The first Grizzlies offseason domino has fallen. Jeff Green has opted into his $9.2mm salary for next year, and we can approach the offseason with more certainty.
But let's put the Grizzlies aside for a moment. Was opting in the right choice for Green? It's extremely tough to say definitively, and usually in close decisions the player is correct to take one in the hand, rather than risking whatever's in the bush.
But I'd like to flip that scenario on its head. What if there is more certainty in the potential long term deal Green would have signed this year, versus the potential long term deal he signs next? The short answer is "it depends". And for those who are either satisfied with that answer, or ain't got no time for salary cap nerdery, skip down to the next section. For the rest of you...
He Stayed but Should He Have Gone Now?
By now, we all know the cap will go up by about 20% next year. There will literally be upwards of $600mm more available dollars next year than this. If the math were that simple, then Green would be a fool to think he couldn't do better next year.
But the math isn't that simple. There are several potential factors that may mitigate how much money Green commands next year.
The first is age and production. Green, to this point, has been pretty consistent in his numbers. But watching him play, you can see that there is very little skill to his game. His jumpshot is less than reliable. He is not an intuitive passer or defender (if you like, I can direct you to a number of Vines to this end).
Green is a player whose game is built on athleticism. And that script is nearing its end. Green will be thirty years old in the summer of 2016, the age at which Father Time begins skimming from the till of your youth. As a thirty-three year old, I can vouch.
I considered the Grizzlies' worst case scenario this offseason one in which Green opted out, and they re-signed him to something like 4 years, $40mm. That worst case scenario might only be worster in a year.
The second is the available talent. While the wing market is healthy this year, most of it is restricted to, oops, restricted free agents. Because the incumbent team can match any offer, quite a few of these players will stay put.
In fact, the best way to beat restricted free agency is to offer as unfriendly a deal to the team as possible. You can’t do this by offering more money than a player is worth. This offseason, with the impending TV money, that is hard to do, and impossible for a great player.
If you want to pry Kawhi Leonard from the Spurs, or Jimmy Butler from the Bulls, you don’t offer them the max, you offer them the LeBron. Give them a one year max deal, with a player option for year two. This allows premier players the chance to cash in now and, if they choose, to opt out and cash in again for the higher max in a year as an unrestricted free agent.
This scenario will happen this offseason, and I will have my popcorn ready. The 76ers have no reason to not do this with any player from Kawhi Leonard down to even Khris Middleton. You don’t get Bird Rights for this type of deal, but the Sixers' cap sheet is so clean, with the spiraling salary cap, they don’t even need Bird Rights. They can re-sign these guys into available space again next year, for whatever salary they want!
What this means is that some portion of the premier players this year will simply roll over into next season’s free agency period, and what, right now, seems like a ton of available Jeff Green dollars, will go to better players, or younger players, or both.
The third is incentive. Right now, almost every team in the NBA – with the exception of the Timberwolves and 76ers has incentive to get better. Many bad teams have traded away future picks that come due next year (Lakers and Knicks), and both have massive cap room to use right now. Other bad teams like the Miami Heat and Detroit Pistons, have decision makers in place who aren’t there to lose.
Then you have teams like the Sacramento Kings whose power structure is Vivek, Vlade, and whoever hides Vlade’s cigs from him. In some order.
Couple that with the hyper-inflationary new TV money (literally, every dollar spent this year will only represent about $0.80 next year) and we go into an offseason where almost every team in the NBA has incentive to spend right now.
There is no guarantee that dynamic holds in a year, especially with whispers that the salary cap, after ballooning two straight years, may contract afterwards. Couple that with a very modest penalty for not spending, the possibility of a looming lockout in 2017, and some owners may simply opt to not put long term dollars on their balance sheets in 2016.
After all of that, I can’t form a definitive argument that Green’s decision to opt in is a mistake. But the final piece of the puzzle, the final uncertainty, is that Jeff Green is more likely than not (in my estimation) to finish the season in a Grizzlies uniform. Green's situation at the end of the year may be very different than it is currently. More on this in a bit.
Was This Good for the Grizzlies?
The short answer is, yes. The Grizzlies have little opportunity cost in Green staying. The biggest misconception to Green walking is that the Grizzlies could do anything with the resulting cap space. Having Green in the fold still allows you to still, theoretically, re-sign all your free agents AND still have the $5.6mm Mid Level Exception (MLE).
If Green had walked, the Grizzlies would have had to renounce options or rights to Green, Koufos, Nick Calathes, AND Jon Leuer to clear more usable space than the MLE. The absolute most cap space the Grizzlies could clear would be about $8.5mm. They would have had to renounce rights to Green, Koufos and Calathes; renounce options on Jamychal Green, Jon Leuer and Beno Udrih; and they would have to trade their 1st round pick for no salary.
