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Tis' the Season: To Trade or Not to Trade?

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As the holiday season approaches and the Western Conference playoff contenders begin to make themselves known, the Memphis Grizzlies have cooled off to the tune of a 3-game losing streak heading into a bit of a Christmas break. The question can now be fairly asked; do the Grizzlies need to make a big trade to truly have a chance at a championship? Or are they real contenders as they are?

C-Lee's journeyman career could continue this trading season.
C-Lee's journeyman career could continue this trading season.
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The best start in Memphis Grizzlies' history has slowed considerably the past few days.

Not that it wasn't to be expected. Overtime victories over the Charlotte Hornets, Philadelphia 76ers, and San Antonio Spurs, alongside a great, emotional win over the best team currently in the NBA, the Golden State Warriors, were sure to take their toll. As discussed on this site, the month of December was going to be long and arduous anyway. While this 3-game losing streak at the hands of the Chicago Bulls, Cleveland Cavaliers, and Utah Jazz is by no means ideal, it does not negate the 21 wins that preceded it.

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This Grizzlies team is good...damn good. One of the top five-to-seven teams in the NBA at worst, one of the top two or three teams in the NBA at best. Marc Gasol has been a revelation, calling Mike Conley underrated has become so 2013, and Zach Randolph has been good-to-great in his slightly reduced role.

However...once you get past the Grizzlies' "Big Three", there is a noticeable gap. Courtney Lee has cooled considerably after his scorching hot beginning to the 2014-15 season, Tony Allen has been especially "trick" riddled this season at times, Vince Carter started extremely slowly but appears to be heating up, and Quincy Pondexter has vastly under-performed. Tayshaun Prince has been better than last season, but still is not playing well enough to be a consistent rotation player to be counted on. The bench bigs, especially Kosta Koufos, have performed admirably at times, but have struggled at others. Outside of KK and Beno Udrih/Nick Calathes, questions aplenty abound.

Including only the 11 Grizzlies who have played in at least 15 games at 10 minutes per game so far this season, which excludes Jarnell Stokes, Jordan Adams, and Nick Calathes from the list, the average PER (Player Efficiency Rating) of the team through 28 games is 14.82, right around the average number of 15. Let's compare that number with the other Western Conference playoff teams as of December 23rd using the same criteria.

  1. Golden State Warriors (10 players) - 16.6 PER average
  2. Portland Trail Blazers (11 players) - 14.17 PER average
  3. Memphis Grizzlies (11 players) - 14.82 PER average
  4. Houston Rockets (12 players) - 11.94 PER average
  5. Dallas Mavericks (First number - 11 players involving those in the Rajon Rondo trade, second number - 8 players post trade) - 16.72, 17.26 PER average
  6. Los Angeles Clippers (9 players) - 16.34 PER average
  7. San Antonio Spurs (12 players) - 14.5 PER average (15.68 without Austin Daye's miserable 4.5 PER)
  8. New Orleans Pelicans (9 players)- 16.25 PER average
PER is certainly just one method of measuring player success. The Grizzlies are still a top-10 offensive (9th at 106.1) and defensive (8th at 101.5) efficiency team in the NBA, despite the recent cold spell. But the Grizzlies are 5th among those 8 teams in PER average, meaning that, from top to bottom, the players in the rotation currently are middle of the pack among the teams Memphis will be competing with for playoff seeding. Oh, and notably absent from this list? Oklahoma City, who will almost certainly be back among the top 8 by the end of January. Whether from within or outside, improvement is still needed as the season grinds along.

So, over this holiday break and beyond, Grizzlies fans and NBA followers can begin to fairly ponder this question - does Memphis need to make a trade to better their chances at competing this season? On one hand, the Western Conference is a minefield; any team between the 1 and 7 seed could legitimately lay claim to possibly being the best team in the West. Dallas has already made a big move to land Rajon Rondo, and Houston is apparently in hot pursuit of the newly available Josh Smith. They, the Spurs, and the Thunder are beginning to get healthy, and don't forget about the New Orleans Pelicans, who, behind the obscenely talented Anthony Davis, will likely only improve as the season goes on. How much better can these Grizzlies - as currently constructed - get?

