By Rob Mahoney
The Memphis Grizzlies' decision to tamper with a successful core and trade away Rudy Gay has been met with mixed reviews as the public response seems to be relatively evenly split between support and criticism. There are ardent cases being made on both sides of that line and, unfortunately for Memphis, that clear divide in opinion appears to be mirrored within the Grizzlies organization itself. In a way, the trade represents the two competing, internal forces pulling at the team: The compulsion to maximize competitive worth on a year-by-year basis and the pragmatism that comes in running an NBA franchise in a non-prestige market.
The latter interest is represented by new team CEO Jason Levien, who unsurprisingly is in favor of this deal as executed. In an interview with Chris Vernon of 92.9 FM in Memphis (via Sports Radio Interviews), Levien specifically responded to the criticism that the Grizzlies were playing to the financial bottom line as opposed to a motivation to compete and win:
“We took on players that we thought could play. I don’t see where that (criticism) comes from. If we were dumping salaries then why would we take on Tayshaun Prince for multi years? We’re trying to get quality players and obviously we’re trying to do it in a way that makes sense with the salary cap and gives us that flexibility going forward in acquiring more talent. It’s a marathon and not a sprint for us, and we want to look at the next five-year window and be as competitive as we can be currently and through those five years. We think we are setting ourselves up to do that in a very good way. Honestly, I appreciate that criticism and I think for every one guy that said that, there were probably six or seven commentators who analyze the league who were very positive on the deal. Not that that is the barometer, but it was nice to see that people covering the NBA closely had a sense of where we’re heading and were supportive.”
Gay is a fine player, but the girth of his contract over the next two seasons blocked off most every reasonable path toward improvement. Memphis had reached a point where it could keep together the team as-is while making minute tweaks around the edges of the roster, but it had so thoroughly crippled its own flexibility that there was no real hope of vaulting into the NBA's top tier. The front office's internal calculus apparently concluded that Gay wasn't worth the joint cost of the chance to improve and the luxury tax payments his contract incited, and thus they chose to deal him for a more manageable financial commitment with similar basketball value.
Lionel Hollins doesn't view the move in quite the same light. Earlier this month, Hollins made the following comments on Sports56WHBQ's Sportstime (as transcribed by Straight Outta Vancouver) in response to the mere prospect of Gay being traded:
I like our team. I like the way we’ve grown and come up in the last few years… I would certainly, as a coach, like to keep our team together and see where we go this year. If management decides after the season is over that they want to move somebody for whatever reason, we deal with that. But in the middle of the seasons, as successful as we are, it would be a big letdown.
It doesn’t matter what the reasoning is. I still would not like to have my team broken up in the middle of the season. For me, business decisions have been made, and we live with them… but that’s not my call, and it’s just the way it is. Everybody in charge has decisions to make, and they have to live with them.
After the trade was made official, Hollins told the following to John Rohde of The Oklahoman:
“When you have champagne taste, you can't be on a beer budget. It's a small market and I understand the economics of being in a small market."
Tight-lipped though Hollins' final response may be, that's a pretty drastic difference in opinion between two parties that are suppose to operating in unison. There are bound to be disagreements between coaches and management, but that the Grizzlies are currently being run by two pretty distinct groups is problematic. With owner Robert Pera's acquisition of the team came a change in management structure, beginning with the hiring of Levien as CEO and former ESPN stats scribe John Hollinger as vice president of basketball operations. Hollins isn't necessarily unwelcome under that new regime, but his public comments about the role of analytics in sports clearly separate him philosophically from the Grizzlies' quant-savvy management team. All of this is exceedingly relevant in that Hollins is currently serving out the final year of his contract; if he and the front office can't establish some kind of synergy soon, the grit-and-grind Grizzlies could soon be going to work for a new head coach.