Trade season is underway, around the league and in Memphis. A couple of juicy NBA trade rumors have leaked out already, and there's plenty of speculation floating around including here at Grizzly Bear Blues. Now that December 15th has passed and players who signed as free agents this summer are eligible to be traded, there's a lot of options out there for teams in what is already shaping up to be an active trade season.
Nobody's denying Memphis is a team looking to make trades, even though they suffer from a lack of assets. They can go either way from their slow start, and options exist both ways. They could tinker to try and improve their odds at rebounding their way into the playoffs, or they could tear it all apart and chase a potential All-Star in this year's loaded draft.
Trade rumors have floated around Zach Randolph for a long time. He's made it clear that he'd like to retire in Memphis, but with a contract that pays him much more than his on-court value and a player option that could mean the difference between significant cap space or the Grizzlies going into the offseason over the salary cap, there's a valid reason those trade rumors exist.
There's also Ed Davis, a nice frontcourt prospect that never managed to find his footing in Memphis but should still have trade value around the league for his solid potential. With Jon Leuer's emergence, Davis could be expendable and a change of scenery might be what he needs.
In terms of trade assets, it might end there. The Grizzlies would probably love to trade Tayshaun Prince, but for the same reasons they'd want to trade him (a declining offensive game that has made him a liability on that end, a two-year contract that pays him $14.9 million in total), other teams would be hesitant to take him on. Jerryd Bayless is a serviceable backcourt scorer on an expiring deal, but his play of late isn't going to convince many teams to pony up much for him.
Kosta Koufos is good, young and cheap, but probably not expendable for a Memphis team that lacks significant frontcourt height after him and Marc Gasol. The Grizzlies probably aren't looking to sacrifice draft picks either, considering their lack of any rookie-deal contributors or prospects with significant upside (no offense to Jamaal Franklin, but he's not quite Kawhi Leonard).
Being so limited in their trade assets means the Grizzlies' front office will probably have to make a lot of calls to find the trade that's right for them. I've spent a long time on ESPN's Trade Machine trying to figure out a way to nab Arron Afflalo via a threeway sending Zach Randolph to the Cleveland Cavaliers, but it's not easy. With so little to offer themselves, the Grizzlies have to rely on the Cavs giving up young talent (Dion Waiters? Tristan Thompson?) to Orlando to get the deal done. However, it's a stretch to hope an up-and-coming team like Cleveland would give that up even if they would benefit from a proven star like Z-Bo to help out Kyrie Irving (especially when they'd still have to give up more players to be able to take Z-Bo's salary, like starter Anderson Varejao).
You can tinker with trades more and more, but it's hard to find an acceptable balance when you either end up with a depleted Grizzlies' frontcourt or other teams overpaying on our behalf. Maybe (probably) I'm just a douche that likes to argue, but I haven't seen a single theoretical trade that both benefits the Grizzlies and would be okayed by all involved parties. I've seen trades slanted towards the Grizzlies' favor (sometimes unfairly so) and I've seen trades that leave the Grizz in need of one thing or another, but I've yet to see one that hits the equilibrium.
What concerns me most is that to make a trade, the Grizzlies might have to mortgage their future. Whether it's cap space or one of their few young players that they're probably better off keeping (Kosta Koufos or Jon Leuer, pretty much), they might have to sacrifice one of those to grab an Arron Afflalo or a Luol Deng. They already owe the Cleveland Cavaliers a protected 2015 first-rounder and because those protections extend to 2019, the Grizz can't trade a draft pick until next season (when they can trade their 2021 draft pick, per the seven-year rule) because the CBA prevents the possibility of having to send draft picks in back-to-back years.
At the rate the team is falling apart, between injuries and poor play, there is pressure to make a trade. With limited trade assets, the Grizzlies might have to take on a bad contract or be asked to give up Koufos without getting back anybody particularly young to replace him.
And honestly, they might consider it. The Grizzlies' salary picture isn't great until after next season, and they don't have many young players to help sustain their core as they age. Mike Conley, 26, and Marc Gasol, 28, are in their prime right now, but without many young players or cap space to build around them, their window to win a title may look fleeting. They made it to the Western Conference Finals last season, but at 10-15 today, it might feel like the Grizzlies have to sacrifice the future to catch up to the heavyweights in the conference. Because of their recent success, that plateau certainly feels within reach, but definitely not on their current trajectory.
