'Who are we?' Grizzlies have no identity and hard questions

Windhorst says Grizzlies aren't trading Gasol - for now (0:33)

Brian Windhorst reports that Memphis' minority owners are working to buy out majority owner Robert Pera, which could lead to Marc Gasol being traded. (0:33)

As grit-and-grind crumbled and controversy swirled about his possible role in David Fizdale's shocking dismissal, Marc Gasol was happy to see a text from an old friend. Zach Randolph had some advice.

"'Just get out of it,'" Gasol says, paraphrasing Randolph. "'Figure out a way to win, like always.' When you have been through so much with somebody, it's like Zach is still here. In a way, he's always going to be part of the team."

Is there even a point in trying anymore? Memphis has lost 15 of 16, which looks like a typo. They have no identity; grit-and-grind is dead. Attempts to build a younger supporting cast that could sustain as Gasol and Mike Conley age have failed. Memphis is 8-19, ahead of only Dallas in the West, staring into the abyss. They have to at least consider trading Gasol while he still has two-plus seasons left on his deal, to stock up for the inevitable rebuild.

They will not -- yet. "We think our window is still very much open with Mike and Marc," Chris Wallace, the team's GM, told ESPN.com during a recent sit-down in New York. (Wallace reaffirmed his comments on Tuesday.) "I think we'll be heard from the rest of this year, and in years to come."

Wallace rejects the notion that the future is barren. He hopes that a few among Dillon Brooks, Andrew Harrison, Jarell Martin, Deyonta Davis, Ivan Rabb, and even Kobi Simmons become solid rotation players. "We think we are fulfilling both objectives," Wallace says of competing now and building for tomorrow. "How many teams who have been annual participants in the playoffs have as many guys under 24?"

Does he think any of those young guys will become even slightly above-average starters? "It remains to be seen," Wallace says. "I'm not trying to evade the question. I learned a long time ago not to rush to judgment on young players."

He reminds that Davis played only 600 minutes in college, and that Martin didn't start organized basketball until late in high school. But that is the point: Gasol and Conley are over 30, with some injury history. Memphis dotted the roster around them with projects. All of them have tools; some may mature into good players. By the time that happens, it may be too late for Gasol and Conley.

Chandler Parsons was their home run swing at finding someone to bridge the gap -- the would-be star they chose over (among others) Eric Gordon. (They did give Parsons a physical, by the way. The results and how much they mattered are unclear.) Parsons is healthier and playing well under a minutes restriction, but he has a long way to go before even approaching max-contract production.

It is not bad enough for Gasol to ask out. It may never be. "I have a responsibility to this city," Gasol says. "I'm not gonna quit, no matter what." What if Memphis fell 30 games under .500? Gasol shakes his head. "I would want to see how we got there -- what the process is," Gasol says. "But as long as [owner] Robert [Pera] wants me here, my teammates want me here, they think I'm part of the solution -- and not part of the problem -- that's all I need." (Gasol still denies he asked for Fizdale to be fired, though the tension between them was real, sources say.)

If the team came to him with a trade, Gasol would accept it. "If they think it is best, I would do anything for this franchise," Gasol says.

Wallace and other higher-ups are adamant that is unlikely, even as the losses mount. That seems stubborn, and there is almost certainly a scenario -- perhaps Conley getting reinjured, or taking longer than expected to return -- where Memphis tests the market. But even in that doomsday sequence, the Grizzlies may even prefer to hold their stars out here and there in some selective tankery, nab a high draft pick, and reload for another run at 45-plus wins.

"We are not just looking to make the playoffs," Wallace says. "We want to do damage there. We've played well against top teams. I know it's not the same as winning, but we have gone down with dignity against them in the playoffs. Maybe one year the playoff gods will shine upon us. Everybody can dream, all right?"

Wallace sounds a bit like Lt. Frank Drebin assuring bystanders there is "nothing to see here" as a building explodes behind him. But even if Wallace wanted to act, factors beyond his control might paralyze him.

The Grizzlies lost almost $40 million last season before collecting revenue sharing, per confidential league financials obtained by ESPN.com. Playoff revenue and attendance matter. The murmurings about a potential move to Seattle will never stop, even with the team's arena lease and other protections locking them into Memphis through at least 2021.

It is also unclear who will own the team in six months, and owners determine fork-in-the-road choices.

Last month, at least one minority owner exercised a complex "buy-sell" clause in the franchise agreement that could result in one of them wresting control of the team from Pera.

