“With the 2nd pick, in the 2019 NBA Draft, the Memphis Grizzlies select Ja Morant, guard, Murray State University.”
That will almost certainly be heard and greeted with cheers at watch parties and other events across the mid-south on Thursday, June 20th when NBA Commissioner Adam Silver reads the selection of the Grizzlies. Many will be thrilled, a few will undoubtedly be disappointed (looking at you, RJ Barrett stans), and Memphis will begin to look forward to Summer League.
We have many miles to go before we get there, however.
The draft is a little less than three weeks away, and yet the Grizzlies still are without a head coach, still have Mike Conley solidly on their roster, and still are not sure what Jonas Valanciunas will do with his player option. All these things are intertwined, to an extent, and all these things link to the draft on the 20th of June as well. Will Memphis need a center? Can Conley and Morant co-exist? How will the new head person in Memphis fit all these pieces together?
The answers to these questions should come in to better view in the days ahead. Until then, let’s speculate, shall we?
Here are three things that will happen between now and the 2019 NBA Draft.
The Grizzlies will hire a head coach that they have not been publicly linked to yet.
Ettore Messina of the San Antonio Spurs had quite the successful coaching career before coming to the NBA. Now, he is viewed as one of the most sought-after assistants in the Association...and possibly Gregg Popovich’s heir in San Antonio.
Could he interview with Memphis? Potentially.
Would he be a great hire for the Grizzlies? Absolutely.
Have Zachary Kleiman, Jason Wexler and the “brain trust” been publicly linked as of this writing to who they will eventually hire?
Messina may be a pipe dream. But he and others (Becky Hammon, Sam Cassell, Dan Burke, Mike Brown just to name a few) that make a lot of sense as candidates for Memphis have not been connected to the Grizzlies yet...and it’s safe to assume that at least one of them will be at some point. Kleiman and company have interviewed seven candidates to date (that we know of) - Alex Jensen, Sarunas Jasikevicius, Jarron Collins, Igor Kokoskov, Nate Tibbetts, Adrian Griffin, and Taylor Jenkins. The process they are going through is terrific - meeting with a lot of smart and talented folks to gauge interest in your job and pick their brains about everything you can is rarely a bad thing to do.
That doesn’t mean these names are the next head coach.
They could be a possible lead assistant/head coach in waiting for an older head coach like Messina or Burke. They could be a chance for both sides to network as a new front office gets their feet wet in the NBA waters. There are lots of directions these conversations could take that don’t end at them hiring these people for the head coaching job at this time.
And in no way does that make this a waste of time.
The Grizzlies will have their new head honcho by the draft. We just haven’t heard their name connected to Memphis yet.
Mike Conley rumors will “Heat” up...but he will still be a Grizzly
As the draft approaches, Conley speculation will likely rise. Outside of Anthony Davis, he will be the best player on the trade block this summer (barring some massive unforeseen deal) and with that comes rumors. The Utah Jazz, Indiana Pacers, and others figure to be early contenders for the services of Mike because they are not prime free agency destinations. The idea of “waiting to see what Kevin Durant does” and others in this loaded free agent class isn’t as relevant to those squads as it would be to, say, the Lakers or Knicks.
Another team that would be a destination like L.A. or New York but doesn’t have the cap space of those teams is the Miami Heat. They have been linked to Conley according to the Sporting News, and because of the bad contracts on their roster they would need to make a trade to acquire a Conley-esque player and not free agency.
Pat Riley has long been an admirer of Mike, reportedly, and a trade makes sense on multiple levels. For the Grizzlies, it opens up the possibility of acquiring both a lottery pick (Miami holds #13 overall in this draft) and a talented young player (Justise Winslow should be the target). Whatever bad money would need to be taken back - one of Ryan Anderson, Hassan Whiteside, James Johnson, Kelly Olynyk depending on the rest of the trade for cap purposes - would be fine if #13 and Winslow are the focus of the deal.
For the Heat? With or without Goran Dragic, Miami gets an upgrade at point guard who should thrive in the weaker Eastern Conference and even weaker Southeast division. For Mike himself? An All-Star season could be well within reach, and a playoff birth as well.
It’s a theoretical win all around, if they can find a way to make it all fit together. Watch for these rumors to get...hotter...as the draft approaches, not just with Miami but others like the Jazz and Detroit Pistons. The Heat package has real potential, though.
Jonas Valanciunas will opt in...and stay in Memphis, Z-Bo style.
The date for the Valanciunas player option decision is June 13th, meaning Jonas has until that day to decide whether he will make roughly $17.6 million next season guaranteed or enter the free agent market. While this is not the strongest pool of free agent centers, the focus on whether or not a traditional big like Valanciunas has a place across regular and postseason NBA play limits his potential value. That isn’t to say Jonas is a poor player or not worth more than the mid-level exception - he almost certainly is.
It just means he may never again make more than that $17.6 million in any given season.
Memphis, if Valanciunas is open to it, would be wise to make a deal with Jonas similar to the one Zach Randolph signed with the Grizzlies years ago. In that contract Zach opted in to a $16.5 million player option and then signed a 2 year $20 million extension with Memphis beyond that option. The 3 year $36.5 million contract came out to a little more than $12.5 million per year, a bargain for Zach at the time.
In this scenario, Jonas could opt in for $16.7 million and then sign a 2 year, $28 million contract extension. That would put Jonas at a total of 3 years - the length of Jaren Jackson Jr,’s rookie deal - $44.7 million. That’s almost $15 million per year on average for Valanciunas, who while an impressive rebounder and scorer (and an underrated rim protector) is not the type of big that has consistently shown he is able to defend on the perimeter on a switch or hit the three offensively. That could limit him in terms of postseason play.
But Jonas is in the prime of his career and thrives in an area (rebounding) where your star young big, Jaren Jackson Jr., is not as strong. This contract allows for Jaren to develop over the next three seasons, both physically and as an NBA big man and rebounder, while not depending on him to be something that he is not ready to be. It doesn’t stop you from being a player in restricted free agency in 2020 (assuming Mike Conley is indeed traded), and depending on whatever the return is in a Conley deal between Kyle Anderson and another combo-forward type you have lineup flexibility if you do indeed somehow wind up back in the postseason and Jonas is indeed unplayable in certain situations. If things don’t work out, and Valanciunas wants to leave? A $15 million contract should be relatively easy to move to a contender at a trade deadline.
Before the Grizzlies make the playoffs, though, they need to grow as a roster. Valanciunas could be a solid stop gap in that process.