As they search for identity, is it time for reeling Memphis Grizzlies to start rebuild?

Shaun Powell

Shaun Powell

MEMPHIS — They could “Elvis up” the place. Yes, Elvis-dressed ushers and Elvis races on the video board and Elvis impersonators at halftime and … well, that’s too cheesy, a lazy thrill.

Or just like the city’s favorite sound, they could go full blues. Yes, they could sell it by going from Bruise Brothers — a word play from their former nickname, Grit ’N Grind — to singing the blues. Well, that might not be the identity this team needs to flaunt at the moment.

Fact is, the Grizzlies are transitioning from their impressive past to an uncertain future and could use an image that fits them. Except, there’s nothing that defines them right now, because we no longer know who they are and, evidently, neither do they.

All we know is the Grizzlies are free-falling like nobody’s business and hearing all sorts of fan and media trade proposals for Marc Gasol while searching for help from a development strategy that hasn’t produced a rotation player that frightens anyone on the other bench.

With only two victories since Nov. 8, a starting point guard who’s still mending and an interim coach who’s still trying to push the right buttons, the Grizzlies are sinking fast and ready to be counted out by the basketball world.

The glorified days of Gasol next to Zach Randolph on the blocks and Tony Allen making hell for the other team’s big scorer and Mike Conley being everyone’s Most Underrated Player are definitely over, if only because Z-Bo and Allen got old and left. That group helped the Grizzlies stay locked as a top-five team in the loaded West for several years and until recently used their grit and intimidation to often spook the finesse-y Warriors.

What’s left is an achy Conley, a “coach killer” label for the affable Gasol, a Bad Contract belonging to gimpy Chandler Parsons and a slew of mostly young role players who either haven’t yet or won’t ever be anything special.

Once they said that they were going to move on from Tony and Zach, I guess it was hard, I think, for everybody.”

Marc Gasol on team’s change of direction

That won’t get you far in a conference with the Warriors, Spurs, Rockets and revved up Wolves, unless the direction is south.

“We’re not the team we’ve been in the past or the team we’ve shown early in the season,” said Conley.

True enough, the Grizz started 5-1 and beat the Warriors and then Rockets twice under David Fizdale, who did solid work last season as head coach (43 wins and “take that for data”). Then, early this season the organization got whacked upside the head. Fiz and Gasol began butting heads, and their relationship reached a breaking point when Fiz refused to play Gasol down the stretch of a close game against Brooklyn. Once again, Gasol is having a decent season, leading the Grizz in scoring, rebounding and assists, yet he never took off his sweats against the Nets in crunch time.

In a sit-down a few days ago with reporters, Gasol pinpointed the relationship breakdown to a home loss to Utah when he shot 4-for-22 and Conley 3-for-16, then accused Fizdale of blaming them as the reason.

“I thought that was not really fair,” Gasol said. “When you lose, or when somebody has a tough game, you gotta help and figure out ways, and help your players, and he just completely came into me and Mike, and I did not like that one bit. From that point on, things got a little rougher.”

Well, Fiz was fired after Gasol complained and … nothing much has changed. Memphis has melted down, losing 15 of 16 during a stretch. Missing Conley for nearly a month and counting with a bad Achilles hasn’t helped. Yet other than a rollback-the-clock game from Tyreke Evans every now and then, nobody has picked up the slack enough to put the engine in reverse.

And so, this is where they are, at 9-21 and searching for a solution before the season slips away.

Where did it go wrong? Well, easy: When Conley pulled up lame and when Fizdale failed to connect with one of only two players on the roster that he must keep happy.

“Fiz did a lot for me, our team and our city and I hated to see a guy like that get fired,” Conley said.

Regarding the rift and the surprising fourth-quarter benching of Gasol, Conley said: “Their relationship wasn’t at its best at the time when we needed it to be. I was a little confused at the time about the whole thing. It was a very winnable game and those thoughts were going through my mind when I looked at the end of the bench and Marc was still there.”

The Grizzlies are now on their fourth coach in five years, a pattern that suggests instability at the very worst. And chances are decent they’ll have another coach next year unless JB Bickerstaff rights the ship and the front office feels he’s worthy of being elevated from interim status.

“We have to be able to take what we have now, buy into JB and trust that we’re headed in the right direction,” Conley said.

Meanwhile, the topic du jour is swapping out Gasol, and his status is a good place to start. Gasol reiterated that while he wouldn’t stand in a way of a trade, he doesn’t want to get traded, in part because his roots run deep into the Memphis mud, starting as a local high school player (while brother Pau played for the Grizz).

