In the midst of all the “to convey or not to convey” debate, one thing remains painfully obvious when it comes to the Memphis Grizzlies-
The rebuild is not just coming... it is already here. And it is going to be rough.
This team, while the three-game winning streak was fun, is bad. Their 2nd best (healthy) player at the moment is Jonas Valanciunas, a big that, while gifted offensively and as a rebounder, is inherently flawed as a defender, especially on the perimeter in the pick and roll. Their 3rd best player, Avery Bradley, may not be on the team in four months and is an undersized wing that has struggled the past two seasons and has only come back alive as a scorer since his arrival in Memphis.
The head coach and front office both may be gone by that time as well, and given how the team is structured from top to bottom, any future success will likely be determined by a set plan for a long-term rebuild.
Long-term meaning years.
The good news on that front is, as long as they do indeed have a plan - whoever “they” winds up being - they have some time, and a fan base that should remain loyal as long as a direction and culture/identity is established. Jaren Jackson Jr. is one of the youngest players in the NBA and will likely see impressive growth physically over the next few years. By the time he enters contract extension talks- likely in 2021 - you hope to see a team primed and ready to return to postseason play. Memphis Grizzlies fans are smart - they get that in order to get back to the playoffs, it’s probably going to take efforts from players not currently on the Grizzlies.
The question is, what’s the best way to acquire them?
Here is how the Grizzlies could look to rebuild the franchise.
Have a role model
This was discussed here at GBB last week, but unless Memphis gets a huge offer for the services of Mike Conley (a first rounder and talented young player like Gary Harris or T.J. Warren, multiple firsts) he should stick around the Grizzlies. He has been with the organization his entire career and personifies what being a professional is all about with his playing style and work ethic. Of course, Mike would need to embrace being this type of player as he ages - he would essentially be guaranteeing himself no title chance. If he isn’t interested in being the mentor to Jaren Jackson Jr., or Jevon Carter, or Dillon Brooks, or whoever the Grizzlies probably select in this year’s draft (more on that below), then he shouldn’t be in the future plans.
Mike has earned that much - a chance to decide how the twilight of his career plays out. Memphis cannot allow for that to happen at the expense of their own best interests. The front office shake-ups (or lack thereof) to come will play a large role in this. If there is a massive overhaul, with most (or possibly all) of the current staff gone, Conley will likely be as good as gone as well. If it is only GM Chris Wallace and perhaps another person, with a Chris Makris/Tayshaun Prince type taking the reins of the organization? Mike will be more likely to stick around.
Conley also likely increases the likelihood of staying somewhat competitive in the NBA. which leads us to point #2...
If you pick this year...look for production
As of right now, the most probable scenario for the Memphis Grizzlies is that they keep this year’s pick. That would be unfortunate - a 10% chance at Zion Williamson and roughly 37% chance at a pick that may be Ja Morant, R.J. Barrett, or a guaranteed shot at whoever you like best outside those top three players, isn’t worth another season of uncertainty regarding your draft picks. This is especially true considering next year’s draft class is widely considered better than this one. Yet here we are, looking at the likelihood of taking a player between 5-7 that would probably be taken 11-14, or perhaps even lower, in 2020’s draft.
If Memphis finds themselves in this spot, while the potential of a Darius Garland is tantalizing (and would be worth a shot at/not worth getting mad over), the priority should be on selecting a player that can help the Grizzlies both convey their pick next season (before the nightmare scenario - an unprotected 2021 selection to Boston - occurs) and also make them stronger as a good starter alongside Jaren Jackson Jr. for the long run.
Enter De’Andre Hunter.
The UVA sophomore has a lot of Kawhi Leonard to his game. He can defend almost every position on the floor, depending on match-ups, and his 7’2” wingspan would make things pretty complicated for perimeter players in the NBA, even if he is potentially a step slow as an athlete. He is a tremendous shooter, with an offensive game that expands beyond the arc (45.7% from three) and at/around the rim. He understands how to fit within a scheme/system after playing for Tony Bennett at Virginia, and he has been a part of a winning program for multiple years.
Culture must be established in Memphis, and Hunter can help with that.
