Published On: Mon, Mar 12th, 2018

Better Luck Next Year: Memphis Grizzlies edition

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As NBA teams are officially eliminated from title contention, theScore NBA freelance writer Andrew Unterberger takes a look back at the highs and lows of their season, along with the biggest questions ahead of 2018-19. This edition focuses on the Memphis Grizzlies.

The Good

The 5-1 Start. Forgot about this, didn’t you? The Grizzlies started out as one of the best stories of the early NBA season, winning five of their first six games and leading the entire Western Conference through the end of October. Wasn’t like they were fattening up on a cream-puff schedule, either: Four of those five wins came against teams currently in the hunt for home-court advantage in the West, including two against the league-best Houston Rockets – by an average margin of 11 points, no less.

Then came losses at home to the lottery-bound Hornets and Magic, as injuries began to mount and the team’s early bravado quickly faded away. By the end of November, the Grizzlies had slipped all the way from first to 13th in the West standings – and somehow, things would only get worse from there.

Tyreke Evans’ career year. Virtually no offseason attention was paid to the Grizzlies’ one-year inking of former Rookie of the Year recipient Tyreke Evans, who in the long near-decade since his ROY win had been downgraded from potential franchise player to frustrating talent to bench-ridden agent of NBA chaos. But in Memphis, his career was reinvented, as he began the year like a Sixth Man of the Year frontrunner, scoring 18 points a game and posting the best shooting (nearly 60 percent TS) numbers of his career.

His efficiency dipped somewhat as injuries forced his insertion into the starting lineup. But he remained a rare productive bright spot on a Grizzlies squad increasingly forced to lean on replacement-level players, with his PER for the season still leading the team at over 21. Unfortunately, his season may not have lasted as long as Evans would likely have hoped, as he was first shut down in February in preparation for a midseason trade that never materialized, and then again a couple weeks later with an injury to his ribs that he’s yet to return from.

Dillon Brooks’ (relative) consistency as a starter. Outside of franchise rock Marc Gasol, only one Grizzlies player has started more than 50 games so far for Memphis this season, and it’s not one many would’ve predicted over the summer. Dillon Brooks, a four-year wing out of Oregon, was taken by the Grizzlies with the 45th pick of the 2017 NBA draft, and by early November, he’d assumed an unlikely role in the team’s starting lineup – one he’s held for the 58 games since.

Brooks’ productivity as the team’s starting two-guard has been far from overwhelming: 10 points and three rebounds a game on 44 perfect FG (38 percent from three). But he’s been a plus on defense, he’s ending the season strong (including a career-high 29-point performance against Chicago last week), and, well, he’s been around, when a lot of his new teammates haven’t been. If the greatest ability in this league is indeed availability, then hell, Brooks should be in the Rookie of the Year conversation.

The MLK Day win. Not a lot of banner victories to be had for the Grizzlies in the months following their 5-1 start, but the one that probably meant the most to the franchise – and perhaps their home city – was likely their nationally televised home victory over the Los Angeles Lakers on MLK Day, a holiday with particular significance to Memphis basketball. Brooks posted a team-high 19, Evans came one board away from a triple-double, and impressive reserve Deyonta Davis racked up five resounding blocks.

“We always want to play for something bigger than ourselves and play for a higher purpose,” Coach J.B. Bickerstaff said following the win. “This game is the ultimate higher purpose.”

A top 10 pick for the first time this decade. The downside of the Grizzlies’ regular-season consistency this decade – before this season, they’d won more than half their games and made the playoffs every year since 2010-11 – is that they haven’t picked in the draft’s top 10 since 2010. This year, they’re all but guaranteed to end that streak, and add the highest-upside young rookie to the mix they’ve had since before Zach Randolph and Tony Allen came to Memphis.

Good thing, too. Of the seven first-round selections Memphis has made outside of the top 10 this decade, none are still on the team’s roster. (Of course, GM Chris Wallace’s two draft nights prior to that stretch involved trading Kevin Love for O.J. Mayo and taking Hasheem Thabeet No. 2 overall, so … ).

