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Tyreke Evans is the Most Important Grizzly

And not so much for what he’s doing on the court.

Sacramento Kings v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

It’s true that Mike Conley’s injury has severely damaged the Memphis Grizzlies’ chances of making the organization’s eighth straight playoff appearance. In that way, you might make a convincing case that he’s the most important Grizzly this year.

Marc Gasol essentially got the team’s head coach, David Fizdale, fired. Thus began the process of a “graceful tank” that has put the franchise in a position where it would be more beneficial to lose than to win for the first time in nine seasons. In that way, you might make a convincing case that Gasol’s the most important Grizzly this year.

Both of those players’ impacts on the 2017-18 season are instrumental in why neither of them is the most important player on the team this year. That player is Tyreke Evans, who has been the best player on the team. But that’s not why he’s the most important. No, it’s because of what he represents that he earned that title.

Tyreke Evans is a linchpin figure in Grizzlies history.

He represents the future of the franchise in a way that almost no other player who “represents the future of the franchise” does. Those players are usually young, abundantly talented, and anchored to an organization. Evans represents the best way of possibly obtaining one of those players.

He is in his prime, having the best season of his career, and playing on a one year deal. Add those three elements to the foundation created by Conley’s absence and the firing of Fizdale, and you find yourself at this conclusion: the Grizzlies have to trade Tyreke Evans.

To say that Evans is the most important Grizzly not for what he’s done on the court is a bit of a misnomer. If he were playing at even an average level, this thesis would be invalidated. Yet the former Memphis Tigers star has never played better in his career.

Memphis Grizzlies vs New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images

He’s averaging the second most points per game since his Rookie of the Year campaign in 2009-10 when he eclipsed the 20 PPG mark for the lone time in his career. What sets this season apart from any prior is that he’s scoring much more efficiently than ever before.

According to Basketball Reference, he’s shooting 45.3 percent from the floor on more than 15 attempts per game, and from distance he shoots 38.8 percent on greater than five attempts. All four of those numbers are well above his career average. Per 36 minutes and per 100 possessions he’s scoring at a clip three or four points greater than his next best season.

He has the highest offensive rating of his career, the highest player efficiency rating, the highest true shooting percentage, win shares per 48 minutes, box plus/minus, and he’s well on his way to the best win shares and value over replacement player totals of his career too.

He leads the team in scoring and assists and is additionally third in rebounds per game. He also leads in a number of the advanced statistical categories mentioned above.

He’s clearly the best player on the team. As a result, even without factoring in his contract, his value has never been greater.

Let’s talk about that contract for a second, because when added to both his age, 28, and his play (numbers above), it makes him one of the juiciest trade candidates in the Association.

Evans signed a one-year $3.2 million deal with the Grizzlies this summer. That is the lowest amount of money he’s made in any of his nine seasons per Basketball Reference. As he has played at a conversationally All-Star level, it’s quite obvious he’s being criminally underpaid.

Memphis Grizzlies vs New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images

The Grizzlies cannot re-sign Evans in the offseason unless he were willing to take an inordinate pay cut, or they perform salary gymnastics. There’s been no indication that he would be willing to do so, and frankly, I hope he wouldn’t because he deserves better.

There’s been some discussion of Evans’ “Bird Rights,” a provision, named after Larry Bird, in the collective bargaining agreement that allows teams to re-sign more easily their own free agents. However, a player must sign a contract that is at least three seasons in length to earn Bird rights. Therefore, the Grizzlies do not have Evans’ Bird Rights as they do not exist, nor would the team even have his “Early Bird Rights” which come into play after a player has spent two years with a single team.*

(*Note: for the junkies out there, he should have “Non-Bird Rights” which a team gets after a player completes just one season with a team. Were the Grizzlies to exercise their Non-Bird Rights on Evans, his pay would increase only barely, making him still vastly underpaid i.e. he would not accept a deal structured like this.)

