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MikeCheck on Grizzlies: All-Star break offers needed reprieve as Grizzlies sharpen focus on development for stretch run

by Michael Wallace | Grind City Media

MEMPHIS – At 7-foot-1 and 265 pounds, Marc Gasol isn’t about the big picture – at least not yet.

By Gasol’s account, there will be plenty of time throughout the late spring and summer to take proper inventory of a Grizzlies’ season gone awry, one largely derailed by injuries, chemistry issues and struggles to overcome a different dose of adversity seemingly every week.

What’s left to salvage as the struggling Grizzlies (18-38) enter the All-Star Break and the season’s stretch run are the core values that sustained the franchise through seven consecutive playoff appearances. That active streak of postseason berths, third-longest in the NBA, is on the verge of ending.

An offseason of uncertainty – and questions – looms.

For now, there are two months and 26 games remaining for Memphis, which is on pace to miss the playoffs and land in the NBA Draft lottery for the first time since the end of Gasol’s second year in the league in 2010. And Gasol’s mission in the closing months is to hammer home some positive habits the current crop of developing prospects can carry into next season, when the Grizzlies hit the reset button.

In essence, that’s what the rest of this season is all about.

Marc Gasol

“I’m too focused right now on trying to build the culture for our guys and trying to make them understand how important it is to play well on both ends of the floor,” Gasol said. “But I’m also a day-to-day guy. The process is day to day. Obviously, it’s not a clear situation. But the whole season has been that way. It’s nothing new for us. It’s one thing after another, and we have to learn on the fly a lot of things and figure it out.”

The All-Star break provides a needed reprieve for the Grizzlies. It’s a chance to exhale. Behind them is a turbulent start that included the controversial dismissal of coach David Fizdale 19 games into the season; a stretch of 19 losses in 21 games; another extended absence for Chandler Parsons to knee issues; Mike Conley’s season-ending heel surgery; the awkward handling of Tyreke Evans at the trade deadline and the departures of veterans James Ennis III (trade) and Brandan Wright (buyout).

With that all behind them now, the Grizzlies press forward with specific goals in mind. First, is the continued development of rookie second-round picks Dillon Brooks and Ivan Rabb, second-year prospects Andrew Harrison, Wayne Selden and Deyonta Davis and third-year forward Jarell Martin. Secondly, the hope is that veterans in Gasol, Evans, Parsons and JaMychal Green continue to impart leadership while also seeing enough growth and potential to remain engaged the duration of the season and committed to the organization even beyond that.

And thirdly, Memphis needs some lottery luck. General manager Chris Wallace and interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff insist the priority is to remain competitive and put the team in position to win games. An example of that was driven home Wednesday, when the Grizzlies rallied from a 22-point deficit on a career night from Harrison and Martin’s breakthrough effort before falling short against Oklahoma City. But there’s no denying that the best path to landing a franchise cornerstone talent in June’s NBA draft is to finish among the teams with the best odds entering May’s random-but-weighted lottery.

As the NBA’s lone team yet to win a road game in 2018, the Grizzlies entered the break on a seven-game losing streak and one of six teams tied with a league-least 18 victories.

We are committed to playing hard every night, developing a winning culture and getting our young guys developed. I like the spirit of our team and the way they are playing every night. When they tip the ball off, they want to win the game. The players, the coaches, the staff, the front office and every fan in the seat wants us to win the game. That’s what it’s all about.
-- General Manager Chris Wallace

“We are not tanking,” Wallace flatly said. “We are committed to playing hard every night, developing a winning culture and getting our young guys developed. I like the spirit of our team and the way they are playing every night. When they tip the ball off, they want to win the game. The players, the coaches, the staff, the front office and every fan in the seat wants us to win the game. That’s what it’s all about.”

But Wallace, who has steered Memphis through the winningest seven-year stretch in franchise history, also acknowledged mitigating factors have contributed along the way to this season’s struggles. Last month, he sent an email directly to premium season-ticket holders to explain the process that led to Conley’s season-ending surgery. Last week, Wallace met with the media to address why Evans was retained instead of dealt after the guard was initially removed from the team as trade talks intensified.

And on the eve of the All-Star break, prior to Wednesday’s setback to OKC, Wallace met with season-ticket holders to discuss the direction of the team as the final months of the season unfold.

“We’re not as fortified as we were before,” Wallace continued. “Obviously, there is no Mike Conley (and) we are playing younger guys who don’t have a great deal of experience. We have a roster where we have six guys in their third season all the way down to rookies, so we’re going to play those guys.”

In addition, the plan is to manage the health and workload of both available and recovering veterans.

Conley, who underwent heel surgery Jan. 31, is already back around teammates daily as he pushes through the initial stages of recovery and rehab. He’s expected to resume basketball conditioning in June and be available as a full participant at the start of September training camp for next season.

Parsons had been sidelined with knee soreness since Dec. 27 before he returned to action Wednesday, when he played 12 minutes and finished with five points and two assists against the Thunder. Both Wallace and Bickerstaff said the plan is to continue to work Parsons into the rotation in spots the rest of the season. Gasol and Evans prefer to maintain regular minutes, but are open to reduced playing time or taking games off if it benefits their health and the team.

We all understand the job that we have and what the responsibility is. And that responsibility is to coach whatever group is put in front of you at that moment. We’ve gone through injuries this year. We’ve gone through illnesses. We’ve gone through this, that, you name it. No matter what’s happened, they’ve shown up and played and competed. I don’t expect now to be any different.
-- Coach Bickerstaff

“We’ll come up with a plan, but, again, we’re not going to change who we are,” Bickerstaff said. “We all understand the job that we have and what the responsibility is. And that responsibility is to coach whatever group is put in front of you at that moment. We’ve gone through injuries this year. We’ve gone through illnesses. We’ve gone through this, that, you name it. No matter what’s happened, they’ve shown up and played and competed. I don’t expect now to be any different.”

Tyreke Evans

Evans expects to finish his breakthrough season as strongly as he started. The ninth-year guard entered February averaging 19.5 points, five rebounds and five assists in the midst of his most productive season since he was named 2010 Rookie of the Year as a member of the Sacramento Kings.

Ultimately, the front office decided to keep Evans in tow as he plays out the remainder of his one-year, $3.3 million deal in Memphis. The goal is to retain Evans in free agency, partner him with Gasol and a healthier Conley and Parsons next season, and add a top-five lottery pick to reset the deck.

“I always wanted to stay here – it wasn’t like I asked for a trade or anything,” Evans said recently. “Obviously, I’m (still) here. At the end of the day, I’ve got to make the best decision for me and my family. That being said, I have to wait until the end of the season to see. But right now, I’m here focused on my team.”

And that focus is squarely on what’s immediately ahead once the schedule resumes with a Feb. 23 home game against LeBron James and the new-look Cavaliers.

“We have enough to figure out on the court and what we need to do as players,” Gasol said. “And once the offseason comes, we can sit down and ask all the tough questions we want, figure out all the things we need to figure out as a team. Everything, from top to bottom … because there are going to be questions everywhere.”

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.