Of course, the Memphis Grizzlies this past week or so has been far from the model of a stable organization. Even more than that, the past four years have been tumultuous for the most recent "Best Franchise in Sports" according to ESPN the Magazine. Ownership changes, front office shakeups and a 56-win head coach not returning to the team plus a 50-win coach interviewing for another job and then turning it down? That's about as stable as a Kardashian relationship.
There has been, however, one aspect of Grizzdom that has been stable these past four seasons. That is the "core four" known as Marc Gasol, Mike Conley, Zach Randolph and Tony Allen. These same four players have made the playoffs together for four straight seasons, a streak partnered with roster continuity shared only by the Oklahoma City Thunder, San Antonio Spurs and Miami Heat. Excellent company to share, to be sure.
Grading the 2013-14 Grizzlies: Zach Randolph
Steady as she goes, Zach Randolph's play was one of the few constants during the tumultuous season the Memphis Grizzlies recently concluded. Z-Bo rebounded, scored and helped carry the team into the playoffs.
Coaches organize and develop scheme, front offices and owners run the day-to-day operations. Players play, and win, the games, and thanks in large part to the efforts of the "core four" Memphis has won more than lost in recent years. Age catches us all, however, and there were thoughts the past two seasons that the Grizzlies may be interested in moving on from the "Grit and Grind" era into a more modern model of NBA roster.
Those fears have been quenched some, first with the new contract for Allen last season and now with the report from Yahoo's Adrian Wojnarowski that Z-Bo and the "new" front office led by Robert Pera and Chris Wallace (for now) are making progress toward a contract extension that will keep Zach in Memphis for multiple years. This is good for continued chemistry, but depending on the value of that deal it may hamstring possible moves made for the Grizzlies. This team needs that stability, but it also needs a shot of life.
It needs new blood, a player who unlike Tony Allen can contribute on both ends of the court, but at the same time is more consistent/a better scorer than Courtney Lee. The Grizzlies need a Fourth "Grizzly King", a player who can stand alongside Marc, Mike and Zach and help get them over the playoff hump now as opposed to later.
How do they get there? Allow the ArmChair GM to speculate, won't you?
Let's first make some educated guesses with the current roster questions (i.e. Restricted and Unrestricted Free Agents) that will help us map out possibilities.
1. Zach extends with Memphis for 3 years $33 million dollars, averaging $11 million a season (rationale- Tim Duncan makes $10 million a year on average, Kevin Garnett make $12 million. Let Zach fall in the middle.)
2. Memphis re-signs Beno Udrih for the veteran minimum of $884,293 for Calathes insurance.
3. Memphis also re-signs Mike Miller to a 3 year $7 million contract. Veteran minimum for the first season since he is still on his amnestied Miami deal, the next 2 years at about $3 million a year. If it's good enough for Mike Dunleavy, it's good enough for Mike Miller.
4. James Johnson and Ed Davis do not return as they pursue the greener pastures of more playing time and salary.
So, here is what the roster would look like assuming all that, costing the Grizzlies about $64.6 million next season over 13 players.
- PG- Conley, Calathes, Udrih
- SG- Lee, Allen, Pondexter, Franklin
- SF- Prince, Allen, Miller
- PF- Randolph, Leuer
- C- Gasol, Koufos
The salary cap projection for next season is $63.2 million, with a Luxury Tax ceiling of $77 million. Memphis would be comfortably under the tax with the full Mid-Level Exception at their disposal. There are some moves that can be made to bring in that fourth "Grizzly King", but of course with any roster move there is risk.
What are some possibilities? Let's take a look.
The Truth Shall Set You Free...?
This option certainly does not get the Grizzlies younger, but it does allow for more of the roster to stick around and brings in a player who can perhaps be the fourth best player on the roster at this point in his career and have success. The first step in executing this plan is releasing Tayshaun Prince from his contract via the "stretch provision"; basically, it allows Memphis to release Prince and enjoy immediate cap relief this season, stretching out the hit over 3 seasons. In short, the Grizzlies would owe Tayshaun roughly $2.6 million on the salary cap over three seasons as opposed to $7.7 over one.
This hamstrings the franchise a bit long term, but it also in the short term gives even more cap space, $5.1 million more than they would have had this season otherwise. That would put Memphis at $59.5 million, $3.8 million under the cap. After signing their first round pick (for the sake of this example Clint Capela, a Swiss player who would be a project but is a skilled 6'11" player in the front court) for $1.3 million, a 2nd round pick they buy (again for argument's sake) and including incentives, that will leave Memphis with only the Mid-Level Exception to work with. This is worth $5.305 million the first season, with no more than a 4.5% annual raise in the contract.
Enter Paul Pierce. Signing Pierce to a 2 year $10.8 million dollar contract would fit within the Grizzlies' cap frame and would give "The Truth" the two more years on a contender he seeks. Pierce would provide Memphis with a solid free throw (82% last season) and three point (37% from range) shooter who has been to the mountain top many times. Here's his shot chart from the past season. Looks nice to a team that desperately needs a shooter/guy to get to the free throw line.
He also does not have to play 34 minutes a night in Memphis, allowing for the wing depth to be better utilized. Quincy Pondexter, Tony Allen and Mike Miller would all be able to get minutes in various ways and in different lineup combinations.
