Two summers ago, Mike Conley signed the richest contract in terms of total value in NBA history, roughly $31 million a season for someone who never made an All-Star or Olympic team or won a championship, and nobody in Memphis squawked about it, not even the ducks at the Peabody.
Conley, you see, was already a favorite son, the billboard face of a beloved basketball team and most importantly, able to immediately keep producing on a high level because of good health. The soaring salary cap, helped by bloated TV contracts, trickled down and lavished Conley and others with the same insanely great timing in free agency that year.
One was Chandler Parsons, who leveraged a solid season in Dallas to score an instant jackpot with these same free-spending Grizzlies. They gave him roughly $94 million over four years, the most possible under the cap. Some NBA brows were arched, yet the reasons were clear-cut: Memphis needed scoring at small forward and Parsons, a good shooter and just 28, was available. And all it cost them was money instead of assets in a trade.
That’s where the link between Conley and Parsons ends. Parsons was an outsider who came to the Grizzlies off a second knee surgery. Then his first season in Memphis was interrupted twice, by a bone bruise and finally a meniscus tear. He averaged six points in 34 games for that $23 million he made. The guy the Grizzlies wanted him to replace, Vince Carter, had more giddyup at 40.
This led to Wednesday’s season opener, when some impatient home fans let Parsons have it after an uninspiring six-point debut that began with a pair of missed free throws. The short honeymoon was because Parsons lacks the advantage of tenure like Conley and Marc Gasol and he’s coming off a washout season. Mainly, and this is the real issue, he cost Memphis some serious cheddar; if Parsons was getting by on $7 million a season he’d be ignored because fans equate paychecks with performance.
Frustrated and feeling betrayed, Parsons ripped back, describing their response as “tasteless” and “we’re athletes, we’re human beings” and how he’ll treat home games like road games if that’s what the fans want. Well, what they want is the old Parsons, a 6-10 big who could stretch the floor and shoot with range, who revved offenses in Houston and then Dallas, and who might be resting under a tombstone at this point.
That’s what Parsons wants, too, more than anyone, a fair chance to demonstrate that a summer of hard rehab work can lead to a rousing comeback and somehow justify the weight of that paycheck.
Will he get that chance?
“Memphis invested in me four years and a lot of money so I want to show them that I’m worth it and I can live up to that expectations they have for me and the expectations I have for myself,” he said. “I have so much to prove. Before my injuries I was one of the better players in the league and on the right path to have a great career. I still have that chip on my shoulder that I can be that player.”
At his best prior to arriving in Memphis, he was a secondary scorer who could make threes and mid-range jumpers and help on the glass, a 15-point, five-rebound player whose J.Crew looks and good-guy personality allowed him to enjoy a measure of popularity in Houston and briefly in Dallas. More famously, he kept stumbling into money; Mark Cuban stole him from the Rockets with a three-year, $46 million offer sheet which was rather substantial for 2014, and then came the Memphis deal. Quite telling, both the Rockets and Mavericks passed on matching those enormous deals.
And now, it’s possible Parsons might put the Grizzlies in the position of buying him out next summer if he’s nothing more than a backup forward who can’t stay on the floor or hit the open jumper.
It’s not his fault that his body has betrayed him, and chronically injured players do get unfairly stigmatized and criticized for something beyond their control. That’s why Parsons was upset at being booed. He didn’t purposely wreck his knees or force the Grizzlies to give him a max contract. He did put in the work this summer precisely to avoid a relapse.
At the Grizzlies’ request, he went through drills with renown physical therapist John Meyer in Los Angeles; Meyer has worked with a number of pro athletes, Blake Griffin among them. Every fiber of Parsons’ body was examined and strengthened in rehab and all the poking and prodding was new to him.
“Just doing different non-impact workouts,” he said. “I never done pilates in my life, never boxed, all these swimming workouts and cardio to keep me lean but not putting the pounding on my knees. I worked with Blake almost every day so it was cool to have a guy who went through the same struggles as I did.
“I never had to cancel a workout this summer because I was sore. I did that last season. I couldn’t play back to back, had minutes restrictions. I’m not naive. I know there will be some restrictions this season, but it’s nice knowing that I’m free and can just focus on basketball and not have to worry about my knees all the time.”
As anyone would, Parsons is understandably sensitive about missing so much time and dealing with expectations, given his contract, and feels a great debt to his teammates, especially Conley and Gasol. Both have supported him and even defended him from the opening night treatment.
“Booing Chandler is just like booing Mike or booing myself,” said Gasol. “I’m not happy with it at all.”
Gasol and Conley are good soldiers who want and need to boost Parsons’ confidence in order to get the max from him, because once again, the Grizzlies lack a killer at small forward, a problem area ever since they traded Rudy Gay. Also, coach David Fizdale is doing his part, sampling Parsons at power forward to help reinvent a team that using up-tempo and shooting to replace the grittiness it lost with Zach Randolph and Tony Allen gone.
“Look, the last three years basketball wise hasn’t been too fun,” Parsons said. “No one likes being hurt and although I do still have my days when I’m extremely sore, I finally feel like I can do most things I usually could do. I’m not thinking about my knees or my health when I’m playing. Just to be able to be in the gym, be on the road and involved in everything again is a great feeling. Hopefully I can sustain this and keep it going the whole season.”
He’s more optimistic than those who’ve declared his contract the most poisonous in basketball and a burden on the Grizzlies and especially a thorn in the side of GM Chris Wallace, who signed him. Parsons has the support of the locker room and perhaps a segment of sympathetic Memphis fans, but professional sports doesn’t wait long for anyone, regardless of the circumstances. In the quest to win games, bodies are thrown aside to find the right formula, and even Parsons is aware of how the system works.
He can’t have the opener back, but he will get as many cracks at redemption as his talent and body allows. What encourages Parsons is he feels his mechanics are as good as ever. That never went away, he claims; it just needs real-game reps.
And about the tough road it took to arrive here?
“It does challenge you,” he said, “and it will make it that much sweeter when I get back to where I was.”
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