With the news that Marc Gasol is meeting with no other teams besides the Grizzlies, we can rejoice and be glad. At least for a moment. There's no rest in the NBA and, even with relatively few tools to improve, the Front Office will need to do just that.
This is the way it breaks down: the Grizzlies can either use the Mid-Level Exception, or re-sign Kosta Koufos, but not both. Not without other moves that move a decent sized contract off their books. Let's tackle the latter first.
Hot Boudin, Cold Kous Kous
The 25 year old has been an integral, albeit underutilized cog in the Grizz machine for the past two years. I have significant doubts that Koufos will return. There are teams that can offer not only more money, but more playing time.
Koufos is a wonderful defensive player, an anchor in the middle that allows the Grizzlies to field forty-eight minutes of rim protection, while also providing better-than-you-think defense in the pick and roll. On offense, Koufos is a skilled finisher around the rim, and gobbles offensive rebounds, but he has other limitations that make him an awkward fit next to either of the Grizzlies' starters in bench lineups. For one (and two and three), he can't shoot, dribble, or pass enough to make the defense honor him as a threat with the ball in his hands. Koufos is really great as a dive man on the pick and roll, but with Marc in the game, that isn't used frequently. With Z-Bo in the game, space is often limited in the paint.
With all of that said, Koufos is a wonderful player, and the team that signs him to his next contract will lock up the bulk of his peak production. A two or three year deal would make the most sense for him, but the biggest problem for Koufos is not his resume, but the resumes of all the other bigs on the market.
Kevin Love. Lamarcus Aldridge. Paul Millsap. Brandan Wright. Omer Asik. Greg Monroe. Amir Johnson. The list goes on. The market is flooded with bigs, some of whom are just better than Koufos, and others who offer different skill sets. Koufos is a center, and limited on offense. Some teams might prefer a similarly talented player like Amir Johnson, who can offer some cover at both front court spots, while adding a modicum of shooting. Others might want a pick and roll demon like Wright.
It takes two to tango, and as the bigs are scooped up, there will be fewer dollars available. A really good player who had hoped to lock up the financial security of a $10mm/year will be left with a thin market. There's no reason to think it will be Koufos. But it could be. It could just as easily be Omer Asik, or Brandan Wright.
I think all of these bigs have a market value of at least $8mm, and if a team loves a particular player's blend of skills, that number is probably above $10mm. Koufos should be paid this much, but maybe he's left out in the cold, and he opts to return. His value will probably be higher next summer, provided most of these bigs don't sign one year deals, which they won't. If Koufos wants to return, perhaps a one year deal with a player option on year two brings him back.
I think this is unlikely, but only because any individual scenario with this many actors is unlikely. I'm sure the Grizzlies would love to have Koufos back, but they'll have to wait until he's exhausted his options elsewhere. And that presents a delicate balancing act to add more talent.
Meanwhile, the Grizzlies will have the Mid-Level Exception (MLE) to add talent, starting at about $5.5mm. With Koufos searching for more dollars and playing time elsewhere, I don't think the Grizzlies should wait to add talent. In a bit of NBA salary cap nerdery, the Grizzlies can use the full MLE and bring Koufos back, but this situation limits the amount you can pay Koufos due to something called "the apron". Using the full MLE requires staying below the mark of $4mm above the luxury tax line. This mark is called the "Apron". After using the full MLE, the max Memphis could offer Koufos would be $6mm this year. Anything more would carry Memphis above the "apron", and any team that uses its full MLE cannot cross that mark. It is a hard cap. Memphis could opt to use the smaller "taxpayer MLE" (starting at $3mm), and would be able to go over the "apron" to sign Koufos, but since the "apron" is above the Luxury Tax line, Memphis is unlikely to go that high.
Any scenario that brings Koufos back carries Memphis over the luxury tax, and since the Grizzlies probably aren't paying the luxury tax, this means they'll be dumping salary.
This is a convoluted way of saying the following: if the Grizzlies use the full MLE, they probably cannot re-sign Koufos unless they shed salary first. If they opt to use just the $3mm, that's a sign the Grizzlies would prefer to add a lesser player, and keep the option of bringing back Koufos available.
I propose a middle ground - one where you proceed as if Koufos were not coming back, but also don't narrow your search for talent on his replacement.
The Grizzlies should be looking to acquire the best player they can with the MLE. This might be a backup big, but it shouldn't have to be. There are several reasons for this.
1). Need - The biggest need is a big who can play alongside both Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, something Koufos struggled to do. This player doesn't have to be big enough to guard opposing centers, but he does have to be able to protect the rim - Randolph's weakness. At the same time, he needs to be mobile enough to guard power forwards, preferably out to the perimeter. A dose of shooting would also be nice as well.
This type of player doesn't grow on trees. Taj Gibson, Amir Johnson, and Nene come to mind as having the right blend of skills, but only Amir is a Free Agent, and he'll be signing for more than the MLE. Do you try to bring in a player like Kyle O'Quinn, like Koufos just entering his prime, and add a few of those skills while gambling that a player who has not featured yet is able to grow? It's not a bad plan. It's one I endorse. But that leads us to the second factor.
