DALLAS — To quote Memphis Grizzlies defensive bulldog Tony Allen Saturday night: “This is the year.”
The Grizzlies love the makeup of their grizzled, veteran team and their chances to contend for the whole enchilada. And with a new ownership group in place led by young tech billionaire Robert Pera and flanked by glimmering, star-power partners like Justin Timberlake and Peyton Manning, again, to quote Allen: “The sky’s the limit for this team.”
At least it should be. Yet here we sit, still five weeks removed from the trade deadline and uncertainty is swallowing the Grizzlies whole, an inconvenient and unspoken truth (at least as a team) that at any moment the financial hammer can come crashing down on the this team.
Rumors persist that Memphis is shopping its highest-priced assets. Rudy Gay (owed $37.2 million over the next two seasons), Marc Gasol (owed $30.1 million over the next two seasons) and Zach Randolph (owed $34.3 million over the next two seasons), the roots of the Grizzlies’ four-year rise from obscurity, are all twisting in the trade winds as potential sell-offs to lessen the franchise’s financial burden under the new and less-forgiving collective-bargaining agreement.
“That’s what happens when you get new owners,” said Randolph, who plans to reside in Memphis during the offseasons even if he’s traded. “Mr. [Michael] Heisley (the Grizzlies’ previous owner), he had a vision of keeping us all together. He took care of all of us to build a team and try to win a championship. Now the new owner probably wants to do something different. But it’s a business.”
Even coach Lionel Hollins, the most successful coach in Grizzlies history, waits on an extension in the final season of his contract.
“Hopefully I’ll have this team the whole year, and if I don’t, I’ll coach other guys,” Hollins said. “If they don’t give me an extension, then I’ll decide what I’m going to do. I think our team has done well growing as a group each year and developing to the point this year where I feel we’re a legitimate contender. We’ve [been able] to play with [everybody] out of the top teams. That’s usually when you’re trying to get there, you win a lot of games, but you don’t do well against the contenders. You might win one or two, but we’ve been able to compete with every last one of them.”
The Grizzlies dropped to 24-11 Saturday night after never getting in gear against the struggling Dallas Mavericks one night after securing a rugged overtime home win against the San Antonio Spurs. The Mavs, 104-83 winners, led by 18 in the first half and by 30 in the third quarter as the Grizzlies were gassed and never made a run.
Prior to the game, the Grizzlies, to a man, said they don’t discuss trade rumors in the locker room, on the team bus or anywhere.
“If we discuss it that means you think about it,” said Gay, the team’s leading scorer and its longest-tenured player now in his seventh season. “I’m not going to try to think about it. I’m just trying to win games.”
It’s the big secret that isn’t, the topic they don’t want to talk about, but will be asked of them at every stop.
“It’s tough knowing that this team has done so well and we’re having to go through trade rumors,” said point guard Mike Conley, whose under contract for another three seasons at a reasonable $26.1 million. “With the new CBA and all that, we were hoping we wouldn’t have to be in this situation. Here we are, all these rumors and speculation of what might happen, what could happen in the next few weeks until the trade deadline.
“I think it’s been kind of nice that guys haven’t it let it affect them. It can easily affect a team, but this team has done a great job of throwing it aside, saying we can’t control it and just go about our business.”
It wasn’t long ago when Marc’s brother, Pau Gasol, led the Grizzlies’ first three-season playoff surge after the move from Vancouver. Those games were played at a half-empty FedEx Forum. Memphis has made substantial strides in attendance from ranking 28th in the league in 2009-10 and averaging 13,485 a game, and routinely being outdrawn by the city’s first love, the Memphis Tigers who share the arena.
Through 18 home dates this season, the Grizzlies, 14-4 on their home floor, rank 18th in attendance, averaging 16,529.
The franchise’s new ownership group owes it to their growing number of fans, to the players that have grown together to become a contender and to Hollins, who has overseen the process, to stick with the program through this season.
“I think we’re one of the most well-rounded teams in the league,” Gay said. “I don’t think there’s a letdown at any position.”
After whatever happens in the postseason, then re-assess and re-package to fit a new financial model in the summer.
“I feel like we got the whole package,” said Randolph, who is having an All-Star-type season averaging 16.9 points and 12.0 rebounds. “Rudy on the wing, me and Marc down low, we got Mike Conley stepping up and playing great ball, we got T.A. [Allen], our defensive leader, so our starting five is as solid as any starting five in the league.
“You want to see us together because we’ve come a long way.”
No other contender in either conference faces such roster uncertainty at mid-season. It’s unfair, and if a shakeup occurs before the Feb. 21 trade deadline, there will be no excuse to feed the fans, and perhaps no way of ever knowing if this is indeed the year.
“That’s the NBA and one thing about that is anything can happen,” Gay said. “Other people are going to have different plans. You just have to take advantage of the time you have.”