On the other hand, Memphis' place in the West as at the least a playoff team feels pretty secure, as long as the Grizzlies stay healthy. January looks to be much easier than December was schedule-wise, and another great run is entirely possible through those games. Memphis' ball movement has been exceptional, and when healthy, these Grizzlies can play with anyone. While Mike Conley and Marc Gasol may have reached their peak levels of production for the season, health will be the Grizzlies' friend, and that team chemistry that makes Memphis so special could be affected by a trade.

So...to trade, or not to trade? It isn't an easy question.

Say you're of the "make a trade" line of thinking. What pieces could possibly make Memphis that much better with the tradeable assets the Grizzlies have? Assuming any deal of substance as described would have to include a starting caliber player, let's say Courtney Lee is on the block in addition to the previously-discussed-elsewhere pieces of Tayshaun Prince and Kosta Koufos.

Green to Grizzlies

This move involves the Grizzlies parting with a future 1st round pick, but it could be well worth it. Boston has clearly punted on this season and continues their rebuild; the cap flexibility of Prince's expiring contract, plus that pick and the bargain of a contract that is the returning Courtney Lee make this deal attractive to Boston. The Grizzlies, meanwhile, upgrade the 4th big position with Brandon Bass without losing Kosta Koufos, and also acquire the much discussed Jeff Green, a scorer who can play small forward or step in as an effective small ball power forward.

Don't want to lose a pick? Understandable; let's let Cleveland do it instead.

Green to Grizzlies 2

Cleveland sends the rights to the Grizzlies' 2015 first round pick to Boston in this move. Tristan Thompson, Dion WaitersShawn Marion (who likely gets waived by Boston) add to Boston's rebuild. Cleveland gets Courtney Lee, an actual starting shooting guard, to pair alongside LeBron James and crew, as well as Tayshaun Prince, who they reportedly covet. Instead of Ray Allen, now perhaps Cleveland looks to Emeka Okafor for rim protection in this scenario. Memphis still gets Green and Bass, but don't have to part with an additional pick.

Perhaps you would like a better ball handler alongside Mike Conley?

Dragic to Grizzlies

Another deal that saves Kosta Koufos from being on the move. This one, however, would likely once again cost the Grizzlies a 1st round draft pick, and in this case, would leave them without a true small forward on the roster completely. This move makes room for more run for Isaiah Thomas for Phoenix and nets them a wing in Courtney Lee to replace Gerald Green as he moves on next season, as well as Tayshaun's expiring.

Don't want to lose Tayshaun & that contract of his?

Dragic to Grizzlies 2

This trade gives Phoenix something it desperately desires - a steadying presence at center. They can let Kosta play out the set and see if he is worth an investment or if they need to look elsewhere. He would fit well in Jeff Hornacek's system. Tayshaun stays in Memphis, and Dragic still arrives as a scorer who can handle the ball alongside Mike Conley, allowing for him to play off the ball more. Either Emeka Okafor or Kenyon Martin likely becomes a Grizzly in this scenario.

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What do all of those hypothetical deals have in common? You are giving up SOMETHING of substance, whether it be one of the best backup centers in the NBA in Kosta Koufos, the expiring contract of Tayshaun Prince (and the flexibility it brings), or a future first round pick. It will be hard, if not impossible, to upgrade the current roster without harming it in other ways, either now or in the future.

So, maybe standing pat is the right answer after all. Courtney Lee was a topic of an article of mine just a little more than a month ago about how he may have finally found a home in Memphis. After his regression back to the mean that everyone knew was coming, is it right to move him along and pass him off just a month or so later? A trade not involving him or Tony Allen is possible of course, but how much does a KK and/or Tayshaun plus a pick trade realistically move the needle? Are there other Grizzlies on the roster who may have trade value enough to upgrade the team considerably?

Could it perhaps be better to keep continuity, keep the cap flexibility to re-sign Marc Gasol, and pursue a starting caliber wing next offseason? To let a team who has seen success so far this season play out the slate? As constructed, the Grizzlies will be a tough out for anyone in the West when playing up to their capabilities...

...but how tough exactly? Could it be tougher? Is it worth pushing true free agency impact to 2016 while improving your odds this season? Could a Dragic, Green, or someone else really put the Grizzlies over the top? Is that chance worth mortgaging part of the future for?

'Tis the season for such questions. Christmas is here, time of the Great Trade Debate in Memphis has officially begun.

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