You guys may remember me. I used to write stuff about the Grizzlies. Then I had a daughter. Then that daughter absconded with my sleep, my free time, and my heart. But, like a good team who suddenly finds itself on the wrong side of a 10-2 run, I'm adjusting. My wife has put in a yeoman's shift of feeding, changing diapers and loving on our little girl, freeing me up like a point guard rounding a pick with a full head of steam.
Before the window closes, I want to look at the Grizzlies next twelve months from a macro-level.
The Grizzlies head into the 2015-2016 season, somehow, in both an enviable and precarious position. First, the good news. The Grizzlies have re-signed franchise cornerstone Marc Gasol for the next five years, ensuring a level of stability most NBA teams can only hope to attain.
Let's put Gasol into context. Stats that attempt to quantify overall defensive contribution are problematic, so take the following with the necessary grain of salt. Here is the list of players in the last ten years who have reached Gasol's Defensive Win Shares and Defensive Box Plus Minus while also playing 2,600 minutes. Ten guys, mostly Hall of Famers, and Gasol has done it twice in the last three years. It is difficult to imagine that any team featuring Gasol will not be a top ten defense - satisfying, nearly by himself, half the equation of being elite or near elite on both ends that historically determines title contention.
We can pine that Gasol must do more on the offensive end - the moniker "Aggressive Marc" has been trademarked by Grizzlies bloggers not confined to this site - but I'll again be satisfied with Gasol being what he is: an unselfish player who wrecks ish on the defensive end.
I don't want to overstate an individual's effect on a team game. Gasol might not be the best defender in the league; you probably couldn't plop him onto the worst defensive team and suddenly make them good.
But he is one of a handful of players who yield the easiest path to build towards a near elite team on one side of the ball. You can surround Gasol, and to a lesser extent Mike Conley, with one-sided players like Zach Randolph, Tony Allen and Beno Udrih and their weaknesses only become net negatives against the very best teams (read: Golden State, and their ilk).
But then the inevitable question that is never satisfied pops up: how do the Grizzlies take the next step? How do they go from very, very good to great?
The answer is they probably don't. And this is why the Grizzlies position is precarious.
Photo Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
The Grizzlies roster is wildly unbalanced age wise. The Grizzlies have six players in their 1st or 2nd year (one or two of whom will be casualties of the constraints of a fifteen man roster, and will not end the year with the Grizzlies).
At the other end of the spectrum, most of the Grizzlies best players - Gasol, Randolph, Allen, Beno, Vince and Barnes - are north of thirty.
Only four Grizzlies - Brandan Wright, Mike Conley, Courtney Lee and Jeff Green - can be said to be in their primes. Most of them, even Conley, are closer to the end of that golden time, than the beginning. Adding fuel to the fire of uncertainty, three of the four are in the final year of their contracts. While Conley has several very productive years left, the track record for six foot, super fast point guards becomes dicey when they approach the magical thirty year mark.
A Little Conley Aside
Searching the last ten years, using Win Shares/48 minutes as the marker for production and Usage Rate as a marker for the offensive burden the player bears, here is the list of guards six foot three and under who have met Conley's three year average production (age 25-27, .160 WS/48, 23.1% Usage Rate) after the age 27.
The list is short. Deron Williams did it at age 28, but never again. Chauncey Billups did it at age 33. Both players are decidedly unConley-like, relying on power and their large stature as they aged.
Of the genuine "small" guards, Allen Iverson did it twice. Tony Parker and Chris Paul have done it twice and counting. Steve Nash did it once. That's the list. Four guys with similar statures to Conley, two others who are much larger.
If you don't control for Usage rate, the list grows, including more Billups/Nash seasons, and players like Jose Calderon and Jason Terry, but the truth largely holds. The NBA is not a league where small guys thrive as they age. Basically the only guys that do are Hall of Famers.
Conley has a great jump shot and heady passing to fall back on. He plays the right way. He is a great point guard. The Grizzlies should absolutely max him out next summer for as long as possible. But they will be paying for what will likely be diminishing returns, even if those returns are still pretty damn good. Paying Conley doesn't preclude other business; the cap is rising so fast the next two years that the Grizzlies stand to have max cap space two summer in a row, even after maxing Conley.
With that said, history tells us that the next three years of Mike Conley will likely not be as good as the last three. This is just how the aging curve works for small dudes playing a big man's game.
The New Signing
To pivot to a positive note, this is the sneaky best part of the Brandan Wright signing. Not only did Wright take a below market deal to play for a contender in his home state, not only does he fill a roster need - both positional and athletic - but he is a decent bet to be good for the entirety of his three year deal. How many Grizzlies are a sure bet to be as good in three years as they are right now? Whatever the number, Wright hopefully adds one to the list. At the very least, he offers a short term bridge between the old guard, and the young'uns.
