MikeCheck on Grizzlies: As disappointing season winds down, GM Chris Wallace charts recovery path toward offseason reboot
MEMPHIS – There aren’t many relaxed moments in a season like this.
But Chris Wallace permitted himself a moment of levity when asked if he’s still as driven and passionate today as he was when he first arrived almost a decade ago as general manager of the Grizzlies.
The same man who assembled the Core Four-led roster and launched the Grizzlies onto the most successful path in franchise history is now faced with steering Memphis out of the malaise. A streak of seven straight playoff seasons, the third-longest active streak in the NBA, will end in mid-April. And the Grizzlies, 18-49 overall and carrying an 18-game losing streak into Thursday’s home game against the Bulls, are headed for the NBA lottery and an offseason of challenges and opportunities.
Does Wallace still feel confident he’s the man to help get the Grizzlies back on track?
We’re always trying to move forward, improve, be better and achieve. This is no different. This is just not a playoff year.-- Chris Wallace
“Yes, definitely. Why wouldn’t I?” Wallace said. “We’re always trying to move forward, improve, be better and achieve. This is no different. This is just not a playoff year.”
In a wide-ranging interview with Grind City Media, Wallace reflects on a difficult season and lays out the approach for the immediate future as the Grizzlies regroup and prepare for the offseason.
GCM: From the standpoint of adversity, how does this season compare to any other you’ve had in your career as a GM?
Wallace: Well, I don’t think it’s the most adversity or challenging season I’ve had in my career. I had one season in Boston that started off with Paul Piece getting stabbed and being in critical condition on the eve of the opening of training camp. So that was a way more stressful situation. That was life and death. This is basketball. So, if you’re in this long enough, you’re going to have a down season at some point. We didn’t plan on it being this year, but after the coaching change, we weren’t able to get Mike Conley back. And that was the premise behind being able to push forward and make another run at the playoffs, was that he would get healthy again and play at his level fairly soon. But that didn’t occur.
GCM: What proved to be the biggest challenge to overcome this season?
Wallace: There’s no question it was injuries. Mike missing virtually the whole year. Wayne Selden has not been able to be healthy consistently on the court for a significant stretch, and he was a big part of our plans coming into the season after summer league. Chandler Parsons has had injury issues. Same with JaMychal Green, Andrew Harrison, Mario Chalmers and Tyreke Evans. So the injury situation has been a constant the whole year.
GCM: You referenced certain concerns when the coaching change was made in November. Why, from your vantage point, aside from injuries have things not turned around in the months since?
Wallace: Obviously, we didn’t get the spike in the win column that you would like after a change. But I’ve been impressed with how our coaches have hung in there. They’ve stayed the course. They keep teaching and being positive every day. The results may not have been there on the winning side of games, but all of our young players have shown real promise with us at one time or another this year. There’s been a tremendous amount of player development and I think we’re building for a very successful future and I feel we’ll start another playoff streak next year.
GCM: You’ve maintained a connection with the fan base, specifically season-ticket holders, throughout this process. What’s your message to fans who continue to be discouraged or upset about this season?
Wallace: I understand they’re discouraged. We’re discouraged, too. We expected to be at our normal level and be in the playoffs again for the eighth straight year. But if there’s something positive we get out of this season, I think it’s all the experience we’ve had with our younger guys. Their development time has been fast tracked and I believe that’s really going to pay dividends for us down the road.
GCM: What will be the evaluation process for J.B. Bickerstaff and do you anticipate a coaching search?
Wallace: We’re really not dealing with the coaching situation until we get through the season, and then we’ll go from there. But with that said, J.B. and his staff have done an admirable job in the face of a difficult situation. You can’t evaluate an interim coach, particularly when they’ve walked into a difficult situation, strictly on wins and losses or make that the main criteria. That’s just not fair to him, and it’s not realistic. You have to look at other areas, such as player development. Do they play hard? Does he keep their attention and focus? Those are some of the areas – not all – where you grade a coach in this type of situation.
