The Los Angeles Lakers are the NBA champions, and they’re likely not going away anytime soon. Nor are the Clippers, or the Bucks, or the Heat or Raptors or Celtics or Nuggets who are all set up quite nicely to run things back and take another swipe at a Finals appearance. Below those powers are teams such as the Trail Blazers, the Mavericks, the Pacers, and others who see themselves one move or so away from entering the upper echelon of squads trying to pry the title from LeBron James, Anthony Davis (almost sure to return in free agency), and the Lakers.
Those squads will be there. And the sleeping giants that are the Warriors and Nets loom large. That’s 12 teams that are, beyond a shadow of a doubt, either decidedly better right now than the Memphis Grizzlies or plan on putting themselves in a position to make that claim in the next two to three months.
So Memphis, despite their overachiever status in 2019-2020, would be wise to not take their shot this offseason and look to the future. Their time is coming...it’s just not quite here yet. We have to wait for it and execute the kind of delayed gratification that is so rare in our society today. Naturally you want to see the growth process move along faster when the likes of Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr., Brandon Clarke and their crew of chip-on-their-shoulder Grizzlies do so much with so few expectations. But in terms of the long-term health of the franchise, it simply does not make too much sense to rush the process.
The good news? This front office agrees...and every act they’ve taken to this point is evidence to back that up. Memphis has and unprecedented combination of cap flexibility/draft capital/young talent in the franchise’s history and plenty of time to let it all come to fruition. So while this offseason probably won’t be as newsworthy as the one that was highlighted by the Mike Conley trade 16 months ago (crazy, right?) and likely will not see any major signings or trades, there are still things that can be done to make the road ahead steps toward that ultimate goal. For the reality is, the Memphis Grizzlies will probably be better than they were last season...and still miss the playoffs. But the moves made this offseason can help dictate and shape the ones to come in the years ahead.
The Grizzlies can have a perfect offseason without trading for a superstar, or signing a Tyreke Evans-esque home run in free agency.
First, trade Kyle Anderson
Kyle Anderson is a very good basketball player.
He does things that a team with elite/dominant scorers could find value in. He impacts winning basketball without having to put the ball in the bucket. He is a tremendously versatile defender and facilitator given his athletic limitations, and his length and basketball IQ should be coveted by at least one contender who isn’t actively searching for shooting/point production from their forward position.
So if he is so valuable, why should he be traded? Because he’s not Zach Kleiman’s guy. Or Taylor Jenkins’ guy. When he signed, he fit the direction of JB Bickerstaff/Chris Wallace Grizzlies. He doesn’t fit the Grizzlies of now.
Where could he go? Denver perhaps. Utah, Indiana, maybe even Philadelphia - all teams that have scoring options, that play a slower pace, that aren’t necessarily married to the idea of 2021 cap space for free agency. They could use a passer, a team/scheme defender like Anderson as a reserve to assist in a playoff push. Memphis could (and perhaps should) be willing to take on a worse player that may be on an expiring contract to have greater flexibility moving forward.
Actual trade ideas will come once the salary cap is set. But in a perfect Memphis world? Kyle Anderson isn’t on the roster whenever next season starts. And that’s probably best for Kyle as well.
Next, make a trade in this draft.
The Memphis Grizzlies have a plethora of 1st and 2nd round picks over the next several years. It is highly unlikely that they make all of those selections. Given the fact they have only one pick in this draft at #40 overall, there is a lane for them to get as much bang for their buck with that selection as possible.
Consider a team like Boston, who has three 1st round picks (formerly the Grizzlies pick at #14, #26, and #30). Or squads like the 76ers, Kings, and Pelicans, who have three or more 2nd round selections. Avenues exist for either moving up from #40 (that pick and a future 2nd should be able to get you #26 or #30), or perhaps pairing two future 2nds for another pick in the second half of the NBA Draft. Memphis should pursue those opportunities. The trade up makes the most sense, considering the roster crunch the Grizzlies are currently under. Four years with two team options allows for more cap consistency than the flexibility (and uncertainty) that 2nd rounders can come with.
