Life as a small market team in the NBA can be difficult.
Players aren’t exactly lining up to play in places like Salt Lake City or Milwaukee; besides, even if a major free agent shows interest in a smaller city, it may not come to fruition. Without the big pockets that teams like the Lakers or Knicks have, small market owners are less likely to make big splashes of cash for players. This can be frustrating for fans, but it’s a survival tactic. A team in Los Angeles or New York is always going to be relevant, even when they offer players like Timofey Mozgov 4-year, $64M contracts. On the other hand, if a team in a small city makes a big move and it fails, they're left with a bad contract, no cap space and no appeal of a marketable destination to lure free agents on favorable contracts.
The Memphis Grizzlies know this struggle as well as anyone. Despite that, they’ve managed to put together a very competitive team.
Even through an injury-riddled year that saw an NBA-record 28 players on the roster, the Grizzlies still managed a winning record; all while following the rules that small-market teams are made to play by.
They drafted star point guard Mike Conley with the fourth overall pick in the 2007 draft. They acquired the draft rights to Marc Gasol by trading away a disgruntled star. A year later, the team traded for Zach Randolph, a talented big man with an attitude problem that had fallen out of favor with the Los Angeles Clippers. Finally, in 2010, they signed a defensive-minded backup guard from the Celtics, Tony Allen.
Each of these four players have become stars in Memphis, but none were seen as significant risks for the team to take. These are the types of moves (good draft picks, smart trades, and taking flyers on veteran backups) that small market teams need to make to survive. If they turn out well, you end up with a competitive team, one like the Grizzlies, or the Oklahoma City Thunder, or (the gold standard) the San Antonio Spurs. If not, you end up with a small market clone of the Brooklyn Nets.
Even with savvy moves and a healthy amount of luck, small market teams are at a disadvantage if they refuse to take any risks. The Grizzlies are a smart franchise, and they understand that. They also understand that three of their four stars are on the wrong side of 30 and that Conley isn’t too far behind. If they want to keep competing, they needed to make a splash this summer. And they did.
Chandler Parsons represents two things to the Grizzlies. First and foremost, he’s the first significant free agent ever to choose Memphis, and that’s huge. It shows that despite being one of the smallest markets in the league, the city, front office, and roster has enough appeal to attract the kind of player that nearly every team wants. He’s not LeBron James or Kevin Durant, of course, but he is a very good player. Until this summer, very good players didn’t choose the Grizzlies — they didn’t even meet with them. Parsons changed that.
The other thing Parsons represents is also very important: his signing shows that the franchise is willing to take risks. Parsons is talented, but he has never played 82 games in a season and has only played in one of his team’s ten playoff games in the last two years. His injury history should be a major concern, especially to a team with a closing window for competing like Memphis. If he doesn’t work out, it could tie up the team’s cap space for the next four years, effectively preventing them from improving the team without blowing everything up. It could sink them.
That’s scary, but it doesn’t mean signing Parsons was the wrong move.
If a team is too scared to take a risk, they could end up in NBA purgatory, the worst place to be — not good enough to win a title, but not bad enough to get a good draft pick. Just mediocre enough for the occasional second-round appearance, some air time on SportsCenter, and to make it look like you’re trying. If your owner refuses to take a risk and spend extra money on a player, it’s easy to end up dead in the water. San Antonio took a chance a year ago when they signed LaMarcus Aldridge, despite questions about how he would fit with the players already in place on a very good team (it worked out for them). Oklahoma City took a risk by trading Serge Ibaka and breaking up a core that had a 3-1 lead on the Warriors in the playoffs. Kevin Durant left for greener pastures, but it wasn’t because of the trade — we’ll have to wait and see if the deal works out, but it looks great for them on paper.
Just like the Spurs or the Thunder made recent, risky decisions, Memphis went out on a limb by signing an injury-prone star to a huge contract. That star could push them over the hump to be real competitors in the West, or he could use up their cap space and lower their ceiling as a team.
A player like Chandler Parsons is both a significant signing for Memphis and a terrifying one. In the end, though, it’s a risk they needed to take.