The Bad

Injuries, injuries, injuries. After a slow start to the season, Mike Conley sat out the team’s Nov. 15 loss to the Indiana Pacers with heel soreness, an injury that initially left him as “day to day,” and from which he was expected back shortly. Nope: It was soon announced that there was no timetable for Conley’s return to the Grizzlies’ lineup, and despite reports of him making “great strides” toward returning as Memphis’ losses piled up, he ultimately underwent season-ending heel surgery in late January, having played just 12 games on the season.

He wasn’t the only Grizzly to miss significant time on the season. JaMychal Green also missed 13 of Memphis’ first 14 games with an ankle injury, arriving back too late to help stem the Grizzlies’ losing tide. After a relatively healthy, productive start to the season, prize 2016 free-agency acquisition Chandler Parsons also saw his availability become increasingly sporadic, missing almost the entire first two months of 2018 with “knee soreness.” Evans, James Ennis, and Andrew Harrison have all missed double-digit games with assorted maladies. The issues in Memphis run deeper than injuries, and it’s difficult to figure out where to start with the team’s other concerns.

Fizdale’s fizzle. Perhaps a victim of his team’s early success, head coach David Fizdale was fired after a 5-1 start turned to 7-12 by late November. The firing was met with surprise (if not outright shock) around the league, as Fizdale was generally a liked and respected coach who many felt was being unfairly scapegoated for the team’s turnaround – one more plausibly blamed on the roster’s mounting injuries, as well as the offseason departure of stabilizing vets like Randolph, Allen, and Vince Carter.

Regardless of the reasons motivating his dismissal (which may have had more to do with his relationship with the team’s star than anything), the team has only trended further downward since, going just 11-36 in the 47 games led so far by interim bench boss Bickerstaff. The question of whether or not Fizdale’s removal was really necessary for the franchise will likely linger well through the offseason.

Gasol’s grumpiness. While All-Star center Gasol has stood as one of the few Grizzlies able to keep a relatively clean bill of health for 2017-18 – starting in 62 out of 66 games so far this season – he’s hardly been a feel-good story for Memphis. His efficiency has noticeably slipped – his 42 percent field-goal rate and nearly three turnovers a game are both career worsts, likely the product of the 33-year-old being asked to do far too much on a squad badly lacking in perimeter creators or volume scorers.

More concerning, however, has been his increasingly sour attitude amidst the losing. A model player and teammate for most of his decade-plus in Memphis, Gasol did not hide his displeasure after being benched by Fizdale for the fourth quarter of a Grizzlies loss to Brooklyn – creating a rift many believed led inexorably to the coach’s firing – and again spoke out in frustration with Memphis mired in a 10-game losing streak.

“Winning is what this is about,” Gasol said. “This is the NBA, not the G League.”

No deadline dealings. Despite the Grizzlies’ spiraling down in the standings, and Gasol’s expressed irritation at their midseason state, the Memphis front office remained adamant that it would not entertain offers for the team’s star center, preferring to keep the core intact and try again the following season. That also, of course, went for the injured Conley, the franchise’s other highly paid pillar, and presumably for other veterans such as Green and Parsons, the latter’s contract likely making it difficult to move anyway.

But the hardest to understand aspect of Chris Wallace and company’s deadline inactivity was likely the failure to trade Evans, a player wildly (and unexpectedly) outperforming his easily moved one-year contract. The Grizz reportedly sought a future first-rounder in a deadline deal for Evans, but found no such takers in the league’s buyers’ market. Rumored offers of multiple second-rounders apparently left Memphis unmoved, and the team held onto Evans – despite having already sent him home as it prepared to ship him elsewhere. The (in)decision was met with heavy criticism: “The Grizzlies not getting anything for Evans at the trade deadline was downright malpractice,” declared Paolo Uggetti of The Ringer, in a not-uncommon take.

The Ben McLemore signing. Though Evans’ offseason signing the prior summer ended up being a coup for Memphis, the team’s other under-the-radar free-agency acquisition was, uh, not. Ben McLemore, shooting guard and 2013 lottery pick of the Sacramento Kings, was scooped up by Memphis for two years and almost $11 million, in the hopes that a change of scenery and culture would help the former blue-chipper further realize his considerable NBA potential.

