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Valuing the Memphis Grizzlies roster

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Expected Return on Investment by Player for the 2019-20 Roster

Memphis Grizzlies Purchase D-Leaue Team Press Conference Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

Under new leadership, the front office for the Memphis Grizzlies has quickly transformed the roster into something many fans may have trouble recognizing. Since committing to the overhaul, a host of new contracts have come in to fight for playing time (or buyout money). In an effort to illustrate the performance of the front office as it pertains to the contracts tied to this extensive roster shakeup, I’ve calculated approximations of a “fair market” salary for each of the non-rookie players signed to the Grizzlies at the moment.

Why not the rookies? In short, the following analysis estimates each player’s value based on past performance, which Ja Morant and Brandon Clarke currently lack. Their college stats would be inappropriate approximations, and it’s just better to look at them as new investments in potential growth.

Using four metrics that each attempt to capture a player’s contribution to a team’s win total, I translated each in to a rough salary expectation relative to what an average NBA team expects to pay per win. For the coming 2019-20 season, NBA teams have approximately $124 million on the books on average. By definition, an average team should win half of their games. This means that the average team expects to pay just over $3 million for each win.

The player metrics used are Value Over Replacement Player and Win Share from Basketball Reference, Wins Produced from Box Score Geeks, and Points Over Replacement Player - Plus. The last one is an in-house calculation that closely follows the valuation method outlined by Dean Oliver. Each of these was employed to assign a number of wins to the player, then multiplied by the average paid for a win by NBA organizations.

What do the results show? They illustrate that the new-look front office of the Memphis Grizzlies is shrewd and not to be underestimated. At present, there are really only four “bad” contracts. They belong to Miles Plumlee, Solomon Hill, Grayson Allen, and Josh Jackson. Each came to the franchise this offseason as inclusions in trade packages not necessarily centered around the talent of those players. Yet, each still carries more worth for the Grizz than you may think.

Plumlee and Hill both have positive value towards wins, just not nearly as much compared to what they’re being paid. The pill fans have to swallow is that they will cost over $25 million combined this season, while only providing about $3.2 million worth of value. The silver lining, though, is that each player is in the final year of his contract, giving the organization some financial flexibility next year when their contracts are off the books.

Allen and Jackson both carry negative value in these fair market estimations, and are both significantly more expensive than replacement level players (league-minimum salary is just under $900K). The two currently project to cost the Grizzlies about $21.5 million in excess of their anticipated added value to the team for the upcoming season. However, in Wall Street terms, you could view Allen and Jackson like junk bonds. They got dumped for a reason. But, once in a while, you find one that pays off huge. That’s what fans have to hope for with them.

Speaking of new additions via trade, the most expensive player on the Grizzlies roster may be more than just a trade chip. Andre Iguodala’s massive contract has been widely discussed, with opposing fan bases wishing the Grizzlies would reach a buyout with him. Indications, thus far, have been that the organization is happy to start the season with him on the roster. Looking at his expected salary from these projections, it’s easy to understand why they feel that way. Yes, his contract calls for him to earn $17.2 million this year. But, his production from last year suggests that he provides about the same value as his contract calls for this year. The same is true of Jae Crowder, another noted trade chip. While it’s still unlikely both are wearing a Memphis Grizzlies uniform by the end of the season, it’s clear why the organization is willing to wait for the right offer before waving goodbye to either of these men.

The only other contract that comes with any true concerns is the new one given to expected starting center Jonas Valanciunas. If we use last year’s numbers, he projects to add $11.7 million in value while costing $16 million. However, it’s not unreasonable to argue that his numbers were skewed this past season due to being traded, injury, and everything that came with it. If we instead look at his numbers from the previous seasons, Valanciunas would be anticipated to outperform his contract this year by about $5.6 million. Clearly, the team is banking on it being closer to the latter projection, settling negotiations by practically splitting the difference between the two.

Speaking of new contracts, Tyus Jones has played exactly to his new annual salary of $9.25 million thus far. Only a fool would believe that to be a coincidence. Instead, it’s another indication of careful and deliberate moves by the organization. Given his age, it’s certainly possible that he continues to develop and deliver production that will exceed his annual salary.

The highlight of this exercise, though, is Mr. Slow-Mo himself, Kyle Anderson. While costing just over $9 million, he’s currently justified with added value of $11 million. Perhaps surprisingly for some fans, two other players providing significant returns beyond their pay are Ivan Rabb and Bruno Caboclo. As the win numbers are corrected (to an extent) for minutes played, Rabb’s and Caboclo’s “value” could just be a product of small sample size. However, it could also help explain the organization’s commitment to them thus far since both players each cost less than $2 million per year.

Let’s not forget, after all, that the true focus of the Memphis Grizzlies is the future. While I promised not to include rookies, I said nothing about almost-rookies. For these players, it’s still early to determine the type of value that can be reasonably expected long-term. That doesn’t mean we won’t have a little fun and look at it anyway.

With early-stage players, most will not live up to their salaries right out of the gate. Teams hope that the value is, instead, recouped over the long-haul. For example, potential franchise big-man Jaren Jackson Jr. played to a salary worth $5.4 million as a rookie last year, not too far off his actual rookie salary of $6.9 million. You have to think that the front office is more than happy with that result in year one. De’Anthony Melton actually played right at his contract of $1.4 million, supporting the notion that the higher-ups within the organization wanted him more than Josh Jackson as part of the trade this offseason with the Phoenix Suns. Lastly, Dillon Brooks has slightly underperformed relative to his $1.6 million annual charge to date. However, especially with the injury last season, that one’s still too early to call.

Now gifted with the luxury of hindsight, it appears the front office has done exactly what it needed to do to position for a rebuild. They’ve surrounded their youth with good value players, only taking on bad contracts that either expire soon (Plumlee and Hill) or still come with some hope for potential (Allen and Jackson). Even past contracts, like the one given to Kyle Anderson, have done well thus far. Given that Iguodala and Crowder are still playing up to their contracts, the team should expect decent returns in the form of salary cap flexibility and/or draft picks, further strengthening future possibilities for the franchise. As it currently stands, fans should have tremendous faith in the new front office’s ability to navigate a turnaround into something special for the city.