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Marc Gasol’s broken foot changes everything for the Memphis Grizzlies

Memphis Grizzlies center Marc Gasol will possibly miss the remainder of the regular season with a fractured right foot. (AP Photo/Brandon Dill)

After some early-season struggles, the Memphis Grizzlies had seemed to figure things out in recent weeks. They had won nine of their last 11 entering Monday night’s game against the Portland Trail Blazers, finding a rhythm over the past few weeks since reinserting Zach Randolph back into the starting lineup.

But then Monday happened: Marc Gasol left the Blazers game in the first quarter with an injury to his right foot. The day after that home loss, an MRI exam revealed Gasol would be out indefinitely with a broken right foot – a moment that not only could impact the franchise over the next two months, but beyond.

Whether Gasol has surgery on his foot – the likely course of action – or not, he’s expected to miss at least six weeks and likely closer to eight or more. The more optimistic time frame would put his return date around April 1, and if he’s out longer than that he’s nearly certain to miss the rest of the regular season, which for the Grizzlies ends April 13.

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The ramifications for not having Gasol for the rest of the season are simple: It could cost Memphis a playoff spot. Heading into Wednesday’s game in Brooklyn, the Grizzlies’ final one before the All-Star Break, Memphis sat in fifth place in the Western Conference, only 4.5 games ahead of ninth-place Portland. The fact that Sacramento has continued being insane and has lost eight of its last 10 games and New Orleans has never gotten started will likely give the Grizzlies a boost in their hopes of remaining a playoff team, but losing Gasol – one of the best two-way big men in the league – will make life difficult for them, to be sure.

But would it be better for Memphis to miss the playoffs? Maybe so. Why? Well, it goes back to 2013, when the Grizzlies moved forward Marresse Speights to Cleveland to save luxury-tax money. In doing so, the Grizzlies sent a first-round pick to the Cavaliers and sent another one to Boston last year for Jeff Green – a trade that, like every trade for Jeff Green over the past few seasons, hasn’t worked out the way Memphis hoped it would.

If Memphis misses the playoffs, though, it would get out of its obligation to the pick given up in the Speights trade (now controlled by Denver, which received it in a trade last season for center Timofey Mozgov), which could become important for a franchise that, for several reasons, is entering a transitional phase.

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And that is the other thing that the Gasol injury does: It reinforces the inevitable closing of this wonderfully fun era of Grit ‘N’ Grind basketball in Memphis. This team was a fringe title contender for the past several seasons, and a delightful one at that. The Grizzlies have had a colorful cast of characters – from their Gasol and Mike Conley, quietly their best players, to boisterous defensive ace Tony Allen, to their happy bruising forward in Randolph – and have played a throwback style featuring two bigs in Gasol and Randolph that would have been commonplace 20 or 25 years ago but sticks out like a sore thumb these days.

It was that style that made the Grizzlies so unique, and so much fun to watch. In a league where so many teams were doing the same thing, Memphis looked and felt different. That group, though, is beginning to show signs of wear and tear. Randolph turns 35 in July, and the age and miles have started catching up with him. Allen’s lack of shooting is becoming a bigger and bigger issue as he gets older (he’s also 34) and loses some of his athleticism.

Now Gasol, who is 31, is likely out for the remainder of the regular season with his fractured foot and, most importantly, Conley – the youngest of the group at 28 – will be an unrestricted free agent this summer, leaving Memphis with an impossible choice to make: offer him a five-year contract worth significantly more than $100 million, a contract that will undoubtedly look rough three or four years from now, or let one of the faces of the franchise walk in free agency.

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Up until Monday night, it seemed like this group would be sticking together, perhaps after making it to the second round of the playoffs after a possible first-round series against one of their favorite foes, the Los Angeles Clippers – another team in the midst of an identity crisis at the moment. Memphis may not have won a title with this group, like it would’ve hoped, but a beloved core in one of the league’s smallest markets would remain together and competitive into collective twilight, which is far from an awful fate.

And, even in the wake of Gasol’s injury, it’s still possible things could play out that way.

But fates of a franchise can turn on one play, whether it’s a shot going in or out, or someone taking a wrong step and going out with an injury. The latter happened in Memphis on Monday night, and now there’s at least the potential for the Grizzlies to consider selling off assets (though it’s hard to see that happening).

Either way, a frank conversation about the future of the franchise was going to happen this summer. With Gasol’s injury, that timetable has changed. Instead of the diversion of a fun close to the season and a potential first-round series win, the time to talk about what comes next in Memphis starts now.