Photo Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports
Winning Is Always Important, but Next Year Even More So
Nestled in the previous paragraph is something that I think will become very important next July. The Grizzlies got Wright for much the same reason that they got Mike Miller two years ago. They were good. Both veterans can talk themselves into the idea that playing for the Grizzlies meant competing for a title.
I wrote about a year ago that the NBA might be a race to the bottom for the draft, but in every other way, losing hurts roster construction more than it helps. This will never be more important than next offseason. A majority of the league - somewhere around twenty teams - project to have max cap space, but that only tells half the story. When so many teams have cap space, everybody has the "potential" for cap space, because teams who are over the cap have multiple trade partners to get under the cap.
For example, the Golden State Warriors project to be over the cap next year after re-signing Harrison Barnes. Yet they could easily clear max room if they had to. They could find teams who would take Andre Igoudala, or Andrew Bogut, or both if, say, Kevin Durant intimated he wanted to play for the Warriors.
Usually dollars do the most talking in free agency, but when everybody has dollars or the potential to have dollars, other factors take precedence.
Location. Coaching. Stability. Style of Play. Playoffs. Championships. These are the other factors that free agents consider when deciding their future.
Not everyone is clamoring to come to Memphis, and unless a previous personal relationship exists, coaching is rarely a reason for a free agent to go elsewhere (or, if it is, it is correlated with winning).
But the Grizzlies have a track record of winning now, and finishing with a top four record in the West makes you pretty attractive to potential free agents. Assuming Conley returns, playing next to Conley and Gasol offers a better starting point than most as far as competing for a title.
So there's one path to improvement: be as good as possible, try to attract a good free agent. The problem with this path is that - as the Mavericks, Knicks and Lakers can tell you - even when you're a big market, free agency is a lottery. And next year's lottery is relatively bare. For example, Conley is easily the best point guard available, and definitely a top five free agent overall as things stand today.
The one player that could make a discernible difference is Al Horford. Every team in the league will be after him, and I suspect if he decides to leave the considerable equity he's built up with the Atlanta Hawks, that he will want to stay East.
After Horford, would a player like Ryan Anderson choose the Grizzlies over playing with the presumptive next Greatest Player Alive, Anthony Davis? Would the Grizzlies want to pay restricted free agent Terrance Jones $20mm/year to leave the Rockets? These are the types of scenarios that will play out next July.
I think the Grizzlies could attract an aging veteran like Joe Johnson, or a younger player with warts like Nicolas Batum, but the prospects of landing a real difference maker who can pick up the mantle of the current Grizzlies core will be very tough.
The scenario I endorse is gambling on overpaying a young restricted free agent who can be had for less than the max. The players who fall into this category are Jordan Clarkson, Evan Fournier and Meyers Leonard. Throwing 4 years, $40mm at any of these players would probably be enough to pry any of them from their current team. That seems like an overpay, and it is, but consider the alternatives. I'd rather gamble $10mm on one of these three than twice that on Terrance Jones.
The good news is that Free Agency isn't the only avenue the Grizzlies have to improve.
Young'uns, Chirren, Rooks, or Developmental Projects
Over a third of the Grizzlies roster are young players who need to start bearing fruit. This is probably the biggest storyline of the Grizzlies next twelve months, because a leap from any of these young guys changes the trajectory of this team in a major way.
To feel good about sustaining this Grizzlies run, two of these six players need to prove capable of playing rotation minutes this year. Realistically, Russ Smith and JaMychal Green are the most likely to contribute next year. Green should receive some minutes at backup power forward, and the Grizzlies have played three point guards the last two years in an effort to get more ball-handling on the court. I consider Jordan Adams the best of these three players, but he also has a more cluttered path to playing time unless Coach Joerger commits to playing Jeff Green and Barnes significant minutes at power forward.
There will be injuries along the way that change this calculus, but as it stands now, despite not playing the same position, the Grizzlies can find minutes for Adams or JaMychal, but probably not both. Playing Adams more shifts Tony to small forward which in turn shifts Barnes and Jeff Green to power forward. Playing JaMychal at power forward means the opposite.
The Grizzlies must pour minutes on these three players, but minutes are tough to come by, and every minute you give to one of them is one less you're giving to an established player. Usually this also means shifting minutes from a more productive player to a lesser one, but even if you argue against this being the case for the Grizzlies, it still means shifting minutes from a more trusted player to a lesser one.
In this way, there is tension between the dual goals of next summer: winning as many games as possible makes the team more attractive to potential free agents, but also probably means giving fewer minutes to the young guys.