GCM: Marc Gasol said he will have questions about the direction of the team after the offseason. How will you reassure him that Memphis remains the best fit for him at this stage of his career?
Wallace: Marc is having a terrific career here, both individually – being a multiple All-Star, being defensive player of the year, the All-NBA recognition. And he’s had tremendous team success. So, I don’t think one off year from the team success side tarnishes what he’s achieved or necessarily is going to be the norm going forward for the Grizzlies. This happens to all sorts of teams, where you have not as good a year as where you expect to be. But that doesn’t mean you can’t jump right back in and be successful again next year and that’s what our goal is. And he’s a big part of that.
GCM: How has Mike Conley progressed during the initial stages of his post-surgery rehab?
Wallace: What I’ve been told by our medical staff is that he’s been doing well. He’s in good spirits and he’s meeting all of his marks so far. The plan will be successful, which is to have him back at the beginning of training camp next season as a full participant. Just because he’s sat out this year doesn’t mean his skills are going to erode. Sometimes, with a player that’s logged as many minutes as he’s had, taking a little sabbatical isn’t necessarily the worst thing in the world for him. And he, obviously, will be well rested. He didn’t have a whole season of wear and tear to go through. He’s just got to get that heel better. And from everything I’m told from the professionals involved, that’s a very doable goal.
GCM: Chandler Parsons and Ben McLemore, for different reasons, haven’t quite worked out to expectations so far. What’s their role/fit on this team moving forward?
Wallace: Just because this year has been up and down for both of them doesn’t mean that’s going to be their course for the future. Take Chandler’s situation. My experience has been the longer period of time they put behind them from surgery, the better they get. Look at Vince Carter. He struggled coming back from that surgery that first year, got better that second year and was really good that third year. Chandler was better this year than he was last year despite a few injuries. We’re hoping he has another strong offseason and is even better next year. Ben had surgery too, on that foot last summer. (injury occurred during off-season training) That cost him the end of the offseason, which is very important for you to come back and work out with guys. As such, he wasn’t a full participant in training camp, so he really jumped onto this train when it was moving. And that’s very difficult. He’s shown some times of significant productivity. Now he’s just got to add the consistency.
GCM: As you approach the draft, what’s the biggest area/position of need for the Grizzlies? And will this draft be about maximizing Marc and Mike’s current window or looking beyond that to set up the future?
Wallace: You’re hoping you can combine talent and upside with somebody that can produce in the short term. We’re watching and evaluating from afar right now. They’re not in here working out, so the post-college season is when you really get to know these guys. It’s a great opportunity for us to add an infusion of talent, and we hope that it’s somebody that can contribute to the short term and not just someone you look long term with. As far as our team need, you can always use outside shooting in the NBA of 2018. It’s such a premium placed on the three-point shot, you can never have enough guys who can shoot the three. We also have to get more and more athletic.
GCM: In a season that’s shifted toward development on many levels, what have you learned most about yourself and your resilience as GM during this process?
Wallace: I like the work ethic of these guys. I’m seeing it on a daily basis. They’ve worked. They’ve stayed together as a team. They’ve stayed with the coaching staff and I think this is going to prove very beneficial to us starting next year. I don’t see this as some arduous season that has been all that difficult on me personally. I’m not in a woe-is-me mindset. If you’ve been in this business a long time, you’re going to have some years where things don’t work out as planned. Injuries are going to pile up. A young team is going to have a hard time getting wins. The NBA is a very unforgiving league when you’re young and injured. But I don’t think this is a prelude to our future. I think we’ll snap back, get into the playoffs next year and be a team to be reckoned with.
The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Memphis Grizzlies. All opinions expressed by Michael Wallace are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Memphis Grizzlies or its Basketball Operations staff, owners, parent companies, partners or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Memphis Grizzlies and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.