In the end, the league’s MVP rose to the occasion. Faced twice with a game deficit, once at 2-1 and again at 3-2, Kevin Durant willed his team into the Western Conference semifinals.
For the Grizzlies, a season filled with nausea and injury, ecstasy and myocardial infarction has ended. No shame, no regrets. A first round series worthy of the Western Conference Finals concluded after seven games, 4 overtimes, 3 4-point plays, a nationally broadcast Tony Allen defensive clinic, a Nick Calathes suspension, a subsequent Beno Udrih emergence, a Joey Crawford spaz-attack, the least efficient triple double in history courtesy of Russell Westbrook, a wooden hat worn by Mike Conley, a Zach Randolph punch, a subsequent Zach Randolph suspension (not without controversy), and an untimely Mike Conley hamstring injury. Surely I missed something.
Many (outside Memphis) predicted the Thunder in 6 or 7, and the latter was the result. For Grizzlies players and fans, countless what ifs come to mind, specifically regarding games 4 and 6. But as the great philosopher Tony Allen said “if ifs were fifths, we’d all be drunk”.
Today, Kevin Durant was dubbed Most Valuable Player, and in games 6 and 7 he showed why. In games 1-5, however, he was effectively shut down regardless of point totals. He was relegated to a corner decoy, as Westbrook and Reggie Jackson did their best to shoulder the load of creation and instigation.
It’s over, in the past, and time to move on.
Looking to 2014-15
With a full season including an epic playoff series under his belt, Dave Joerger will look to build on a positive first campaign at the helm. When chosen to replace Lionel Hollins, mixed feelings were abound. In truth, much of the protest was not directed towards him, his philosophy, lack of professional head coaching experience, or willingness to embrace analytics. Rather, it was the failure to renew Hollins’ contract after a decade of service to the franchise (dating back to Vancouver), a resume of improving success, and an attitude of I don’t give a damn where you’re from, what you’ve done before, what you’re up against now, finish the job. His mantra goes, “Everyday life throws a knife at you, how do you respond?”
It’s safe to say that mentality was engrained in the heads of Allen, Conley, Gasol, and Randolph, and now lives on through the new regime. Faced with countless obstacles this year, no excuses were made. Even in the face of overwhelming adversity (suspension, injury), the team jumped out to lead the Thunder in game 7. There was simply no gas left in the tank, and not enough fire power in the arsenal.
The outlook is positive for the Grizz, but major questions loom.
Contracts and Personnel
Clearly the biggest question is what will become of Zach Randolph. A player option is on the table for $16.5 million in the upcoming season. He could also opt out of the current contract for a multi-year deal in Memphis or elsewhere. Should he opt out and renegotiate with Memphis at a lower rate, there will be a lot more flexibility to sign a wing scorer which the team desperately lacks as the offense is still prone to snoozing.
Names have been thrown around like Thaddeus Young, Gordon Hayward, Trevor Ariza and others. Ariza and Hayward could demand higher level money, which would eliminate the Grizz as they need to remain below the luxury tax. A player like Hayward, however, fits the mentality of the team, has played well in a small market, and could accept less for a chance at title contention. Thaddeus Young is an interesting option. A New Orleans born turned Memphian (he played high school ball at Mitchell), Young is long and atheltic. He can attack the basket and play above the rim. He would also add to our stable of lefties. Ariza would be best in terms of outside shooting, but has played so well for the Wiz in the playoffs that he may no longer be in reach.
For one of these pieces to be added, of course, someone will have to go. Tayshaun Prince is a likely candidate, if a package/trade partner can be found. Quincy Pondexter could be on the chopping block as well. Despite his heart filled Conference Finals performance two years ago, a season ending injury in addition to a series of exchanges with Dave Joerger during an early season game against Brooklyn could see him voted off the island. James Johnson brought good energy, but was only on a season long contract, and received little to no playing time down the stretch due to his Tony Allen trick or treatish nature.
Beyond wing players, momentum is mounting for the return of Pau Gasol. The chance at redemption (not unlike Battier and Mike Miller) plus an opportunity to play with his brother in a familiar setting is well documented as a logical and attractive outcome for Gasol the elder.
There will be much more written in the coming days, and weeks, especially building towards the lottery and draft. The front office will have new avenues open, and others close depending on how the ping pong balls fall and the conclusion of the playoffs.
Until, then stay cool. It’s heating up outside.