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2014 NBA Free Agency: Memphis Grizzlies Primer

Quick takes on the draft, Z-Bo extension, and extended thoughts on how the Grizzlies will game plan going forward.

Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

The broad strokes of the 2014-2015 Memphis Grizzlies roster were painted by two major events last week. In the span of 48 hours, the Grizzlies drafted Jordan Adams, and then traded a 2016 2nd round pick to Utah Jazz to draft hometown kid Jarnell Stokes.

Then the bombshell. Zach Randolph opted into the final year of his contract, and signed on for two more seasons at a reduced price, ensuring that Randolph remains in a Grizzlies uniform until he is nearly thirty-six years old.

The Draft

The Grizzlies, after fielding the deepest team in team history last year, are poised to be even deeper next year. The acquisition of Jordan Adams, in particular, is a home run. The analytic projections love him, some even placing him as a top five prospect. Meanwhile, the tape shows a guy who fits with the Grizzlies', to use the parlance of our times, "IBYA" mentality.

Last year, the Grizzlies acquired Kosta Koufos in a draft day trade, and I wrote that "when very few teams were able to get better immediately, the Memphis Grizzlies did just that." Koufos went on to produce more Win Shares (3.4) than all rookies except Mason Plumlee (4.7). On a per minute basis, Koufos was the 3rd best player "drafted" last year (behind both Plumlee and Gorgui Dieng).

The Grizzlies may have done even better last Thursday. Drafting Adams and Stokes represents another bet on production over "upside," and production in college remains the best marker of future production that we have. Every now and then, athletic but unproductive freaks like Zach Lavine suddenly put it all together and make everyone who passed on them look stupid. Basketball talent is not captured entirely on a spreadsheet, but increasingly we're coming to understand that it isn't entirely captured by the human eye either.

No one can see the future, and it's foolish to declare both players will be All Stars simply because of numbers. But the numbers suggest that both players represent fantastic bets to outperform their rookie contracts. Adams especially has all the statistical markers of a good bet to be really freaking good. His offensive rebounding numbers suggest tenacity, and his steal rate suggests defensive intuition. He shot a high percentage. He did damn near everything well. Just remember this if when he starts killin' folks next year (and please forget you read this if, you know, he doesn't. I never wrote this).

ZBo Comin'

The Randolph extension is an unequivocal win for the Grizzlies. As part of last week's GBB Live segment, Joe Mullinax and I settled on a 3 year, $34mm extension for Randolph as the perfect number. The end result fell nearly in line with that. In opting into his $16mm salary for next year, Randolph opted to take his money up front, and then give the Grizzlies a discount for years two and three. Because of this, his contract bears less risk than the nearly identical extension David West signed with the Pacers last year. West's contract is a flat at $12mm average, and the final year is one of those pesky player options that complicate cap and roster projections. More or this later.

Incumbent Free Agents

Plugging in rookie scale contracts for Adams and Stokes, the Grizzlies have an estimated $71,023,995 committed to thirteen roster spots (this includes, for the time being, Nick Calathes). Memphis chose not to offer Ed Davis a qualifying offer, a cap hold which would have left the Grizzlies less than $2mm under the salary cap. Had they extended that offer, Memphis held little leverage to negotiate a sign and trade. Meanwhile, Davis' cap hold would have cluttered the books for weeks as the market took care of the top dogs. There was probably even some fear that Davis would have signed it, making higher priorities like Mike Miller more tenuous.

Speaking of Miller, the Grizzlies have a shade under $6mm of room under the luxury tax line to re-sign him and Beno Udrih. They would love to use their Bi-Annual salary exception to re-sign Miller (the same mechanism the Miami Heat used to sign Ray Allen two years ago), but that contract is restricted to just two years, starting just over $2mm in salary. My bet is that Miller wants more years, and there would be fewer teams willing to commit to him for more than two years. Miller's other primary suitor is likely to be the Oklahoma City Thunder, and they can afford much more than the bi-annual exception. My bet is Memphis uses about half of their Mid-Level Exception, giving Miller a three year contract for slightly over $3mm/year (possibly $10.2mm total). The Randolph extension comes into play again. Had ZBo signed for, say, a flat $13mm/year, that third year becomes a significant problem. Now they have the wiggle room to keep guys like Miller in the fold.

Memphis should attempt to lure Beno Udrih back on a minimum or near minimum contract. If the permanent Slovenian ray of sunshine that is Beno Udrih opts for greener pastures, Memphis may turn their attention to turn their attention to similar bargain replacements like...

