It’s fitting that the Spurs might have put the final dagger in the Grit ’n’ Grind Grizzlies, since this era of Memphis basketball began with the team’s stunning upset of San Antonio in 2011. The Grizzlies scratched and clawed Thursday night, like they always do, but Kawhi Leonard was just too much down the stretch of Game 6. The Spurs’ quiet assassin finished with 29 points, nine rebounds, four assists, and three steals, including two assists in the final three minutes that broke open a 92–92 tie and gave San Antonio a lead it would never relinquish in a 103–96 win. When Tony Allen went down before the playoffs started, he took the best chance of an upset with him. He was the only person on that roster who could have possibly stayed with Kawhi on defense.
No team in the NBA has a more difficult offseason ahead of it than Memphis. The Grizzlies have $94 million in salaries committed for next season, and that’s without counting Zach Randolph, Tony Allen, Vince Carter, and JaMychal Green, all of whom will be free agents. Randolph and Allen are iconic figures whose popularity transcends basketball in the Memphis area. Letting them walk would be a difficult decision, but could the Grizzlies really afford to pay them over Green, one of their only young players who has established himself at the NBA level? Carter, the oldest player in the NBA this season, could end up retiring, and Memphis doesn’t have many realistic options to replace him.
The Grizzlies went on a spending spree of historic proportions the past two seasons, handing out contracts worth a combined $360 million to Marc Gasol, Mike Conley, and Chandler Parsons. Those bills are starting to come due. It would be one thing for ownership to go deep into the luxury tax to keep a group capable of contending for a championship together, but the Grizzlies went 43–39 in the regular season with a point differential of plus-0.5. While they dealt with a lot of injuries, their best players all have a ton of miles on their bodies, and there’s a chance Parsons is never right again physically. They can’t rebuild, they don’t have any financial flexibility, and they are getting old fast. The clock looks like it’s about to strike midnight in Memphis.
Here are six pressing questions they need to answer this offseason as they try to stave off basketball mortality:
1. How Much Money Is Ownership in Memphis Willing to Spend?
The Grizzlies’ cap numbers are staggering. In the 2020 season, Memphis will be paying $83 million just to Gasol, Conley, and Parsons. Gasol will be 35, Conley will be 32, and Parsons will be 31. Even if all three are still capable of playing at a high level for a full 82-game season at that point in their careers, they would be much worse versions of their current selves. They would need help just to be competitive, and it’s hard to see many avenues for the Grizzlies to add players over the next few seasons. They rolled the dice on Parsons being the piece to put them over the top, and it’s looking like it came up snake eyes.
If Memphis wants to remain relevant, the Grizzlies owners are going to have to dig deep into their pockets. Only five of the nine players whom David Fizdale played on Thursday are currently under contract, and Memphis is still right up against the salary cap. If they let everyone walk, they would have to sign a bunch of guys to minimum salaries just to fill out their roster. Memphis is one of the smallest markets in the league, so ownership is probably not going to want to pay the luxury tax, which kicks in at $121 million next season. While there may not be a huge market for their players in free agency, the Grizzlies can’t even afford to pay them the going rate for rotation players.
2. Will Chandler Parsons Ever Be the Same?
The outlook in Memphis would start looking a whole lot brighter if they can get the version of Parsons we saw in his final season in Dallas, when he averaged 13.7 points, 4.7 rebounds, 2.8 assists, and 0.8 steals a game on 49.2 percent shooting. The guy who was hobbling around the court this season on one knee wasn’t even an NBA-caliber player. It’s hard to blame a player for struggling with injuries, but Parsons didn’t exactly endear himself to the blue-collar Memphis faithful by posting about #Chancun on social media and publicly congratulating himself for hitting the lottery. Now imagine if his contract forces the Grizzlies to say goodbye to Randolph and Allen.
There are a lot of reasons for concern. He missed the playoffs in each of his two seasons in Dallas with knee injuries, which means he hasn’t been healthy for a full NBA season since 2014. Mark Cuban and Parsons were as tight as any player and owner combination in recent NBA history, but Cuban was too worried about the long-term stability of his knee to even offer him a four-year contract. Memphis had no choice but to pull the trigger because Parsons was juggling identical offers from the Grizzlies and the Blazers last offseason. This quote Parsons gave ESPN’s Tim MacMahon looked bad when he gave it in November, and it looks even worse now:
“My concern is the same as [the Mavs]. You’re worried about paying my knee,” Parsons says. “You don’t want to pay me long term. These other really, really good teams do. If it’s too much of a risk for them to pay me for four years, it’s way too much of a risk for me to turn down a guaranteed $94 million right now.”
Does that sound like a man confident that he can stay healthy?
