Should the Memphis Grizzlies Take a Smaller-Market Approach and Rebuild Roster?

Tom FirmeAnalyst IINovember 15, 2012

ATLANTA, GA - FEBRUARY 02:  Lionel Hollins of the Memphis Grizzlies converses with his players during a timeout against the Atlanta Hawks at Philips Arena on February 2, 2012 in Atlanta, Georgia.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
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Rudy Gay and Zach Randolph have keyed the Memphis Grizzlies’ best start in franchise history—Gay with his newfound offensive aggression and Randolph with his dominant rebounding. The Grizzlies have upwards of $53 million invested in Gay, Randolph, Marc Gasol and Mike Conley, which is worthwhile as Memphis fights in a suddenly open Western Conference.

The Grizzlies are in a precarious position in regards to payroll. They have an increasing amount of money committed to their core in the coming years. Next season, the four are due $58.7 million. If the options of Gay, Randolph and Gasol are exercised for 2014-15, the quartet will get a combined $60.1 million.

That almost guarantees that the Grizzlies will surpass the luxury tax threshold.

New Grizzlies CEO Jason Levien said in his introductory press conference that he doesn’t find the prospects of paying the luxury tax again appealing.

Levien and the rest of the new regime will have to take time to evaluate whether the direction in which former owner Michael Heisley set this small-market franchise is sustainable.

The first question is whether a championship can be won with the current four-man core. The Grizzlies have a formidable core, with three players who are top-five at their positions in Gay, Randolph and Gasol, along with a solid point guard who is near elite status in Mike Conley.

This core falls in between the most desirable spot and the most undesirable spots in terms of teams’ core groups. The Grizz lack the superstars the Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat have locked up.

Meanwhile, Memphis doesn’t have the worries of the Chicago Bulls. Gar Forman and John Paxson oversee a core with one superstar in Derrick Rose and three pretty good players in Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer and Luol Deng. Forman and Paxson have the four players locked up for the next three years.

With Rose out with an ACL tear, the Bulls have to contemplate amnestying Boozer. The Duke product provides outsized finesse scoring, but doesn’t carry the team the way Gay or Randolph carried the Grizzlies in the last two years.

Gay and Randolph managed the make the team better with the other injured. With Rose out, Boozer only makes Chicago plucky.

With Rose back, Boozer will go back to being a lazy shooter who lets Rose lead.

With Gay and Randolph together and both in good condition, the sky’s the limit. This was seen in the Grizzlies’ statement win at Oklahoma City on Wednesday. Gay racked up 28 points and Randolph dominated the inside on his way to 20 points and 11 rebounds.

The Grizzlies took over the game in the second quarter and didn’t look back, a huge departure from the team that couldn’t beat good teams on the road the last two seasons.

Both used the game to further demonstrate the qualities needed for an NBA Finals appearance. Gay has averaged 19 field-goal attempts per game, driving for points like many believed he could. Randolph is leading the league with 14 rebounds per game.

Memphis’ grinding core seems to be putting it together at the right time to impress the men at the top with the idea that it could win a championship.

The two favorites in the West have shown weaknesses coming out of the gates. The Los Angeles Lakers lost four of their first five and changed head coaches and, consequentially, styles of offense. How the Lakers play under Mike D’Antoni—and whether a D’Antoni-coached Lakers team can be cohesive—remains to be seen.

After dealing James Harden before the season, the Oklahoma City Thunder started nicely. However, Oklahoma City lost some of the effervescent scoring that it had with Harden. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are as good as always. But Kevin Martin isn’t nearly as explosive as Harden.

This has left an opening for the Grizz to break through for an NBA Finals appearance.

The “Grindhouse” is tough enough defensively to halt both teams’ high-flying offenses. Conley and Tony Allen lock it down on the perimeter and lead a defense that forces turnovers at an unparalleled rate. On the inside, Marc Gasol stands his ground extraordinarily well.

Meanwhile, neither team can stop opponents from scoring. The Lakers had the fewest steals in the league in scoring. As seen in Phoenix, a high-scoring D’Antoni team can’t overcome opponents it can’t outscore in the playoffs.

Even if Nate McMillan comes on board to coordinate the defensive effort, as purports may happen, a D’Antoni team can’t remain disciplined enough to carry out those principles in the postseason.

Aside from Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka, no one on the Thunder is imposing on defense. Perkins and Ibaka were the only two on the team with defensive ratings below 106 points allowed per 100 possessions last season.

Durant has indicated a willingness to improve defensively, but he needs to show it for an entire season.

If either team slips offensively in a series against a decent scoring Grizzlies team, the team wearing three shades of blue will take control.

In a Sports Illustrated article before last season, Zach Lowe said the salary commitments to Gasol, Gay, Randolph and Conley put the Grizzlies in a defined championship window.

The Grizzlies have only come closer to a championship since last year with the growth of Gasol and Conley and the health of Randolph and Gay. To trade Gay or Randolph would in all likelihood mean closing the championship window and starting over. That is a road the Grizzlies don’t want to travel.