Welcome to 2021 NBA Draft Week! The rumors! The speculation! The questions! The Woj notifications of Twitter! The energy flows through social media and in to all outlets that cover the National Basketball Association. Will Bradley Beal be on the move? Can the Golden State Warriors add him, or some other star, to make one last run at a title with Stephen Curry as their biggest star? Could the Detroit Pistons really not take Cade Cunningham #1 overall? Who will the Houston Rockets select at #2? Will the Toronto Raptors make moves toward a rebuild with the #4 pick?
The list goes on and on...but one of the most interesting teams entering the festivities this Thursday night resides in one of the NBA’s smallest (and often least talked about) markets. The Memphis Grizzlies are a team that, quite literally, could go in just about every direction imaginable with their franchise entering this offseason. On one end of the NBA spectrum, Memphis has the combination of young talent on good contracts and draft picks to potentially make a swing at a player like C.J. McCollum, Ben Simmons, or even Bradley Beal in theory depending on what they’re willing to part with. On the other, the Grizzlies are already one of the deepest teams in the league and they made the playoffs last season without a fully engaged Jaren Jackson Jr. Simply running it back and looking to the season ahead, with an eye on the future, could also make sense as multiple contracts come off the Grizzlies books in 2022.
If past is prologue, we know one thing about what Zach Kleiman and company are planning on attempting on draft night - they’re going to try to trade up. Brandon Clarke, Desmond Bane, and Xavier Tillman are all Memphis Grizzlies because of this philosophy, and so far it has proven to be a tried and true way for the Grizzlies to get their guys. Logically as Memphis builds their “standard” adding young talent around the likes of Ja Morant makes for an environment where players can grow their games and mentality together, finding chemistry and creating a culture they can all relate to and believe in together.
For that reason, the Memphis Grizzlies are far more likely to make a major move to move up in an NBA Draft at this stage of their process than try to acquire a McCollum or Simmons type of star. While the Grizzlies are indeed better than most felt they would be two years in to their “process”, GM Zach Kleiman and company have made it crystal clear through both their words and actions that they will not rush their process for anyone. The long view is what matters most, and even with the current uncertainty in the Western Conference Memphis is in a position of patience and positivity. They’re capable of internal improvement while also adding talent that does not need to be accelerated upon because the Grizzlies core is still so young.
But still...that depth...those picks...Memphis is not going to make all those selections. And the salary cap and current state of the roster mean that some current members of the franchise are not longed for this Grizzlies life. And if the best way to cultivate the winning culture being built in Memphis is through the draft, getting a Lottery pick in this year’s proceedings both gets you a higher probability of getting a legitimate long-term starter and a cap-controlled asset who should be a part of the “Grizzlies standard” for years to come.
How does Memphis get there? Recent rumors provide some clues.
Take on some money
Jake Fischer of Bleacher Report had the Tweet of the Day Sunday when in his Draft chatter piece he referenced the idea that New Orleans and Memphis have had discussions over the Grizzlies moving up to the #10 pick in the NBA Draft in exchange for Eric Bledsoe and #17. This stoked up plenty of debate on Grizzlies Twitter on who exactly would win this trade...usually meaning both teams would benefit. That holds true in this instance. For the Grizzlies, getting to #10 all but guarantees them a shot at Josh Giddey, or Keon Johnson, or Corey Kispert, James Bouknight, Franz Wagner, Moses Moody, Jalen Johnson...or maybe even a potential tumbling player like Scottie Barnes. Any of those names figure to be varying degrees of high quality contributors, for specialists to all-around prospects. You have a better chance at choosing the guy you want in that slot than you do at 17 overall.
The cost for Memphis comes in the contract of Eric Bledsoe, who struggled mightily last season for the Pelicans. The fact that completing this deal helps the rival New Orleans become more of a threat in free agency to retain the likes of Lonzo Ball and/or Josh Hart while also possibly pushing for a veteran like Kyle Lowry is irrelevant - the Grizzlies need to focus within. If taking on the contract of Bledsoe (which is only guaranteed for roughly $4 million in 2022-2023 anyway) gets you to that #10 spot, and that choice of wing to put next to Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr., you take that calculated risk.
The arrival of Bledsoe would be the departure of Justise Winslow (Memphis has a full team option on Justise). While that would essentially be an admittance of the front office’s first failure (one that was worth trying given the context and circumstances of the move) it could be worth swallowing that pill if it means a lottery pick and the financial flexibility it brings. It kicks the can of free agency potential to 2022, where between Bledsoe’s $4 million guarantee and other expirings the Grizzlies could find their way to max contract money in free agency.
Perhaps Eric comes to Memphis with a chip on his shoulder and contributes - long-time fans remember just how much of a thorn in the side of opposing squads Bledsoe can be back to his Los Angeles Clippers days. But if you view Bledsoe through that Winslow lens? You lose no depth in this specific version of the deal. If Grayson Allen or John Konchar was added, some roster consolidation occurs but nothing so major that the team would take a drastic step back. And if the Grizzlies could somehow get another future asset from the draft pick-laden Pelicans, that’d make it that much sweeter. After all, it is the Pelicans trying to appease Zion Williamson. No such pressure exists for the Grizzlies with Ja Morant...yet.
