In an unexpected turn, the Memphis Grizzlies announced Monday that team CEO Jason Levien and assistant general manager Stu Lash are leaving the organization.
“Our franchise has made tremendous strides over the last few seasons and we thank Jason for his hard work and dedication and wish him nothing but success in his future endeavors,” said Grizzlies lead owner Robert Pera. “Rest assured that we remain as committed as ever to bringing a championship to this great city and we are confident that when the new season begins our fans will be excited about both our roster and the direction of our organization.”
Grizzlies guard Tony Allen responded on Twitter at the time of Stein's report:
— Tony Allen (@aa000G9) May 19, 2014
This surprising twist in the Grizzlies' front office stems from Lash's unexpected dismissal, according to Marc Stein of ESPN.com, which heightened preexisting tensions between Levien and Pera. With Levien and Lash gone, Chris Wallace -- who has remained the team's general manager, if only in title -- will take on full responsibility for the team's basketball operations until a new organizational structure can be established. Wallace told Geoff Calkins of the Memphis Commercial Appeal on Monday that he has not been to the Grizzlies' offices since "sometime last summer."
There is some conflict in reporting as to where all of this leaves Grizzlies head coach Dave Joerger, who according to Stein sits in a precarious position. Wallace told the Commercial Appeal that Joerger will remain the coach, though that could change as the dust clears. Pera reportedly considered firing Joerger during Memphis' 13-17 start, and has become increasingly hands-on during his time with the Grizzlies. Once Marc Gasol (and later Mike Conley) returned from injury, the Grizzlies finished with a 50-32 record and went on to push the Thunder to seven games in the first round of the playoffs. Nevertheless, according to Sam Amick of USA Today, Pera -- in an extremely unusual move -- conducted his own end-of-season interviews with players independent of coaches and front office staff.
In 2012, Levien helped Pera assemble an investor group and purchase the team from the late Michael Heisley for a reported $377 million. Pera, 36, is the founder and CEO of Ubiquiti Networks, a Silicon Valley technology company that specializes in wireless hardware. The group of investors he heads includes Levien, Justin Timberlake, Anfernee "Penny" Hardaway, and Peyton Manning's wife, Ashley, among others.
"When we were looking at opportunities, Robert and I, to purchase a NBA team with him as the lead owner, I brought that up to him," Levien told USA Today in 2013. "And I said, 'You know, this is a really unique community, and a special place,' so on a personal level I felt all that."
"On a business level, the new collective bargaining agreement really changed things for a team like Memphis because there was an opportunity with revenue sharing to run more of a viable business. I felt that there was a lot of upside here in terms of tapping more into the community, into the business community leadership and so a big part of our investment thesis was getting those people to be stakeholders in the team and we did that."
The relationship between Levien and Pera has reportedly deteriorated since, with Yahoo!'s Marc Spears characterizing the two as having been "at odds for over a year."
Levien and Lash, on the other hand, were long-time friends and business associates before joining the Grizzlies, having jointly represented Luol Deng, Kevin Martin and Udonis Haslem before Levien took a job with the Kings. After being appointed Memphis' CEO, Levien hand-picked Lash and Hollinger to flesh out his front office staff.
"Both guys needed to be recruited a little bit," Levien told USA Today. "I put my agent hat on, but I think both guys were excited."