Jonas Valanciunas commands respect.
Whether it’s his frame, his focus, his offensive skill set, or his leadership qualities, there’s no denying that Jonas has made his mark on the Memphis Grizzlies. He’s a physical presence, helping offset a massive potential weakness for Memphis on the glass (95th and 84th percentile in defensive and offensive rebounding, respectively per Cleaning the Glass). His touch on his post moves is elite (91st percentile in the 4-14 foot short midrange per Cleaning the Glass) and he is a better rim protector than he gets credit for (his 2% block percentage is better than that of the likes of Brandon Clarke and Giannis Antetokounmpo).
Sure, his pick and roll defense leaves a lot to be desired, but there are no perfect players. Valanciunas was 5th in the NBA in total rebounding and 3rd in total rebounding percentage according to basketball-reference.com, better than Joel Embiid and Steven Adams. He was 19th in the entire NBA in PER, higher than Rudy Gobert or Nikola Vucevic. Combine what Jonas brings to the table with his favorable contract ($29 million total over the next two seasons) and he could quite possibly be one of the best values in the entire NBA.
Which is why, when teams that may need/want a center have trade dreams, Jonas’ name oftentimes comes up.
Make no mistake, Valanciunas is not untouchable. Ideally Jaren Jackson Jr. slides over to his “center” spot eventually, with Brandon Clarke (or some stretchy combo forward probably not on the roster yet) taking his place. But Jaren is not ready for that quite yet - he needs more weight on that lanky frame and also must improve his foul rate. Of course, in limited minutes as a starter Brandon Clarke also looked out of place and may not be prepared for that role either. So it’s fair to reason that a Valanciunas trade would be a step backwards in the short term. Which likely means it would take a decent return for the Grizzlies to part with such an asset of a player.
Again, however - Jonas is not untouchable.
So what should Memphis expect in return for any Valanciunas dealing? Draft picks and expiring money at the very least - but as long as they have a path to offsetting some of what would be lost in a Jonas trade there’s a way to both make Memphis more solvent without sacrificing competitiveness in the short term.
The following trades with two teams most often rumored to be in the mix for Jonas operate under the salary cap information from the 2019-2020 season also applying to the upcoming campaign, as has been reported by multiple sources such as ESPN.
Dealing with contenders that are “one big away”
Trade #1 - Boston receives Jonas Valanciunas, Grayson Allen. Memphis receives Marcus Smart, Daniel Theis, #26 overall in the 2020 NBA Draft
Why it makes sense for Boston - The Celtics are biased toward Smart and what he brings to the table. Rightfully so - so much of the gritty grindiness that Boston possesses at times comes from the mind and heart of Smart. But Boston is getting a player that addresses a major weakness for them (front court rebounding/scoring) in this trade AND replaces Smart with Grayson Allen. Allen provides scoring punch off the bench for a Celtics team that desperately needs it, and if the Bubble was any indication Grayson is ready for a larger role.
Meanwhile, a Kemba Walker/Jaylen Brown/Gordon Hayward/Jayson Tatum/Jonas Valanciunas starting five should strike fear in the hearts of the Eastern Conference. Jonas could emphasize his strengths, and with the #14 and #30 picks still in their control they could find another big who could perhaps defend better than Jonas in key spots, OR they could hope Grant Williams and Robert Williams III continue to develop as backup bigs who could get bigger minutes in certain matchups. Either way, Jonas is an upgrade over Theis and allows for Boston to worry less about team rebounding since Valanciunas is such a force in that area.
Why it makes sense for Memphis - You want to establish a standard? Marcus Smart can help you do just that. Over the last two seasons Marcus has made 263 threes on 741 attempts, good for a good but not great 35.4% conversion rate. He was 8th in the NBA this past season in steals and posted a strong enough season as a defender to warrant a 1st Team All-Defense selection. He’s an undersized combo forward who can help facilitate offense but is better off the ball. Essentially, he’s an older (but currently better) De’Anthony Melton...and because of his arrival the Grizzlies could potentially explore sign and trade options for Melton if his cost gets too steep (former Grizzlies front office member John Hollinger recently put Melton’s value at $15+ million per year).
Daniel Theis is sneaky valuable in this for Memphis. He wasn’t good enough for the Celtics to get over the hump as a lead big (especially as a rebounder), but given the Grizzlies situation (where Memphis wants Jackson Jr. and Clarke to get a majority of the run) he fits nicely here. He can start and play 24-26 a minutes a game while Jaren and Brandon both have more time on the floor. The value of #26 is taking the best talent available for Memphis. If a Tyler Bey, Saddiq Bey, Patrick Williams, or Issac Okoro fall to this spot? You spring to the podium. Realistically Jaden McDaniels or Robert Woodard II may be the most likely picks here, or maybe a long-term backup big for when Theis and Dieng are gone. Staying true to their board would make sense for the Grizzlies.
Trade #2 - Golden State Warriors receive Jonas Valanciunas, Reggie Bullock, #8 pick in 2020 NBA Draft. New York Knicks receive Andrew Wiggins, Grayson Allen, Kyle Anderson, #2 pick in 2020 NBA Draft, 2022 2nd round pick (via MEM), 2024 1st round pick (via MEM - protected 1-20, becomes 2025 and 2026 2nd round picks if not conveyed). Memphis Grizzlies receive Mitchell Robinson, Elfrid Payton, and the #27 pick in the 2020 NBA Draft.
