By Michael Wallace
Grind City Media
MEMPHIS – This time a week ago, the Memphis Grizzlies were headed into one of the biggest home playoff games in franchise history as they faced San Antonio for Game 6 of a first-round slugfest.
The fight – and their 2016-17 season – ended last Thursday night for the Grizzlies in a 4-2 series loss to the Spurs. A different challenge now begins as Memphis braces for an offseason with plenty of questions to answer with its roster, style of play and the direction the team takes from here.
Starting Thursday, Grind City Media will present the offseason outlook for each player, coach David Fizdale and general manager Chris Wallace. But first, let’s set the course for a potentially pivotal summer by examining ‘Five Key Takeaways’ from the Grizzlies’ exit interviews on the heels of a 43-win season that culminated with their seventh consecutive playoff appearance.
1. Conley Seeking Offseason Input …
After emerging as a stronger leader and clearly the Grizzlies’ most dominant player, point guard Mike Conley seeks a more influential voice in the direction of the franchise entering the offseason.
“It’s new for me, but it’s something I know I’m going to have to be a big part of,” Conley said of remaining in contact with the front office on looming personnel decisions. “I’m going to … be involved as much as I can to try to get this organization and our team in the best position to win. I’m excited to be able to sit down and give my opinion, and say what we should or shouldn’t do, (or) we should bring this guy in. That kind of stuff is new for me. But it’s going to be fun.”
Conley, 29, just completed the first season of a five-year, $153 million deal that was the richest contract in league history when he signed last summer to stay with team that drafted him fourth overall in 2007. He is also coming off a career season in which he averaged 20.5 points and shot 41.9 percent from three-point range. In the playoffs, those numbers rose to 24.7 points on 48.5 percent shooting overall, including 44.7 percent on threes, against a Spurs team that ranked first in NBA defensive efficiency.
As the Grizzlies prepare for the draft and free agency, the goal is to surround Conley with complementary players to help consistently elevate Memphis into the top four of the Western Conference. Having a more prominent say would give Conley the type of sway marquee catalysts such as LeBron James and Chris Paul have had in the direction of their teams, even while facing tough decision.
“I don’t run from it, man. I don’t run from responsibility,” Conley said. “I’m vested. I just got done with a decade here, so this is home. This is something that I’ve – it’s like my baby; I helped it grow. I want to see this to the finish. I’m vested and I want to be a part of it.”
The Grizzlies don’t currently have a first-round pick in the June draft, but they do have four veteran rotation players set for July free agency in Zach Randolph, Tony Allen, Vince Carter and JaMychal Green.
“It’s hard,” Conley said of the Grizzlies’ free agency priorities. “At the end of the day, this league is a business. There are things out of your control. You can’t control what our (salary) cap is right now, how much money we have to spend. I have no control over that. These guys deserve what they deserve. Zach and Tony, they should get paid. JaMychal should get paid, Vince at (age) 40, all these people put the work in to get what they deserve. I just wish they all get what they want and be where they want to be.”
2. Allen, Parsons Injury Updates …
Allen and forward Chandler Parsons will carry their respective rehabs into the summer as they recover from injuries that ended their seasons prematurely.
Allen, who was ruled out indefinitely with a strained right calf during the series against the Spurs, offered some clarity with his status. He is now three weeks into what was projected to be a four-to-six-week recovery process. Allen will be re-evaluated in mid-to-late May.
“That was devastating,” Allen said of sitting out against the Spurs as MVP candidate Kawhi Leonard dominated. “I can’t say I would have stopped him, but my defensive instincts would have tampered with him. I saw a lot of opportunities where I could have done that. But this injury prevented that.”
Allen, 35, was injured six minutes into the April 12 regular-season finale against Dallas, and admitted he second-guessed his decision to play in a game that had no bearing on the standings. The Grizzlies played their top rotation players against the Mavericks despite already being locked into the No. 7 playoff seed.
“I’m going to roll with the punches, obviously, but I do sit back and ask myself, ‘Why did I even play?’” Allen said. “I should have opened my mouth and told Coach, ‘I don’t feel like playing,’ or, ‘I shouldn’t be playing.’ You can say that now. But, for the most part, like I say, I was all in. I’m all in whenever Coach needs me. Coach wanted me to play, so I played. And it was just a freak injury.”