$8.5mm has some utility, but it's not worth scrapping half the team to get there.
This brings us to the tough part for Green. The Grizzlies are likely, but not certain to lose Kosta Koufos. With no cap space, the 25th pick, and only the MLE to add talent, trading Jeff Green is the only path forward to changing the roster.
Even as one of Green's biggest detractors, I'd prefer having a semi-productive player on a one year $9.2mm deal, than not. It's not the best trade chip to have, but it's better than nothing.
The free agent market is wing heavy this year. Stars like Kawhi Leonard and Jimmy Butler are likely to get max deals. Secondary wings like Khris Middleton and Danny Green may get $12-15mm per year too. Even former Grizzly Demarre Carroll and Wesley Matthews, recently repaired Achilles in tow, will command north of $11mm stretched across multiple years.
What do all of these contracts have in common? They are all larger and longer than Jeff Green's salary. Both factors may be attractive to certain teams.
Teams who can't spend.
Teams over the cap can only add talent through the MLE, or the mini-Mid Level, at roughly half that. The only other path is to trade. A wing like Jeff Green may be attractive to a team with few other options to improving. In short, part of the market for Green are teams in exactly the Grizzlies boat: too much salary to add talent effectively via free agency.
Would a team like Chicago, who not only face real luxury tax concerns after they max Jimmy Butler, but also face an unbalanced roster with needs on the wing and backup point guard, consider flipping Taj Gibson for Jeff Green and Beno Udrih? This seems ludricous on paper, but Chicago doesn't have a ton of options. Memphis could take Kirk Hinrich, if the Bulls were willing to throw in their pick, or a young player like Doug McDermott or Tony Snell. Trading for Green and Beno balances the Bulls roster in a way the MLE probably can't, and perhaps allows them to retain Mike Dunleavy if they choose.
Chicago could opt to sell Taj for a pick (or even trade Noah for a different Wing and point guard deal), but they still would be faced with filling both the small forward and backup point guard spots with just the Mid Level Exception. Would you rather split the Mid Level Exception on players like Kyle Singler and DJ Augustin, than have Jeff Green and Beno Udrih?
I might be throwing Porzingis vibes here, but I think the decision is close.
A team like the Brooklyn Nets have very few ways - yet every incentive - to improve. This team, devoid of assets or workable contracts, is a very tough trade partner, but perhaps Memphis could work a double deal for Thaddeus Young for Jeff Green, and absorb a young player like Mason Plumlee or the 30th pick into the traded player exception they have from the Pondexter trade. Not much to get excited about there.
Don't want to Spend in the Future
The Summer of 2016 looms large here. Teams who consider themselves marquee destinations will want to compete in 2015, and also preserve their flexibility for the summer of 2016, when Kevin Durant, Kevin Love, Lebron James, and a whole host of other guys enter Free Agency.
The key here is Green's deal is only one year, and signing a free agent of commensurate talent would require adding salary that would prevent a run at Kevin Durant.
Would the Wizards entertain Kris Humphries and Otto Porter for Jeff Green? Or perhaps the 19th pick and Martell Webster? I'm not fired up about either scenario, but that probably means it's more likely to happen.
Would the Cavaliers, in search of a body to give Lebron rest, do something like Brendan Hawyood's waivable contract and the 24th pick for Jeff Green? Memphis isn't much better off than before, but given the right players available at 24, perhaps....?
There aren't many workable trades with the Pistons, but they have gaping holes on the wing and a coach who has had Courtney Lee before? Would trading both Lee and Green to the Pistons for... I have no clue. But Stan Van Gundy holds all the cards there, and acquiring two veterans without adding long term money might be appealing to him.
That brings us to the team who probably prizes their cap space more than another other: the Miami Heat. They have very serious cap issues if they want to re-sign Dwyane Wade, Goran Dragic and Luol Deng while still preserving max 2016 cap space. Would the Heat prefer one year of Jeff Green to four years of Luol Deng? Would they do Josh McRoberts, Shabazz Napier and the 10th pick for Beno and Jeff Green? That one was a joke. Even Pat Riley, who values draft picks less than most, wouldn't do that.
Would he though? Because....
I want to be clear. These are all open questions. But sometimes a team's incentives matter as much, if not more than, the assets you are giving them. The problem a team is trying to solve with a trade matters more than your ability to actually solve their problem.
Said a different way: teams are great at seeing their own problems, but less great at identifying solutions. They'll talk themselves into filling a round hole more often than measuring your round peg for right angles.
Don't believe me? It wasn't too long ago that Jeff Green was touted as the missing piece to a Grizzlies championship.