This is part 4 of the lengthy interview 3 Shades of Blue had with Chris Wallace on June 6th. Part 1 dealt with Wallace’s contract situation and his time in Boston. Parts 2 and 3 focused on his time in Memphis rebuilding the franchise.
Part 4 continues that story starting with the acquisition of Zach Randolph and continues on as Chris helped build the team into a playoff contenders.
3SOB: Mike was drafted a few days after you joined the franchise. Marc came the next summer after the trade in ’08. We are still in the lottery, one of the worst teams in the league. The lottery comes and we are in the final two spots. When the Grizzlies lose, how did you end up with Zach Randolph?
CW: You need a lot of luck in these things. Now that draft didn’t turn out to well for us in the top end because we got Hasheem with our top pick, but, with the Clippers getting Blake Griffin, that provided the impetus to move Zach. Now Zach had been productive under Mike Dunleavy. Donald Sterling liked him. He was a fan of Zack, but once they got Blake they don’t need him any more.
And much like with Kyle Lowry, they wanted to open up some room for this kid to grow at that position. Blake was the #1 pick and Zach had a substantial contract so they wanted to get out from under that contract. To open up space for Blake to get some playing time and to grow at that position. But if there is no Blake Griffin for them to select there’s no Zach Randolph here. They just hold onto him.
Now that was absolutely huge if you look at the chronology of how this team grows. I think we were 22 wins two years in a row, 22, 22 and then 24 wins. We went from 24 to 40 wins in Zach’s first year. Obviously he had a little something to do with that.
3SOB: I understand but how did the Grizzlies get into the picture to get Zach? Was this a situation where LA advertising for anybody to make an offer?
CW: We had kind of dabbled with Zach before but nothing had been completed. We dabbled at him in New York. Then, all of sudden, when that came with the lottery we need to make another pass at this. You look at this from an outsider’s viewpoint he could be excess to them right now. So maybe they’ll do something. So we make a few calls, and Mr. Heisley got involved with a few calls to Mr. Sterling, and the next thing you know we got it done.
We had Milicic to New York getting Quentin Richardson and then Quentin goes for Zach. That’s the advantage of having cap room. You don’t have to take back equal salaries. You don’t have to perfectly match those guys up. You would have to match them up if you are over the cap limit. Since we had the cap space we were able to handle the overage of Zach’s contract in our cap room.
3SOB: So did you make the Darko trade to facilitate the Zach trade?
CW: No. We were talking about that but we felt with Marc around and having just drafted Thabeet, we could use some additional shooting and Richardson only has a year left. The great thing about players on the last year of a contract is that you can always trade them. There’s always a deal somewhere that you can put them into. Either the other team is trying to save money for longer term contractual obligations so they’ll trade long for short or just trade a short for a short. You can always move somebody in the last year.
3SOB: So after the Grizzlies get Zach you still had some cap space available and you go out and get Tony. So how did that happen?
CW: Well Tony, I think when we got Tony was the next year. I think we were done with cap room by that time because among the players we had at that time, Zach was the biggest piece of it.
We spent it over a couple of years. Allen Iverson got a piece of it. Hamed Haddadi got a piece of it. We got an extra pick out of the Gasol trade and used that on DeMarre Carroll. In the Lowry trade we got a player, I can’t remember his name but he played at Rice. He was hurt and never contributed much in Memphis. His name started with a W. That was the deal where Kyle went out and Rafer Alston went to Orlando. We used a bit of that on Jerry Stackhouse at one time who we bought out or something.
3SOB: Now the team was picking up cash flow at that time as well.
CW: Yes. We got cash. There was a pick we used for Sam Young. That was where we reclaimed our draft pick from Washington. There was some other deals too. So I don’t believe we actually had room at the time we signed Tony. I think we used the mid-level exception. I may be wrong about that. It was not a major contract. It was worth $3 million.
When we got Tony we were looking to add a perimeter player. I think that was the summer of 2010 wasn’t it? it was 2011 when we returned to the playoffs for the first time. We talked about Tony and the need to improve our defense at the time. There was an organizational priority to get better defensively.
He had just come off a series where the Celtics had gone all the way to the NBA Finals. All the way to game 7. Along the way he had done a great job playing against Dwayne Wade, LeBron James and Kobe Bryant, all of these big time perimeter scorers. And as I mentioned earlier, you need a lot of luck in this business. You need the stars in the right alignment. The Celtics were looking at several different directions in the off-season. So they didn’t sign him immediately.
So he was a most important piece. Now he had some injuries along the way, had missed some games, so the Celtics weren’t jumping right away despite Tony being unrestricted. Now during this time the key element by far in this deal was Glynn Cyprien by far.
Glenn was an assistant coach at the time for the Tigers. Glynn was also the most influential male in Tony’s life to that point and probably to this day. He had recruited Tony out of junior college to come to Oklahoma State. And Glynn stayed closer to Tony than any coach to player relationship I have seen in college or high school all the way through the NBA.
