Buck Harvey: Blank no more: Memphis’ rise, luck

Chris Wallace stayed behind in Memphis for Game 1. The general manager of the Grizzlies had a few things to do, such as work on a new contract for Zach Randolph.

So he’s watching the game Sunday afternoon, living and dying with every possession — when his satellite transmission goes out with about a minute left.

Wallace is searching for another broadcast, frantic with every passing second, until the game returns with 10 seconds left. Given what happened in that time, maybe nothing better describes the current status of Wallace and his franchise.

From a blank screen to the startling news.

You mean everything worked out?

Wallace laughed while telling the story Monday. Few GMs are as accessible and as affable.

Now he has reason to share even more, because February of 2008 seems so long ago. That’s when Wallace traded Pau Gasol to the Lakers, and criticism flowed toward Memphis as relentlessly as the Mississippi.

“What they did,” Gregg Popovich notably said then, “is beyond comprehension.”

NBA execs rarely critique each other this way. After all, if Wallace wanted, he could evaluate the Spurs.

Such as: Isn’t it beyond comprehension they discarded Luis Scola for money?

But Wallace didn’t fire back. “I said at the time, the Lakers got their benefit from the first day Pau suited up,” he said. “Ours was delayed gratification.”

There would be delays, all right, and Wallace didn’t control all of it. He’s not unlike Bob Bass, the former Spurs general manager, who served under hyperactive owners. Wallace is sometimes a GM, but he’s sometimes a powerless observer, too.

This goes back a few years. When he worked in Boston, he wanted to draft an unknown from France named Tony Parker. Red Auerbach, fading but still with the influence of a legend, wanted an American kid who eventually flopped.

The Grizzlies owner, Michael Heisley, has been more involved than Auerbach. Heisley gets the blame for drafting Hasheem Thabeet, as well as thinking Allen Iverson would be a swell fit.

Heisley is a self-made millionaire with self-made wounds. But it was Wallace who put together the Pau deal, and that was the move that came to define a confused franchise.

Popovich wasn’t the only one who rolled his eyes. Lionel Hollins, for example, wasn’t employed by the Grizzlies then. Asked how he saw the deal at the time, he was candid Monday.

“They probably could have gotten more,” Hollins said.

But everything worked out, right?

“Sometimes the worst thing can become the best,” Hollins said. “This league is all about luck.”

Hollins said people apply the word “genius” to those who make the right guess. Others would have taken Thabeet, he said, and some teams passed on Michael Jordan.

The Spurs have often admitted as much. They’ve been held up as innovators and professionals, and the Spurs Way has produced championships. But they had luck, too; if they knew Manu Ginobili would be this good, they wouldn’t have waited until the bottom of the second round to take him.

Wallace argues there was more than luck. Memphis had a plan, and it was a valid one. “Pau’s been like an NBA version of an organ donor,” he said, “with how he’s provided life to this current team.”

It requires a spreadsheet to keep up with all of the transactions that came from the Pau trade, but this much is certain: The Grizzlies have the core of their team, Marc Gasol and Randolph, because of the Pau trade.

Did they know Marc would someday have a better playoff afternoon than his brother? Did they foresee Randolph not only becoming available, but also being a perfect fit?

No and no. But both are Grizzlies because Pau is not, and Popovich has another reason not to like the 2008 trade.

About a year ago, when it was clear the Grizzlies were on to something, Popovich softened his stance. “I was just trying to be a wise-ass,” he said of his previous comments.

But Wallace never heard from Popovich personally, and he’s okay with that.

“I never took any offense,” he said. “I have so much respect for him and R.C. (Buford). There’s no question they have created the finest organization in the league.”

It’s easier to be forgiving now. With a 1-0 series lead on the finest organization in the league.


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