Upgrading the Roster: New Free Agents

As detailed above, the Grizzlies options are limited to guys who will play for some portion of the Mid-Level Exception, and that list is about as sexy as watching Greece try to score a goal in soccer (even if they are playing a man up). If Miller's extension plays out like I think it will, Memphis will have just one roster spot to fill. In no particular order, here are the candidates for that spot:

Brian Roberts - he deserves a look, as does anyone that would play for the minimum whom the Grizzlies believe could contribute.

Pau Gasol - The prodigal Spaniard will have his tires kicked by several teams, but I doubt the fit in Memphis is there. Too much history, not enough minutes or money. Intriguing, but not a good fit.

Brandon Rush - I would take a hard look at a guy whose history of injuries should scare off most suitors looking for proven production. He is exactly the type of player who would accept just one guaranteed year with a second year only partially guaranteed. Contracts ending with partial guaranteed years have yielded the best returns lately - Andrew Bynum, and the "Nearly-Traded-for-Tayshaun-Prince" John Salmons to name two.

Partial guaranteed contracts work like expirings, except they can be used by the team that receives them for automatic savings. Partial guaranteed contracts are even better than team options, and the Grizzlies should be looking to write at least one onto their books, even if it is a small one.

Jimmer Fredette - My unrequited love for the jumpshot that originates from Jimmer's hand continues. He has a place on this list until he retires.

Khem Birch - an undrafted rookie, he signed with the Washington Wizards to play in Summer League. A defensive minded power forward would offer something a little different on a Grizzlies front line beginning to be a little too uniform in skill set. You could do worse than being a signer of Birches (Robert Frost flow).

Upgrading the Roster: Trades

There is little room to maneuver, and the albatross that is Tayshaun Prince's $7.7mm contract looms large. But how large? Is it worth paying someone to take it off Memphis' hands. $7.7mm is a lot of money to pay a non-contributor, but the Grizzlies have little incentive to clear it from their books. Removing Prince still leaves Memphis over the salary cap, the only advantage being that they would have access to the full Mid Level exception AND also the ability to re-sign Miller and a minimum salary backup PG. There is value in that, but the cost appears to be untenable. Is Luol Deng taking the Mid-Level? What about Pau? Probably not.

Arron Afflalo, on a similar contract to Tayshaun and arguably a top five shooting guard in the NBA, garnered a mere 2nd round pick and Evan Fournier. The Atlanta Hawks just sent promising center Lucas Noguira to Toronto to clear Lou Williams' $5.4mm salary off their books. The price to take Tay is higher, probably a 1st round pick, and the Grizzlies can't trade one until about 2018.

Sure, there are trade scenarios worth pondering - turning Tayshaun into anything productive would represent a win. Opportunities pop up throughout the year, and the Grizzlies should explore them. Still, the hidden opportunity cost to trading Tayshaun is picking up money next year. And that is something the Grizzlies may steer clear of because...

The Griz Could Have Max Cap Room in '15-'16.

It seems as if Herrington wrote this as well. This is another happy offshoot of the Randolph extension. Due just $10mm in 2015-2016, the Grizzlies have just $39mm committed to ten players. Assuming Gasol re-signs for somewhere around $16.5mm (which would be in line with a max pay increase), and Miller is on the books for about $3.5mm, Memphis will have $59mm committed, which appears to be just $4mm in cap room.

But here's the thing: the salary cap is projected to rise again next year another $5mm. Let's be conservative and say it only rises $4mm, that still gives Memphis $8mm in cap room. Voiding options on Leuer and Calathes clears another $2.1mm. Suddenly, Memphis has over $10mm in cap room.

This is why Memphis is much more likely to deal Courtney Lee or Quincy Pondexter (or even Tony Allen) than Tayshaun Prince, provided they can do so without taking on any salary past this year. If either player would net a 2nd round pick, Memphis would be wise to consider it. Memphis can get to $10mm in cap room on their own, but they need help to get to the max.

And max cap room next year is not only more valuable than the Mid-Level Exception this year, it's more valuable than having max cap room this year. In fact, using the full Mid-Level next year cripples what you can do next year.


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In his extended interview with Chris Vernon on Friday, Robert Pera talked frankly about broadening his search for computer programmers outside of Silicon Valley. The problem isn't supply, but intense demand. In Silicon Valley, you're bidding against Google for the best programmers. And the second best. And on down the line. In Eastern Europe, the demand for computer programmers is much weaker, and you can find talent at lower prices.

