The Memphis Grizzlies are just days away from opening up training camp. That’s hard to believe, given all that has transpired so far this year. It seems like it was just last month that the Los Angeles Lakers defeated the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals...because it was. Now, roughly two months after that series and the great NBA Bubble ended, the very next season will get underway with all 30 teams dealing with the uncertainty that comes with the inevitable - COVID-19 and its impact. How will the league respond to the first positive cases/a possible outbreak? Time will soon tell. Yet even with all the struggles that this season will surely bring, the league and its players decided to prioritize financial security for all and start sooner than expected to benefit from the traditional Christmas slate of games and its advertising pay day.
The NBA is big business...and because of the escalated restart a lot of the league’s offseason business was condensed in to roughly a two week window between the NBA Draft and free agency. While some teams spent major money (Atlanta Hawks did quite well for themselves, and the Charlotte Hornets did...not), the Grizzlies kept a relatively low profile. Gone are Yuta Watanabe, Josh Jackson, and Anthony Tolliver from the crew that went to Orlando with Ja Morant and company - but those departures weren’t unexpected. With the spots that were available, instead of going outside the team (with one exception), Zach Kleiman and the Grizzlies front office prioritized bringing back players they view as worthy of investment that were already in the fold.
De’Anthony Melton. Jontay Porter. John Konchar. All back on multi-year contracts. All on relatively sound contracts. All apparently prepared to take on roles in the core “standard” being established.
Between those three sticking around and the arrival of Desmond Bane and Xavier Tillman in the 2020 NBA Draft (and the signing of Killian Tillie and Sean McDermott to two-way contracts, plus Memphis signing Jahlil Tripp of Pacific to an Exhibit 10 contract - meaning he will likely be waived before camp concludes only to head to the Memphis Hustle), there is now a roster crunch. Adding them with the guaranteed contracts already on the roster - Ja Morant, Tyus Jones, Dillon Brooks, Grayson Allen, Marko Guduric, Kyle Anderson, Justise Winslow, Jaren Jackson Jr., Brandon Clarke, Jonas Valanciunas, Gorgui Dieng - plus Mario Hezonja, formerly of the Portland Trail Blazers who came to the Grizzlies as part of the deal to bring Bane to Memphis, puts the Grizzlies at 20 players heading to training camp.
Only 15 can be on the NBA roster opening night. The two-ways don’t count against that number, and Tripp almost certainly will not either. So that leaves us with 17 players for 15 spots with limited room to work under the luxury tax, meaning it’s unlikely the team signs anyone else. Something has got to give...and Memphis is not done configuring their roster just yet.
So who will go? Will it be as simple as waiving and saying goodbye? Or could Kleiman’s crew have one more move in them?
First, get some names out of the way.
Ja Morant is going nowhere. Same with Jaren Jackson Jr., Justise Winslow, and Brandon Clarke. Beyond those four names? Anyone is fair game in theory, outside of the two draft picks and the three re-signed Grizzlies who have dates beyond opening night that they can be eligible for trades. So the pool of moveable players currently is as follows -
GUARDS - Tyus Jones, Dillon Brooks, Grayson Allen, Marko Guduric
FORWARDS - Kyle Anderson, Mario Hezonja
CENTERS - Gorgui Dieng, Jonas Valanciunas
Any of these eight names coming up in trade rumors would not be surprising between now and the trade deadline. But considering how the season is right around the corner, and Memphis has yet to see what key acquisition last season Justise Winslow is like among key rotation players, it’s probably fair to say the likes of Jones, Brooks, and Valanciunas are off the table (for now). Even Grayson Allen, whose impact last season was brief but definite (especially in the Bubble), has probably earned the right to compete for minutes among a crowded roster.
So that leaves us with four names. This ranking is done by “least likely to be gone” to “most likely to be gone”.
4. Kyle Anderson
Kyle is a holdover from a previous regime, like Jaren and Dillon. But both Jackson Jr. and Brooks provide skill sets that this brain trust clearly values - two-way versatility, shooting and creation skill, defensive acumen. Kyle does not check all those boxes, especially as a shooter and scorer of the basketball. It’s why Head Coach Taylor Jenkins chose to give Jae Crowder and Solomon Hill - two players either inferior (Hill) or comparable (Crowder) in terms of overall basketball skill to Anderson - run at times instead of Kyle. Especially in the case of Crowder, whose impact on Memphis is a fun test of the intangible vs. statistical production debate (second on the team in three point attempts per game while shooting 29.3% from three - if Dillon Brooks shot that poorly, fans would be calling for his head. But veteran leadership!), Crowder started because of his “gravity” — his willingness to shoot threes provided. A willingness that Kyle has shown improvement toward, but is nowhere near what Jenkins and company wants.
So Kyle doesn’t make long-term sense for Memphis. But because of his contract (two years and over $19 million remaining), and the fact that much of the league isn’t interested in the talents of Anderson at that price point, he’s probably here for the foreseeable future. Could the Grizzlies pair a draft pick or two (2nd rounders, of course) to try to get someone to take the deal via trade? Perhaps. But outright cutting Kyle makes no sense. Barring a trade, he’s got a spot and holds value for Memphis as a combo forward (more “4” than “3” with a facilitation first mindset) considering Jaren and Justise both will not be ready for the start of the season.
Fourteen spots down. One to go. Three names remain.
