OKLAHOMA CITY -- Here in the stretch of what is now a fairly throwaway season, the evolution is nearly complete for the Memphis Grizzlies: From the "Grit-And-Grind" to the "Grin-And-Bear-It."
Perhaps it was inevitable, necessary even, and definitely expected. It’s appropriate then to raise a glass in memory, or even more appropriate, throw an elbow. After Thursday’s trade deadline, Marc Gasol is out the door and Mike Conley has one foot out and the other on a banana peel. All that’s left to commemorate the prideful personality of a successful era is … well, nothing really.
Truthfully, the Grizzlies are in tough shape, currently dealing with an identity crisis along with declining if not dwindling assets and the typical challenges faced by a small-market team. They hobbled into their game against the Oklahoma City Thunder with only a handful of available players following the trade deadline exodus, along with plenty of questions going forth.
One of them is no longer about Gasol, the best player in club history, sent to the Toronto Raptors for a collection of players who may not stick around. Gasol is 34 and fading, still functioning yet no longer the elite defender and reliable scorer and certainly not fit to carry what’s left of the Grizzlies anymore. Trading Gasol was a mercy move for the popular center, sending him to a conference title contender where he can be a solid complementary player and away from what promises to be a total rebuilding process once the Grizzlies send Conley packing.
“Love big fella,” Conley said. “I know he’s going to do well in Toronto. You try to prepare yourself knowing it’s possible Marc will not be with us. You’re ready for it but when it happens it’s completely different. You’re bringing the guys into the huddle and there’s no Marc. I’ve got to be the voice for every huddle. It will take some time to adjust for all of us.”
For the first time since 2001, the Grizzlies don’t have a Gasol, so this is the end of a peculiar era. They drafted his older brother, Pau, who was then traded five years later for Marc, who shed weight -- he had become addicted to American fast food and bloated once arriving from Spain as a teenager. Marc put in quality time in Memphis as a three-time All-Star and was Kia Defensive Player of the Year in 2013. With Anthony Davis staying in New Orleans, Gasol was the biggest name to move on deadline day.
“There are certain guys who are icons in their organizations that you don’t replace, and there is no replacing Marc Gasol here, what he’s meant to this team, this city and this fan base,” said Grizzlies coach JB Bickerstaff. “There is no replacing what Marc has done here.”
At least Gasol’s Memphis ejection was rather swift if not painless. Meanwhile, Conley said he hadn’t slept in two days and didn’t learn his fate until 15 minutes before the deadline.
“Long day,” Conley said. “A hard day. I was prepared either way. No matter where I was going to be, there was no hard feelings, just do my job and my best for this team. I didn’t ask for any of this to begin with but I also understood our situation. They pay me to play and that’s what I’m going to do.”
Conley was left as the endearing face of the franchise when the Grizzlies couldn’t find enough compensation for him, though not for trying. He’d been on trade alert for a couples weeks, then told he’d have to stick around at least until summer when the market should be more robust for a point guard with All-Star skills -- the fine print being the $68 million and two years remaining on his contract.
Following an initial tease early this season, the Grizzlies cratered and gave themselves no choice but to accept the reality. They’re 4-18 in their last 22 games and spiraling toward the Draft lottery, where they’ll keep their first-round pick if it falls in the top-eight. Otherwise it goes to the Boston Celtics (from the dreaded Jeff Green trade). By keeping Conley, there is incentive for the Grizzlies to win enough to send that pick to the Celtics this summer, because next season it is only top-six protected and in is an unprotected pick in 2021.
I never get down. This is just another challenge and I’ll figure out a way through it. I always took that stance.”
In addition, there could be sweeping changes in the front office if owner Robert Pera agrees with the public sentiment in Memphis and replaces general manager Chris Wallace. Ultimately, this might be the biggest decision of all facing the Grizzlies.
On his watch, the Grizzlies: Gave four years and $94 million to gimpy Chandler Parsons, who has played only 73 games in two-plus years and is sitting at home; Got nothing for Tyreke Evans, traded for Green and then dumped Green, and tried to trade MarShon Brooks instead of Dillon Brooks. They failed to build around Gasol and Conley once the beloved grinders, Zach Randolph and Tony Allen, grew old. So this is where they are. Aside from Conley, the Grizzlies’ only assets going into the Draft lottery in May will be rookie Jaren Jackson Jr. Sure, the Grizzlies can get the first pick and Zion Williamson and everything changes in a snap. Until then, and unless that happens, it’s not a pretty picture.
So it’s a new journey with 19-year-old Jackson and whomever else the Grizzlies can get for Conley, a decision that will likely be made by a new GM, followed by what surely will be a difficult 2019-20 season.
They’re at least three seasons away from being what they once were, a routine 50-win team that won the hearts of a blue-collar town and made visiting teams cringe at FedEx Forum. This is, assuming, the Grizzlies ace their Drafts and trades between now and then.
Conley is all in, at least for as long as he’s in Memphis. In that sense, the Grizzlies are blessed; Conley is the consummate professional and always a positive influence.
He explained: “I never get down. This is just another challenge and I’ll figure out a way through it. I always took that stance.”
Such a brave face staring at a potentially bleak road ahead. If the basketball Gods have a heart, they’ll put Conley in a position as good as the one Marc Gasol finds himself in right now. He’ll have mercy on a good player who deserves a better fate next season.
The Grizzlies are ready to move forward, which is hard to do while backpedaling.
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