2). Trade Flexibility - Right now, the Grizzlies are in a tough spot to trade. Other than Jeff Green, any player of value they might want to trade - Courtney Lee, Beno Udrih, Jordan Adams - opens up another hole in the roster. Adding Matt Barnes for nothing makes a Green trade palatable, but I suspect teams aren't beating down the Grizzlies' door to trade for Jeff Green. Besides, on his own, Green won't net you much (though I speculated on some trades previously).
But adding another point guard, for instance, allows you to throw Beno into a trade. I don't want to trade Beno, but I also don't want to miss out on acquiring a player who improves the Grizzlies, and Green + Beno is a nice talent infusion for a team who might not want to add long term money, or is over the cap.
3). Best Long Term Value - Any player who is remotely worth the MLE this year, will be a steal next year. A dollar today is worth $0.80 next year, and $0.60 the following. Using the MLE on a player who fills a need right now might ignore a player who is a better value going forward.
This is the summer in which you want to add long term money, and if you overpay for one year to buy some upside or value for two or three years down the road, you take that trade off.
4). I Kinda Think They'll Be Okay - If the Grizzlies were to start next season with no real backup center (and perhaps added a low cost, six foul type guy for the minimum), I think they'd be okay. Obviously, this depends on who the MLE was spent on, but I'd be fine rolling into next year with a hole at backup center if I could get better value elsewhere.
I'm really intrigued with playing Barnes and Jeff Green next to each other in small lineups with Gasol. The Grizzlies would have a bit more shooting, ball handling, and more switch-ability on defense than ever before - especially if a bigger point guard or shooting guard could be had for the MLE.
Lineups with Z-Bo alongside Stokes, Green, or Barnes would be very poor defensively, and would get run off the court against the very best teams, but remember this: the Grizzlies would still have a Jeff Green + another player with which to troll the trade waters.
And, frankly, I have more confidence in the Grizzlies finding a solution for the backup center via trade than I do with the MLE, especially with another asset in tow. Using the MLE on a backup big makes Koufos re-signing that much more unlikely, while signing Koufos first precludes using the MLE without shedding salary.
With all of that said, the Grizzlies probably won't do what I'm suggesting. But here are some players I would target with the full MLE.
1). K.J. McDaniels - Not the shooter the Grizzlies crave, but another big wing who is a good bet to improve. The chance to snatch up twenty-two year olds with extraordinary athleticism doesn't come along often, and doing so comes with the added advantage of messing with the Rockets. If the Rockets want to add a max player, it will require shedding salary. They would need to move on from Trevor Ariza, and I believe the Sam Dekker pick was a move to at least make this palatable for them. But that all changes if McDaniels signs an offer sheet. The difference between his cap hold and the full MLE is about $3mm, and that small of an added salary would force the Rockets to either complete their business in three days (the grace period a team has to match a restricted free agent offer), let him walk for free, or sell off more valuable players like Terrance Jones or Donatas Montejunas. Not the position you want to be in...for the second year in a row. #Parsons
2). Jameer Nelson - A more well-rounded version of Beno Udrih. Nelson is short, but also sturdier. Teams have been trying for years to exploit Nelson in the post, and have not been as successful as they would like. Joerger played Beno/Conley lineups 115 minutes last year, but it was always with Beno sacrificing a bit on defense. Nelson in place of Beno preserves that ability and adds an average, but willing, three point shooter to the mix, while not sacrificing as much on defense. It also allows you to move on from Beno if you so choose.
3). Kyle O'Quinn - I'm not the first to mention O'Quinn as a Grizzlies target, but he offers enough of the right skills, while still being young enough to improve, that he might be a good fit for the right money.
4). Paul Pierce - A strange one, and doubtful he would come to the Grizzlies. Some have him penciled in for taking the smaller $3mm Taxpayer MLE from the Clippers, or perhaps re-signing for more with the Wizards, but the Grizzlies should dangle the full MLE in front of him and see if he has any interest.
5). Corey Joseph - A still-young veteran who can do a bit of everything and would offer a decent two way player for a team that needs one in the backcourt. My biggest issue with him is that he is unwilling to take three pointers, though his percentage is not terrible. I don't think this is something that will change, but gambling that it will isn't the worst spot to be in.
6). Kyle Singler - A favorite of fellow GBB contributor, Kevin Yeung, Singler offers the shooting the Grizzlies need. He makes up for his lack of athleticism with a basketball mind that knows where he should be and what the right play is. Basically, he's the opposite of Jeff Green.
With all of this said, I think the Grizzlies will stick to the script. They'll use a portion of the MLE to bring in a big (probably preserving the unlikely chance of re-signing Koufos), and probably be done with it.
One last note: players who will sign for $2mm or so of the MLE, should be good candidates for Sign and Trade deals with their former teams. The Grizzlies can pair JaMychal Green's non-guaranteed deal with either Russ Smith or Andrew Harrison (or Jarnell Stokes) and make a deal that allows the incumbent to add a cheap young player, and waive Green's salary if they want. Acquiring them this way preserves the right to use the full MLE to add another player. Just something to watch out for.