Memphis moved up to snag a free falling Brandon Clarke last year. They’re in a prime position to do that again...and if the situation calls for it, they should. Robert Woodard II, Desmond Bane, and others that could be on the radar of the Grizzlies may well be there for the taking later than they should be.
Then, re-sign De’Anthony Melton
GBB has talked a ton about the upcoming free agency of Melton. On one hand, he’s already an analytics darling who can defend extremely well and play freely in transition alongside Ja Morant at the age of 22. On the other, his offensive Bubble performance was...well, offensive. The Grizzlies need more scoring punch, and it’s seemingly unlikely that will come from Melton any time soon. In a way, his upcoming offer sheet (or agreement to a new deal with Memphis) will be a fascinating measure of how much the Bubble will weigh on free agency decisions.
This Grizzlies front office understands the context of Melton’s poor play in Orlando. De’Anthony was asked to do what he’s not good at (be a point guard/primary facilitator) because of injury to Tyus Jones. Melton thrived off the ball in a secondary role as not just a passer, but as a slasher at the rim. He played best as a team defender, when he didn’t have to begin most sets as an on-ball pest against better ball handlers. Neither of those things happened for Memphis in Orlando, and Melton suffered because of it.
As long as it’s not a completely unforeseen offer ($15 million from Atlanta, as a purely hypothetical example) Melton should remain a Grizzy. The front office would be wise to lock him up before RFA if possible to a deal in line with the Anderson/Jones contracts - a three-year, roughly $9 million a year on average descending deal like the Jones and Jonas Valanciunas contracts that this group negotiated would be a win for all involved. For such a young player that is likely to outperform the contract, it becomes both a tradeable asset and a non-factor in terms of negatively impacting future busness. It gets Melton a hefty pay raise and an opportunity to re-enter free agency before he enters his prime. And the deal hurts even less if you are indeed able to move on from Kyle, replacing him with an expiring deal.
Don’t let the Bubble blind you to the big picture. Melton made Memphis better...and this front office has shown that they value players that fit the De’Anthony archetype. You don’t build sustained access by letting 22 year-olds walk for nothing. In this case, he shouldn’t be allowed to walk period.
Finally, appreciate. Don’t accelerate.
That statement about the Bubble goes beyond just Melton. The “collapse” of Memphis - with Jaren Jackson Jr., Justise Winslow, and Tyus Jones all out due to injury - could lead people to think that the Grizzlies “weren’t ready for the stage.” That’s simply not true - their play-in performance showed that while they didn’t have enough to beat a good (and more healthy) Trail Blazers squad, the “standard” of Taylor Jenkins and this young team has a solid foundation. They will compete, as-is, night in and night out. They won’t be a “bad” team...they should be better than they were.
And that likely will not be enough for a postseason appearance in 2021. And that is OK.
The beginning of this new era is the first chapter in the story of the Morant and Jackson Jr. partnership. If the Grit and Grind era taught us anything, it’s that you must find the value in the journey before you judge based off of championship gold. With these early days of Ja and Jaren at the helm of the franchise, learning how to compete and win on a nightly basis holds tremendous value. It will result at times in bad turnovers, shot attempts, fouls, and overall losses in games that perhaps should’ve been wins. But the dividends those experiences will pay, starting with the play-in back in August, in the years to come will be ten fold the frustration you feel when a 9th or 10th seeded Grizzlies squad misses out on the playoffs for a 4th straight year.
A lottery selection, alongside the cap space and young core already in place, will make 2021-2022 the official launch point of the competitive future of this franchise. You most certainly don’t “tank” to get there - that’s the beauty of the spot Memphis finds themselves in. They can strive to achieve the next level of their “standard”, improve in the pursuit, and if they do indeed overachieve yet again and make the playoffs somehow? That’s something to reach for while not overexerting yourself to get there.
Make moves around the edges. Pursue internal improvement. Get to nuanced, measured transactions with the assets that have been acquired to improve future positioning even more instead of using that cap and draft capital on short-term superfluous gains. And keeping in mind that patience, both in life and with young basketball teams, is a virtue.
Achieve those things? The strangest offseason in NBA history will also be one of the most successful as Memphis moves closer to the next great Grizzlies team.