That decision, a formality, opened a 90-day period in which one or both minority owners -- Steve Kaplan and Daniel Straus, who each own about 14 percent of the team -- can negotiate with Pera about buying or selling shares among each other.

If no deal is reached in those 90 days, the minority owners have another 60 to name a price for the team -- and bid on Pera's stake at that price, according to several sources familiar with the process. (The minority owners could also punt, and stick with the status quo.) That bid would be essentially binding. Pera would have two choices: sell at that price, or buy the minority owner's stake at that same valuation.

Changing directions amid such uncertainty is hard -- maybe unprecedented. No one knows how Kaplan or Straus would approach a rebuild if they had control.

Standing pat can be the riskiest course. For the Grizzlies, wringing as many wins as possible from Gasol and Conley could amount to delaying the pain for another three seasons -- without winning all that much in the interim. Perhaps they just want to get through next season, when they owe their first-round pick to Boston -- provided it falls outside the top eight -- via their 2015 deal for Jeff Green. (The Clippers also owe Boston a first-round pick stemming from their acquisition of Green a year later. Never get involved in a land war in Asia, never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line, and never trade a first-round pick for Jeff Green.)

Embracing pain now doesn't mean it will go away faster; rebuilds can persist for a decade given bad luck and one draft blunder.

Shove aside the ownership dynamics, and there is nothing unusual about the Grizzlies' predicament. This is the NBA life cycle. You win, your best players get old, you rebuild. Perhaps the hardest challenge in team management is building in a cushion so that the downslope is soft and short. The Spurs have done it best, with shrewd picks and one major free-agency coup.

The Raptors are doing it now, having collected extra picks and turned them into a half-dozen intriguing young guys who might absorb more of the load as Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan age. Atlanta searched for an artful way to bail out of the Al Horford-Paul Millsap core early, but didn't really find one.

Toronto and those Hawks are useful analogs -- good teams in historically blah markets built around two top-20-ish players. The Grizz still have two top-25-ish guys. That isn't easy to find! In cold terms, tankers like Chicago have a brighter future than Memphis, but is anyone on Chicago's roster -- including the guy they pick toward the top of this draft -- guaranteed be as good as Conley or Gasol have been?

But "two top-25-ish" players sounds better than saying the Grizz have maybe the 20th- and 23rd-best players -- and zero projected top-100 players locked in beyond this season.

The draft history is ugly, and well-trod. The Grizzlies picked Wade Baldwin 17th in 2016, and waived him in October to make room for (among others) a broken-down Mario Chalmers. They lost Rade Zagorac, the 35th pick in 2016, in the same roster crunch.

They famously selected Jordan Adams one spot ahead of Rodney Hood in 2014 -- after vigorous debate -- and then fretted over Adams' lack of playing time. They purchased the rights to the 35th pick in that draft, and used it on Jarnell Stokes. He's gone from the NBA, too. They thought hard about selecting Nikola Jokic, sources say, but felt No. 35 was too high. Denver nabbed Jokic six picks later. They tried to trade up for T.J. Warren, but found no takers, sources say. Selecting Hasheem Thabeet No. 2 in 2009 has receded from memory, but it is the kind of what-if that ruins a franchise.

Martin, their first-round pick in 2015, has shown flashes of 3-point range and an emphatic pump-and-drive game -- plus the ability to switch on defense:

Brooks is cagey. Harrison is a physical ball handler who looks more comfortable lately on wide-open catch-and-shoot 3s. Davis has the hops to be a rim-runner.

But flashes don't help 30-plus stars now. Drafting outside the lottery is hard; you will mostly fail. That is why good teams get bad.

Memphis has done a nice job mining free agency for gems such as JaMychal Green, James Ennis, Wayne Selden (a sneaky big loss this season), and Tyreke Evans (still scorching from deep!) -- though Evans could bolt after this season.

But they missed on the fringes, too. They had both James Johnson and Hassan Whiteside, but let each go before extracting value. (They had reasons, including a logjam at center during their flirtation with Whiteside in 2014.) They were the first NBA team hot on Joe Ingles, but never signed him. They drafted DeMarre Carroll, and sent him to Houston as a throw-in for Shane Battier in 2011 -- a trade that propelled Memphis to its first playoff series win.

They tossed away a first-round pick to dump Marreese Speights in 2013, and limbo under the luxury tax. A week later, they flipped Rudy Gay in a deal that would have gotten them under the tax anyway.