Similarly, labor is in high demand this offseason. Everyone is chasing Lebron, and most Carmelo. Everyone has gobs of cap space right now, and even self-proclaimed rebuilding projects like Orlando may feel pressure to take steps forward. There are simply not enough players to soak all the money up. The result is that second tier talent will be paid like first tier talent. More than one terrible mid-level exception will be handed out. This is the summer of 2010 all over again. Four years ago, players like Amare Staudemire and Rudy Gay signed mega-deals that are still crippling their teams' books. There will surely be teams next year with cap space, but many will empty their coffers this year, and probably most of the "marquee" destinations like Miami, LA, Houston and Charlotte (I KID, just making sure you're still paying attention).

Meanwhile, the crop of free agents is perhaps even more tantalizing. Paul MillsapBrook Lopez, Arron Afflalo, Kevin Love, and Lamarcus Aldridge are all unrestricted Free Agents. Klay Thompson, Jimmy Butler and Reggie Jackson are all restricted. There are too many to name.

What would you rather have, Memphis: the ability to trade pieces this year to nab Thad Young, or the ability to sign him outright next year? How would a shiny new Jimmy Butler look in a Grizzlies jersey? The Grizzlies could be in the market for any Free Agent they choose, and the sign and trade possibilities are there as well (not so much this year).

Rather than dreaming up trade scenarios for Tayshaun Prince, let's instead think about divvying his minutes between Tony Allen, Jordan Adams and Mike Miller. In the meantime, Courtney Lee, Quincy Pondexter and Tony Allen are far more valuable trade commodities.

Bits of Free Agency Tid

• Though not explicitly stated above, Calathes is a good bet to be gone. He was, at best, a below average contributor who is still suspended for somewhere around fifteen games. Throw in any ill will remaining from him not disclosing his potential suspension, and the fact that declining his option in 2015 inches the Grizzlies towards max room and there are both immediate and long range reasons to prefer other minimum level backups like incumbent Slovenian Beno Udrih.

• One of my favorite things about NBA Free Agency is when teams start trying to screw with each other. For instance, Houston has put the league on notice that they are clearing cap room, but they have their own free agent, Chandler Parsons, to deal with. Currently, his cap hold is minuscule due to his prior year's salary. Though teams are not allowed to negotiate contracts in advance, it would be foolish to think Houston has not floated the a potential number to Parsons' agent's gardener who may happen to mention it to Parson's agent who may, in turn, happen to mention it to Parsons.

But another team can test Parsons' resolve by offering him a front loaded max contract. Houston would still have the ability to match his contract, but doing so takes them out of the Lebron/Melo race, and out of next year's free agency race as well. Houston may be the one team smart enough to just cut their losses and let him walk. Still, if Orlando were to offer Parsons a 4 year, $54mm contract (starting at $15mm and declining $1mm every year) that isn't a necessarily terrible contract for them. Same deal with Phoenix.

• I've mentioned Brian Roberts twice already, and I'll do it again. The Pelicans were dumb to let him go, seemingly a casualty of bringing in the valuable center Omer Asik. But why does New Orleans need a center? Because they traded away Robin Lopez to create room to overpay Tyreke Evans. And they traded away Nerlens Noel and this year's draft pick (which eventually became Elfrid Payton) to acquire Jrue Holiday. All told, Payton, Lopez and Noel will cumulatively make roughly what Asik will make this year. I know which scenario I prefer.

• Related to the above, if there was one team which may take Prince, it is the Pelicans. They don't have a proven small forward on the roster, and are left to shoehorn Ryan Anderson into that spot. Would the Pelicans go for Courtney Lee + Tayshaun Prince for Ryan Anderson and Austin Rivers (whose 2015 option Memphis could decline)? That may be fair value for a player coming off a serious back injury.

• Eric Bledsoe will get a max offer. I've been dreaming of scenarios that could bring him to Memphis, but given the glut of free agent dollars available, and the relative warts on the 2nd tier Free Agents like Gordon Hayward (ball handling), Greg Monroe (crowded position) and Lance Stephenson (insanity), who would you prefer to give a max contract to? My bet would be for Eric Bledsoe, who has already proven he can play alongside another point guard, is a legitimate two way player who plays hard every night and has already seen substantial postseason reps. In fact, of all the Free Agents likely to change teams this year (basically everyone besides Lebron, Bosh and Dirk), I feel better about paying Bledsoe than any of them.

• If there was a trade that brought in money next year, my bet would be on Kosta Koufos being involved. Trading players near the end of affordable deals is a penchant for successful franchises, and Kosta is more valuable making $3m this year than he will be making double that next. Jarnell Stokes's skills overlap (as far as I can tell) with Koufos enough to where you could talk me into him being a bargain replacement that allows you to pair Koufos with Lee or QPon to find value elsewhere. This would be an avenue I explore for sure.

So there you have it. Let the wild offseason begin!