Tuesday, February 5, 2008

The Rich Get Richer And Memphis Gets Memphisier: The Memphis Side Of The Gasol Trade

A preface before we begin. To witness the true greatness of coverage over this trade, check out 3 Shades of Blue. If there's an award for most outstanding coverage of a single event in our blogger awards, those guys are shoe-ins. Go read everything. Seriously. It's fascinating work on a pretty terrible team. And now, something we came up with...

The model seems pretty clear, if you take the consensus among intelligent fans. You need to be willing to part with big contracts, and therefore, big players. You need to be willing to suffer through some 20-win seasons. You need to draft smart, take on contracts that are smart in the long term, and not attempt quick fixes. The dilemma for owners and subsequently, GMs, is the perceived inevitable loss of confidence by the fanbase through losing seasons. The drop in attendance, non-renewal by season ticket-holders, and criticism by the media is perceived as a death knell that must be escaped by a big free agent signing. Or in the case of the Knicks, 12 big free agent signings.

We don't think you have to treat your fanbase like it's an angry mob, however. The fact is that 1. people will come for pro basketball regardless. This is how there are still teams in Atlanta, Sacramento, and Seat...whoops. But the Sonics are leaving because their owner is Darth Vader, not because attendance is down. And you have to accept that there will be hard times when you're building a winner. But working long term, being patient, taking smart contracts, and not looking for the quick fix, can lead to winning, which will bring the people out (unless you're New Orleans. Okay, market's also important, but that's a conversation for another day).

One thing owners and GMs could do is to improve communication during these times. Basketball fans are usually pretty intelligent. If you convey that you're working for the future, that there will be hard times, but that you do have a plan, you're going to strengthen that community of fans, which will help you through. People will still come out, but you have to give them reason to believe in the team.

We wrote those words last month in our discussion of rebuilding plans.

We have to say, Wallace has followed this model pretty much to the T. They dumped their largest contract, picked up some expiring ones, have communicated to the fans that they plan on spending the money down the line, and are willing to suffer through some 20-win seasons.

Why then did everyone, including us, jump on the Grizzlies? Was it really that bad of a trade? Why is it that this trade looks so horrendous on the surface, and how does it look beneath it?
Our initial reaction to the trade was... harsh.

Why? Well for a lot of reasons. One of the reasons was that we got caught up in how much better LA looked after the trade. That's due to a fundamental problem in how people approach the trading game. Essentially, even though they're not aware of it, casual fans and experts alike approach the trade as if it's a game-theory scenario. Essentially, the objective in the situation is to gain as much advantage as you can while limiting your partner's advantage as much as possible. The most "even" scenario is when each side essentially gets the same value, in different skills, in return. That's the only acceptable result without someone getting "ripped off." So when LA comes out with a former rookie-of-the-year with a wide array of offensive talents, and the Grizzlies walk away with Kwame Freaking Brown, Javaris Crittenton, Pau's little bro, and some late round picks, it looks like the Lakers won and the Grizzlies lost.

But a trade between a semi-power and a team struggling to reach 20 wins is not going to be one you can analyze in that manner. Because unlike in game theory, both actors do not share a common goal. Because while Kwame Brown and his expiring contract only holds a low value to the Lakers, it holds ten times as much value to the Grizzlies. They're not on the same playing field. They're not operating on the same plane. There's a clear difference in the goals of the two clubhouses. So instead, for the Grizzlies, we have to analyze them based on their efforts to reach their specific goals in trading Gasol.

First, when you make a trade in pursuit of rebuilding, you're not looking to obtain talent. You're trying to obtain future flexibility. That means expiring contracts and draft picks, of course. You don't want any longterm contracts that take up a big chunk of change and keep you from pursuing the players you really want. Those types of contracts usually accompany accomplished, veteran players. So not only are you unlikely to receive quality talent in return, quality talent actually demands the type of cap rigidity that you're trying to avoid. You're also looking to amass as many picks as possible. With Kwame's expiring contract, JCrit's smallish contract, and the Aaron McKee hilarity, the Grizzlies score a win on this front.

As for the picks, there's been a lot of spinning by the Grizzlies saying they got three first-round draft picks out of the deal. Obviously a lie. They got two picks out of the deal, the first rounder this year and the second-rounder in 2010. There's been a big giant call for criticism of this because the Lakers, already a good team, are now a top team in the West, and so the draft picks are certain to be late round. One issue with this line of thinking. Was Miami knocking down the Grizz' door to give them their pick for Gasol? Did the Sonics call up and say "We must have the euro-center who frequents the elbows and doesn't play defense. Please, take our draft pick! "? Because I'm pretty sure the Grizzlies would have worked something out. The problem? The Lakers were in a unique position to not only have the expiring contracts that Memphis wanted, but were willing to part with them to get the home-run addition. It was only going to be a team with a late round pick that would be willing to pull the trigger. And the Grizzlies couldn't expect the money and the picks. So again, win for the Grizz.