You’d like to see him rebound more as a wing, especially for a Grizzlies team with a weaker (for now) rebounder in Jaren Jackson Jr. as their cornerstone. But his age (22 in December) should not turn you off. Of all the prospects at the top of this draft beyond those top three, he is the one that has the highest floor. Hunter almost certainly will be a good pro - think Robert Covington but better - at worst, and could be a Kawhi-esque player at best. That helps Memphis both now, and moving forward.
Brandon Clarke of Gonzaga is an honorable mention here, if both Hunter and Garland are off the board if Memphis picks 7th or 8th...which would be unfortunate. His main weakness is his age - 23 when the season starts. But he and Jackson Jr. would make a dominant defensive front court for years to come.
In free agency, take care of your “own” and play the waiting game
This summer, over half the NBA will have money to burn in free agency.
The Grizzlies, meanwhile, will not. And it is unlikely they find a suitor for the terrible Chandler Parsons contract via trade. Between that, the possible additional $11 million Memphis will decide to pay Avery Bradley, and Jonas Valanciunas and C.J. Miles likely opting in to their player options, it is unlikely they will be competitors for the likes of a Kelly Oubre Jr. in restricted free agency in 2019.
That’s OK. Keep them. Let them compete as best they can for future dollars while developing an identity of what exactly it means to be a Memphis Grizzly again.
Because in the event Memphis keeps their 1st round pick this summer, the goal should be to convey in 2020, as our Justin Lewis argued for last week. This lines up with some increased cap flexibility that summer (roughly $51 million coming off the books between Valanciunas, Miles, and Parsons) where the likes of Jaylen Brown will be up for restricted free agency. This is where the Grizzlies should strike in the free agency market - if you are going to overpay some for a free agent, as they almost certainly have to so good-to-great players come to Memphis, it may as well be for a younger player about to enter their primes. Brown, Malik Beasley, Jamal Murray, and Brandon Ingram are all players who may well hit the market in the 2020 free agency period as restricted free agents, and the Grizzlies could take advantage of the cash-strapped Lakers, Nuggets, and Celtics and swoop in to get their services.
That, in addition to having Bird rights (ability to sign him without cap space) on Jonas Valanciunas, will allow for Memphis to keep the young center while still adding a stud in free agency, if worked properly (signing Brown first, then Valanciunas).
For the sake of argument/fun, let’s say Brown becomes a Grizzly after Memphis gives him the max (which would definitely be an overpay). A Conley/Brown/Hunter/Jackson/Valanciunas starting five, within the scope of this article, heading in to 2020-2021 sounds at least somewhat competitive. Then, in the summer of 2021 (when Mike Conley’s contract expires), players like Jayson Tatum, De’Aaron Fox, Donovan Mitchell, and Kyle Kuzma enter the free agent fray. Memphis can re-sign Conley if they want to in a similar fashion to Valanciunas (if they want them both back) and still, depending on Conley’s contract, sign a star restricted free agent.
Imagine a Fox/Brown/Hunter/Jackson/Valanciunas starting five. That’d make 2021 a season of playoff expectations once again.
With some cap work, and a little luck, it would be well within the realm of possibility. Assuming a better 2019-2020 and conveyance of the pick that season, even if things turn south you can at least keep the pick and utilize it by actually using it or sending it to someone for future picks/a player to help solidify the future alongside Jaren.
The priority should still be to send the pick to Boston this season.
A Conley trade should still be on the table.
There are a ton of levels to how this whole process could shake out, from coaching staff to organizational and roster overhaul. It is possible almost every Grizzlies player returns next season. It’s possible only five or six of them do. The pick may, or may not, convey this summer, but it will eventually head to Boston.
Regardless, the rebuild has to begin now. It has, to an extent, with Marc Gasol’s departure.
The path laid out here, over two seasons, puts the team in a position to continue the “compete” while rebuilding. An argument can be made for pure scorched earth, with complete bottoming out and extended losing. Yet if the Grizzlies don’t convey this summer - a likelihood that goes up with every loss - losing to send an unprotected 2021 selection to the Celtics makes no sense either. The benefit of a young Jackson is that you can stay in this holding pattern if necessary, as long as shrewd moves are made to build for both now and the future.
Let’s hope whoever is in charge following this season is capable of doing just that.