3. Gorgui Dieng
If you’re checking out the Grizzlies roster, you’ll notice there are a lot of bigs. Including Killian Tillie, who with the unique NBA season about to begin will be eligible to be with the team for 50 games, and the aforementioned Kyle Anderson who should be more “big” than “wing” given what Memphis wants to do schematically, seven is a tall number in 2020. Dieng would make sense as the odd man out among that group. He’s the oldest player on the roster now, and given his limitations as a defender in space combined with a lack of offensive versatility and consistency, giving a ton of minutes to Gorgui as opposed to Xavier Tillman, who just signed a four-year contract with the Grizzlies, defies logic. Dieng’s $17 million expiring contract is much more waivable than Anderson’s, and therefore much more tradable.
If Memphis is willing to take on an additional year or two for a wing, and/or pair Dieng’s expiring with Anderson or one of the other names on this list and those 2nd round picks, it’s within the realm of possibility that the Grizzlies could pull off a relatively large deal. Anderson, Dieng, and two future second round picks for Otto Porter Jr. and his also expiring contract works (in theory - Chicago would have to be willing to take on Anderson and do some roster moves themselves). Or, as GBB Associate Editor Parker Fleming recently suggested, Dieng, Anderson, and whatever Sacramento preferred between Grayson Allen or draft pick capital (two second round picks) could maybe get you Harrison Barnes and his not great contract (three years and almost $61 million remaining). You’d be sacrificing 2021 cap space (and beyond) in that case, but Barnes would fit nicely as either a starter or key reserve for Memphis that fits the mold of what the Grizzlies are building while balancing the roster out. He also would be coming off the books right as the assumed Ja Morant max deal down the road would kick in and has veteran experience alongside those early great Golden State teams. A lot can be learned from such a player for a young team.
Barnes makes you better now, solves a team-building issue, and also gets you about $6 million away from the tax for future dealings this year. Sacramento would do it (theoretically) because it saves them a ton of money long-term, about $23 million. It would also enable them to go “full Buddy Hield” with the facilitating Kyle not taking his shots.
Besides, the Kings just let Bogdan Bogdanovic walk for essentially nothing. Are we really saying anything is impossible in Sacramento?
Regardless of hypothetical names and speculation, those types of deals are more possible with Dieng’s contract on the roster. So while he is a possible buy-out candidate, it’s unlikely he’s the one outright cut.
1A and 1B: Marko Guduric and Mario Hezonja
If we are to apply Occam’s razor to this situation, the answer to this cutting question is clear. There are two players on the roster currently that are likely not there for the long haul, regardless of when they say their Memphis goodbye. Guduric played less than 500 minutes across 44 games for the Grizzlies this past season, shot a little better than 30% from range (after being brought over from Europe in part because of his shooting ability), and rarely looked the part of an NBA player in his run with Memphis. Hezonja, who actually does have some value as a wing who can create off the dribble and score as a combo forward (theoretically speaking - he shot a purtid 28.6% from three and 40.6% overall in the Bubble playoffs for Portland), could help solve some issues with the Grizzlies roster logjam as a small and power forward swingman...if theory became production.
But the greater reality is that while Anderson and Dieng aren’t great roster fits compared to Guduric and especially Hezonja, they’re both better basketball players. Kyle, as previously mentioned, won’t get waived because of his contract. Gorgui, as previously mentioned, makes sense on the roster as a salary filler for a trade (he’s the highest paid player on the roster this season and may quite possibly not be active for games...let that sink in). Hezonja and Guduric are both clearly tweener NBA players at this stage of their careers - especially Guduric - and are low-cost expiring contracts (Memphis would be paying them both a combined $4.6 million to not play basketball for them this season).
Often the simplest answer is the correct one, especially when it comes to NBA transactions. It’s possible that a team could like Guduric or Hezonja and pay Memphis a heavily protected 2nd round pick to test them out in camp. But it’s far more likely that it will be Gorgui and his expiring massive contract that is harder (but not impossible) to buy out that sticks around, and Mario and Marko will be looking for their next basketball jobs.
The Grizzlies have a type. And Memphis is closer than they’ve ever been to having a complete roster that reflects that vision. It means Xavier Tillman will probably see more playing time than Gorgui Dieng, despite the massive money Dieng’s going to get. It means that Kyle Anderson, once viewed as a unique player with a bright future with the Grizzlies, is now is a square peg trying to fit in to Memphis’ round board. It means a rare swing and a miss for this front office in Guduric, or a trade throw-in in Mario Hezonja, are almost certainly not longed for this Grizzlies life.
While the decision isn’t needed immediately, the Memphis front office must finalize their 2020-2021 season roster in the coming days and weeks. The team has options, and can get to the ends by whatever means they deem justifiable. They could in theory do both - trade Dieng, Anderson, and two 2nd rounders for Otto Porter or the Sacramento deal for Barnes while also cutting Guduric and Hezonja - and set the roster at 14 players. Such a trade could be done before camp breaks, or in February around the trade deadline. But in a season more uncertain than ever, the likeliest of outcomes is probably the way things will shake out.
Anderson isn’t a clean fit. Dieng is an expensive, but valuable, insurance policy. Injuries and the ever-looming threat of COVID-19 could impact and derail all these ideas as training camps open. But the Grizzlies can use Anderson and Dieng in one way or another...that’s not as true of Guduric and Hezonja. For the sake of ease, they’ll be the ones departing Memphis before the season gets under way.