Basically: Memphis could ship their most tradable asset but there’s no guarantee he’ll fetch what they need or would put them on a better path for the near future.

His problem is centers aren’t the marketable ace card as once before. Sure, Joel Embiid, Karl-Anthony Towns and a few others fly against that theory. And Gasol does appear to have good years left but he turns 33 and would only be appealing to a win-now contender. And how many contenders are willing to boldly shake up their roster in mid-season and take a risk? Which means, the universe for a Gasol trade is small, maybe confined to three or four teams, before the trade deadline.

If the Cavaliers are willing to part with the Brooklyn No. 1 pick, it’s hard to imagine the Grizzlies turning that down. It’s also equally as hard as the Cavaliers giving that up.

The best Memphis could hope to get for Gasol is a lesser yet younger player, perhaps a low first-rounder with conditions or a second-rounder and a clunky contract tossed in to make the numbers work. And even then, Memphis would need to hope that such player(s) arrive and perform better than expected.

Otherwise, nobody else on the Grizzlies roster will fetch anything significant. Conley’s contract is too enormous (and point guards are plentiful anyway). Everyone else is filler.

Trading Gasol changes everything, It signals a rebuild, and those are tricky. There’s no guarantee you won’t wind up like Sacramento or Orlando, teams on their third and fourth rebuild. Would the city support that, even though the Grizzlies are the only pro team in town?

Keeping Gasol means the Grizzlies intend to take their chances on the season once Conley returns and hope to rally in the second half. Look, it worked for the Miami Heat last season. While the West is top heavy, the bottom half of the playoff eight is the likes of Denver, New Orleans, Portland, Oklahoma City. Not terribly scary.

“Once they said that they were going to move on from Tony and Zach, I guess it was hard, I think, for everybody. At the same time, you look at it as a challenge,” said Gasol.

Some help from within would be appreciated. While Parsons is improved and healthier from his corpse of a year ago, he’s still nowhere close to giving the production you want from a player who makes $23 million this year. The Grizzlies owe him two more seasons and he could eventually be a buyout candidate if he can’t improve.

Then on the flip side, there’s Evans. He’s the pleasant surprise, a player who has recovered from nagging injuries and address changes to be a refreshingly solid scoring option, especially during Conley’s absence. His three-point shooting hike, from a career in the high-20s to 40 percent this season, is the tonic for a club that once again lacks consistent shooters from the swing position. Evans is averaging 18.3 points and if he keeps this up will be Sixth Man of the Year material.

The rest? A mixed bag: JaMychal Green, an aging Mario Chalmers, an inconsistent Ben McLemore and rookie Dillon Brooks. All those years of getting little to nothing from the draft — none of the Grizzlies’ first-rounders since 2011 are still with the team — are hurting the club now.

The safest route for the Grizzlies is stay the course, hope for a late rush, then save the Gasol Question for the summer, when some teams might offer more in terms of youth/picks. Of course, that could backfire, and being forced to keep Gasol could keep the Grizzlies a fringe team once again.

Complicating matters if the conditional first rounder they owe the Celtics (for the privilege of having Jeff Green for 12 unspectacular months). It’s protected from picks 1-8 in 2019, 1-6 in 2020 and unprotected after that. That’s what makes a complete tear-down tricky and, if it doesn’t fall the Grizzlies’ way, they could be in a lose-lose situation.

This year and next is fraught with risk no matter which direction the Grizzlies decide to go.

Conley and Co. have no reason to sweat the future; that privilege belongs to GM Chris Wallace and to an extent, owner Robert Pera. Conley rightly is more worried about where the Grizzlies will be by the time he returns.

“It’s been really stressful because it’s all out of my hands,” said Conley. “I can’t control anything, can’t be on the court to help. It’s very hard to sit and watch. I know we wouldn’t be in this position if I was playing. I feel some accountability for this whole thing.”

Perhaps due to their stubborn will, or maybe they’re spoiled by past results, Conley and Gasol aren’t giving up on 2017-18, despite where the Grizzlies are trending and what the results are saying.

“I don’t have a season to throw away,” Gasol said. “I’m not 23, 24, where I can just say, `Well, next year it’s going to be better.’ I have that sense of urgency and desire to win that obviously, as your career gets past 10 years, and with the foot injury that I had a couple years ago, you know that at any time this might be it. I hope that during the next five, six weeks before the break that the situation has completely changed, turned around, and we are a much more consistent team going forward.”

Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell has worked for newspapers and other publications for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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