Usually that influence lessens as the player gets older, starts to make some money, maybe gets married, that type of thing. But Cyprien stayed in their all the way through.
Now he was with the Tigers at the time. He’s since gone on to Texas A&M.
3SOB: So should Memphis fans be worried about Houston?
CW: (Laughing) Well I don’t think there’s a team in College Station.
So he helped us. I mean he was like a college recruiter on that. I can’t tell you how important he was. He delivered him to us.
3SOB: Now did you draft Tony while in Boston?
CW: I was there when we drafted him. I knew a little bit but I hadn’t stayed in touch with him (after leaving for Memphis). We brought him in and the day we brought him in for the physical was really a wild day. We were out in Las Vegas and when we say we are going to be signing a guy it’s like in college football. Nothing is binding until you sign that letter of intent.
So we got the word back that the Celtics weren’t happy that he was leaving. So they are coming back trying to get him. Now he is not signed so that got really hairy. I don’t know if we could have kept him if it hadn’t been for Cyprien.
It was a tension filled day. Lets just say that. We are out in Las Vegas. He is in Memphis getting a physical. His old teammates are calling and wanting him back.
3SOB: So when he was getting the physical he’s still not signed.
CW: No. That’s the reason you give the physical. You review that before you sign. He committed to us on Sunday morning in Las Vegas. He’s in Memphis on Monday getting the physical and we don’t get him signed until that night after he had left town and went back to Chicago. Plus he was going to the Turks and Caicos the next morning on vacation. He was going with his girlfriend and Ryan Gomes and his girlfriend. They were close too so he was going to leave at 5:00 in the morning on a flight from Chicago.
So he had to leave Memphis at 6:00 which was the last flight out from Memphis I believe. We didn’t have all the things ironed out from the physical to finish the contract at that time. So we had to get all that in a line real fast and we’re not on sight. Mr. Heisley and I are in Las Vegas. He’s there.
So we got that done and got him signed at his condo as he came in from O’Hare airport after he returned from Memphis. We had a guy up there signing him. We sent the contract up there from FedEx Kinko’s, got it up there and had the guy sit in the lobby of his condo waiting on him to sign. He was told to talk to the doorman and not let him get on the elevator to go upstairs until he signed the contract. We don’t want the Celtics to know that he is in the Turks and Caicos unsigned. No way.
3SOB: Now Powe was with the Celtics at that time…
CW: Yes. We got Powe later in free agency. It was at the end of the year I believe.
Now no one is soothsayer whether you are signing them in college or in the pros. You don’t know how it will work out. We thought he could come in and make a real difference with his defensive ability, his attention to details, his toughness. But who knew how it would take off here? What he brought to this franchise and this city transforms his mere statistics or how many minutes he played and everything. He really became a cult figure.
He is a huge part of that intangible spirit of the final drive of this team from a 40 win team to the playoffs and not just get to the playoffs but win and do some damage. The town obviously embraced him and he embraced the town back as did Zach.
Now who is going to know that is going to happen when you bring a guy in?
You know I don’t have a lot of original thoughts. I steal most of the stuff I say but when I was with the Celtics we had a number of partners in the ownership group that was mostly from venture capital, particularly from Bain Capital. It was Mitt Romney’s firm. I’d never been around venture capital guys. There’s not a whole lot of them in West Virginia.
But they had a phrase they use which stuck in my mind. They said they do investments when they want to get a 2, 3, x number of multiple on their investment. Not just get their money back. We were fortunate enough to do some things that got us 2, 3, 4 times the return or however you want to quantify it, back on our investment.
Tony was one of those. He far exceeded his contract in what his original role was. Zach, despite his obviously much higher status as a player in the league coming in and he had a significant contract, got us back a return in him in multiples. Not just his points and rebounds but in what he meant to rekindling the passion for the Grizzlies.
And then Marc Gasol, getting his rights in the Pau trade, despite having to pony up and pay him a higher number than his draft location having to pay him like a lottery pick, we exceeded that with him. And then Conley has exceeded the contract that he received on the extension.
So you just got a number of guys that you can’t expect will be stars when you brought them in unless it’s a LeBron James. You hope they come in and play, are good citizens, hope they stay healthy. But these guys did more than that. I mean they jumped up to a higher level of performance than in many ways you could have expected.
And as a group they stayed healthy by and large. Zach had that one injury the season before last when his missed about 30 games something games out of a 66 games season. Other than that this group has been healthy. They’ve stayed fairly consistent with their performance. They’ve been great off the floor in the community. And they’ve connected with our fan base.
It’s not one of those situations where your better players aren’t embraced by the fans. Where they are on conflict with the media and they are sparing all the time. It’s not that. It’s 180 degrees in the other direction.
This concludes the 4th part of the interview with Chris Wallace. The final segment will conclude tomorrow.