Last year, the Memphis Grizzlies had the No. 2 pick in the draft and took a big-man project in Hasheem Thabeet.
We don’t know yet how that will turn out long term, Thabeet is a work in progress. We do know that the guys taken after him — James Harden, Tyreke Evans, Stephen Curry, Brandon Jennings, DeMar DeRozan, among many others — had better rookie years.
Now this year, the Grizzlies are playing a little hardball with first round pick Xavier Henry. They are asking for performance bonuses much more steep than the average team for him to get the full 120 of his rookie scale he is allowed.
So why did the Grizzlies start doing this performance bonus now rather than in years past?
“To be quite honest I hadn’t handled this in the past, and to be quite honest I wasn’t even aware this was in the collective bargaining agreement…” Heisley said. “I guess the question is why the rest of the league doesn’t do it?”
Why didn’t Heisley know this was in the CBA?
“I’ve never seen the collective bargaining agreement,” Heisley said, noting he had general managers and lawyers to advise him and it was they who have read the document. (He asked if the media has and, well, a number of us have as well as checking constantly with the easier-to-understand FAQ by Larry Coon on the topic.)
Vernon — much to his credit — didn’t let Heisley off the hook. He noted that rookie contracts are scale, there is little negotiation involved, so the agent gets little out of them. The extra 20 percent gives a little to the player and the agent out of good will. In the case of Henry, this is $300,000 this season that is the difference.
Heisley got defensive, asking if he should start asking agents what they all want for their clients and doing things just because they asked for it. He answered nearly every question with a question.
“I am just doing what I think is the proper thing to do,” he said.
What the Grizzlies are requesting is that Henry make either the rookie showcase team for All-Star weekend or the All-Rookie team at the end of the season, or play 15 minutes or more in 70 games. While other teams do put performance bonuses of a sort on their rookie deals, it is usually more along the lines of making a certain number of public appearances or very easy to reach goals.
The Grizzlies goals for Henry are not unreasonable, but they also are out of his control. The showcase and All-Rookie teams are selected by others (the coaches at the end of the season) and often there are snubs of deserving players. As for minutes, last year the Celtics benched Nate Robinson during a couple late-season games to keep him from reaching a bonus threshold, and that certainly could happen in another circumstance.
Agent Arn Tellem is telling Henry not to sign the deal, and he is listening. So there is an impasse. But Heisley sounded in no rush. He sounded like a ma that thinks he’s right and be damned of what the public, other agents and other players think.
“That’s fine. I’ve got plenty of time to sign my rookies,” he said. “Nothing is going on for 30 days, 60 days.”
It’s the kind of short-term thinking that has teams look elsewhere. And it shows on the court.
Since Heisley purchased the Grizzlies in 2000, they have had the third worst record in the NBA. The only two worse — the Clippers owned by Donald Sterling and the Charlotte Bobcats. Two franchises considered terribly run. Heisley said to Vernon that his team’s performance has been on par with other small market teams. It hasn’t.
But it can improve, this is a team on the verge of becoming relevant, with good talent like Rudy Gay and Marc Gasol, a team that could make the playoffs in a deep West.
Which is why it is so hard to watch steps backwards like this contract negotiation. You get the feeling anything good is just short term, then hope that feeling is wrong.