No such luck: McLemore missed the first few weeks of the season a foot injury, and was his typically underwhelming self upon returning, averaging just six points a contest on 38 percent shooting in 31 games off the Grizzlies bench. Recently, he’s been shuttled into the starting lineup, and early returns have been slightly encouraging: In his last six games as a starter, McLemore has averaged 13 points a game on 51 percent FG (44 percent from deep). Whether that’s actual progress or just late-season sleight of ball to unduly raise Memphis fan hopes will likely have to wait for next season to be determined.

The Questions

Who’s coaching next year? As with the Phoenix Suns, an early-season coaching change for the Grizzlies led to little difference in on-court results. After subpar closes to his interim coaching runs in Houston and now Memphis, it seems unlikely that Bickerstaff will be tabbed as the long-term answer for the Grizzlies, but without an obvious heir apparent – and a good number of questions surrounding the team’s roster at the moment – it may be tricky finding that long-term solution this offseason.

Will Chandler Parsons ever be Chandler Parsons again? He’s not the player whose health is most imperative for Memphis going into next season – that’d be Conley – but he’s the player whose ability to get back to full strength is most in question. Since signing a $94-million deal to come to Tennessee two summers ago, Parsons has played in just 64 games for Memphis, averaging just 20 minutes a game in those contests, and not offering anywhere near the production Wallace and company were hoping for when they paid him missing-piece money. Parsons’ availability has been a source of mystery for most of 2017-18, with Memphis holding him out for a variety of listed reasons and offering only vague timetables for his return.

If there’s one thing to give Grizzlies fans hope from Parsons’ abortive run in Memphis thus far, it’d be the first month and change of this season, where he played in 17 of the first 19 Memphis games, and offered the team decent production off the bench: Nine points, three boards, and two assists a game on 52 percent FG (48 percent from three) in 20 minutes. Not exactly worth $24 million a year, but definitively better than nothing – which is most of what Parsons has given them in the months since – and enough for some degree of hope that if he can get his body straight, he still has something to offer the NBA on a semi-consistent basis.

Is re-signing Tyreke Evans really a priority? Chris Wallace offered following the trade deadline that a player of Evans’ caliber was simply too good to be moved for the offers that were out there for the veteran combo guard. That would seem to imply that the team was at least entertaining the notion of retaining Evans’ services beyond his one-year deal, however, the nature of that one-year deal leaves the Grizzlies unable to tender him a significant offer on a new contract. Will the desire to save face on the no-trade lead to Wallace making a push to re-sign Evans to a Lou Williams-like deal – and if so, will that hold any interest for Evans, who may have earned himself a significant pay day elsewhere with his play this season?

Who to draft from a class full of bigs and lead guards? By all indications, the Grizzlies are still locked into Conley and Gasol being their one and five of the future, which leaves them in an interesting situation in the upcoming draft. Memphis will likely have a top five pick, and could really use a wing complement to its point guard and center, but such options are relatively sparse among the cream of this class, which is mostly stocked with point and combo guards (Luka Doncic, Trae Young, Collin Sexton) and bigs (DeAndre Ayton, Marvin Bagley, Mo Bamba). If the Grizz land a top two or three pick, will they grab one of these players and try to squeeze them in, or will they reach for a better-fitting wing like Missouri’s Michal Porter?

Can this core contend one more time? A Grizzlies eterna-optimist could point to that 5-1 start against elite competition – with Gasol, Conley, Evans, and Parsons all playing and mostly healthy – and maintain that there’s still upside to be had in this aging roster. Throw a top five pick in there with a new coach and some greater wing depth, and maybe there’s a way to talk yourself into the Grizzlies being a factor in the West once more next season.

Better hope so, because the overwhelming majority of this roster isn’t getting younger or cheaper anytime soon – Conley, Parsons, and Gasol are all under contract until 2020, at which point they’ll all be well into their 30s and each still making over $25 million a year. A rebuild in Memphis would be painful and long, but if the team falls to 7-12 again next season at the end of November, a coach firing probably won’t suffice.

Other entries in this series:

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