For three years, the Grizzlies were the punchline for any general manager, coach or pundit looking to make himself feel better about his job: At least
But nobody is mocking Memphis now. The Grizzlies are back in the playoffs for the first time since 2006, emerging as a hard-nosed team that doesn't figure to be a pushover in the postseason. And even if the Grizzlies' playoff appearance as underdogs is short-lived, the fact that they can even
Popovich wasn't alone in condemning the February 2008 trade in which the Grizzlies sent Gasol and a 2010 second-round pick to the Lakers for Kwame Brown, Javaris Crittenton, Aaron McKie, Marc Gasol and first-round picks in 2008 and 2010. With Pau Gasol joining Kobe Bryant, the Lakers would go on to make the NBA Finals that season -- after beating Popovich's Spurs in the Western Conference finals -- and win championships the subsequent two years.
"Part of the occupational hazard of [being an NBA GM] is from time to time you are going to be raked over the coals in the court of public opinion," said Grizzlies GM Chris Wallace, who was in his first season in his position at the time of the deal. "Still, it's much preferable to the occupational hazards of most jobs."
Wallace pointed out that the Grizzlies "didn't break up a championship team" when they traded Pau Gasol. In the season before Wallace arrived, Gasol played only 59 games and Memphis finished a league-worst 22-60. The 7-footer was healthier the next season, but the Grizzlies opened 13-33 before pulling the trigger on the blockbuster.
"We were winning 26, 27 percent of our games [with Pau]," Wallace said. "And it became apparent that the enthusiasm for playing [in Memphis] had waned for Pau. We'd never won a playoff game and the town appeared bored with the team. So I told our owner, Mr. [Michael] Heisley, that as good as Pau is, it's probably not going to work within the time left on his contract because I didn't see a realistic way for us to get the megastars around him he needs.
"So, rather than slog through for the next couple years, we decided to go in the proverbial new direction. And we came to the conclusion the Lakers had the best deal because they had a big expiring contract in Brown and what I considered four first-round picks with the two yet-to-be exercised picks, Crittenton, who was a first-rounder, and the rights to Pau's brother, Marc.
"Pau's been like an NBA version of an organ donor with how he's provided life to this current team," Wallace said. "Instead of harvesting his heart, his kidneys or his corneas, we got picks, we got his brother -- a starting center -- and we got cap room that we could use in free agency or in doing trades. We got over half our roster in the deal."
Wallace traces the additions of Sam Young, Darrell Arthur, Greivis Vazquez, Ronnie Brewer, Hamed Haddadi, DeMarre Carroll, Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph as results of the flexibility created by the trade. Gasol, Randolph and Young (who is filling in for an injured Rudy Gay) are current starters, and Arthur, one of the league's most-improved players, is a key reserve.
While the Lakers were making deep postseason runs with Pau Gasol, the Grizzlies were slowly making progress with a young roster. They jumped from 24 victories in 2008-09 to 40 last season, and through Monday they were 46-34 this season with a chance to earn the No. 6 seed in the playoffs.
"I was up front about this early on: The Lakers got immediate impact, we got delayed gratification," Wallace said. "Our end of it was going to unfold over time."
Time has been Memphis' greatest asset. It's allowed Mike Conley to develop into a capable lead guard, coach Lionel Hollins to mold an inexperienced group into a respectable defensive unit and, most important, Randolph to mature into the team's pillar in the paint.
Randolph averaged 16.3 points and 7.8 boards over his first six NBA seasons, but he became known more for his off-court troubles with Portland than his consistent production. He then had short stints with the Knicks and Clippers, but both traded him in salary dumps. In July 2009, Memphis acquired Randolph from the Clippers for the expiring contract of Quentin Richardson, whom L.A. traded three days later. To critics, the move seemed to forge a perfect marriage of wasted talent and rudderless franchise.
Indeed, Randolph and Memphis have fit well -- but in a much more positive way than many expected. Randolph made the All-Star team and sparked a 16-game improvement last season, when the Grizzlies contended for the playoffs before faltering down the stretch. This year, he is one of only four players averaging at least 20 points and 10 rebounds. Randolph has enabled Memphis to establish an identity as an inside-out team that is leading the NBA in points in the paint for the second year in a row.
"He has been a rainmaker for us since the day we got him," Wallace said. "You've got to double-team him to stop him and now he's evolved to the next stage where he's able to consistently move the ball when doubled.
