Friday July 1st, 2016

The Memphis Grizzlies have been a playoff upstart, a small-market success story and a veteran team defiant even in decline. Now they’re a hand-picked landing spot for a free agent of note. Chandler Parsons, after leaving the Mavericks and entertaining an offer from the Blazers, signed a four-year deal with the Grizzlies worth almost $95 million. This in itself is a success story. Some franchises are able to import credibility with key hires or maximized draft selection. Memphis made its name incrementally over the course of the grit-and-grind era and defended it on the floor every night. 

One could draw lengthy lists of the Grizzlies’ mistakes, oversights and organizational idiosyncrasies. Still the franchise managed to groom its talent and cultivate an identity to the point that a player like Parsons would hear out its offer and jump at the chance to join the team. How far Memphis has come almost matters more than where it'll eventually go; through force of will and demonstrable patience, the Grizzlies have made the second-smallest market in the league an attractive home for a talented, night-life-loving forward.

In doing so, Memphis took its largest step yet in bringing back free agent forward Mike Conley. Parsons and Conley have discussed playing together in Memphis, specifically, according to Tim MacMahon of ESPN Dallas, and the Grizzlies will follow through on the prospect by offering Conley a five-year max offer. Conley’s re-signing always seemed likely; a close friendship with Marc Gasol, a meaningful bond with the city of Memphis and the potential for the best possible contract offer triangulated Conley’s return as the most probable outcome. Parsons’s addition, too, fulfills Conley’s request that the Grizzlies upgrade their roster in a meaningful way—an improvement also somewhat engineered so that Parsons could play with Conley in the first place. Free agency can sometimes be a place of circular, symbiotic logic.

Grading the biggest free-agent deals so far | SI’s free agency tracker

Here it serves Memphis well. A perimeter trio of Conley, Parsons and Tony Allen makes for a healthy basketball blend. Among them there’s enough shooting, playmaking, perimeter defense and cutting to bring a lineup to balance all while leaving plenty of room for variation. Allen could be replaced as some other Grizzly proves capable (a healthy Jordan Adams? A free agent to be named?) or the entire lineup could shift small while Parsons fills in at power forward. For the first time in its franchise history, Memphis has options more closely in line with basketball modernity. Gasol and Zach Randolph are still important members of the team. Players like Parsons, though, can pivot the Grizzlies rotation out of its low-post comforts whenever the situation allows.

The fit was comfortable enough for Parsons to turn down a chance to work within Portland’s emerging core. The Blazers and Grizzlies are playoff-worthy clubs. The latter, however, is structured in such a way that Parsons will need to function as a secondary ball handler. Memphis will need Parsons to initiate offense for stretches in a way that Portland would not; Conley is a world of usage away from Damian Lillard while no Grizzly much approximates the role of a scorer like C.J. McCollum. Youth and cachet matter. So, too, does the creative investment of a veteran team. 

Memphis needed a player like Parsons and pitched him as such. But Parsons needs the Grizzlies, too, as an outfit capable of covering for him defensively and helping to rebuild his reputation after his last two seasons ended in knee injuries. The risk on the Memphis side is not inconsequential. Neither Gasol nor Conley has had much luck staying healthy over the last few seasons. Parsons, just a year removed from a “minor hybrid” microfracture surgery and a few months removed from a meniscus repair, joins them in their physical frustrations. All are quality players (to varying degrees) when healthy. To unite them, on three max salaries no less, tempts the basketball gods a bit.

Still it’s a worthwhile venture. Those offensive possessions that seemed to go nowhere for the Grizzlies will take different, more interesting routes with Parsons involved. Most Memphis wing regulars don’t shoot as well as Parsons (39.5% from three over the past two seasons) or have the same capacity to improvise. Adding both qualities with one player makes for much broader capability overall; an offense’s structure and orientation can only be shifted around so long as the talent allows it. Parsons gives new Grizzlies coach David Fizdale more to work with and the talent in place to play off of. 

As for the price, Parsons was paid what the market demanded. This is what it takes now to sign a playmaking wing who can shoot and swing between positions, even one who struggles defensively and missed 37 combined games over the past two seasons. Very few bargains will be found in the fallout of the salary cap boom. Parsons comes at a cost (over $22 million in his first season alone) not at all insignificant for a franchise that minds its finances closely. In return, he fills Conley’s prescription in a way that meaningfully moves the franchise forward. Memphis is alive, and that’s worth paying for.

Grade: B

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