Let's cut to the chase. The regular season is about five things, and five things only:
1). Winning games - Obviously. At the risk of sounding like a homer, this team is really good, and really deep, and both of those things mean stacking wins on wins on wins. If this team played in the East and had something close to average health, I'd probably put their median win total at something around 57 wins, with an outside shot at 60.
Yet the Grizzlies play in the brutal Southwest Division. The Southwest, whose worst team boasts a top five player - the best young guy since young Lebron. Which the reigning NBA Champions, the deepest team in the league, calls home. Which, depending on your particular fancy, holds between a quarter and a third of the best twenty basketball players on the planet.
This is the wasteland through which the Grizzlies must navigate.
I have Memphis' median win total around 53, which may be good enough to host a playoff series. This is vital for a team that plays with small edges. This is vital for a team trying to re-sign its best player. This is vital for a team trying to attract the next Great Grizzly (more on this in a bit).
But winning games isn't everything. There are other concerns afoot.
2). Keeping the Principles Healthy - Deep teams win a lot in the regular season. Deep teams weather injuries. Deep teams can also afford to taper the minutes of their best players.
The Spurs have done this for years, and the Grizzlies should really start that process this year. Perhaps it started last year. There were many suspiciously minor injuries causing players to miss games. Marc Gasol, Mike Conley, and Zach Randolph should each be given games off.
Giving players time off not only gains them rest, but it also puts your rotation in unique situations, and allows player groupings to gain experience and familiarity you may need in the postseason.
On a related note, the Grizzlies really need to give time to two point guard lineups; time to Jon Leuer at power forward; time to Kosta Koufos at power forward; maybe even time to Vince Carter at power forward. The more player groupings you try, the more tools you have in your belt.
Nobody on this team should play over 2,550 minutes, and that's being lenient (the number should probably be closer to 2,400). This team is just too deep, and the Grizzlies are too smart.
Nowhere is this more evident than on the wing.
3). Locking the Proverbial Wings In the Proverbial Closet - Ages ago, the Grizzlies locked all their backup point guards in a closet, let them fight, and waited to see who came out. Let's hope the current iteration of this project proves more fruitful. The Grizzlies are crowded on the wing. Vince Carter and Tayshaun Prince are likely unmovable due to age. Young Jordan Adams is waiting in the wings. Meanwhile, the Grizzlies have three incumbents: Quincy Pondexter, Courtney Lee, and Tony Allen.
It would be in the Grizzlies' best interest to choose two of these three players and trade whoever doesn't make it out of the closet. They have time to make the decision, but the clock is ticking. These three wings are owed a combined $14mm in 2015-2016. Each brings a different skillset and represents a different level of production relative to their salary. Which two players the Grizzlies choose will have much to say about how they shape the roster going forward.
While NBA2K15 has a particularly low opinion of Quincy Pondexter, I'm more agnostic on him. It's strange to think of a role player heading into year five, making a paltry $3.5mm per year as a big gamble, but Quincy Pondexter is exactly that. The Grizzlies had enough confidence in him to lock him in for four years, but he really earned that extension by playing about forty games of slightly average basketball. The other four and a half years of his career have been limited by injury, crowded wing positions, and shaky play.
It's year five, and question marks still hover. For instance, we still don't know if he can shoot.
Pondexter seems to fit into the "3 & D" role that every team craves, but looks can be deceiving. Nylon Calculus recently published an interesting article examining sample size in relation to three point shooting. They sought to answer a simple question. How many three point shots does a player need to take before we can trust their shooting percentage? The data suggests that it takes at least 750 three point shots before we can tell if someone is the shooter we think they are. Qunicy, across four seasons, has attempted just 369 (including the playoffs), and has shot 37%. Certainly, Q-Pon could be a 37% three point shooter going forward, but anyone that says that is just guessing.