So, Memphis is over the cap, but well under the Tax, They would have room to re-sign Marc Gasol after next season as well as having young players who can spend time with the D-League affiliate Iowa Energy next season. All while bringing in a solid 4th option after Gasol, Conley and Randolph.
Maybe the Grizzlies getting older on the wing is not your thing? Fair enough. Here are some moves that bring in youth, but it comes at the price of depth.
Draft Night Deals
The Grizzlies, if they are truly interested in winning now (as the possible Z-Bo and Tony Allen new deals would suggest) do not necessarily need their 22nd overall pick in this June's draft. While this is one of the deeper drafts in recent memory, it is highly unlikely that there will be a player available at 22 who will move the needle one way or the other for a hopeful contender like Memphis. This pick could, however, be valuable to a team who desperately needs depth, youth or a combination of both.
Memphis will be able to ship out this pick as soon as they use it on a player. In combination with other pieces, it would possibly return the fourth "Grizzly King" this team craves. Here are a couple of ideas:
Portland Receives- Tayshaun Prince, Courtney Lee, Kosta Koufos, Rights to 22nd Overall Pick Shabazz Napier
Memphis Receives- Nicolas Batum, Joel Freeland
Why Memphis Does the Trade- You get a young (26 when the season starts) rising small forward in Nicolas Batum, a player who can grow his game alongside Marc Gasol and Mike Conley while at the same time compliment older players such as Zach Randolph and Tony Allen. He is a facilitating playmaker (5 assists per game last season) while also rebounding at an elite level for his position (7 per game.) He shot 36% from beyond-the-arc this past season, below his averages from previous years, so he can improve upon that number. You also get back Joel Freeland, a big who can play in the front court rotation, and save yourself a little over $1 million this season coming up if you want to sign a 7 footer 5th big.
Why Portland Does the Trade- Depth, depth, depth. Whether it be Tayshaun or Dorell Wright starting for Portland, the Trail Blazers depth just improved across the board. Napier could be a replacement for the likely departing Mo Williams, Koufos is an upgrade for them as a 3rd best big and Courtney Lee can also be an excellent role playing bench player and potential Wesley Matthews replacement if he is gone after next season. Prince and Koufos are also expiring deals, freeing up $10 million off of their books as they look ahead to extending their 2 best players, Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge.
Philadelphia Receives Tayshaun Prince, Courtney Lee, Kosta Koufos and the Rights to the 22nd Overall Pick (Cleanthony Early)
Memphis Receives- Thaddeus Young, Henry Sims, Jason Richardson
Why Memphis Does the Trade- In this scenario, the Grizzlies draft a tweener 3/4 player for a team in Philly to get this deal done. Thaddeus Young's ability to play the 3 has been questioned by many in the Grizzlies Twittersphere, and rightfully so since his shooting ability from range is questionable. Here is his shot chart for the past season.
Not exactly what the Grizzlies have in mind when it comes to spacing. However, it is possible that you start Mike Miller or Quincy Pondexter at the Shooting Guard position in this scenario, with the other coming off the bench with Tony Allen so that spacing could stay consistent. Also, keep in mind that Thad for almost half the season was the best player on a very bad team. As the 3rd or 4th best player on a contender, he may flourish scoring the ball and continue to grow his offensive game while maintaining his already elite defensive ability, averaging over 2 steals a game.
Memphis also brings back another big in Henry Sims in addition to Jason Richardson, a player who, if healthy, can also help in spacing the floor. Considering his health is a major question, consider him an expiring contract providing future cap relief.
Why Philadelphia Does the Trade- Again, depth. Athleticism is a trend for this 76ers team, as Nerlens Noel, Michael Carter-Williams and likely Jabari Parker and another wing will be the core of Philly for years to come. You bring in a veteran who can help mold all these young wings in Tayshaun Prince, a solid role player to fill the void now in Courtney Lee and depending on the Sixers plan in Free Agency a starting big in Kosta Koufos. Between Parker, their pick at 10 and Courtney Lee they solidify their wing core, and Early can play the 3 or the 4. Plus, another $10 million would come off of Philly's books with Prince and Koufos' deals expiring.
Of course, neither of the bigs that come back in these deals are as good as Kosta Koufos, but remember the Mid-Level Exception is still very much in play. Perhaps Pau Gasol would be willing to take such a deal to be reunited with his "little" brother Marc in Memphis in a 6th man role?
What if They Stay Put?
This is the fear of many in Grizz Nation. Suppose the Grizzlies stick with the 22nd overall pick and take a wing who cannot help the team as is, and that Tayshaun Prince (the consistently gone player in all these scenarios) returns? What can the Grizzlies do to try to improve their odds? The Mid-Level Exception is still in play, but the wing position is crowded as is and Memphis would be unlikely to spend that money in that spot. Can this team get back to the Western Conference Finals and possibly beyond as they currently are?
If this incarnation of the Grizzlies has not hit their ceiling, they are darn close to it. That does not mean that they cannot win a championship with the "core four"; it means that the front office would be wise to pursue a move to reinvigorate the roster with new blood, turning that "core four" into a "fab five", with Tony Allen either getting good minutes off the bench or starting next to a scoring and playmaking wing. These veteran wings can possibly be had, but it won't be easy. If winning is truly what matters, however, every avenue will be exhausted to make that happen.
Keeping the "Grit and Grind" era rolling but still relevant in an evolving Western Conference will come at a cost. Sometimes, though, stability is worth the price you pay to keep it.