By Frank Hughes
March 26, 2010

OAKLAND, Calif. -- Memphis Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins stood against a wall outside the visiting locker at Oracle Arena earlier this week, looking worn down as the inevitable end to a long NBA season draws near.

"So, about Allen Iverson ..." a reporter said jokingly.

"What about him?" Hollins asked, immediately defensive.

Eventually Hollins relaxed when he realized that one of the last times Iverson was a part of the Grizzlies was when he stood against this very same wall, on Nov. 4, in the fifth game of the season.

A lot has happened to the Grizzlies since that time.

Iverson departed amid a flurry of controversy. The Grizzlies went from downtrodden to overachieving upstarts to inconsistent. Zach Randolph was named an All-Star. Memphis acquired Ronnie Brewer from Utah at the trade deadline, only to see him injured right away. Starting guard O.J. Mayo was nearly traded along with 2009 first-round pick Hasheem Thabeet, who was later demoted to the D-League. And that is only what has been made public.

It's no wonder Hollins looks a bit weary.

"I always tell young bench players, 'You have to always remain ready to play. Eighty-two games is a long season -- a lot can happen,' " Hollins said.

What's more, a lot is about to happen that could shape the Grizzlies' immediate future, after which they will be considered one of the favorites to make the playoffs next season or they will have become just another small-market team being plundered by larger-market organizations with more cap space and an ability -- or an obligation -- to spend.

Rudy Gay, one of the franchise cornerstones, becomes a restricted free agent this summer. Retaining the fourth-year small forward, who is averaging 19.8 points and 5.9 rebounds as he develops into the all-around player the Grizzlies envision, is key to the franchise's sustaining its momentum toward success.

Grizzlies owner Michael Heisley recently told season-ticket holders that he is going to match whatever offer Gay gets from other teams in free agency. Then again, what is Heisley supposed to tell a group of loyal supporters who are about to receive renewal notices? The fact is, there are those throughout the league who remain skeptical that Heisley will do what it takes to keep Gay.

"I don't understand where all this talk is coming from," Heisley told "Just because we are a small-market team and I manage my salary cap, we are not going to let another team come in here and just sign Rudy Gay. We'll do what we need to do, while being rational, to sign Rudy."

Ah, there is the qualifier: "while being rational."

The Grizzlies have the misfortune of having a restricted free agent at a time when too many teams have cleared cap space to pursue prominent free agents such as LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Only a few teams will sign those stars, however, meaning clubs like the Clippers and Nets, as examples, will be forced to overpay second- or third-tier players like Gay or David Lee to appease a fan base that is intent on seeing the addition of a core piece. And the Grizzlies, because they are in a market where fans have not regularly attended games despite a shiny, new arena and competitive team, are in no position to overpay.

Heisley, for one, does not agree with that assessment and believes there will be far less competition for free agents than anticipated.

"Listen, there are some teams out there who have cut their payroll because they are tired of losing money," Heisley said. "I don't know what the latest figures are that the league is giving out for how much money the league is losing [commissioner David Stern said last month that the NBA is losing $400 million], but teams are losing millions of dollars. They are not going to go out and spend that money that they just cut so they can start losing money again. Some teams are just not going to spend."

It only takes one team, however, to foil the Grizzlies' plan. What their limit is remains to be seen. Say, for instance, the Clippers offer Gay, who is making $3.28 million this season, a first-year salary of $12 million. Is that rational or irrational, in Heisley's mind? Is $11 million the cutoff? How about $13 million?

"I am not going to negotiate his contract publicly," Heisley said.

For his part, Gay says he would like to stay with the Grizzlies to continue to build on what they are establishing. But he also has seen too much turnover in his young career to allow his heart to be broken.

"I have been playing for the Grizzlies for four years," Gay said. "I have played for four different coaches, seen people brought in and released. I have seen it all.

"Just the fact that we have progressed so much this year with coach Hollins is the biggest thing with me. But I have seen people come and go. I know the business. I have never been a free agent. It is crazy. It is kind of like getting drafted again. You think you are going one place and then they might make trades. So you never know."

Adding to the confusion is the Grizzlies' approach before the trade deadline. It was revealed by writers covering Golden State that the Grizzlies and Warriors were having conversations about swapping Mayo and Monta Ellis. Because Ellis makes more than twice as much as Mayo, the Grizzlies, according to a source, were going to add the 7-foot-3 Thabeet, the No. 2 pick last June who is averaging 11.6 minutes.

