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Memphis Money: Grizzlies free agency primer

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It’s never too early to talk about Grizzlies free agents.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Utah Jazz Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

(*Hrdlicka note: Vince Carter is noticeably absent below. This is not a sign of disrespect. I’m attempting to make sense of an extremely complicated situation. For now, I’m gonna assume that a forty year old does not want to play basketball when he’s forty-one. Read that sentence back. My God, Vince is amazing.*)

What is the Memphis Grizzlies goal for the rest of the season and beyond?

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Utah Jazz Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

Before the season, I wrote that the whole season was about finding the road map to the next great Grizzlies team. That meant finding the way to being elite on one side of the ball.

The Grizzlies aren’t the best defense in the league, but they are still top five. Clearly they can be elite, and their offense (once 29th) has crept up to 22nd. If they can get their maintain that elite defense, and bump the offense closer to league average, then they’ll be back on the fringe of the championship discussion.

Meanwhile, the playoffs are almost assured. FiveThirtyEight.com has the Grizzlies at 97% to make the playoffs. That probably overstates their chances somewhat, but barring catastrophe, they will make the playoffs.

Any way you slice it, this season is already a success. So what does that mean for the future?

I’ve talked around this for a while now, but in so many ways, this comes back to JaMychal Green. By my own criteria, (elite defense paired with a path towards average on the other side), the Grizzlies are a success. By my own criteria, they should be willing to lock in this team by re-signing JaMychal. I simply don’t see another path to maintaining an elite defense without him.

I am not a fan of over-paying role players, but I don’t see a direct path to replacing him and maintaining an elite defense. Maybe if we had seen more of the team with Parsons and two wing defenders (Ennis and TA), or if Jarell had shown more, or or or…..

We don’t live in those worlds. We live in the one where the Grizzlies need JaM, are elite with him, and probably aren’t without him.

NBA: Utah Jazz at Memphis Grizzlies Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

What type of contract will JaMychal get this offseason?

We’re still a long way from that point, but there’s no harm in prognostication (Editor’s note- I wrote about this myself earlier this season. Check it out here- JM). Right now, about half the league will have significantly more cap space than the $8.4mm MLE, which is an important marker when it comes to JaMychal. He will be a restricted free agent, meaning the Grizzlies can match any offer he gets. JaMychal hasn’t made much money in his career. If he signs a deal from an outside team, it probably won’t be just the $8.4mm MLE from a contender. It will be for more than the MLE from a team with cap space.

The new CBA allows RFA’s to sign July 1st, and their current team only has 48 hours to match now, but the clock doesn’t actually start until July 6th.

There are three scenarios:

1). A team makes JaM a priority, ahead of players like Paul Millsap, Serge Ibaka, and probably Amir Johnson, Taj Gibson and Patrick Patterson, and signs him on July 1st to a big offer. The Grizzlies have until July 8th to match.

2). A team that has struck out on those other power forwards targets JaM and makes him a big offer. The Grizzlies still have until July 8th to match.

3). JaM doesnt get an offer, and the Grizzlies re-sign him at a reasonable number.

The outcome is much the same in all three scenarios. The Grizzlies can dig around in free agency with their $8.4mm MLE, but on July 8th, whatever number JaM gets, the Grizzlies can match.

I think good value for JaMychal would be a 3 year $31mm deal, a fair deal might be slightly higher than that. But all it takes is one GM to say in an extremely Bruno Mars voice, “I’m a dangerous man with some money in my pocket,” and suddenly the Grizzlies are deciding whether to match a Solomon Hill-esque 4 year $50mm deal.

I want to be clear, I want JaM to make life changing money. I want him to pull up in the FedExForum in his other, other Benz. Even if JaM gets a monster deal that bumps them over the tax, the Grizzlies could just match it and deal with it later (in Memphis, this is known as the Rudy Gay strategy).

But really, JaM’s next contract is subject to two other variables: the futures of two Memphis icons.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Golden State Warriors Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

What do you do with TA and ZBo?

