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Once an emerging power, Grizzlies trying to reinvent themselves

Zach Randolph can opt out after this year, but Memphis could be in the mix to retain him. (USATSI)
Zach Randolph can opt out after this year, but Memphis could be in the mix to retain him. (USATSI)

The trajectory for contention in the Western Conference can, in some ways, be traced back to the 2011 playoffs, when it appeared that two small-market teams -- the Thunder and Grizzlies -- were emerging to dominate the conference for years to come.

Memphis had its Big Three of Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph and Rudy Gay. Oklahoma City had a devastating trio of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden.

The two teams met in the 2011 conference semifinals, but without Gay, who was injured, the Grizzlies succumbed to the Thunder in seven games. It was a thrilling series, featuring an overtime game, a triple-overtime game, some high-scoring track meets and a healthy dose of grit-and-grind -- a term that became the Grizzlies' motto.

Much has changed in the NBA's post-lockout world since then. Both teams have been forced to abandon, or at least rethink their Big Three models. The Thunder traded Harden to Houston, and the Grizzlies had to send Gay to Toronto in a move that raised suspicions about new owner Robert Pera's commitment to winning and about the basketball acumen of their revamped front office.

Nonetheless, both teams returned to the conference semifinals again last season, with the Rudy-less Grizzlies upending the Thunder -- who were without an injured Westbrook -- in five games. But a sweep at the hands of the Spurs in the conference finals brought more change. Coach Lionel Hollins was let go following a 56-win season, and assistant Dave Joerger was handed the reins.

So where does all of this leave the Grizzlies in a stacked Western Conference in which the Spurs and Thunder remain relevant and the Clippers, Trail Blazers, Rockets, Warriors and others have emerged as formidable foes? More to the point, where do the Grizzlies go from here?

With Memphis facing one of those emerging powers, the Rockets, in a nationally televised game Thursday night, it's the perfect time to take a closer look.

With Gay's departure, the Grizzlies' Big Three has morphed into what the team refers to as its Core Four: Gasol, Randolph, Mike Conley and Tony Allen. The plan, according to league sources, is to find ways to maximize those four foundational pieces in the short term while building around Gasol and Conley in the long term.

First, it should be noted that the Grizzlies' brain trust -- owner Robert Pera and front office executives Jason Levien, Stu Lash and John Hollinger -- can be viewed in a much better light with the Gay trade in the rear-view mirror. In some ways, the decision by Levien and Lash (both former agents) and Hollinger (an advanced statistics innovator who used to make the rounds as a member of the media) was vindicated when Raptors GM Masai Ujiri traded Gay -- and the $19.3 million left on his contract via a player option next season -- to the Kings in a salary dump earlier this month. The Grizzlies got viable, contributing players in Tayshaun Prince and Ed Davis in the Gay deal, whereas the Raptors were happy just to get off his contract.

Second, it's worth looking back on the move that precipitated Memphis' decision to trade Gay. When the team acquired forward Jon Leuer from Cleveland for Marreese Speights, Wayne Ellington and Josh Selby, the move was designed simply to get the team under the tax threshold so it would have more leverage in moving Gay. But the Cavs have not retained any of the three players they received in the deal, while the Grizzlies have since extended Leuer, who is a contributing member of their frontcourt rotation. (The Cavs get the Grizzlies' first-round pick in 2015 or '16 if it falls from 6-14. The pick is 1-5 protected in 2017 and '18 and unprotected in '19.)

So what now? With coaching change, modest roster turnover and a recent bout with injuries, the Grizzlies are 12-15 and 3 1-2 games out of a playoff spot. Is it time to panic?

"When I got here, we were deep," Randolph said. "We had O.J. [Mayo] and Rudy. It's different. But it gives guys a chance to play and have an opportunity to get better."

Conley, Allen and Prince have been in and out of the lineup, and Gasol is likely out until mid-to-late January with a knee injury. Quincy Pondexter has a stress fracture in his foot that could keep him out for the rest of the season. But despite the potential riches that could be acquired in the 2014 draft, the Grizzlies aren't looking to tear down in the short term. League sources say they're active in trade discussions that would inject some wing athleticism into the mix and improve the team.

Still, there are long-term decisions to be made. If Randolph exercises his player option for next season, the Grizzlies' $62 million in committed salary will leave them comfortably under the tax but will afford no room to shop for free agents. League sources expect Randolph, 32, to opt out and try to score one more multi-year deal. But two people familiar with the situation say Memphis is not out of the mix to retain Randolph in such a scenario. The team is determined not to lose Randolph for nothing, so unless Randolph expresses a strong desire to leave -- which he hasn't -- there's no immediate pressure to trade him.

"It's a business and we've got new ownership, but I've still got a job," Randolph said. "That's why I go out and play hard no matter what."

The roster has changed, the coach has changed and the landscape in the West has become a lot more competitive than it was when Memphis began its rise. Decisions that will be made over the next two months -- trade Randolph or keep him, improve the team in the short term or go all-in for the future -- will go a long way toward determining whether the Grizzlies will be able to reinvent themselves and keep pace or whether grit-and-grind is in a bind.

 
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