How Trading Pau Gasol Turned The Memphis Grizzlies Into Contenders

On Feb. 1, 2008, Michael Heisley, the owner of the Memphis Grizzlies, and Chris Wallace, the team’s general manager, were the two most vilified men in the NBA. They had just traded Pau Gasol to the Lakers in a move that was seen as one of the most lopsided trades in NBA history. They turned the Lakers into instant championship contenders, while getting pennies on the dollar in return. The package they got included Javaris Crittenton (now out of the League), Kwame Brown, a practically retired Aaron McKie, two late first-round picks, and the rights to Pau’s brother, Marc Gasol.

People unanimously criticized the trade, saying it was bad for the NBA, and Heisley forced Wallace’s hand because he wanted to make the team more attractive to sellers. Some proposed having the NBA prevent such unfair trades in the future, and Wallace was seen as incompetent. Well, three and a half years and one playoff victory later, Heisley and Wallace have managed to salvage their reputations, and in doing so, have made the Grizzlies a playoff contender for the next five years.

The process of returning the Grizzlies to respectability began in the summer of 2008 when the team traded for the draft rights to both O.J. Mayo and Darrell Arthur. To get Mayo’s rights they had to trade the rights to Kevin Love, but even though Love is currently the better player, Mayo has been a solid contributor to this year’s team. Arthur was disappointing in his first two seasons with the team, but has emerged as an athletic, energy guy off the bench for Memphis this season and is in the conversation for Most Improved Player.

That offseason they signed Josh Smith to a five-year, $59 million offer sheet when he was a restricted free agent. Even though the Hawks matched, it showed Heisley was willing to spend on his team. That summer they also signed Marc Gasol to a contract, bringing him to Memphis for the 2008-09 season. While Marc is not as skilled as his brother, he is tough, unafraid of anybody in the League and has turned into a top-tier center in his own right.

The ’08-’09 season was a disaster for the Grizzlies as they finished 24-58 and were mired in last place. The one positive out of that year, however, was the fact that they brought in Lionel Hollins to be their head coach midway through the season and he has done a spectacular job with that team.

The 2009 offseason was filled with more embarrassments for the franchise. They managed to get the No. 2 pick in the 2009 Draft, but the process of finding someone to pick there was embarrassing for the team. Multiple top prospects shunned the Grizzlies by refusing to work out for them, and they ended up selecting Hasheem Thabeet without actually seeing him work out for them. He turned out to be the highest pick in NBA history ever assigned to the D-League.

While the Thabeet pick and the pick of DeMarre Carroll in the late first round didn’t pan out, the Grizzlies got a steal in the second round in Pittsburgh’s Sam Young. He is a hard-nosed, defensive oriented player, who like Arthur, has been a key cog on the Memphis bench.

Then about a week later, Wallace made two trades that have changed the course of the Grizzlies for the foreseeable future. The first deal was trading Darko Milicic to the Knicks for Quentin Richardson. Wallace then flipped Richardson for Zach Randolph. Randolph has reinvented himself in Memphis and become one of the best players in the League over the past two years. He has also seemingly had no locker room problems and has helped rather than hindered team chemistry. He averaged 20 points and 12 rebounds this past season, and has been rock solid in the post for Hollins. The most telling statistic of Randolph’s improvement though is his field goal percentage. He shot 50 percent from the field this year, indicating that he’s taking smarter shots – which has been a big problem of his in the past. The Grizzlies were smart to sign him to a four-year extension this past weekend.

Heisley then committed a serious blunder later in the offseason by signing Allen Iverson against the better judgment of Wallace and the rest of the basketball people in the organization. Iverson brought publicity to the team, but strained his hamstring in the preseason and became a complete distraction to the team as they went 1-9 in their first 10 games before cutting ties with him. The Grizzlies then went 39-33 the rest of the way, and showed promise of becoming a good team despite depth problems. Well, those needs were filled this past summer.

The first thing the Grizzlies did in the offseason was re-sign Rudy Gay to a five-year, $82 million contract. Before hurting his shoulder this year, Gay had shown great improvement in his all-around game, and at the age of 24, showed signs of justifying the contract he was given. Then Wallace made perhaps the shrewdest move of the offseason by signing Tony Allen to a three-year, $10 million deal. Allen has brought a toughness and winning mentality to the Grizzlies that they had been missing in recent years, and his effect was summed up well by Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports in a column last week.

Being the Grizzlies, they did have their share of troubles in the Draft yet again as Heisley seemed insistent upon including rare performance incentive clauses into the rookie contracts of draftees Greivis Vazquez and Xavier Henry. Henry even refrained from Summer League participation as a result of the stand-off. Both players were eventually signed in September though, and Vazquez has turned into a solid backup point guard for the team. Then, at the beginning of the season, the team gave Mike Conley a five-year, $45 million extension. While I think that is a bit much for Conley at $9 million per year, I think that deal gave him the confidence that he was the leader of this team now and the organization was fully behind him – two things which clearly contributed to his best season yet.

The team then made a brilliant trade at this year’s trade deadline that helped them down the stretch, especially after Gay went down. The Grizzlies traded the disappointing tandem of Thabeet and Carroll to the Rockets along with a draft pick for Shane Battier and Ish Smith. Battier is a winner, plain and simple. He is the consummate professional and team player, and his veteran leadership and experience have no doubt been a calming force among the young Grizzlies. It also helps that he is a great defender who can still shoot, as evidenced by his three on Sunday. Smith impressed during his stint as a Rocket, and while he hasn’t played much in Memphis, he definitely has a bright future ahead of him. They also pulled back on a trade that would have sent Mayo to Indiana which was the right thing to do, especially given Gay’s injury.

All of these moves and the success of the team this year has no doubt given Heisley and Wallace a sense of vindication after the ridicule they were put through back in 2008. Wallace has proven to be a better GM than people have given him credit for by making smart signings and keeping the team’s core in place. Heisley has proven not be the cost-cutting, cheapskate many made him out to be as he has committed $193 million to three players (Conley, Gay and Randolph) and has indicated he would like to re-sign Gasol in the offseason. All of this despite the fact that the Grizzlies play in one of the NBA’s smaller markets and are 27th in the NBA in attendance. While Wallace and Heisley deserved to be criticized three years ago, they are equally deserving of praise now.

What do you think?

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