HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — The Memphis Grizzlies’ six-year rise from bottom-of-the-barrel in the West to playing for the conference crown is a story of intuition, perseverance, patience and, some might rightfully say, vindication for general manager Chris Wallace.
“I never looked for vindication. That’s not something that motivates me,” Wallace said. “Winning takes care of all issues in this league. We felt we had to take chances.”
Hired by former Grizzlies owner Michael Heisley to remake a 22-win team that was of no competition, popularity-wise, for John Calipari‘s Memphis Tigers, Wallace put his vision in motion. When the team takes the court Sunday afternoon to begin the Western Conference finals against the old standby San Antonio Spurs, the Memphis roster will include not one player from the day Wallace took control.
Rudy Gay, the last survivor, was dealt to Toronto in late January.
The first move for Wallace back in 2007 was drafting Mike Conley, now considered one of the most underrated point guards in the league. Conley was the No. 4 overall draft pick after Portland selected Greg Oden and Kevin Durant fell into Seattle’s lap and Atlanta tapped Al Horford.
The next move came on Feb. 1, 2008 and will go down as the franchise’s moment of truth. At that moment, however, it was perceived more like the moment of ultimate doom.
Wallace agreed to a trade that unleashed shockwaves of ridicule from, yes, the media, but also shockingly from within the league. The backlash, Wallace said, was so fierce that it damaged the team’s ability to conduct business in its own city as it set out to sell critical sponsorships and arena suites for the following season.
“People [potential clients] would list off all the big-name people [in the NBA] that had ridiculed us,” Wallace said. “It was like running the 100-meter dash with a 20-pound leg weight.”
Everyone knows the deal: Pau Gasol to the Lakers for his chubby, unheralded younger brother Marc Gasol, bust Kwame Brown, Javaris Crittenton and a couple first-round draft picks. Stunning criticism crushed Wallace for getting fleeced while being backhandedly credited for handing the post-Shaquille O’Neal Lakers the keys to certain championships.
“I expect the media to shoot from the hip and not study the deal. That’s to be expected,” Wallace said. “I just shook my head. I had never seen that kind of response from inside the league. I don’t deny that was the assist for two Lakers championships, but we had to shake things up. We had never won a playoff game. We had been in the 20s [wins] and there was complete apathy in our market. Calipari and the Tigers were roaring at the time.
“When we went around the league, we weren’t going to get a tit-for-tat deal. We wanted to bring our salary structure down, get assets and draft picks. And no one else had a Marc Gasol.”
Marc Gasol attended high school in Memphis as Pau was becoming the franchise’s all-time leading scorer. At 18, he returned to Spain to begin his professional career in the Spanish ACB league, largely considered the world’s second-most competitive league. In 2007-08 he was tearing it up.
“He was trending up so much at the time. He was on pace to be the ACB MVP,” Wallace said. “I said it at the time, I felt like the little boy crying wolf. There was no question Pau was going to flourish next to Kobe and could win several titles, but this deal couldn’t be judged for several years.”
Wallace said what puzzled him most about the barrage of criticism was the lack of knowledge among media and league insiders regarding the 7-foot-1 Marc Gasol, who went on to become the MVP.
“It’s not like he was playing in Mongolia,” Wallace said. “He was playing in the ACB.”
Gasol, about 20 pounds lighter these days at 260, blossomed into a 2012 All-Star and is the 2013 Defensive Player of the Year. He’s become an offensive force, honing a dangerous post game with an old-school mid-range set shot. He’s averaging 18.3 ppg and 7.9 rpg while averaging 40.3 mpg during the franchise’s most successful postseason run.
Gasol’s low-post partner Zach Randolph came next in a deal in 2009. Wallace was in the right place at the right time, nabbing Randolph for Quentin Richardson. Randolph, who had had his issues at previous stops,had become expendable after just 39 games with the Clippers because L.A. was set to draft Blake Griffin with the No. 1 pick and wanted to clear out the power forward position.
Tony Allen was picked up in the summer of 2010. Darrell Arthur has been a constant presence off the bench since being acquired on draft day in 2008. Greivous Vasquez, the 28th pick in 2010, was flipped for key reserve Quincy Pondexter. Sixth man Jerryd Bayless was signed as a free agent last summer.
“We were winning 20 games a year just four or five seasons ago,” Conley said. “Management did a great job getting guys in, guys that care. We’ve worked every day, kind of fell down the radar and now we’re here.”
So much has gone right leading to this historic moment for the Grizzlies franchise that it would seem clear-cut that Wallace has a long-term home with Memphis. But with new ownership having taken over at the start of the season, both Wallace and coach Lionel Hollins — a raging success story in his own right as he’s developed an initially young group of players into a hard-working defensive juggernaut emblematic of the city itself — are uncertain of their futures.
Hollins has coached all season on the final year of his deal. Wallace said he has years left, but has no guarantees.
“I hope to be able to stay here,” Wallace said.