MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Outside the Grizzlies' locker room, the media gathered to speak with head coach Dave Joerger. It had been a trying day for the Memphis franchise, one filled with questions about the suspension of Zach Randolph, the mysterious eye injury of Tony Allen, and how on earth an undermanned team could possibly topple Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 7.
As the reporters waited roughly 90 minutes before tipoff, CEO Jason Levien walked down the hallway to enter the locker room, a garment bag of dress clothes draped over his shoulder. He stopped to say hello to a member of the Memphis media, and the look on his face reflected the fatigue and stress induced by the previous 48 hours. The loss in Game 6, he said, would haunt him throughout the offseason if his team could not pull off the stunning upset and win the series.
Some five hours later the Grizzlies walked off the floor inside Chesapeake Energy Arena completely spent. For 48 minutes they had fought the final uphill battle in a season that felt like it was conducted on an incline, trying one last time to contain Durant and Russell Westbrook in a series that, for the most part, highlighted Memphis' strengths and tested the gumption of the aforementioned two superstars.
But after six games and two weeks, the Grizzlies' defense finally broke. Durant was a marksman, Westbrook was remarkable and, when the buzzer sounded, Memphis was heading home.
That is the pretext as the Grizzlies enter the 2014 offseason, one that is crucial for a franchise with a handful of important decisions to make to stay competitive in an ultra-deep Western Conference. On Friday, Levien spoke with The Commercial Appeal to offer his thoughts on the season that was and the upcoming task at hand. His prevailing sentiment is that Memphis when healthy was as good as any team in the NBA, and the goal for the next few months, he said, is re-securing and then bolstering a roster the front office already enjoys.
"I think there's a lot of pain associated with how the season ended," Levien said. "There always is. And we felt like this team had the opportunity and the potential to go much further. But I think overall there's a deep level of satisfaction with the team."
It is unsurprising, then, that one of the principal objectives for the summer is to keep the nucleus together, and that starts with Zach Randolph, who has a player option for next year. Levien described Randolph as "such an important part of our team," and both sides have expressed a desire to see Randolph in a Memphis uniform once more.
Whether Randolph reaches free agency will be an interesting subplot. If he opts out in search of a new deal, the Grizzlies, should they re-sign him, could potentially free up a bit of cap space by lowering Randolph's per-year salary. It would afford the franchise extra cash in free agency, which could be used to lure important pieces to enhance a potential playoff run something Randolph might find intriguing.
The next priority after Randolph, according to Levien, is keeping players who are free agents. He mentioned Mike Miller and James Johnson as two players the front office has a "real interest in keeping."
An expected increase in both the salary cap and the luxury tax will help Memphis navigate the free agent market. The franchise should be able to use the full mid-level exception of $5.305 million, which can be split and given to multiple players. Levien also said there is a "real possibility" the Grizzlies will make use of the biannual exception, which would offer an additional $2.077 million that can be distributed in a similar fashion.
It is money that will almost certainly be used to bring in more shooting, which Levien acknowledged must be enhanced. "I think we have to," Levien said. "I think we were dead last in the league in 3-pointers made."
When asked for a list of possible free agent candidates, Brian Windhorst of ESPN.com ticked off a handful of names, almost all of which were above-average shooters. Players like Mo Williams, Ray Allen, Jodie Meeks and Trevor Ariza could be under consideration, he said, along with combo guards Evan Turner and Lance Stephenson.
"Every single time they look at a player, the first question is 'Can he shoot?'" Windhorst said.
A lack of three-point prowess is perhaps the only glaring weakness on a team with an intimidating combination of big men, steady point guard play, a lockdown defender and a handful of capable role players. It will be the focus of the offseason after dealing with Randolph, and the ultimate hope for Levien is a lengthy playoff run to show for it.
Only then will the pain from losing to OKC subside.
"We felt like by the end of the season we were as good as anybody in the NBA, anybody in the Western Conference certainly," Levien said. "I think our record showed that."
(c)2014 The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, Tenn.)
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