams have multi-million dollar budgets, older players, so his trajectory was skyrocketing. We felt that if he was now in the 2008 draft, instead of 2007, he would easily have been in the top 10, a sure cut lottery pick, so we insisted on him being in the deal. We wouldn’t have done it without him.
So the trick wasn’t really so much getting him in the deal. He wasn’t on their roster, even though he was an up and coming player at the time. They are not removing someone from their roster so we didn’t disrupt their team. Since we just got his draft rights he doesn’t really add any salary cap complications to the deal. He had no cap value as an unsigned draft pick. But the trick to the thing was getting him signed.
You know, you figure when you get a guys draft rights he’s going to come at some point. He’s not going to stay there forever. He’s going to come but how long is it going to take? I’m having nightmares during the process because it was tough. If he signs in Spain he is going to sign for 3 years. Now can you imagine the reaction around here if we didn’t have him for 3 years?
It was a struggle. I mean we got very significant opposition. While Marc wanted to play in the NBA, he didn’t mind staying in Spain and playing either. It wasn’t easy getting him signed.
3SOB: Especially in the city that just traded his brother away…
CW: Well, location wasn’t an issue. He wanted to get his NBA career started but he didn’t want to lose forever either. He knew he was going to be in some sort of purgatory with us. We were only a 24 win team. The issue was how long is it going to take. We were trying to sell to him that we can get better. It may take a year or longer to sort this out but we are going to get better. We were moving in a positive direction and he could see with our roster, you didn’t have to be Red Auerbach to see that he was going to play right away. He would probably be the starting center.
So it worked out well obviously for both parties. Marc received the important ingredient every NBA player needs to receive here. You have to get unconditional playing time. The ability to play through the mistakes. In tonight’s game if you are terrible you know that you’re coming back tomorrow and still going to play. You’re still going to get your minutes. You’re still going to start. You’re really going to have to play yourself out of meaningful playing time not play yourself into it.
It makes no difference if it is on a bad team or a good one. You don’t grow as a player if you are only getting a couple of minutes here or a couple of minutes there. To be a productive role player, not just a star but a role player, at some point some coach has to say that I believe in this player. Maybe he’s a little rough here or there but he’s the most impressive player and we are going to play him. He’s either my starting point guard or my back up center or whatever. He fits into that 8 or 9 man rotation the coaches have and that means he’s going to get enough playing time that he can play through mistakes, learn what he has to learn at this level, and confidence.
Confidence is the most important elixer in this whole mix. You can not succeed at the NBA level, or anything, without confidence. It’s hard to generate confidence when you are only playing a little bit and then not playing and getting your head handed to you. So Marc got that from the Grizzlies and then Lionel Hollins, to his credit, gave that to Mike Conley in the midst of a time that Mike was struggling.Maybe he didn’t always see the light at the end of the tunnel but Hollins believed in him. We traded Kyle Lowry to clear the way for him. In addition to all the technical things he taught Mike about the position, and he’s a very good teacher in his own right, he provided that final missing ingredient which is confidence.
Now I also believe in Mike’s case that is very important. HIs new contract helped empower him as well. He started to think “hey, this organization has confidence in me. They can’t go out and get another player with my contract so I am the guy.” So that all worked out.
This concludes part 3 of the interview.