Memphis Grizzlies center Marc Gasol (left) and small forward Tayshaun Prince (right) react on the bench in the second half of game four of the Western Conference finals of the 2013 NBA Playoffs against the San Antonio Spurs at FedEx Forum.(Photo Spruce Derden USA TODAY Sports)
MEMPHIS Tenn. There was a moment right before the Western Conference Finals began when the NBA's least glamorous franchise became its trendiest team.
Devoid of star power with no championship pedigree and the league's second smallest media market the Memphis Grizzlies had suddenly become a popular pick not just to beat the San Antonio Spurs but potentially give the Miami Heat problems in the NBA Finals.
Coming off a powerful series against the Oklahoma City Thunder the Grizzlies seemed perfectly positioned to do something special against the Spurs a team they'd beaten two years ago in the playoffs. Memphis' frontcourt combination of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph appeared practically unstoppable. Grit and Grind a local anthem had become a national phenomenon.
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And then when the Grizzlies finally arrived at the most jubilant and promising moment in franchise history it was over. Almost as soon as it began.
They didn't let us up for air at all Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins said.
Memphis' season is now finished having been done in by the Spurs in a conference finals sweep that hardly anyone could have seen coming. The Grizzlies so powerful and gritty and composed in the first two rounds of the playoffs competed only in the sense that they made the Spurs work hard for the last three wins of this series.
But that was little consolation for a group that saw all its weaknesses exposed at the most important moments. Though two of the four games went to overtime the Grizzlies only damaged the Spurs in two of the series' 16 quarters.
They taught us a lesson how to play at this stage this far into the season this far into the playoffs Grizzlies center Marc Gasol said. They taught us a lesson in how to execute how to play how to read schemes. They taught us a lesson all around and I think we're going to be better because we played against to me one of the greatest teams there's been in the past 15 years.
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But before the Grizzlies can move forward from their conference finals flop there are several key personnel decisions that will determine their course.
First and foremost Memphis will have to figure out how badly it wants to bring back Hollins whose contract runs out at the end of June. Hollins has led the Grizzlies to three straight playoff appearances and his value as a free agent has never been higher. With several openings around the league notably the Brooklyn Nets and Los Angeles Clippers new Grizzlies owner Robert Pera and team president Jason Levien could be forced to decide whether they want to be involved in a bidding war over a coach they didn't hire in the first place and who publicly disagreed with the decision to trade Rudy Gay to Toronto.
Meanwhile shooting guard Tony Allen will be an unrestricted free agent and likely in line for a raise over the $3.3 million he made this season. Guard Jerryd Bayless who averaged 8.7 points off the bench has a player option for next season at $2.9 million and is probably a good bet to test the free agent market. And given the Grizzlies' perpetual shooting struggles they were 32.2% from the 3 point line in the playoffs they will undoubtedly be searching for help in that area via free agency.
The problem of course is that Memphis already has $57.5 million committed to eight players (not including Bayless). With the luxury tax threshold expected to be around $70 million that doesn't leave a ton of room to re sign Allen get legitimate shooting help and fill in any other holes.
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In the meantime there will be a lot of chatter about whether the Grizzlies might make another move to increase their financial flexibility perhaps even trading Randolph who had a poor series against the Spurs and turns 32 this summer.
Randolph even hinted that he's heard the speculation saying after the game he plans on living permanently in Memphis if I get traded or not.
You never know. (The offseason) is important Randolph said. We have to be hungry and hope this core stays and comes back next year and adds more pieces some shooters and just come back hungrier and more focused and determined.
In other words the Grizzlies could come back next year and look very much like the same team that just made a run to the conference finals. Or they could have a new coach and major roster turnover.
Either way the hope would be that Memphis can stay relevant by building around Gasol and point guard Mike Conley who are 28 and 25 respectively and coming off the best seasons of their respective careers.
Whether that means the Grizzlies' championship contending window is just now opening or a one time shot this season will very much depend on how the roster is shaped moving forward. And how much the returning players absorb from the clinic the Spurs just administered.
I think our guys really dug deep to get as far as we did guard Quincy Pondexter said. San Antonio is a tremendous team and we're going to take a couple pages out of their book and move on.