Sure, grabbing a player through the draft next year will help if they don't mess it up. The Grizzlies' recent draft history is uninspiring, but the they're looking at a mid-lottery to mid-first round pick in a draft that seems a hard one to go wrong with.
But if they do go wrong, and that 2015 draft pick gets sent to Cleveland? Oh boy. As a small-market team, the Grizzlies aren't well-equipped to build their team in free agency. By practically all accounts, they've treated their players well enough that they usually want to stay. But Memphis won't attract many big-name players, nor will the Grizzlies be able to go deep into the luxury tax the way the Mikhail Prokhorov-owned Brooklyn Nets can. They'll be hard-pressed to build through free agency if they set themselves back further by taking on salary.
Making the problem worse? Mike Miller, Jerryd Bayless and Ed Davis are all free agents this season, each of them a relatively important member of the Grizzlies' rotation. Without a trade and if Zach Randolph opts in to his contract, the Grizzlies will be over the salary cap from the start of free agency, not ideal for a team trying to replace free agents and improve at the same time.
The bottom line is that the Grizzlies can't afford to trade away their future in an attempt to win now. Arron Afflalo, playing at an All-Star level relative to the Eastern Conference, might help to establish the Grizzlies as a playoff lock for a few seasons. But, if to get him the Grizzlies have to give up young assets or take on salary that clogs up their offseason flexibility (Afflalo's contract is a three-year deal), they lose the means to continue to upgrade from that point. They become a playoff lock, sure, but they can't become much better than that. They become the Atlanta Hawks of the Western Conference.
I'm not suggesting the Grizzlies trade to tank, either. The Grizzlies are third-last in the Western Conference, but because the Eastern Conference is a thing, Memphis would still be just the 9th or 10th pick were the draft today. They're only getting better when Marc Gasol returns, and trading to tank for a top-5 pick pretty much means dealing away Conley or Gasol (a definite no-no).
Instead, what the Grizzlies should do is trade to free up the ability to compliment their core. Clear salary and trade for cost-efficient talent. So many of the deepest teams in the NBA compliment their best players with good players playing on cheap rookie contracts (Kawhi Leonard for the Spurs, Lance Stephenson for the Pacers, Harrison Barnes for the Warriors). The Grizzlies have a handful of young players outproducing their contracts like Jon Leuer and Kosta Koufos, but even collectively, they aren't making enough the difference needed to outweigh the overpaid guys like Z-Bo and Tayshaun Prince.
If the Grizzlies can replace Prince or even Z-Bo with an expiring contract, great. If they can add a player that can produce for little cost, great. That'll go a long way in allowing the Grizzlies to continue to improve from their current state. Instead of being mired in mediocrity, they will have the capacity to build their way back into the NBA's upper echelon.
It's all easier said than done, of course. There's the tricky component of balancing future assets and the present, and then you get to worrying about the on-court fit. A player like Dion Waiters, talented and in just the second year of his rookie contract, can be a sexy name to fish for, but he's not helping the Grizzlies win today or any time soon. Iman Shumpert sounds nice, but the Knicks will likely want a defensive center and the Grizz don't have the depth to move Kosta Koufos.
My own opinion? I still think there's a way to grab Arron Afflalo while moving Zach Randolph, which cuts salary and adds an elite (and very much needed) 3-and-D presence to the team. The idea of swapping Randolph-plus for Pau Gasol has piqued my interest, expiring after this season (and due a pay cut in free agency, making it all the more easier to re-sign him) with considerable potential playing alongside his brother Marc.
Hell, if Randolph is willing to opt out of his expensive player option for next season and instead sign a long-term contract with the Griz that pays him less yearly but offers more security, that'd do the trick. I'm all for Z-Bo retiring a Grizzly if it can be in the team's best interests.
The way I see it, the Grizzlies aren't quite facing a crossroad. They're facing a bunch of paths that go in circles and one that offers the way to contending. There will be a lot of things to balance on that path, and certainly any trade the Grizzlies make won't come easy in negotiations. With few trade assets and very concentrated areas of need in a buyer's market, they won't have much flexibility in trades. All of my own time with ESPN's Trade Machine has amounted to "almost there, but missing a piece".
Fortunately, I'm not the one responsible for getting trades done. General manager Chris Wallace and the rest of the Grizzlies' front office can probably do a better job than a 17-year-old blogging from his bedroom at 5am. With two months to go before the trade deadline and more pieces in play league-wide than we've seen in at least a few years, this should be an exciting trade season to follow. Hopefully, the Griz can walk out for the better – short-term and long-term.
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