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Playing moneyball with Kyle Anderson

Memphis has and will continue to get their money’s worth for Kyle Anderson.

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NBA: Preseason-Detroit Pistons at Memphis Grizzlies Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

The movie Moneyball recounts the story of how Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane revolutionized major league baseball in the early 2000s by adopting an analytical method of identifying talent, which often included players who were down on their luck for various reasons. While the method didn’t only include these types of players, Beane knew that the league’s big markets wouldn’t give massive contracts to players who had been recently marred by injury or even recent poor performance. So in order for a small market like Oakland to succeed, they had to find the diamonds in the rough.

Over the last 15 years, Beane’s revolution has now spread beyond baseball, and teams like the Memphis Grizzlies in the NBA who are unable to attract big-name free agents must be superb in finding those undesired diamonds in order to be in contention. They did that well in the last era of Grizzlies basketball, and they have also done that well over the last two years in the new era.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies-Media Day Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

Kyle Anderson in particular is the undesired diamond that connects both eras of Grizzlies basketball. The previous regime signed him in free agency, but it’s the new regime that has mainly benefitted from his presence.

When Anderson entered free agency in the summer of 2018, his career appeared to be at a crossroads of sorts. It’s not that he was at risk of being out of the league; he had proven himself as a fine defender and secondary playmaker after a solid fourth year in the league. But as he became eligible for his first extension in restricted free agency, it remained a question of whether he could ever be more than a solid, but limited role player on a mediocre team.

Because for as much as Gregg Popovich appears to love him, the San Antonio Spurs obviously didn’t follow through on that when they failed to match the 4-year, $37 million offer sheet that he signed with the Grizzlies. To a certain degree, their logic made sense. Anderson may have been coming off a “career year”, but as a slow swingman who couldn’t shoot, he didn’t fit the idealized “pace and space” mold that the NBA so desperately covets. Prioritizing someone like Davis Bertans, who is a tall prolific marksman, made sense over someone like him.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Memphis Grizzlies Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

I’m giving the Spurs the benefit of the doubt here, because like I said, their decision was somewhat rational. But it’s now turned out so poorly for them that it would be sad if it wasn’t downright hilarious. After the Spurs re-signed Bertans to a two-year deal in the summer of 2018, they moved him in a three-team deal to Washington the following summer in order to clear up the cap space to sign Marcus Morris, who did commit to them...until he didn’t. He walked back on his verbal commitment to them and instead signed with the New York Knicks.

So to summarize: the Spurs let Kyle Anderson walk so that they could bring back Davis Bertans whom they then essentially traded after only a year in order to bring in Marcus Morris, who would never play a game for them. They essentially traded what would have been four years of Anderson for one year of Bertans and nothing else. Oh, and for the cherry on top, Anderson has since proven himself to be an arguably superior player to them both as a member of the Grizzlies.

You hate to see it, as the kids say these days. It is, in fact, a tough scene. Like the old saying goes, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, and that has definitely been the case for Kyle Anderson with the Grizzlies.

NBA: Preseason-Detroit Pistons at Memphis Grizzlies Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

In his first year in Memphis during the 2018-19 season, he was more or less the same player that he had been the previous year for San Antonio. He was helpful as a versatile defender and secondary playmaker, but he was still extremely limited as an offensive threat. He would only play in 43 games due to constant pain in his right shoulder, which had been a constant issue for him over his first few years in the league, and he would receive surgery on it in April 2019.

It wasn’t until the following season that it became immediately clear how much Anderson’s constant shoulder pain was why he had been so offensively limited during his NBA career. There’s a difference between a bad shooter and a hurt shooter, and I think he sometime made us forget the difference. After all, he shot 48% from three on decent-ish volume as a sophomore at UCLA, and his shot looked fluid back then. In the NBA, however, his form looked more akin to George Washington loading a Revolutionary War-era musket than it did an NBA player shooting a basketball.

For much of his second year in Memphis, it appeared like Anderson was inevitably going to be made a roster casualty of a new regime that didn’t sign him and a new coach whose exceedingly modern system and play-style didn’t fit his game. His minutes took a fairly sharp cut, and he seemed like prime trade bait for a possible contender who needed help defensively.

NBA: Playoffs-Memphis Grizzlies at Utah Jazz Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

Yet as bizarre as it might seem, the pandemic was truly a blessing in disguise for his career and helped him take his game to another level of Memphis. He was able to use the long layoff to finally get his shoulder healthy, and he entered the Orlando bubble with a tangibly renewed confidence.

That combination of health and confidence empowered him to arguably become the Grizzlies’ most important player during this past season, as his increased offensive capability along with his value as a playmaker helped keep the team afloat in his role as the starting power forward in the absence of Jaren Jackson Jr. He was a legitimate dark horse candidate to win Most Improved Player, posting career highs in points (12.4) and assists (3.6) while becoming an above-average three-point shooter (36%) on solid volume (3.8 attempts).

To be sure, Kyle Anderson was once like an old war musket—useful in the right situations, but is extremely slow to load, and even once it finally does, you’re probably not hitting anything with much accuracy. But now, he’s truly become the Grizzlies’ swiss army knife, useful in various different roles no matter the situation.

NBA: Player Headshots 2021 Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

As the season goes along, Anderson will undoubtedly come up in trade discussions. He is entering the final year of his contract, and the Grizzlies may not want to let him walk for nothing. He has been a diamond in the rough for Memphis, but he won’t be overlooked for much longer. He will be a sought-after commodity in 2022 free agency, and the Grizzlies may not want to pay him what it will take.

However, not only do I expect him to remain with the Grizzlies this year, but I also expect them to give him an extension. Kyle Anderson has been and will continue to be excellent this year, and it’s difficult to imagine the Grizzlies making any big splashes in 2022.

There’s no better way to spend that money than on the Grizzlies favorite undervalued overproducer.

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