One week ago, Marc Gasol and the Toronto Raptors were still champions in waiting, The Golden State Warriors were still revered as nearly unstoppable, Anthony Davis was still a New Orleans Pelican, and Mike Conley was still a member of the Memphis Grizzlies, who had just introduced Taylor Jenkins as their new head coach.
And now? Almost everything is different. And the offseason is just getting started. It just goes to show you how the NBA doesn’t slow down – not even for a championship. There’s a great deal to unpack, but let’s start with the obvious: The end of the Mike Conley era in Memphis.
News broke before noon Wednesday that the Grizzlies had reached a deal to send Conley to the Utah Jazz in exchange for sophomore swingman Grayson Allen, veteran forwards Kyle Korver and Jae Crowder and the No. 23 selection in the 2019 Draft. The Grizzlies will also receive first round protected picks that could extend into 2024.
“What more can I say about my city! You guys made me the man I am today!” Conley tweeted after the news broke. “Memphis is home. Always! Time for another chapter! Excited to give all I have to The Jazz and Salt Lake City!”
The trade can’t be finalized until July 6, so don’t expect the franchise to say all the official farewells until sometime after that. But the truth is, this shoe has been falling to the floor literally for months – and we’ve been saying goodbye to Conley for a long time now.
The Long Goodbye
Back in January, with the team was mired in dysfunction on and off the court, the Grizzlies announced that both Conley and Gasol were on the trade market. Only Gasol was dealt before the deadline, however.
Conley was simply stranded in Awkwardville, along with the rest of us media types who were just as tired of the “Is this his last game in Memphis?” narrative as Conley was. Back on Feb. 5, the final game before the trade deadline, the Grizzlies squeaked out a 108-106 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves. Gasol sat out the game, while Conley posted a 25 point, nine-assist stat line.
Mind you, the team had announced their intentions a full two weeks before this game – meaning, we media types had been asking Conley about his “last game” for weeks. After the Minnesota win and ever the class act, Conley responded graciously to us yet again.
“It was surreal, seeing Marc down on the end of the bench cheering. I was like, ‘Damn, man . . . this is it,” he said. “It crossed my mind almost every time coming out of the time out – looking in the stands, the coaches, the players, seeing my wife and kids in the stands where they’ve been for the past 12 years. . . I was just trying to take it all in, enjoy it.
“If it is my last time, I just didn’t want to leave any regrets,” he added. “I’m just happy we got the win.”
Of course, it wasn’t Conley’s last time playing in Memphis. A few weeks later, Conley would go for a career high 40-points (19 in the fourth quarter) in a 120-111 win over the Portland Trailblazers. And on March 26, a corner three against Golden State made Conley the franchise’s all-time leading scorer, now with 11,733 points. He’s one of only three players to lead a franchise in scoring, games played, steals, assists and three pointers. The other two? Pacer legend Reggie Miller and some guy named LeBron James (Cleveland).
The February trade deadline put a pause on those “last game” questions until the actual last game of the season, a rousing win over the Golden State Warriors. The next day, just hours before the franchise unceremoniously ejected J.B. Bickerstaff as coach and benched Chris Wallace as GM, even Conley was all out of goodbyes.
“I did that once already this season. Felt like it was a going away game and nothing happened,” Conley said. “But I wanna win a ring, man. You get 13, 14 years and those years start to stack up. You don’t get too many opportunities. I also want to know what it’s like to get to the top at some point.
“If that’s here or anywhere, I’m all for it.”
And thus the long goodbye finally concludes, and with it a final farewell to The Core Four and perhaps even to “Grit ‘N’ Grind.” Whatever this next version of your Memphis Grizzlies is, it’s certainly not “your daddy’s Memphis Grizzlies.”
On a personal note, I’ve interviewed Mike Conley dozens of times over the past nine years I’ve covered the team. It’s been a joy watching him mature as a player and as a man. He is as genuine, as affable and as thoughtful as you think he is. Here’s my first interview with him, back in 2010:
My only disappointment with his career (so far) is that circumstances around him have denied him superstardom and an All-Star selection. As a player and as a world citizen, Mike Conley is exactly the kind of person you want the young hooper in your house to emulate.
We’ll see if Utah is a championship-level squad. Injuries and trades have conspired to put the Western Conference up for grabs.
But whether it’s with the Jazz or elsewhere, I do hope that sometime in the next five years or so, Conley and Gasol are somewhere splitting a bottle of wine while comparing insanely gaudy pieces of jewelry.
In with the new
I’m writing this on a Wednesday afternoon before the draft — meaning there’s only so much to say about the presumptive No. 2 pick, Ja Morant. But the last time I heard this much chatter over a No. 2 pick was when the then-Seattle Supersonics selected Kevin Durant.
We’ll have complete team coverage on the NBA Draft at TSDMemphis.com. Tigers beat reporter Terry Davis will join me, photographer Warren Roseborough and freelancer Shambreon Richardson to make sure we have all angles covered. Check back with us all weekend long for the latest! In the meantime, peep this clip of Morant talking about growing up in rural South Carolina:
“When I see these kids play and I look into their eyes, I see parts of myself. I see big dreamers, and a love for the game.”@igotgame_12 may be going pro, but he’s not forgetting where he came from. (In partnership with @JBLaudio) pic.twitter.com/e34wFngBqZ
— The Players’ Tribune (@PlayersTribune) June 18, 2019
Wild Wild West
Amazing how a dynasty can turn on an Achilles or and ACL. If injuries to Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson didn’t signal that the Warriors were no longer invincible, watching the Raptors hoist the championship trophy at the end of the last game in Oracle Arena surely did.
The Lakers pounced, literally trading away their future to acquire Davis from New Orleans. LeBron-to-AD is indeed a terrifying combo, even without the third star the Lakers are still pursuing. But will the Lakers be able to fill out the rest of the roster – not just now, but in seasons to come?
What of the Rockets, the other team considered a threat to the Warriors? Apparently, we all missed the fact that Chris Paul and James Harden can’t stand each other – reportedly, the two stars didn’t speak for two months during the regular season. Paul, set to make $38 million next season, has reportedly demanded a trade. I love CP3, but good luck with that.
Mind you, I’m writing this BEFORE the NBA Draft and the start of free agency. The NBA landscape is nowhere near done shifting. But I’ll be surprised if there’s a prohibitive favorite to win the West once the dust settles.
And if the Grizzlies play their cards (and games) right, this rebuild might put the bears in the playoff hunt earlier than expected.
Big Gain for Big Spain
Finally, congratulations to Marc Gasol, who finally put an NBA Championship cap on his head last week. There are some who are a tad bit salty about the love Gasol still gets from Memphis, but I don’t get it.
I mean, geez, the guy spent part of his offseason last year on a boat in the Mediterranean Sea looking for refugees – not out of a team PR obligation, mind you, but because he’s an extraordinary human being. Once I learned he has a green thumb, I’ve even chatted him up after a game, getting his tips for growing tomatoes.
Marc Gasol won Memphians over by being tougher and more rugged than his brother Pau. But like his brother, he’s a team-first player, unselfish to a fault. We wanted Marc to dominate, to assert himself as an MVP-level player, but that’s just not who he is. Like Pau was in back-to-back championship runs with the Lakers, Marc Gasol is a role player – a pivotal one, but a role player nonetheless.
And he’s also an NBA Champion. And on behalf of those of us who like to see genuinely good people win, I couldn’t be happier for him.