The 2019 NBA Draft has come and gone, and with the arrival of Ja Morant and Brandon Clarke (and John Konchar) and departure of the beloved Mike Conley, the Memphis Grizzlies are officially entering a brave new world.
The next unknown to tackle? How the Grizzlies new-look (and red-hot) front office attacks free agency.
Memphis has far more to answer on their own roster than they do with regard to the open market. The two main points of business - the possible re-signing of Jonas Valanciunas after he opted out of his previous contract and the restricted free agency of Delon Wright - will have a domino effect on what the Grizzlies do elsewhere. Keep them both, and Memphis will almost surely be quite quiet in free agency beyond exceptions. Allow both to walk (and renounce other cap holds/partially guaranteed deals) and you will have far more cap space than was anticipated months ago.
Keep one and not the other? More variance...and more activity, since both Valanciunas and Wright fill areas of need for this rebuilding franchise.
Beyond Jonas and Delon, the futures of Tyler Dorsey, Kyle Korver (weird to write that still), Avery Bradley, Joakim Noah, Justin Holliday, and guaranteed money on the deals of Dillon Brooks, Ivan Rabb, and Bruno Caboclo are all at least somewhat in question as the festivities get under way this weekend. This Grizzlies team could look vastly different - or somehow quite similar - from/to the crew that ended the season just over two months ago. Whatever Memphis decides to do, the goal must remain on developing Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr.
We begin with the largest domino to fall...both literally and figuratively.
Plan on four more years of Jonas
Jonas Valanciunas opting out of his $17.6 million owed to him in his previous deal was somewhat surprising at the time. Most analysts and media members do not see Jonas making more than that in a given season again...so passing up that guaranteed cash is a bold strategy...unless there’s an understanding something worth while is at the end of the tunnel.
Chances are, the tunnels comes out in Memphis...but what will it cost?
The Grizzlies surely understand what most see - Jaren Jackson Jr. is not ready to carry the brunt of the minutes at the center position. He should see more time there then he did this past season - Jaren should be both the starting power forward and main backup center. If he were asked to be the main man in that spot, however, Memphis would be risking injury to a frame not ready for the constant bumps and bruises of the position, which would slow his development.
And as has been stated multiple times, the goal now is to maximize the development of Jaren and Ja Morant. Jonas would very well help in that pursuit, as a rebounder and screener.
But again...at what cost? And it may not be in terms of cash.
Valanciunas is almost certainly looking for a four-year contract (which wasn’t possible if he opted in to his previous deal), which is a bit nerve racking considering his limitations compared to the direction the NBA is heading. Traditional centers like Jonas are becoming more and more rare, and while the low post scoring and rebounding of Valanciunas is fun to watch in Memphis (where it’s arguably more appreciated than anywhere else given the history of great bigs that have worn Beale Street Blue), the Grizzlies surely hope to be back in the postseason within the next four years. Can Jonas be a key piece of a playoff team’s roster at the age of 30 with his skill set?
The answer determines whether or not he’s around...and Memphis probably thinks he can be.
Valanciunas didn’t opt out for anything less than a long-term deal. That’s almost surely what he will get. Hopefully it is a descending contract - say, four years, $57 million, but $19 million in the first season, meaning an average of roughly $12.7 million the last three years of the deal. That would both protect Memphis in future dealings while also making Jonas a tradeable piece and giving him a fully guaranteed contract.
That type of deal would age better. Anything more than a four year $64 million deal, especially one that ascends, would be bad business...and this front office doesn’t seem to be in the market for that kind of decision.
Prediction: Jonas stays with a fully guaranteed, but team friendly, contract.
Delon will stay, as well
The Memphis Grizzlies tendered Delon Wright his qualifying offer, giving the Grizzlies the right to match any offer Delon gets from another team. It’s possible it does not get that far - Memphis probably has Delon as a priority in free agency, and maybe even more than Jonas.
Why, you may ask? Versatility, and options.
Wright is different from Valanciunas in that he can play multiple positions and do multiple things. He can facilitate, he can finish at the rim, and he can switch and defend across the perimeter. The Grizzlies are hurting for ball handlers - Ja Morant and Jevon Carter need a veteran presence - and there are more bigs currently on the roster (Jackson, Clarke, Rabb, likely Jonas) and fewer point guard options in free agency should Wright leave that would make sense with the level of versatility he brings.
Because of that, “overpaying” Delon hurts less than Jonas, at least in theory. A four year, $32 million contract (again, front loaded/descending) would be ideal, but a contract similar in structure to that of Kyle Anderson (four years, roughly $37 million) would be the ceiling of an offer. That’s the going rate for a player capable of starting, but best served as a reserve player in the NBA today, and that fits Delon.
Prediction: Wright sticks around for an Anderson-esque deal.
Avoiding older opt-ins...
If the Grizzlies do the deals suggested above ($19 million for Jonas this season, roughly $8.6 million for Delon) it would put them just within $1.5 million of the luxury tax. It is fair to say that Memphis will not pay that tax - they didn’t do it at the peak of Grit and Grind, and they won’t do it in this rebuild. The tax can be avoided by revoking cap holds on Justin Holiday ($5.7 million), Tyler Dorsey (whose $1.8 million qualify offer was not offered), and Joakim Noah ($1.6 million), but even then the Grizzlies would not be able to utilize mid-level exception and other options for teams that are above the cap but below the tax.
That is, of course, until you come to the contracts of Avery Bradley and Kyle Korver.
