Everything about the Memphis Grizzlies' playoff run was quirky and fun, expected yet improbable and mind-bendingly confusing.
It was symbolic of everything the Grizzlies are.
Now it's over, and a path-altering offseason fraught with questions awaits.
Seven hard-fought, wildly entertaining games later, the gritty—and ultimately shorthanded—Grizzlies fell to a faster-paced Oklahoma City Thunder. Like they always do, the Grizzlies went down scrapping and clawing, grinding and snarling, fighting until the bitter, premature end.
Establishing themselves as a dark horse with enviable backbone is nothing new, though. No matter their standing, and in some cases, regardless of personnel, they're always a threat. Rarely are they a favorite, but they're always the menacing opponent no one can clobber and no powerhouse wants to face.
Until now, that's been enough. The Grizzlies are respected and feared, yet forever underestimated. That's worked for them.
At what point, though, can they become something more than the team that almost accomplished what it was never supposed to do?
The Z-Bo Paradox
Following a postseason exit, there is an immediate desire for addition. Build on top of what you have. Improve upon the core already in place.
The hope shouldn't be any different in Memphis. The Grizzlies pushed Oklahoma City to the brink, using an imperfect model to nearly unhinge a legitimate title contender. Adding to their current mix of players should be the priority.
After they figure out what's going on with Zach Randolph, of course.
Z-Bo has a player option worth more than $16.9 million for next season. If he declines it, he will enter unrestricted free agency.
More to the point, if he declines it, his tenure in Memphis is over.
Going on 33, this is Randolph's last opportunity to cash in, so hitting the open market is a real possibility. Though his next contract won't pay him nearly $17 million annually, the prospect of securing more guaranteed money is often too enticing to pass up.
Chief among what we know about Randolph is his desire to stay. Getting suspended for Game 7 after punching—or, you know, impolitely pushing—Oklahoma City's Steven Adams left him in shock and rife with regret, according to The Memphis Commercial Appeal's Ronald Tillery (subscription required), via Pro Basketball Talk:
The punishment for punching Thunder center Steven Adams came out of nowhere. Randolph’s head is still spinning. “It hurts,” Randolph said from a hotel less than a mile from Chesapeake Energy Arena about 90 minutes before tip-off. “I apologized to the guys. I feel like I let them down. I’ve got a lot of emotions going on right now, and rightfully so. When I woke up the next morning (after Game 6), I didn’t have any idea I was going to get suspended. I’m upset about it. I’m still in shock.”
“I want to apologize to my fans and the organization,” Randolph said. “This was totally unexpected. I wasn’t even thinking about that play. Normally, if you do something in a game like get a technical or get into something, you think about it all night. I didn’t think about it. I was just upset about the loss. Not being able to play in Game 7 never crossed my mind.”
Is this how Z-Bo's time in Memphis could end? Has he already played his last game for the Grizzlies?
Even if he is willing exercise his player option or sign a longer, discounted contract, the Grizzlies have to face reality: Randolph does not figure into their long-term future.
Whatever it costs to keep him won't be cheap. Paying a 33-year-old Z-Bo close to $17 million isn't ideal. Neither is lining his pockets with, say, $30 million over three years.
If Z-Bo decides to return for the last year of his deal, he's more valuable to the Grizzlies as an expiring contract that can still put up double-doubles and anchor interior offensive attacks. He led the team in scoring during the regular season and playoffs and is especially attractive to a contender looking to add frontcourt depth or a franchise interested in productive stopgaps.
Keeping this exact roster together will cost the team over $69 million, giving it no cap flexibility, ensuring it's unable to noticeably build upon this year's finish. Somehow, someway, the Grizzlies must get that number down—even if it comes at the expense of Z-Bo.
Addition by Retention
Mike Miller can't go anywhere.
No, that's not some long-lost, forgotten quote ripped from 2006.
This is for real.
Since the Grizzlies may not have the money to spend on premier firepower, they need to take care of the few threats in their possession. Miller knocked down 45.9 percent of his long balls during the regular season and—surprisingly—appeared in all 82 contests (still not kidding).
During the playoffs, he was even better. He drilled 48.3 percent of his three-pointers, and he was easily Memphis' most reliable shooter.
The Grizzlies cannot let him go.
When Miller hits free agency in July, leaving can't be an option. The Grizzlies' oft-anemic, directionless offense needs him. Badly.
