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Fear and Loathing for Memphis

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Be wary of the next step. It may be a doozy.

NBA: Sacramento Kings at Memphis Grizzlies Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

The Memphis Grizzlies have reportedly agreed to terms with former Sacramento Kings wing Ben McLemore on two-year contract, worth almost $11 million. This union comes in the wake of contract offers to Wayne Selden Jr. and Kobi Simmons, two other young wings, who the Grizzlies like for this roster (Selden) as well as the one 30 minutes south, their new G-League squad the Memphis Hustle (Simmons). For a team that has little-to-no meaningful draft pick resources looking to rebuild, adding young talent like this is actually refreshing. But there is just one problem.

The Memphis Grizzlies supposedly aren’t rebuilding.

Memphis has four free agents currently on the market - Vince Carter, Tony Allen, JaMychal Green, and Zach Randolph. Four veteran players who have all contributed to this roster in meaningful ways. While it is possible, even likely, that those players are waiting for other players to sign to see what destinations are possible, there have been reports of meetings and interest for all of them...but not necessarily connected with the Grizzlies.

What gives?

NBA: New York Knicks at Memphis Grizzlies Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Between radio silence on those fronts with Memphis and the signings mentioned above bringing the Grizzlies roster to 13 (assuming Rade Zagorac does indeed join the squad), that means there are two (maybe three, considering the G-League two-way deal Simmons signed) spots left. You’d assume one is for Randolph or Green...but the Grizzlies also still have Ivan Rabb and Dillon Brooks, their 2017 draft picks, to sign. Those deals could be non-guaranteed, or two-way contracts, but GM Chris Wallace specifically said that Rabb and Brooks are main roster guys when asked. You have to take him at his word on that.

If that is indeed true, and Rabb and Brooks are main roster bound, that means Memphis could be bringing back only one, or potentially saying goodbye to all four, of their current free agents. That is not something most Grizzlies fans were prepared for, but it’s on the table now more than ever before.

That is fine...but it doesn’t echo the supposed goals of the organization. As Western Conference contenders add future hall of famers (Chris Paul in Houston) and non-playoff teams acquire various former Eastern Conference All-Stars (Paul Millsap to Denver, Jimmy Butler to Minnesota), the Grizzlies seem to be heading backwards. This offseason was always about the health of Chandler Parsons, but spending the money they did on Ben McLemore hampers what they could have done to maximize the strength of the current roster.

NBA: Sacramento Kings at Los Angeles Clippers Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Perhaps Tyreke Evans and Darren Collison will get more than the full mid-level exception when they eventually sign with a team, and maybe the Grizzlies plan on trading players like Brandan Wright and Jarell Martin for future 2nd round picks to create space on the roster and on their salary ledger. Again, making the roster younger is fine, and McLemore is a worthy gamble considering his talent. It is the money spent on him that hurts.

Because of that deal, as things stand now Memphis cannot sign players of the level of Evans, Collison, or C.J. Miles. The roster is close to complete without other trades being made. And outside of Mike Conley and Marc Gasol (and hopefully Chandler Parsons), there isn’t really much proven talent.

Is Ben McLemore now the fourth best player on the current roster? Or Brandan Wright? Is that a roster that is making the Western Conference playoffs? If it isn’t, why are you putting $75 million into three players? If the plan is perhaps to move on from both Green and Randolph and find a new starting power forward, are the Grizzlies actually going to extend their postseason run?

And if they aren’t, if you’re accepting of that and willing to start the rebuild process, why stop at a goodbye to three veterans and a hello to three young talents? Why not explore trading Marc Gasol or Mike Conley, seeing what value they may have in the Eastern Conference now that that conference has weakened. Perhaps a couple of first rounders could come from Boston or New York for those players as the door to competing with LeBron, at least for one more season, becomes more open?

The struggle for Memphis here and now is that the Western Conference has gotten much better. If Gordon Hayward stays in Utah, there are a legitimate twelve teams in the conference of death that think they can make the playoffs. Assuming health, Golden State, San Antonio, Houston, Oklahoma City, and Utah are all locks to be back in the postseason. From there, you’d have the Clippers, Trail Blazers, Grizzlies, Mavericks, Pelicans, Timberwolves, and Nuggets all pushing for three spots.

The Nuggets and Timberwolves have young cores that just added legitimate game changing veterans. The Pelicans have DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis and just brought back Jrue Holiday. The Mavericks are expected to bring back Nerlens Noel and have a strong young core themselves alongside a terrific coach in Rick Carlisle, and the Trail Blazers have a remarkable young backcourt. The Clippers have Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan still, as well as new role players like Patrick Beverley and the potential to sign a player like Danilo Gallinari.

That chill down your spine? The realization that Memphis could be a lottery team.

NBA: Playoffs-San Antonio Spurs at Memphis Grizzlies Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

It was going to happen eventually. But the acceleration of the process may be upon us, and out of the Grizzlies hands. Of course Memphis could still make moves to free up roster/cap space, as mentioned above. This team is (hopefully) not a finished product, as free agency is only a few days old. But if Memphis is unable to find trade partners for Wright or Martin or James Ennis III or Troy Daniels, if this is who the Grizzlies are going to be...Memphis may want to move on from Gasol, or Conley, or both, and maximize the value of the 2018 first rounder they have while adding more youth/assets.

That is what a rebuild is. If this is how the roster stays, that is what this team is officially in.

The Western Conference landscape has changed. Ben McLemore isn’t the answer to staying relevant there, but he may be the answer to helping aid a rebuild depending on what the Grizzlies plan on doing next.

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