It is statistically impossible to prove that h. What it does mean is that there is no way to tell if Q-Pon is the guy who shot 39.5% over 150 attempts, or the guy that barely cracked 36%, or if he is Ray Allen (disclaimer: he's proooooobbbbbably not Ray Allen).
Still, at just $3.5mm/year for the next four years, if Pondexter can contribute any amount of shooting, then he is worth keeping.
Then you have Courtney Lee, who seems to be the best two way player of the bunch, but perhaps is the least flexible position-wise. Can Courtney Lee and Jordan Adams play together? Can Lee play with dual point guard lineups featuring Conley and Calathes? Keeping Lee likely means fewer Jordan Adams minutes and fewer dual point guard minutes, but it also means keeping the player who is most likely to be productive this year and the next.
For a separate project, I looked at the cumulative Win Shares generated by each player on the Grizzlies roster over the last three years, and weighted them by minutes played per season. For a player like Lee, I took his Win Shares playing for other teams, so there is a caveat that these numbers could be different depending upon how Lee's role is affected.
Still, the numbers are interesting. Lee has generated slightly fewer Win Shares per 48 minutes over the last 3 years than Pondexter (0.094 and 0.101 respectively). Pondexter's Win Shares are all over the place, whereas Lee's have hovered in a much smaller range. We can be more certain Lee will give the Grizzlies slightly below average to average NBA play, whereas QPon could be far below average, or slightly above average. We don't really know.
Even when looking only at three point shooting, Courtney Lee has shot nearly an identical percentage to Q-Pon, but he has done it over 1,234 three point shots, which is well beyond the 750 we need to know whether Lee is actually a decent shooter or not. If the Grizzlies want certainty, they keep Lee in the fold for next year and just bank that they have the probability of a better shooter (and the certainty of about average production) on the roster.
Then we have Tony Allen, the Grindfather himself. Was TA's drop in production last year attributable to injury, or the first signs of the downward slope of Tony's career? Though thirty-two, TA has played relatively few minutes for this stage in his career, and my bet is that rationing his regular season minutes would keep him fresh for a postseason run that would likely see him guarding Manu Ginobili, Kevin Durant, or Chris Paul.
The problem with trading TA is that he is a tricky player to fit on a roster, and therefore would have few suitors. A team must be in win-now mode, while also having enough scoring on the wings that they could afford to play a relative minus on offense like Allen. The Wizards come to mind. So do the Cavaliers and Heat. But how many of these teams are desperate to give up assets to acquire Allen? And is trading Allen without getting something back really worth it? The short answer: hell no.
However, keeping Tony over a player like Lee means committing to playing him for at least a few minutes at small forward, something the Grizzlies seem strangely loathe to do. Lineups featuring Lee and Allen together played just 256 minutes together last year, resulting in only the barest of net positives for the Grizzlies. Yet many of these minutes were played without Conley or Gasol, and these players are vital offensive hubs that Allen needs in order to be effective.
Though less statistically reliable, perhaps a better gauge would be just looking at swapping in Allen for Prince with the rest of the starters. Doing this meant little to the offense - the Grizzlies scored just two points more per 100 possessions. But the defensive change was stark - Grizzlies opponents scored eleven fewer points per 100 possessions when Allen played with the starters over Prince.
This makes sense. If a five man offensive unit can weather Tony Allen minutes, it's the starters. Perhaps the difference would not be so stark, but it would be there.
The Grizzlies could opt to keep all three of these wings, but trading one of them this year gets the Grizzlies within shouting distance of max cap room in the summer. Would the Grizzlies give up a half year of a productive player to get closer to clearing max cap room, if it meant gaining an asset in return? Or would they prefer to have that half year of production now, then perhaps deal with the cost of sending an asset out the door to clear cap space later?
There is no right answer here, but happily there aren't wrong ones either. Each scenario has its costs and its benefits. The Grizzlies may be perfectly happy dealing whichever of these three players would bring back the biggest return. They may choose to keep them all.