Whatever it takes to keep him—especially if they intend on retaining Z-Bo—they must do it. Offering him a multiyear contract isn't ideal, but if it's accompanied by team options and a reasonable salary, it's a low-risk, high-reward gambit the Grizzlies can't afford not to make.
You're about to see why Z-Bo's future in Memphis remains enveloped in mystery.
There are plenty of needs the Grizzlies must address in addition to Miller and Randolph's contract situations. They need an offensively capable backup point guard. Is Beno Udrih the answer?
They need wings who can score consistently. Related: Tony Allen, Tayshaun Prince and Courtney Lee cannot.
Backup bigs are also of interest. There's no telling if Ed Davis (restricted free agent) or Kosta Koufos (nonguaranteed contract) will be back.
More than anything else, as ESPN.com's Bradford Doolittle and Amir Elhassan (subscription required) explain, the Grizz need affordable floor spacing:
Money always is an issue in Memphis, and cap management is always at the forefront of decision-making. The Grizzlies have to put themselves in a position where they'll have enough flexibility to pay Gasol a year from now and surround him with good, complementary talent while avoiding the luxury tax threshold. On the court, spacing is the area of biggest need; one can only imagine how much easier life would be for their front court if defenses were not able to collapse so freely and dare the Griz to defeat them from the perimeter.
Quincy Pondexter's return will help slightly, and Jon Leuer showed he can stretch defenses as well. But neither of those guys is what you can call consistently dangerous, A-list perimeter scorers.
This is why parting ways with Randolph isn't just appealing—it's potentially necessary.
In limited action, Davis proved productive. He averaged 13.4 points and 9.8 rebounds on 53.4 percent shooting per 36 minutes. His qualifying offer is worth slightly under $4.4 million. Even if the Grizzlies are forced to match another contract, it's possible he costs less than half of what Z-Bo will.
The Grizzlies also have the option of parting ways with both Z-Bo and Davis before attempting to reel in Marc Gasol's brother, Pau Gasol. Sports Illustrated's Chris Mannix recently named Memphis as a potential landing spot for the 33-year-old Gasol, who will cost substantially less than Randolph.
Either option gives the Grizzlies more financial wiggle room.
Similarly, so would finding a willing taker for Prince's expiring contract ($7.7 million) or reaching a buyout agreement. Prince proved to be a liability this past season, registering the lowest offensive rating of his career (97) and the second-highest defensive rating of any Grizzlies player who appeared in at least 30 regular-season games (108).
Lee, who is owed slightly more than $11.1 million over the next two years, could be valuable trade bait as part of a salary dump. He wasn't a constant threat from downtown, but his defensive potential and athleticism in transition are still precious commodities.
Point being, the Grizzlies need to disband part of their current docket in favor of some tried and true offensive savants or, at the very least, some more balanced two-way talents.
Offense is the issue. It always has been the issue.
There is more room for improvement on that side of the ball, where the Grizzlies ranked 15th in efficiency and dead last in pace. Knowing additional offense won't materialize out of this current group, clearing the books of floor-spacing liabilities is imperative.
How can the Grizzlies become more than just a tough playoff out?
Lots and lots of offense-driven change.
Mike Conley and Gasol are the only immovable parts of this roster. To a lesser extent, so are Allen and Miller. Everyone else can and should be on the chopping block.
What the Grizzlies have now isn't good enough or even scary enough. They're incredibly stingy in a good way, but their brand of basketball will remain outdated until it accounts for the importance of offense. Until that changes, the Grizzlies will be lamenting promising postseason pushes that end too early.
The goal won't be redefining their identity. Change for the sake of change isn't the end goal. Tweaking their staunch defense-first makeup to include a more potent offensive arsenal is the priority, the absolute necessity.
Immediately, it's difficult to map out a definitive path. But again, it starts with Z-Bo. The Grizzlies must move on by way of trade or free agency. His price tag is too high. Moving on from him in conjunction with one of Lee or Prince gives them some serious spending power.
Maybe they're able to sign two bigs for less than Randolph. Maybe those two bigs are Pau Gasol and Davis. Maybe they're able to clear out enough financial weight in time to pursue free agents like Trevor Ariza, Spencer Hawes, Lance Stephenson or—miraculously—Gordon Hayward.
Maybe they're able to buck this troubling trend of dominant one-way basketball for a more proportional, offensively adequate dynamic.
If they're not, then there's nothing more to expect.
Next year will see the same ol' fierce and resilient Grizzlies team battling for the same ol' thing—almost good enough to legitimately contend, but not quite.