By dealing Gay, Grizzlies forgo spot as title contender
Say what you want about Michael Heisley, and ask around enough and you will find people willing to say plenty. The former Grizzlies owner orchestrated the team's move from Vancouver, beating a path out of town less than a season after swearing up and down he would do whatever it took to keep the team there. He was behind the ridiculous decision to bring in Allen Iverson, and he occasionally said bizarre things in casual conversations with the Memphis media, a group that often treated him like a quirky old uncle.
But say this about Heisley, too: He was willing to spend money. Year after year, the Grizzlies nosedived into the red, occasionally breaking even, with a total attendance that never cracked 700,000 in a season, never ranking higher than 19th in the NBA. When minority owners complained about the losses, Heisley bought them out. After Rudy Gay won a gold medal in the 2010 FIBA World Championship, Heisley presented him with a $35,000 Rolex. He took criticism in 2008 when a Grizz team flush with cap space post-Pau Gasol barely spent a nickel. But after general manager Chris Wallace built a title contender, Heisley ponied up the cash to keep it together, handing out $258 million in guaranteed money to his starting five.
"I never got the sense that Michael wouldn't spend to win a championship," said Shane Battier, a former Grizzlies forward.
Today Heisley is gone, replaced by a new owner, Robert Pera, who through new CEO Jason Levien is in the process of tearing it all apart. Last week the Grizzlies dumped Marreese Speights, Wayne Ellington and Josh Selby, along with a protected No. 1 pick, to Cleveland for D-Leaguer Jon Leuer. And on Wednesday, Memphis completed a three-team trade with Toronto and Detroit that sent Gay to the Raptors in exchange for Tayshaun Prince, Ed Davis, Austin Daye and a second-round pick.
Gone goes Gay, gone goes Speights and Ellington, gone goes Memphis' chance to win a championship.
"Financial flexibility is very important when you are building your team," former Magic coach Stan Van Gundy told NBC Sports Radio recently. "But what surprises me is when a team doesn't realize that this is what you have been building for. You can't do that all the time in a market like Memphis. This team had a chance. They are the best defensive team in the league. They play through two very good post guys. The way Memphis plays can be very consistent. It can be duplicated night in and night out because they are not relying as much on the perimeter as virtually any of the other contenders. I think it [was] a team built for the playoffs."
Heisley is gone, and Pera now wears the black hat of an owner who prioritized profits over winning, a scarlet letter players won't soon forget. It's his money and Memphis, which lost $12.5 million last year, according to Forbes, and was over the tax line headed into this summer, wasn't in position to make him any. It's difficult for any market to support three players making a combined $50 million, let alone one of the NBA's smallest. But stock prices for Pera's Ubiquiti Networks plummeted last spring, leaving some front-office executives to wonder if the Grizzlies are paying the price for Pera's private-sector failures.
The counter argument will focus on Gay, who admittedly is having a subpar season. His scoring average of 17.2 points is his lowest since his rookie year, and he's shooting a career-low 40.8 percent. His ability to mix with Zach Randolph has been constantly questioned, as has his maddening tendency to stop moving the ball. The Grizzlies believe Prince's ball handling, experience and three-point shooting (43.4 percent this season) will help this season, and beyond. They believe Davis is a better fit than Speights, whose plus/minus was killing them. They ran the numbers internally and determined that this group had less than a 10 percent chance of winning a title.
But Gay is still a legitimate one-on-one scorer, a versatile forward who can create his own shot against any defender -- and who isn't afraid to take the big one. Gay scored 26 points in his last game against Philadelphia, with the last two coming on the game winner.
"These trades are absolutely terrible," a Western Conference scout said. "Gay is a young star. He has been used as Memphis' third option this season. They hardly ran any plays for him. Prince has been finished for two years. Speights complemented [Marc] Gasol and Randolph, which Davis doesn't. And Daye can't play dead."
Across the NBA, league execs expressed surprise at the timing of the deals, too. Memphis could have waited to trade Gay and Speights until the offseason, unloading them before the punitive luxury-tax penalties kicked in. The Cavaliers were always going to be there, willing to absorb some salary if Memphis shipped a first-round pick to sweeten the pot. But the Grizzlies were determined to hold a fire sale, hell-bent to break up the roster right away, which is why Gay and Speights are gone, why $12 million has been shaved off this season's payroll and $37 million in future obligations is gone, too.
"They were telling everyone they wanted a young 3 on a rookie deal," an Eastern Conference executive said. "They didn't get that. I'm shocked they didn't demand [Raptors rookie] Terrence Ross."
The Grizzlies possessed the promise of a championship team just a few weeks ago, and now we will never know if they could have delivered. We will never know if Gasol and Randolph could have led a team to a title, if the vastly improved Mike Conley could outperform some of the West's heavyweight playmakers, if a revamped bench featuring Speights, Ellington, Jerryd Bayless and a returning Darrell Arthur were up the task.
The pressure is on Pera and Levien to build a winner, because many believe they already had one. Levien is a savvy former agent, a former executive in Sacramento, a former part of the ownership group in Philadelphia. He's longed to run his own team, and now he has one. It's his turn to build a winner, soon after taking one apart.