"You got to understand, when we drafted [Thabeet], he was on Jim Rome's show. He was at Dodger Stadium throwing out a ball. He is on magazines," Hollins said. "The league is pumping all these guys up because they are lottery picks. The lottery has been so promoted and hyped that these guys think, 'I walk all the way from the podium to being a star in this league.'

"He has some maturity issues, some work-ethic issues, and ultimately we sent him down to the D-League and gave him a chance to play and give him confidence and also to wake him up. Since he has been back, he has played the way we expected. It is a good thing to go down and see this is what can happen if you're not doing what you are supposed to do on this level. This isn't given to you; you have to earn it."

The Grizzlies would not discuss their thinking regarding the potential trade. For instance, did they have discussions because they didn't think Thabeet was ever going to develop? Did they not like Mayo? Did they like Ellis that much?

"It is really a moot point to talk about Monta Ellis because the trade did not happen," Hollins said. "I don't want to get into what we liked about him. He scores 25 or 26 points a game. What is there not to like?"

Heisley says the team was simply doing its due diligence at the trade deadline and that Golden State's leaking news of the discussions has put everybody in an uncomfortable situation.

"Quite frankly, I don't think that trade has been portrayed accurately," Heisley said. "I am not the first point of contact on trades so I don't know who made the first call. But that proposed trade, as released by Golden Sate, I'm not sure who made the first call. And discussion went off and on for a month's time. And I'd be less than honest if I didn't say we did consider making a trade in which Mayo and Ellis were involved.

"But in the end, there was no trade. They didn't want to get rid of Ellis and we were reluctant to get rid of O.J. That is why I hate these kinds of conversations. These trade talks, as you know, go on all the time. How many people have called up on Rudy Gay? A lot. Over the years, I can tell you, a lot. That doesn't mean we are going to trade Rudy Gay. But what GMs do is sit down and listen. That is the business. And then if one of the teams reveals what happened, what is the purpose of that? I just don't understand why that was done. All it does is leave bad feelings, probably for both people."

Indeed, Mayo, who is averaging 17.7 points on 45.9 percent shooting, said he still does not understand the conversations that took place in the midst of such a promising start to his career.

"It feels like a betrayal, I guess," Mayo told "But Zach Randolph and [Grizzlies teammate] Jamaal Tinsley have been traded. It is the nature of the business. [The Grizzlies told me it was] business. It was the right thing to do. Same old, same old. Of course I was upset. But that was the way it goes. I just love playing the game of basketball. As long as they don't take that from me, I am all good. I can go play in Bangkok and be OK. Get a ball, get a run in, it is all good."

Heisley said he was not aware of Mayo's feelings about the trade talks.

"Now I am going to have to go talk to O.J.," Heisley said. "If he is upset about it, I am going to go talk to him about it because, quite frankly, I couldn't be any happier with O.J. and with my team. To be honest, I don't know how I would put another player in that team and interrupt the chemistry there.

"That is why I was so upset that that thing was done [by the Warriors] because I do feel bad about that. Because O.J. is a loyal player. He has absolutely been without question one of the most professional guys on my team. I mean that.

"I am not going to play 'compare abilities' because Kobe [Bryant] is one of the great talents in the league. But I was one of the guys who went up to see O.J. work out in Chicago [before he was drafted] and after that I said that is who I wanted to get. What hit me was he seemed so Kobe-like in his demeanor and his work ethic and his working out to improve his game. He has improved every year since he has been in this league. I don't know what his top is in this game, but I do know that he will get whatever he can out of his ability."

Which is in stark contrast to the other player involved in the proposed trade, Thabeet, whom the Grizzlies selected rather than Tyreke Evans, Stephen Curry or Brandon Jennings, all candidates for Rookie of the Year.

"It is very obvious he needs time on the floor," Heisley said of Thabeet. "He has only played for six years. But I will tell you this: He is going to need to work harder than he has ever worked if he is going to be successful. He is one of the guys I am saying is going to have to step up his work ethic to reach really the talent level he has got. He can be a great defensive player in this league. But he has to work to do it. It's not going to just come to him. The question is: Is he wiling to pay the price? I'm not saying he won't pay the price; I'm saying he has to make the effort."

So where does this leave the Grizzlies? A little bit confused but with an upside if things go well. They have four of their five starters locked up. They have three first-round picks in this year's draft. And they hope to keep Gay for the long term.

But they have to wait and see. A lot can happen. Just ask Hollins. As he pulls himself off the wall, he knows that all too well.

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