Second, and we really can't stress this enough, you're never going to get equal value return on a superstar. In relative terms, Gasol was the superstar of the Memphis Grizzlies. It's impossible to get return value. Because the most important player for your team can only be replaced by either the most important player on another squad, or a combination of vital players. Either way, you won't be able to get back what you're losing. If you decide to trade that player, you have to accept that the likelihood of walking away better off are infinitely small. Miami sent Caron Butler, Lamar Odom, Brian Grant, and a pick, for Shaquille O'Neal, and people still said the Lakers got robbed. So when you take into account that the odds of getting equal value for Gasol was nil, you have to alter your perceived goals towards flexibility as we said above. When you consider this factor, again, the Grizzlies scored a win. They didn't take on any unfortunate contracts, and instead of falling for the temptation of veteran talent, they stuck to the plan. Mark another one down for the Grizz.

Finally, as we touched on in the rebuilding piece, a team going through this transition needs to maintain communication with its fanbase. Too often the ownership or front-office will attempt to sell the revamped squad as if they believe it's the wave of the future. Heisley and Wallace could have come out and said "Oh, no, what are you guys talking about? Kwame Brown's got tremendous upside!" or "No, we think Javaris Crittenton is just what we need to push us into contention!" And by doing so, they'd be treating their fans as idiots.

For once, in a refreshing change, the Grizzlies didn't do this. Heisley went to the press, and first told everyone it was his call to move Gasol, not Wallace. The Grizzlies received a lot of criticism for this, too. People were questioning who was in charge in Memphis, and how much power Wallace had to make decisions. But think of this. As opposed to the horrid owner/GM situation in the Clippers clubhouse, you've got an owner that goes out and takes the heat off his GM who was obviously involved in the decision. He takes all the criticism off of Wallace and does the best thing he can. Lets him do his job.

Heisley has maintained an open relationship with the press, relating the reasons for the move. He hasn't tried to spin Kwame as some sort of underrated secret weapon, he's been open and honest with the fans. Consider this quote from the Commercial Appeal interview.

I know right now people are saying we're crazy. The point was you have to trade for what you could trade for. We got everything we could get out of the Lakers. We got draft choices and cap relief. That's what we wanted. They weren't going to give us Kobe (Bryant). I'm trying to put a winner on the floor for the people and it's not easy. We're doing the best we can. Anybody that reads more into this is wrong. Maybe we're not making the right decisions but we have the right motives.

If I'm a Grizzlies fan, I'm committed to this team. The front office is transparent with its motives and plans, you know what you're getting into, and you can see the payoff with teams like Portland and the Hornets. You've got Rudy Gay and Mike Conley. They're trying to build something better.

Wouldn't you rather have that than short-term answers that are only going to lead you back into a first round elimination year after year after year?

Once you get past the Bill Walton logic that they should have somehow gotten a superstar back for Gasol, once you realize that you can't evaluate this deal until you see how they draft and how they choose to spend the available money they're creating, once you understand that there was no way to make a deal that was going to satisfy a public that loves the idea of a team "losing" a trade, you can see that the Grizzlies made the best deal available for them. And for having the courage to make that step with discipline and realistic expectations, they should be applauded, not condemned. After all, they're not the Knicks.
So where are the Grizzlies, now that we've decided they're not completely idiotic?

This season? They're the pellets that Pacman eats. They're the goombas in Super Mario Brothers. They're just in the way.

But let's take a look at it.

They've got Rudy Gay and Mike Conley. Piece that with Darko Milicic (who's defense and on the court presence is ten times what his stats show), and JCN, and you've got enough to work with. Crittenton, if they slide him into the 2, can be a nice backup player that might develop into something. They've got Mike Miller, but twisting him off as well might be the best option.

The cap space, though. Oh, the cap space. There are estimates as high as $15 million this summer, low-ball is 10. Spin off a little bit more, and that should be good enough for Elton Brand, Gilbert Arenas, or Shawn Marion.

Marion is especially captivating, with the Iavaroni links and the ideal setup for Marion in Memphis. Marion wants to be the number one guy. He can be that in Memphis while Gay develops further. He wants to be the primary scorer. There you go. He'll still be in the run-system that's brought him success. And a frontcourt of Darko, Marion, and Gay, with Conley at point? Yowzers.
Anyway you slice it, the Grizzlies are getting killed in the media for this deal, and it's entirely too shortsighted. The common rebuttal to the arguments made above are that cap space doesn't make wins. But it's a small-market team in a terrible season. This team isn't going to pull players like LA or New York. Bill Walton recently said that the Grizzlies have become a "farm team" and that it's sad.

Well he's right about one thing. The Grizzlies are working on growing something.

This isn't to say, of course, that it'll work out. Ziller had a great comment in the rebuilding article that you need luck. If Memphis gets trapped at a +5 pick, if they can't swoop in fast enough to lure a free agent, if Gay suffers a major injury, the Grizz could find themselves rebuilding for the better part of a decade, which would inevitably lead to a sale of the team.

But if they can catch a break, and stick with the disciplined plan they've started on with trading Gasol, Memphis might just be able to make everyone glad they pulled the trigger on the biggest trade of the year.
Heisley's Interview With the Commercial Appeal

20 Questions With Chris Herrington
3 Shades Of Blue Initial Reaction
GrizzBlog article on rebuilding.
Empy The Bench tackles the Gasol "Heist."
More from 3 Shades of Blue
Clips Nation weighs in
How The Lakers "Won"
Chris Wallace Is A Masochist
Fanhouse News On Memphis Future

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