As for Parsons, who did not attend exit interviews, the organization’s hope is he will be healthy by the late September start of training camp. Wallace attributed Parsons’ absence from the team for much of the past two months to the small forward working exclusively with a Los Angeles-based knee specialist.
After signing a $94 million contract in free agency last summer, Parsons spent the first half of his first season in Memphis working his way back from the right knee surgery he underwent in March of 2016 while with Dallas. He was then shut down this past March with a partially torn ligament in his left knee after playing in only 34 games with Memphis.
“We need to have consistency of care with him,” Wallace said of Parsons, who has had three consecutive seasons cut short by knee injuries. “He’s with one of the premier people in the industry. We hope to have him back at full speed this year. I’m optimistic because he’s able to get at this earlier than he was last summer. I think he’s really going to be able to make some real progress this summer.”
3. ZBo Welcomes ‘First Real’ Venture into Free Agency …
The only definitive summer plans Randolph have involve coaching the local youth soccer and basketball leagues his children will participate in over the coming months.
But Randolph won’t rule out leaving town to meet with potential suitors once the free agency recruiting period opens July 1. Randolph made it clear he’d prefer to remain in Memphis, where he’s spent the past seven seasons. But the 15-year veteran also looks forward to the recruiting process and being wooed by potential outside teams for one of the rare times in his career.
“This is really my first chance to try something new, to visit,” said Randolph, who was traded to Memphis in 2009 and twice signed extensions to stay in Memphis. “You have to keep it business and understand. I’ve never, ever experienced free agency or talked to another team.”
During his time in the league, Randolph was traded by Portland to New York, then dealt from the Knicks to the Clippers, who ultimately sent him to Memphis. Whether by trade or signing extensions, Randolph has bypassed free agency. Until now. Randolph, 35, considers it “a blessing” to have a chance to explore options, but then quickly added he prefers to work out a new deal to remain with the Grizzlies.
Although he accepted a role off the bench, where he thrived and led all reserves with 19 double-doubles this season, Randolph believes he can still be a viable starter at power forward in the league.
“This is home, this is where I want to be,” Randolph insisted. “I’ve said that. But this is (also) a process.”
4. Fizdale Sets Roster Wish List …
Fizdale isn’t at liberty to share exactly which players he might lobby the front office to target in free agency. But he knows the skillsets his team needs to acquire going into his second season at the helm.
“We still have to continue to add speed, space and playmaking,” Fizdale said. “We saw when Mike went out of the game, our playmaking went (downhill). That’s no knock on Andrew (Harrison) and those guys. They’re just trying to play a role and not overstep their boundaries as young players. We’re going to have to look at how to find some veteran playmaking at the position, along with some speed.”
After spending all of the 2015-16 season in the D-League, Harrison endured an erratic rookie campaign as Conley’s backup this past season. The Grizzlies also didn’t get much from 2016 first-round draft pick Wade Baldwin this season, aside from a lengthy stay in the D-League.
Addressing that position with a veteran to alleviate Conley’s burden tops Fizdale’s offseason wish list. Barring a trade to free up more salary-cap space, at least one option for the Grizzlies would involve using their allotted mid-level exception in free agency, projected to start at around $8 million for next season.
5. Summer League Squad Taking Shape …
The Grizzlies could assemble one of the most experienced and potentially dominant rosters in July for the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas.
Wallace indicated that Baldwin, Wayne Selden, Rade Zagorac, Jarell Martin and Deyonta Davis are expected to anchor the Grizzlies’ summer league entry, with the roster filled out by young free agents and potential draft picks. Harrison, who played in 72 games this season with 18 starts, hasn’t been ruled out for summer league. But the plan is to develop Baldwin at the position extensively.
Baldwin, Selden, Martin and Davis have appeared in a combined 125 NBA games this past season. Zagorac, a 6-9 Serbian small forward acquired by Memphis after Boston picked him in the second round last year, has been working out recently in town and is expected to debut with the Grizzlies in Las Vegas.
The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Memphis Grizzlies. All opinions expressed by Michael Wallace are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Memphis Grizzlies or its Basketball Operations staff, owners, parent companies, partners or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Memphis Grizzlies and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.