3. How Much Gas Does Zach Randolph Have Left in the Tank?
Fizdale moved Randolph to the bench this season partly to modernize the Grizzlies offense, and partly to extend his career by playing him fewer minutes and using him against lower-quality competition. However, with their season on the line in the playoffs, Fizdale leaned on his old warhorse, moving him back into the starting lineup and significantly increasing his workload from the regular season. Randolph didn’t dominate San Antonio like he did back in 2011, but he more than held his own in the series, averaging 13.2 points and 8.2 rebounds per game and getting into LaMarcus Aldridge’s head with his physical play.
The nice thing about facing the Spurs is they are one of the few teams in the NBA who still play two traditional big men for most of the game, which meant Randolph didn’t have to spend too much time chasing smaller players around the 3-point line. Given his lack of foot speed, he’s much better suited to hanging back in the paint and playing as a center, which is another benefit of splitting him up with Gasol. Randolph’s per-game averages this season went down because he played fewer minutes than ever before, but his per-minute averages were right in line with what he has done in his eight seasons in Memphis.
Randolph will be going into his 17th season in the NBA next year, and his ground-bound game has allowed him to remain relevant long after most of his peers have retired. It’s not like he’s going to get any slower or jump any lower off the floor, so he should be able to maintain his production for a few more years yet. At some point, Memphis will need to get younger up front just to add more athleticism to the team, but there’s no reason they couldn’t bring Randolph back if he’s willing to take a pay cut from the $10 million he made this season.
4. How About Tony Allen?
The Grizzlies have an even tougher decision with Allen. It’s one thing to pay a big man with touch around the basket deep into his 30s. Guys with Z-Bo’s skill set can play forever in the NBA. Defensive-minded guards who can’t shoot to save their lives come with a much earlier expiration date. For Allen to do what he does at the age of 35 is amazing. If he keeps it up much longer, it would be downright miraculous.
There’s no question that Memphis needs what a healthy version of Allen brings. He’s still their best defensive player on the perimeter, and he has so much experience playing off their other core players that his inability to space the floor is less of an issue than it would be anywhere else. However, if the muscle strain that kept him out of this postseason is a sign of things to come, it will be difficult for Memphis to offer him a long-term contract. Allen has never signed a big contract (at least in NBA terms) in his career, either, so he may not be as willing to take a pay cut. Memphis without the Grindfather would be like Shawshank prison without Andy Dufresne: it just wouldn’t be as bright a place. Let’s hope both sides can figure something out.
5. What Does Vince Carter Want to Do?
While Vince looked washed at several points during his three seasons in Memphis, he managed to save his best for last, averaging 9.2 points, 3.3 rebounds, and 1.5 assists per game on 47.6 percent shooting in their series against the Spurs. At 40 years old, he should be riding around South America on motorcycles with Tim Duncan and Fabricio Oberto, not trying to bang with Kawhi in the post. The fall-off is sudden for guys his age, but Vince still seems capable of coming back and contributing to a good team. He has great size for a wing, he’s an excellent shooter, and he can still hop in the DeLorean and dial it back every once in awhile:
Vince has made $159 million in the NBA without even counting endorsements, so he can walk away at any time. Does he want to end his career looking like a mummified version of himself, à la Paul Pierce? If he comes back, would he want to go somewhere where he could contend for a championship? There are plenty of teams who would be willing to put him on ice for most of the regular season in the hope of saving him for the playoffs.
Vince has a good thing going in Memphis, and he can still play a high level, so don’t be surprised if he isn’t quite ready to hang it up just yet. Very few players retire on their own terms. Most wait for the league to tell them they can’t play anymore.
6. Do the Grizzlies Believe in Any of Their Young Guys?
If Allen had been healthy, the Grizzlies probably would have closed games in the playoffs with a five-man unit whose average age was 36.2. They have been talking about getting younger for years, but they don’t have much to show for their youth movement. Green is their best young player, and he averaged only 19.6 minutes per game in this series. Memphis is an old team in a young man’s sport, and they desperately need an injection of athleticism on their roster. James Ennis looks like a keeper as a 3-and-D wing, but Andrew Harrison shot 32.5 percent from the floor in the regular season, which doesn’t even seem possible for a point guard, while Wayne Selden is an undrafted free agent who was playing for his second team this season.
Their recent first-round picks haven’t been able to get off the bench. Jarell Martin showed flashes as a rookie last season, but he fell out of the rotation after a rough season in which he shot only 38.4 percent from the floor. There’s an APB out for Wade Baldwin, their first-round pick this season, after he played a grand total of 405 minutes as a rookie. Deyonta Davis, a shot-blocker from Michigan State who fell to the second round, could be an interesting player, but he needs to play as a center to be effective, and there aren’t many minutes available there behind Gasol and Randolph. The Grizzlies don’t have a first-round pick in this draft, and they have to find some cheap young guys to fill out their rotation. This is a big summer for all the under-25 players in Memphis. If none of them can become NBA-caliber players, winter will be coming fast.