I don't mean to suggest this is a conscious choice the team must make. What I want to bring to light is this: every minute the Grizzlies allocate to every player this year impacts their future in some way. And with so many young guys on the roster, I don't think the Grizzlies can wait much longer to start committing to some of them.
This May Be the Only Trade Piece I Write All Year
(Probably not, but I'm making a point here.)
All signs point to Conley re-signing, but involving long time running mates like Zach Randolph or Tony Allen in a trade likely means taking a step back, throwing doubt on that certainty. It doesn't take much of a step backwards in the West, after all, to go from hosting a playoff series to fighting to make the playoffs. Any scenario that endangers Conley re-signing is too big a gamble to consider.
The Grizzlies have traded two future first round picks, and probably can't trade another for the rest of the decade. Meanwhile, most of their young players are bereft of a track record that would make them an attractive asset to another team.
The all-in move occurred last year, and eight months later, it is impossible to think a team would trade the Grizzlies a first round pick for Jeff Green.
The cupboard is nearly bare. If the Grizzlies want to make a trade, they will have to hope that some combination of Jeff Green, Courtney Lee, Beno Udrih and one of the young guys not named Jordan Adams appeals to some team that need either depth or roster balance.
I'll just spend a few minutes on a few guys I'm intrigued by:
Evan Fournier - Fournier is my one eye test guy in the whole league. I watch him play. I think he is good. I look at his stats. I throw up. I think he'd make a fantastic buy-low trade candidate (again, as long as you don't look at his stats [or his hair]), given the players in front of him. The Magic have spent back-to-back-to-back top five picks on Victor Oladipo, Aaron Gordon and Mario Hezonja. They just re-signed Tobias Harris to big money. Where does Evan Fournier fit into that plan? He doesn't.
Fournier's one constant is a reliable three point shot, and that's after considering that a good percentage of his shots are three pointers. Obviously, this fits a Grizzlies need, and Fournier has played a good amount of small forward in Orlando.
Maybe the Grizzlies could offer Jarnell Stokes and a 2nd rounder for Fournier to give the Magic another look to complement their plethora of athletic, tall wings. If not, just wait until the offseason, hold your breath, and throw a bunch of money at him. And then pray.
Ben McLemore - Less probable is Ben McLemore, who is my favorite 3&D target still on a rookie deal. One would think the Grizzlies don't have the assets to complete a deal for McLemore, however the Kings are clearly in win-now mode. Swapping McLemore for Courtney Lee would probably add a marginal win to their total, at least in theory.
McLemore is primarily a shooting guard, and the Grizzlies are probably loathe to acquire another guy who blocks Jordan Adams. But if you squint you could imagine him perhaps squeezing over to small forward.
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist - This is probably the least likely of the three, but I want to mention him for the following reason. Kidd-Gilchrist has all the familiar warts that Tony Allen does, but acquiring him ensures that the Grizzlies will field an elite defense for the foreseeable future. Ratcheting up a defense that has fallen off from elite to near elite is the quickest path to continuing the Grizzlies winning ways, and a Conley-MKG-Gasol locks that up for years to come.
Then there's this. MKG playing with Gasol, should play a ton of power forward. Shooting isn't what makes Draymond Green so effective. It's his ability to guard every player on the court, rebound against big guys, and do enough with the ball that big guys struggle. MKG can't shoot, and that will never change. But he can rebound, and OHMYGOD can he defend.
Will he ever be able to defend centers? I don't know, but he'll kill himself trying.
MKG will be twenty-two years old at the end of next year, and he is already a superior player to any of the Grizzlies options to swing between the small and power forwards. He grabs three more rebounds and a half block more per 36 minutes compared to Jeff Green, while playing him to a stalemate in, steals and assists. He actually shoots better from two point range than Green, a fact that is buoyed by a slightly improved range from 10-16 feet.
Is MKG gettable? The Hornets don't have a real shooting guard on the roster. Maybe they would consider trading him if Memphis took Marvin Williams' contract, and sent Courtney Lee and Jeff Green the other way. The Hornets could field shooting at every position, a target the drafting of Frank Kaminsky seems to aim at, and Green and Lee come with less baggage than building an offense while playing MKG major minutes.
I probably just wasted the last two hundred and fifty words on a scenario the rest of the NBA would laugh at. Then again, this is the team whose owner preferred drafting Frank Kaminsky to a reported four first round draft picks soooooo...
The good news is that the Grizzlies are good now, and probably will be good in the future. They also have several avenues to getting better thanks to a number of young players and the prospect of cap space. The bad news is that good isn't great, and great is what wins titles. Count me as one who doesn't think good is the enemy of great. Winning 50 games in the NBA is tough. Winning playoff series is tougher. Twenty-nine teams don't win the title every year.