"I call him 'The Natural' -- he just has a feel for the nuances of post play that you don't see that often because so many guys play more of an airborne game than he does. He's like a great lineman in football; he understands leverage, the value of making contact and clearing space. And he has fantastic, soft hands. All he has to do is get his fingertips on the ball. I've seen him time and again go up for an offensive rebound with a defender on his left and a defender on his right -- big, strong, athletic guys -- and he just gets a couple fingertips on it and tips it in. As you go up the ladder in the game, you can't consistently outjump size and experience."
Said Randolph: "I'm not the kind of player who's going to dunk on your head and block a lot of shots. But I can get it done."
Randolph's tenacity around the hoop has helped endear him to a town not dissimilar to the working-class community of Marion, Ind., where he was raised.
"I fit this town, this city," said Randolph, who said he patterned his game after the Pacers' Rik Smits, another seemingly unathletic but effective low-post threat. "It's a blue-collar city, a humble city, a hard-working city. They respect people who come out and play hard every night. I fit like a missing piece."
From ownership down, people in the organization are quick to note Randolph's generosity with community groups, team employees and the media.
"He may be the most popular player in Memphis," Heisley said. "Our evaluation of Zach started the day he became a Grizzly, and the way he's related to the fans and what he's done for us has been nothing but exemplary. Since he's been with us, he's been an All-Star and won an award for community development. Zach did that; he decided that this is the way he wanted to be remembered and this is the way he wanted to work in the community."
These should be good times for Heisley. For just the fourth time in his 11 seasons as owner, the Grizzlies have posted a winning record. Valuable playoff gate receipts are on the way for a team that ranks 27th in home attendance. And the decision to spend a combined $122 million on contract extensions for Conley and Rudy Gay hasn't necessitated a budget-saving trade. All that and Heisley still willingly allows his wife to turn off the game in their Chicago-area home at the end of the third quarter when a loss seems imminent.
"Chuck Daly told me, 'Mike, this is an exasperating business,' " Heisley said. "'The wins stay with you for a couple of hours, the losses stay with you for a couple of days.' And it's true; when you lose, you feel like a loser. I've been fairly successful in my life; I haven't been so successful as an owner, and every loss feels like it's my loss. You stay up and think about what you are going to do to get better. Winning an NBA championship is harder than any business problem I've had."
Heisley has attempted to move closer to that title by locking up Memphis' young talent in Conley and Gay and bolstering the bench by signing Tony Allen to a three-year, $9.5 million contract last July. But those investments have also put the Grizzlies close to the luxury tax with more important decisions looming.
Randolph, 29, making $17.6 million in the last year of his deal, reportedly wants a new contract in the ballpark of the three-year, $57 million extension Pau Gasol signed with L.A. in 2009. Marc Gasol will also be a restricted free agent this summer, but he may have priced himself out of Memphis. Offers for a 26-year-old center who's capable at both ends of the floor won't be easy to match -- not for a small-market team, anyway.
"I wouldn't be quite honest with you if I didn't say that when you're a small-market team, you have limitations that a team like Los Angeles doesn't have," Heisley said. "If you ask me if I want to be in the luxury-tax area, I was in it once, and quite frankly, it's very punitive and I would hope we don't get into it again.
"My objective is to have Marc and Zach with us next year, as I've told them to their faces. Now when you're in contract negotiations, it's a two-way street. They have a lot to say about whether they are going to be here, just like I have something to say, but I'm not going to pre-empt them."
Heisley is, however, the final voice on personnel matters, a role he assumed before the 2008 draft when former president Jerry West retired. Since then, the Grizzlies have made a series of highly scrutinized moves, from the Gasol trade to the Randolph acquisition to drafting Hasheem Thabeet with the No. 2 pick in 2009 (he was traded to Houston in February) to signing Conley to a lucrative extension after three middling seasons.
"There is not one guy who is making decisions," Heisley said. "I am basically confirming the decision I think the organization wants. There's a middle ground there. I want to make sure that all of the valuable inputs are heard and given value. Obviously, Chris Wallace has a lot more authority than others, but I also want to make sure the scouts, the coach and anybody else we're talking to is considered. Then we sit down and make a decision."
Some difficult player decisions await. For now, though, the Grizzlies need only concern themselves with preparing for their first-round playoff series. And that is no laughing matter.