Why New York does the deal - The Kevin Durant/Kyrie Irving lesson learned by the Knicks should be the fact that they’re not a free agent destination at the moment. They have talent (RJ Barrett stands out) and some free agency cap space, even after this trade acquiring wings like Wiggins and Kyle Anderson (about $30 million coming off the books in the summer of 2021). What this deal gets them, beyond Allen’s reserve scoring potential and a steady combo forward hand in Anderson, is the #2 pick in the 2020 NBA Draft...and a swing at a (hopeful) superstar. Minnesota may well take LaMelo Ball or James Wiseman #1 overall instead of Anthony Edwards. But this trade gets them whichever player the T’Wolves do not select...and allows for them to prioritize differently in free agency. If Ball is their man? They can keep Bobby Portis on his team option and build up an even larger 2021 free agency pot. If they take Wiseman? They can say goodbye to Portis and still have enough money to add a Fred VanVleet (3 year $60 million-ish) or Goran Dragic (1 year $18 million or so) type on the 2020 market.
With Barrett/Wiggins/Wiseman or Ball as your core moving forward, you have some room to feel optimistic. And you still have most of the draft capital from the Kristaps Porzingis trade in addition to at worst three more seconds at your disposal for future dealings.
Why Golden State does the deal - Warriors fans surely have larger dreams for this pick falling in their lap. But beyond acquiring arguably the best player (and certainly the best value) in the trade in Jonas Valanciunas while still having a pick in this draft at #8, Golden State’s ownership would be thrilled with the money saved in this deal. After this proposed trade the Warriors would only be $2.3 million over the tax, compared to $12.6 million before the deal went down. For a repeat payer like the Warriors, in this economic situation, that could make a world of difference. They could take a Wiggins replacement at #8 (Devin Vassell, Issac Okoro) or package that pick plus another contract (Kevon Looney, perhaps) to get out of the tax completely. Even within this deal there may be an angle where Golden State offers Memphis to take on Looney in exchange for #8 instead of #27 while the Grizzlies send out #40 for cost effective additions with the Warriors. That would almost get Golden State out of the tax completely.
But let’s assume Golden State wants #8 and is happy with more immediate help. And that Memphis doesn’t want that many bigs...
Why Memphis does the deal - Mitchell Robinson is one of the most elite defensive bigs in the NBA. He was 3rd in block percentage (96th percentile per Cleaning the Glass) and 8th in steal percentage (84th percentile) among big men that had played at least 1,000 minutes last season. Only Anthony Davis and Nerlens Noel are the other bigs in at least the 80th percentile in both categories. Robinson is also arguably the best finisher at the rim in the entire NBA (74.6% effective field goal percentage, 99th percentile per Cleaning the Glass) finishing at an impressive 76% rate at the rim (88th percentile, 7th in the NBA). He is an elite rim runner who can defend and finish at a high level.
So why would New York part with him? Because he has not attempted a three in his entire NBA career...and he has some issues fouling (19th in the NBA - Dillon Brooks and Jaren Jackson Jr. were #’s 1 and 2). He is likely more Hassan Whiteside or Andre Drummond than anything in terms of limitations, and while those players obviously have value in the league they’re unable to fully adapt to the modern style of play offensively - at least they have been to this point. They may not want to pay him, and they’d be willing to move on from the skilled but pigeonholed big in exchange for a Wiseman or Ball.
Ditto with Elfrid. While he has been trashed by Knicks and other fans throughout his time in the NBA, he has shown signs of improvement in his game...just inconsistency is the issue. But with Dennis Smith Jr. and Frank Ntilikina on the roster and Ball or Van Vleet on the team in this scenario, moving on from Payton makes sense for the Knicks - especially since he’s entering free agency this summer. Payton is an expiring who can play the point when needed for Memphis and move on after the season.
Between adding the talented (but flawed) Robinson, a 3rd point guard in Payton, and a pick at #27 in the draft to add an Allen/Anderson replacement if they’d like (Robert Woodard II, Desmond Bane, Elijah Hughes, etc.) or focus on the best player available at that selection the Grizzlies would be in a good spot. They could then do the same at #40, looking at development down the road, or sell that pick for cash (as predicted by some in the NBA media for several teams given the pandemic).
They can keep Robinson long-term (a Jackson/Robinson defensive pairing has a lot of potential), make a free agency call on Elfrid as a backup guard if the price is right and he plays well, and maintain flexibility long-term (Dieng and Payton’s over $25 million off the books plus the Waiters waived contract being gone and other cash clearing could help Memphis have Max contract money in 2021). Paying a likely late first rounder or two second rounders (Memphis surely hopes to be a top-10 team in the NBA by 2024) to get off of Anderson’s contract would be well worth it in that regard.
These are hypotheticals. Perhaps all teams involved reading this laugh hysterically, thinking none of these options make sense. But Jonas Valanciunas holds real value - that much is true. And the market may go beyond true contenders. Maybe the Washington Wizards or Sacramento Kings, who could use big men upgrades, make a step up for Jonas. But it is also possible that because of his defensive issues and lack of consistent perimeter scoring Valanciunas chats don’t go beyond simple conversations.
That’d be fine. Because the Grizzlies front office knows Jonas’ worth and is well positioned to make the most of whatever move they do - or don’t make. Regardless of who is eyeing the fruits of their well negotiated labor.