No need to extoll the virtues of the twin pillars of Grit and Grind in these parts. Since they arrived in Memphis, these two players have defined both the Grizzlies culture and its perceived competitive ceiling.

The Grizzlies have about $93mm committed in salary for next year, while the luxury tax is expected to be $123mm. If the Grizzlies fill out the roster with near minimum contracts, they’d have about $28mm to split between Zach Randolph, Tony Allen, and JaMychal Green.

If market value deals are required to retain all three players, the Grizzlies would blow well past the luxury tax. JaM could easily command half of that space himself.

Even if the Grizzlies are okay paying the tax, they may not be able to use the MLE. They probably need to sign JaM/ZBo/TA for about $26mm to avoid being hard-capped (the Hard Cap Apron is set at $6mm over, but you want to leave yourself some wiggle room, so let’s operate at $4mm).

Any scenario is complicated, and requires shenanigans. Perhaps ZBo or TA would take a below market deal to keep the band together. That selflessness should never be counted on and, both players have arguably taken less to stay with the Grizzlies, ZBo in particular. And then there’s the psychological aspect to consider. Would ZBo, having just moved to the bench, also be willing to take less money than the player who replaced him? If JaM gets $13mm/year, is ZBo cool making $10mm/year while also playing fewer minutes?

Players measure themselves in a lot of ways, but both of these guys have watched players cash in the last two seasons. Luol Deng, Joakim Noah, and Timofey Mozgov make more than both players combined. To even the team-firstest of veterans, guys who pour GnG on their cereal for breakfast, that registers.

As things stand today, I would offer JaM 4 years, $35mm, and I would split the money where year 2 dipped downwards, before coming back up in years 3 & 4. After looking at the free agent power forwards next year, I think there are too many other options out there to say JaM definitely gets a big deal. It’s the inverse of the Conley situation last summer, where he was clearly the best point guard available. JaM is clearly in the third tier of player for me, and those guys maybe get paid, but given the advantages of restricted free agency, particularly that all the other options are unrestricted and will be signed before July 8th, I’d gamble that he doesn’t. Similar good players like Patrick Beverly and Mo Harkless received very little interest, and as a result took below market deals.

I would offer ZBo and TA the same structure of deal: 2 years, with the second year both a player option and non-guaranteed (if either player opted in, the Grizzlies could decline it on their end).

The only difference would be the dollars. I’d offer Tony a 2 year, $12.5mm deal, and ZBo a 2 year, $23mm.

Why are you being stingy?

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Memphis Grizzlies Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

The Grizzlies could have as much as $16mm in space – double the MLE - in the summer of 2018, and even if you can’t bring in talent with that money, there will be a market for salary dumps that might recoup an asset. As much as a third of the league could blow into the luxury tax this summer, and not all of them are big markets.

If they re-sign all three players, the Grizzlies will likely be one of these teams.

I think this summer is finally the tipping point where losing Tony Allen and Zach Randolph is not the worst case scenario. It’s bad, but worse would be paying at all costs to keep the team together for multiple years. Time has finally caught up, and this offseason’s negotiation should both show respect to two players who’ve given so much, and also operate in the real world. Respect should be a consideration, not the only one.

This 1+1 structure preserves future cap space, and gives both elder statesmen slight raises off their current deals. It’s an attempt to show a little love while preserving the future.

It will probably fail.

But hey, that’s what negotiation is for! The Grizzlies could trade a few smallish contracts to get under the tax if they had to (see: Wright, Brandan; Martin, Jarell). If I had to prioritize two of the three free agents, I don't know which two I’d take. I don't think there’s a set answer. Not yet. But if the Grizzlies make a move closer to the trade deadline, that answer might become clear. The rotation is balanced on a knife’s edge right now, a mishmash of one way players, rookies and vets. Tip that balance at all by adding more offense, or defense, or getting younger, and something’s gotta give.

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