New York Knicks v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

However, as the Grizzlies also have the Mid-Level Exception (MLE) at their disposal this summer, there’s no reason to think they would exercise Evans’ Non-Bird Rights in place of the MLE.

Via the MLE, Memphis could offer Evans something like a four-year $36.5 million deal, roughly $9 million per season. That comes closer to his value, but I’d be willing to bet there are teams out there who would offer more (potentially much more), and the Grizzlies will not offer anything greater than the MLE, especially if it puts the team over the luxury tax threshold.

(H/t to former GBB writer Matt Hrdlicka for helping me parse through the minutiae of the CBA for this section. Also, you should follow his Patreon account where he still writes [well, I might add].)

All of the above was written to supplement this statement: The Grizzlies cannot re-sign Evans this offseason because he will be much too expensive for them.

Because he will not re-sign with Memphis next year, because he’s playing exceptionally, and because he’s greatly outplaying his contract, the Grizzlies have to trade Tyreke Evans before the February 8 trade deadline.

All of those reasons are logical. If you’re holding onto a valuable asset that other people covet, and you also cannot retain that asset past the near future, then you might as well trade it for something else even if what you receive in return is not of equal value. Better to get something in return than nothing.

Peter Edmiston of Sports56 WHBQ and The Commercial Appeal has an ongoing thread on Twitter of potential trades the Grizzlies should make, and all of them so far include Evans.

Here are a couple other trades involving Evans that seem plausible:

In this scenario the Grizzlies get either a first or two seconds but also send a second to the Detroit Pistons. Detroit began the year as one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference, but have since lost their way out of the playoffs. That team wants to be in, and Evans probably gets them in.

Throw in Wright as a backup rim protector when Andre Drummond goes to the bench, and take on Ish Smith’s $6 million deal, and that might sweeten the pot enough to potentially get a first. Because the Grizzlies aren’t getting back anything they want here, they’d have to receive some sort of pick compensation for accepting Smith and Anthony Tolliver.

Memphis sends a second rounder, maybe its 2018 second, to the Los Angeles Lakers, and the Cleveland Cavaliers send their own 2018 first round pick to Memphis.

I don’t understand why the Lakers wish to rid themselves of Jordan Clarkson, but if they are to do it, I would like to nominate the Grizzlies for first dibs at getting him. He’s young and has proven to be a good offensive player in large minutes in LA.

Memphis also takes on Jose Calderon, who doesn’t play anyway in Cleveland and who’s role will be supplanted by Evans. The Lakers take Iman Shumpert and nab Selden while getting rid of Clarkson and Julius Randle, whom they also have been reportedly wanting to offload. Cleveland probably immediately waives or stretches Randle.

This is my favorite hypothetical trade. Cleveland gets much needed bench playmaking, Memphis gets a young guy and a pick, and LA gets a less proven young guy while also getting rid of two players they don’t want. It feels like a win-win-win. Which means it probably won’t happen.

An Evans trade would reflect more than just a surface-level logical business decision. It would show some stability from within the front office and would open the organization to a possible future outside of exhausting Grit N’ Grind to its demise. An Evans trade represents a path out of the void, a path that has previously been vacant from the Grizzlies’ vantage point.

Philadelphia 76ers v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

This franchise would get better in the long run simply by not having Evans on the roster, though the team would become immediately worse. As Geoff Calkins of The Commercial Appeal said Thursday,

“There is nothing the Grizzlies could get for Evans that would be worth having a late lottery pick instead of a pick in the top five.”

Jettisoning Evans in and of itself makes the team worse (read: makes the franchise better), no matter what it gets in return. That’s not to say the team shouldn’t try to get something for him in return. Obviously it should, and it should hold out until the last possible minute to see if any better offers come across the table. But refusing to trade him not only wouldn’t make logical sense, but would additionally position the franchise poorly for a world without Evans as well as a world without Conley or Gasol.

And that is precisely why Tyreke Evans is the most important player of all for this franchise.

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