The explanations for the Speights deal -- that getting under the tax created leverage in ongoing Gay talks -- never made enough sense. That deal also cost them Wayne Ellington, drilling 3s in Miami. Memphis got Jon Leuer, but flipped him to the Suns for the rights to Harrison. Ed Davis, acquired in the Gay deal, walked to the Lakers for the minimum.

None of those players -- perhaps not even Whiteside -- are changing your life as a franchise. You could do this "missed opportunity" exercise for every team. The smarty-pants Rockets waived Carroll. Any team could have nabbed Whiteside. A bunch of young players bounce around before finding themselves in their late 20s.

But a lot of those players had latent value. The best-run teams turn that value into second-round picks, prospects, something -- a churn that looks pointless in the moment, but adds up. Just look at the byzantine transaction histories of Boston and Houston over the past 10 years.

All of this has left Memphis aimless as Conley recovers. They play a more modern, 3-heavy system, without actual shooters. Green shot 38 percent from deep last season, but he's reluctant; opponents know that, and ignore him to clutter the lane, confident Green will dribble out of open 3s:

"He's just going to have to take 3s and make them," says J.B. Bickerstaff, the team's interim head coach.

He spends too much time in no man's land, clogging lanes without making himself a threat as a cutter:

Ben McLemore's range helps, and he's working at things that don't come naturally -- team defense, and attacking right away when he catches the ball. It's going to take years to make him into an average wing -- especially after an injury robbed him of training camp.

Opponents slough far from Chalmers, Harrison, and Brooks. "Teams are not gonna let Marc play in the post," Bickerstaff says. "They are sitting in his lap." Gasol can't bulldoze to the rim through three bodies, leaving him tricky in-between shots; he has hit just 41.5 percent on post-ups, 23rd among 31 players who have finished at least 50 such plays, per Synergy Sports.

Memphis runs a ton of side pick-and-rolls designed to get Gasol the ball on the move, without help defenders around, but those plays go nowhere when opponents scrunch in off of everyone:

Gasol jacks only 3.5 triples per 36 minutes without Conley, down from about a half-dozen when they share the floor, per NBA.com. Evans is the only ball handler left who yanks defenders away from Gasol on the pick-and-roll, and he can't mimic the give-and-go pitter-patter Gasol and Conley mastered over years. When Evans attacks, he drives to the rim -- too far for a kick-back to Gasol, Bickerstaff says. When Evans lingers up top, he takes one or two harmless east-west dribbles that don't compromise the defense:

"Mike has the perfect intermediate game for Marc," Bickerstaff says.

Without as many pick-and-pop 3s, Bickerstaff has Gasol rolling down the gut more -- a gambit that works better with Parsons or Ennis as a stretchy power forward:

Nothing has really clicked. Memphis is too low on talent. On paper, they take a lot of the right shots -- 3s and layups -- but can't make them; they are down to 26th in points per possession. No team has underperformed its expected effective field goal percentage, based on exact shot locations, by a larger amount, per Second Spectrum data.

The Grizz want to compensate with active, Spursian screening and cutting, Bickerstaff says, but the offense grows stagnant. The day after last week's loss in New York, the team gathered in Memphis and rewatched the game as Bickerstaff narrated all the instances when players didn't move.

Two days later, they barfed up some of the most wretched, unwatchable possessions you will ever see in the NBA when Gasol and Evans rested together -- something the Grizz cannot afford while Conley is out:

Memphis is caught between identities on offense. Grit-and-grind is gone, replaced by only a vaguely modern shot selection. They don't even rebound anymore -- on either end.

They pinned some of the falloff on the defensive glass on increased switching, which left small guys boxing out behemoths. Bickerstaff sought to limit that, he says, but the team still switches a lot in some games. Most of their lineups are built for switching.

But Bickerstaff is worried players switch because it is easy, not because it works, he says. The strategic back-and-forth has sown confusion against basic actions:

The Grizzlies, for what feels like the first time in forever, don't have an ingrained belief system. "Who are we?" Gasol asks. "What are we going to build on?"

As they search, the season -- and maybe an entire era -- is slipping away. They aren't giving up yet. "The season is not lost," Bickerstaff says. They could play .500-plus ball once Conley returns, and claw back toward the playoff race.

Gasol agrees, echoing that advice from Randolph. "It doesn't matter how bad it gets, you have to ask yourself: What am I going to do to make it better today?" he says. "You have to hit the reset button every day."

As a player, Gasol can worry about the next game. The front office and ownership have to worry about the next five years. It's time to ask some hard questions.