Cloudy Future in Memphis

mar pera.jpgGasol: “Will either of us be here next year?” Pera: “Idk bro”

The Memphis Grizzlies have had a tumultuous season so far and it looks like even more drama is on the horizon. After firing head coach David Fizdale only 19 games into the season following a public feud between Fizdale and the team’s best (or second best depending on your POV) player Marc Gasol, palace intrigue has only grown with the news that the Grizzlies minority ownership group is staging a coup d’état to gain a majority stake in the franchise from current majority owner Robert Pera.

Minority owners Steve Kaplan and Daniel Straus have exercised the buy sell option, part of a unique ownership agreement in Memphis, which means that Kaplan and Straus have 90 days to offer a price to buy the team from Pera after which Pera has the same period of time to either match the offer or sell the franchise to the minority group. This has all come about largely due to Pera’s poor communication skills and frequent administrative turnover. The minority owners have felt unfairly ignored, with Pera rarely communicating with his partners, such as failing to notify them of free agent signings or coaching changes before informing the media. Despite the teams consistent success under his tenure, Pera has also cycled through three coaches since 2013, a sign that Pera may not be the deft manager you’d hope for from an owner. It also didn’t help the relationship when Kaplan, who attempted to move on from Memphis and buy the Timberwolves in 2016 so he could have a team of his own, was prevented from doing so following a buyout dispute with Pera.

This has understandably created tremendous tension and uncertainty in the organization and for the fans as well. Relocation is always a lingering question when ownership changes hands in small markets, and it’s unclear whether Kaplan and Straus would be committed to keeping the team in the country’s 50th biggest media market. The NBA’s version of Damocles hanging over the head of all small market franchises is the city of Seattle, a town steeped in NBA history and home to the 12th largest media market in the country, would be one of the more attractive relocation centres. Other cities like Vancouver, St. Louis and Pittsburgh could potentially provide double the viewership compared to Memphis. The good news for Memphis is that the team is locked into the city until 2021 and there are various provisions that would make it extremely difficult for the team to move.

On the court the Grizzlies seem to be treading water without a clear direction for the future. The rule of thumb for NBA teams is that if you’re not contending for championships than you should be more focused on player development, stocking up on young talent and angling for valuable draft position rather than winning games. The Grizzlies have been doing plenty of losing this season, especially since Mike Conley went down with an injury but it’s hard for Memphis to “trust the process” when you’ve got two All Star level talents in Gasol and Conley in their prime.

The two are 32 and 30 respectively and are at points in their careers where they want to contend for championships now instead of five years down the line. Conley and Gasol simply don’t have the luxury of time so Memphis must either build a contender around their dynamic duo now or trade one, if not both players while they still have some value and rebuild for the future. Conley inked a five year mega deal in 2016 so it’s unlikely he’ll be moved but Gasol is a wild card for the Grizzlies.

In a perfect world the Grizzlies would land a top five pick this year, pair said draft pick with Gasol/Conley and make a deep run in the postseason. The trouble here is that Gasol has already explained, “I don’t have a season to throw away” per Ronald Tillery of The Commercial Appeal, so it’s foreseeable that Gasol could demand a trade if the Grizzlies decide to tank or if they simply continue to lose games this season. After seeing the less than stellar returns for Paul George and Jimmy Butler in last season’s high profile trades, it’s unlikely that Memphis would get anything much better for Gasol, whose not as talented as either of those two players and already approaching the down slope of his career but it might be the least bad option they have. The decisions the Grizzlies make now will impact the franchise for the foreseeable future.

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