Ah yes, January. The cold air stings your nostrils as you walk out to your car in the morning, the hope for snow and an accompanying snow day fuels every child (and teacher) returning from their long winter break, and according to history the Memphis Grizzlies are in the midst of making a major move.
The past three Januarys (the 30th of 2013, 5th of 2014, and 11th of 2015, give or take), the Grizzlies have shaken up the roster to some degree. One trade, the Rudy Gay deal, shipped out a player who was a huge part of Memphis' present for the hopeful "Power Forward of the future" in Ed Davis and Jose Calderon, who eventually became Austin Daye and Tayshaun Prince. 2014 saw Courtney Lee come from Boston to be a Grizzly in exchange for Jerryd Bayless. In 2015, Jeff Green was acquired by the Grizzlies alongside Russ Smith in exchange for a first round pick and the same Tayshaun Prince (to Boston) and Quincy Pondexter and a 2nd round pick (to New Orleans).
In all three circumstances, there were reasons for the acquisitions. Rudy Gay was an inefficient scorer who it was believed could not play alongside Zach Randolph and the Grizzly roster at large, plus Memphis was in danger of being in the Luxury Tax moving forward in the next season; someone had to go. Jerryd Bayless was an effective combo guard, but he was a bit undersized in that role and was not a true point guard, at least not to the liking of Head Coach Dave Joerger. Courtney Lee gave Memphis more of a defined "3 and D" player with a bit more size. And Jeff Green was supposed to be the guy to send Memphis over the top, the player who would be an upgrade over Tayshaun Prince and give the Grizzlies an injection of athleticism and offensive versatility.
Some of those trades worked out as planned to an extent (Lee for Bayless seems to have been a good move), others perhaps not so much (Jeff Green, but more on him in Part III of the Friday Three.) The larger point is, for the past three seasons Memphis has been a buyer at the deadline, making moves with the goal of improving the roster in the here and now. Whether it be taking on more salary, the idea of "addition by subtraction", or giving up a future draft pick, the Grizzlies were willing to do what it took to improve their standing in a loaded Western Conference.
This leads many to assume that Memphis will possibly do the same in 2016, and some are calling for some sort of big-time trade that will get this team out of its collective funk. The issue is, though, that such a move likely does not exist...and for the cause of this season, it probably does not need to. Memphis can still get to a relatively desirable destination in 2016 both in and out of season without any roster adjustments needed in the here and now...but, if they do not trade an expiring deal like a Jeff Gree before the February deadline they risk losing them in Free Agency for nothing. Therefore, some sort of trade to get some assets for the future should be a priority. Considering the level of play that he and other Memphis wings have shown this season, why not explore possibilities? Memphis most certainly should, and most likely will.
There will be challenges, however.
Lack of Assets, Lack of Partners
Expiring contracts simply are not what they used to be nowadays in terms of trade value. With the surge in the salary cap accompanying the new NBA television contract (and all the money that comes with it), roughly 20 teams will be in line to offer a max contract to a player this Summer, including the Grizzlies. That limits your trade pool essentially to ten teams who could perhaps be interested in an expiring deal like that of Jeff Green, Mario Chalmers, or Courtney Lee, mainly because of the fact that their contract is over at the end of the season. Then, couple in the fact that all of those players are either underachieving this season or likely will not bring back equal value in a trade, and throw in Memphis' lack of/need for draft picks? A deal simply may not be in the cards. The assets, and desire, simply will not be there, especially for the kind of move that so many are calling for that will "shake up the roster."
Zach Randolph and Tony Allen almost certainly won't bring back fair value at this point in their careers (a draft pick or young prospect.) Marc Gasol & Mike Conley are off limits...supposedly. So, it limits the potential moves that are available. If a trade like Courtney Lee for Kevin Martin and Tyus Jones from the Minnesota Timberwolves, suggested by Matt Hrdlicka, were offered, you almost certainly have to jump on it because of the fact that outside of Jordan Adams you have no young, upward-trending players on the roster. Same thing with the first round pick suggested by Kevin Pelton of ESPN from Oklahoma City, which would go to the Grizzlies in addition to Mitch McGary and Steve Novak in exchange for Courtney. Value in terms of future asset, but not much return in terms of the here and now.
The market will not be red-hot for Memphis. But they only need one team to feel desperate, and a player like Jeff Green or Courtney Lee has a skill set that could get someone to be willing to mortgage their future a bit to take a chance at a title...much like Memphis did in acquiring those two players in the first place.
Staying in the Playoffs Won't Be Too Hard
The Western Conference is not so good this season. This has been documented here, there, and everywhere. Because of this, the Memphis Grizzlies are likely to make the playoffs regardless of any trade they make...unless they move a Gasol or Conley. Memphis currently is four games solidly in the playoff field, with Sacramento and Portland being the teams closest to competing for a playoff birth. Neither of those teams, with the way Memphis is currently constructed, are capable of competing with the Grizzlies for that spot. That probably won't change if a Courtney Lee or Jeff Green leaves the roster.
If Jordan Adams ever gets healthy (a big if) Courtney Lee perhaps is more expendable. There are many who feel that trading Jeff Green, regardless of return, will make Memphis better a la Rudy Gay. The Grizzlies keep their 2016 first round pick as long as they stay in the playoffs, and it will be a better pick this year as a six, seven, or eight seed due to the Western Conference being down this season. All signs point to the Grizzlies being OK if they sell, with another Memphis playoff appearance in the books in the midst of a potential mini-fire sale.
That may require a change of expectation, but anyone who has watched this team for an extended stretch this season has to understand that these Grizzlies are not title contenders. What they are, though, is a team who could potentially improve their chances at a shorter rebuild with smart deals while still being relevant in the playoff picture. That is relatively rare, and something that can be sustained with smart personnel moves from the front office...which would go against recent history.