For my part, the choice should be between Lee or Tony Allen, and I lean towards keeping Allen for a host of reasons. If either player could yield a 1st round pick, I'd trade them.
Having too many good players is never a problem.
4). The Third Big - A similar calculus is occurring at the backup big spot, where Kosta Koufos is entering the final year of an extremely cap friendly contract. Koufos is worth at least 2.5 times his $3mm/year contract, and re-signing him in the offseason will require the Grizzlies to eat into that precious cap space.
To shine more light on Koufos' impending contract negotiations, let's take a quick detour into next year's cap space question.
The Grizzlies have the opportunity to be flush with cap space for the first time in a half dozen years. The upcoming summer is vital for the long term competitiveness of the franchise. How vital?
The Grizzlies could be a fifty-five win team that returns it's core and brings in a near max salary Free Agent. I'm sure that has happened before... I just can't remember when.
How does this relate to Koufos? Keeping Koufos means a cap hold of $5.7mm, and pairing that cap hold with Gasol's $17mm+ hold keeps the Grizzlies around a prospective cap of $68mm. But dealing Koufos now for an asset along with Lee or Allen clears over $11mm from next year's cap. From there, the Grizzlies can do the necessary dirty work - whether it be renouncing rights on Calathes, or not picking up Beno Udrih's player option, to get within shouting distance of max cap room.
But trading Koufos leaves the Grizzlies with only Marc Gasol capable of protecting the rim, and protecting the rim is kinda what you want your big guys to do.
The Grizzlies really need to see what they have in Jarnell Stokes. His college statistics show a marginal rim protector - Stokes placed slightly above average in blocks for centers in the NCAA per the gentlemen over at BoxscoreGeeks.com. Yet maybe he can prove to be an efficient paint protector by sliding in to take charges? Maybe he just gets big? You don't really know until you try.
If Stokes can provide any kind of rim protection, it would be worth trading Koufos to a team who desperately needs another big. Trading Koufos now allows the Grizzlies to acquire an asset in return for a player who the Grizzlies would either have to pay more to keep or could risk losing for nothing.
Would Cleveland - a team starved for cap friendly contributors - give the Grizzlies back their pick, and perhaps throw in Matthew Dellavedova for Koufos and one of the wing trio? The beauty of this trade is that the Cavaliers can absorb this salary without sending any dead weight back. Cleveland adds the low-usage, cost-friendly reinforcements they desperately need. Meanwhile, the Grizzlies regain the ability to trade their pick, clear cap room, and clear a log jam on the wing while only giving up just two bench players.
This opens up sign and trade options next year to pair with signing players outright. If Milwaukee wanted to part with Larry Sanders or Ersan Ilyasova for picks, the Grizzlies could accommodate next year.
5). The Soon-To-Be-UnHidden Gem - I won't pretend to see into the future. Except that I will. Jordan Adams comin'.
Jordan Adams is
very likely gonna be very good. I almost want to strip the previous sentence of its qualifiers. Saying advanced stats love Jordan Adams is a slight to un-advanced stats. Some rated him the best wing in the draft - better than number one pick Andrew Wiggins. Jordan Adams scored well in nearly every metric that translates to the NBA, and he did it all while being out of shape.
And now he's in shape. Jordan Adams comin'. HE COMIN'!
I have favorited every comment on Twitter that has remotely slighted Jordan Adams, and I will - I WILL - throw them back in your faces.
On a random Tuesday in January, when Grizzlies Twitter is rushing to leap on the Jordan Adams bandwagon, I'll be standing at the gates. I will look at each of you. And I will turn you back (unless, of course, I gave you a key earlier).
The Grizzlies need to do everything they can to get the man playing time. I'd be willing to trade Courtney Lee - a good bet to be the most productive of the three wings we discussed earlier - just to make this happen. The opportunity cost of keeping all three of those wings for the full season is a couple hundred minutes that could go to Jordan Adams.
And, in case you didn't know by now, Jordan Adams comin'!