Leverage is everything. And this deal negotiation being leaked could be New Orleans trying to gain some back with other competing offers. The Grizzlies have no reason to force the issue on their end, though, and they may well be the only team willing to assist the Pelicans in their cap space pursuits. It could get costly for NOLA.
Another money option
- Buddy Hield or Harrison Barnes of the Sacramento Kings. The logic of the Pelicans trade at #10 could also apply to #9. While the Kings do not have Zion levels of attention or pressure, there’s a desire to improve from ownership down. Hield would almost certainly be the preference for the Kings, and Memphis would have to attach an Allen or even Tyus Jones to fit the deal under their cap space if they opt out of Winslow. But Hield’s deal is not as attractive as Bledsoe’s if things do not work out. #9 may not be enough to get off of Buddy’s contract...how much is Sacramento willing to part with? An additional first and/or Marvin Bagley III would be worth asking about.
Assist a would-be “contender”
There’s no question the Golden State Warriors are far more interested in contending for a title than selecting two future building block types of players. But along the same lines of the New Orleans leaks, Golden State supposedly saying that they will pick at #7 and #14 if Bradley Beal is not available via Washington could be a call for folks to up offers for those respective picks. Of course Beal would be more attractive to the Warriors than an elite role player...but that may not be in the cards for them. Their cap situation is less than ideal, and they may not have folks clamoring for deals for #14 in this draft.
Enter the Grizzlies, and a combo forward coming off his best season.
Our Shawn Coleman, also the host of the Locked On Grizzlies podcast, traded (among other things) Kyle Anderson for #14 with Golden State. The Warriors get a valuable, malleable defender and creator of offense while Memphis gets another stab at a (late) Lottery talent. It also clears up an issue on the roster that Kyle Anderson is at his best as a “4” at this stage of his career, the same current ideal position of Jaren Jackson Jr. Memphis could acquire bigger wings that can play back and front court positions more efficiently than Kyle in the draft or in free agency and try to benefit from a career year from Anderson (an upcoming free agent) that could be difficult to replicate.
Trading Anderson is polarizing for good reason. But there will almost certainly be a decision to make between Anderson and Jonas Valanciunas in unrestricted free agency. Given Jaren’s importance to the franchise, Kyle’s time may well be borrowed in Memphis.
Another “contender” to help
- Jonas Valanciunas to Charlotte for #11 overall - We are stretching the definition of “contender” to be sure. But the Hornets want to upgrade their roster and believe they can push for the playoffs in the Eastern Conference. The #11 pick in this draft would not aid that pursuit as much as Jonas would. If Valanciunas is not in the long-term plans of the Grizzlies (which he may well be, as mentioned above) then getting a Lottery pick for him makes a lot of sense. It counts on Xavier Tillman and perhaps a free agency or Draft acquisition to fill the void, but #11 would be a solid asset to get more key players in the fold.
- There could be more than one trade. Say Memphis does the “where there is smoke, there is fire” New Orleans trade and it is simply 10 and Bledsoe for 17. If the Grizzlies are enamored with a Bouknight or Moody, getting to #10 may not be good enough. Could they convince Orlando to give up #8 for some combination of #10, #51, a player like Konchar or Allen, and the Utah Jazz 2022 1st? Perhaps. And now you’re getting a player you surely love and have moved up 9 spots in the draft without giving up too much beyond cap space this summer and an Utah 1st that will probably be in the 20’s.
- Beware the overpay - Zach Kleiman and the rest of the Grizzlies front office haven’t done this yet. Even their “failure” with Winslow involved veterans that were not in the long-term plans of Memphis. It is unlikely they push the envelope too much, especially in a draft where outside of the top-four there can be some parity among tiers. Staying put at #17 and selecting a Trey Murphy III or Chris Duarte would not be the worst thing, and Memphis can remain patient with the assets in their control.
- But also watch out for missing the window... - Grayson Allen is a restricted free agent next summer. Kyle Anderson, Tyus Jones, and Jonas Valanciunas are unrestricted. Those are four rotation members - three of them starters this past season - that will be due for likely pay raises at the same time as probable franchise co-cornerstone Jaren Jackson Jr. They almost certainly cannot, and will not, pay them all. If attaching a player gets you to a place where you can select at a better slot in the draft, and enjoy the four-year rookie scale contract it provides, Memphis should be more aggressive than perhaps they have been in the past.
Ja Morant is the superstar. Jaren Jackson Jr. is the hopeful “Robin” to Ja’s “Batman”. As of now Desmond Bane, DeAnthony Melton, Xavier Tillman, and Brandon Clarke are multi-year pieces of the team’s future. But what the roster looks like beyond those supposed “core” pieces certainly will evolve in the weeks, months, and years to come. No, the Grizzlies are not likely to accelerate their rebuild through their own moves outside of their current roster. But the time could be here to try to consolidate while establishing roster pieces around Morant and Jackson Jr. that will amplify their talents as they mature their games and get Memphis to contender status organically - from within, as Memphis appears to prefer as of now.
There are ways to get a bigger bite at the NBA Draft apple. Will the Grizzlies reach for it?