Korver, who came over in the Mike Conley trade, is due to make $7.5 million next season, but only $3.4 million of that is guaranteed. Bradley, who was acquired by the Grizzlies at last season’s trade deadline for JaMychal Green and Garrett Temple, is due $12.9 million...unless he is waived before July 3rd, because if he is released, only $2 million is guaranteed to him. So do the math - between the release of Korver and Bradley, Memphis could save about $14 million. Then, all the exceptions would be at the disposal of the Grizzlies.
Korver could theoretically be a valuable trade piece at the deadline, but at his age (38) all it would take is one injury to ruin that plan. That risk isn’t worth the flexibility that $3.1 million provides. Bradley, while younger, is nowhere near worth $12.9 million and Memphis almost surely will not pay that amount.
Bet on the Grizzlies not only renouncing the cap holds of Noah, Dorsey, and Holiday, but also saying goodbye to Bradley and Korver.
Prediction: Korver, Bradley, Noah, and Holiday are all gone.
...and allowing young guarantees.
Three contracts of players under the age of 25 become guaranteed over the next few weeks - Dillon Brooks (July 5th), Bruno Caboclo (July 10th), and Ivan Rabb (July 15th). The Grizzlies, under new head coach Taylor Jenkins, should be in the business of developing young talent. These three players have all shown flashes of real production, and all three players have had moments of adversity early in their NBA careers. They’re all flawed - Brooks has health concerns, Caboclo is a late bloomer, and Rabb has limited modern skills for an NBA big beyond basic post moves and rebounding.
But they all have this in common - there’s reason to believe they can get better.
Rebuilding teams don’t grow by saying goodbye to the young players on their roster. Ivan Rabb may well not be on this team 18 months from now, but why not allow Jenkins to work with him and see that for himself? The same can be said for Brooks and Caboclo - perhaps investing in them long-term won’t fit, but the Grizzlies have the luxury of time and team-friendly options that can allow for them to figure that out.
All three of these guys should be on the roster opening night (with Rabb being the guy who should be most nervous). And they will be.
Prediction: Rabb, Brooks, and Caboclo get their money fully guaranteed...but Rabb may not last.
One roster spot...who gets it?
Let’s say everything goes as stated above. Here’s the roster after such decisions-
POINT GUARD: Ja Morant, Delon Wright, Jevon Carter, John Konchar (Two-Way Contract)
SHOOTING GUARD: Dillon Brooks, Grayson Allen
SMALL FORWARD: Kyle Anderson, C.J. Miles, Chandler Parsons, Bruno Caboclo, Yuta Watanabe (Two-Way Contract)
POWER FORWARD: Jaren Jackson Jr., Jae Crowder, Brandon Clarke
CENTER: Jonas Valanciunas, Ivan Rabb
All those players combined would make for $111.1 million on the cap sheet of the Grizzlies (including $500,000 owed to Dakari Johnson). Considering the luxury tax ceiling is projected to be roughly $136.2 million, and the projected NBA salary cap is $109 million, Memphis would be able to both use the full mid-level exception and also still have a large chunk of the traded player exception available to them if they so choose to go that route.
Flexibility...a wonderful new term for the Grizzlies.
Now there would only be one roster spot open (two-ways do not count towards the number), and the glaring issue - even beyond center, because remember, Jaren will eat some of those minutes - is on the perimeter. So whether it is via trade, or the mid-level exception, that wing position needs to be strengthened.
What are the options?
Via free agency, the easier and therefore most likely path, players like Rodney Hood and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope fit the Memphis mold of young-ish (only 26) and capable of doing multiple things, be it score and facilitate (Hood) or hit the three and defend multiple positions at a high level (Caldwell-Pope). Jeremy Lamb (27) may be the ideal fit for this, but he almost certainly will not be in the MLE price range of the Grizzlies. Austin Rivers and Tomas Satoransky are combo guards with the size and length, as well as skill set, that could also fit for the Grizzlies within that MLE number of over $9 million.
Satoransky, as a restricted free agent, perhaps is the best marriage of skill and current roster makeup/goals of what Jenkins wants to do offensive. He can shoot the three (39.5% from beyond the arc last season), play both guard positions, and in theory at 6’7” could also play the small forward spot. Given his size, he can switch with at least three, and maybe even four, positions defensively. He can also get to the free throw line at a decent clip, and his frame and skills make him compatible with just about every type of lineup the Grizzlies could trot out.
He is similar to Anderson last season in that Memphis can “overpay” a bit and dare Tomas’ current team - the Washington Wizards - to match. He also, like Anderson, is positionally versatile and can be many different things within one player and one contract. Satoransky has a tenacity to him in terms of effort will make him fit in Memphis quite nicely as well. He has a body and length that should allow for him to improve defensively, especially considering those behind him in terms of Jackson and Clarke.
Could the Grizzlies use the traded player’s exception in the next month? Sure...but it seems more likely they allow for that to breathe for a bit (it lasts a whole year) and prioritize bringing in a player that can help them compete as best as possible in a more modern offense. Satoransky, of all the “realistic” options, makes the most sense in Memphis - he can allow for Ja to play off the ball some, and can be another pick and roll partner on the wing for Jaren.
An overpay? Perhaps...and Washington, being desperate at the point guard position due to the John Wall injury. But his basketball tool belt and positionless potential fits alongside Jaren and Ja...and that must remain the focus as free agency opens.
Prediction: The Grizzlies sign Tomas Satoransky to a four-year, roughly $37 million contract (with a 4th year player option), and the Wizards do not match.