Life is oftentimes far more complicated than having one winner and one loser. That is one of the many reasons so many love sports - unless you’re one of the silly games that willingly ends in ties (looking at YOU, Soccer) there is almost always a set conqueror and a set defeated. You either get to savor the sweet taste of victory of have to swallow the bitterness of defeat. Lessons come from those results one way or another, and then you move on to the next challenge or contest. Sports parallel life in this, and countless other, ways.
Which is why the events surrounding professional sports in their offseasons in particular can be so fascinating. We try to connect the same dots, but at times lose sight of the lines that connect. Trades are terrific examples of that - there doesn’t always have to be a winner or a loser. Sometimes everyone fails in a given exchange of players and assets. Other times, everyone wins.
On the surface, in the here and now, that is what occurred on Monday when Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN reported the trade heard around Memphis. Both teams got what they wanted. And therefore, both squads succeeded.
This is not a Pelicans space, so we won’t elaborate too much on why NOLA won the day in addition to Memphis. But they got the best player in the trade (Jonas Valanciunas) while also enabling themselves to be players in free agency this summer. They now can hold on to both Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart if they choose while also pursuing Kyle Lowry, as has been rumored. Pressure or no pressure from Zion Williamson, the Pelicans only lost 18 total draft selection slots (10 to 17 and 40 to 51) and a 1st from the Lakers that likely will not be above #20 to have a legitimate chance to improve their roster now. That matters.
But perception and context matter as well. And the Grizzlies were also winners on Monday.
Here is why.
Jonas Valanciunas was not longed for this Grizzlies world
The best compliment that can be paid to Jonas here is that he convinced this writer that he could indeed be part of this team’s future. He of course was almost always not going to be a long-term piece - he was a bridge to Jaren Jackson Jr. taking over the role. But a funny thing happened while that overpass was being built...Jaren got hurt. And Jonas played some of the best basketball of his career. He was the physical manifestation of a child’s security blanket for the Memphis Grizzlies offensively - he enabled them to get out of the filth when things froze up thanks to his ability to catch and score in and around the paint. In that way, he was extremely valuable.
Yet his defensive predictability in drop coverage due to slow lateral movement and his inability to consistently create on the perimeter or beyond himself as a passer were his downfall. These were pieces of why the Toronto Raptors moved on from him - he was stronger, younger, and arguably better than Marc Gasol when the trade occurred. But Gasol could do things Jonas could not to keep scheme evolving, which fit the Raptors better. And Toronto won a title in part because of it.
Will Memphis win a title this season? Almost certainly not. But the same logic applies...Jonas’ fatal flaws make him a very good regular season player. And one that, if not able to get to his spots where he thrives offensively, has too many defensive flaws to overcome being the focal point of opposing offenses because of his shortcomings on the defensive end.
In the long view of things? His end of days with the Memphis Grizzlies was coming. And it makes sense that it comes now, as he enters the final year of his very team-friendly contract.
Jonas is likely due a raise (again, he’s very good and there are no perfect players) - something similar to what Steven Adams currently makes (roughly $17 million) for more years than the two remaining on Adams’ deal. Adams is a better defender (at least in theory but history backs this up) than Jonas while still being a very good screener. His lack of offensive prowess, especially when compared to Valanciunas, will force the Grizzlies offense to develop (no more security blanket!) which will help the team grow through some painful adjustments more than likely. And more importantly, the imperfect Adams comes off the books in 2023 (if he isn’t traded before then) whereas a newly re-signed Jonas would be around far longer.
Jaren Jackson Jr. probably isn’t ready to exclusively be a center. Adams extends the Valanciunas Memorial Bridge a year at a reasonable cost/years combination when compared to what Jonas will command. Memphis is weakened a bit here in the short-term, but Zach Kleiman has made it clear he is worried about what is best for Memphis long-term. And Jonas, on another long-term deal, probably is not in the best interest of where this team hopes to go in the years ahead.
There can, and likely will, be more moves
The Grizzlies have traded up in each of the last two NBA Drafts. In 2020 they did it twice. They just did some of the work earlier this year. Memphis acquired higher 1st (10 instead of 17) and 2nd (40 instead of 51) picks in Thursday’s 2021 NBA Draft as a result of this deal, as well as a 2022 1st round pick from the Los Angeles Lakers (top-10 protected). This means Memphis now has six 1st round picks in the next three drafts beyond this one - three in 2022, one in 2023, and two in 2024.
The Memphis Grizzlies will probably not make all three of those selections. Meaning that Memphis, as has been reported by many, are not done trying to move up in this draft.
For the Grizzlies, in a market as small as Memphis free agency swings are not in their best interest. It leads to overpays and heartache more often than not. General Manager Zach Kleiman and the rest of the Grizzlies front office surely understands that. It isn’t that Memphis is a bad city - on the contrary, it’s actually one of the very best basketball towns in this country. It just doesn’t have the amenities and distractions that most millionaires in their early to mid 20’s are looking for in free agency.
That means getting players to this beautiful land via trade and the draft are the most amenable means to acquiring top talent. And the most bites at the NBA Draft apple you can get - or the bigger bites higher in the Lottery - the better. You bring young players in to “grow up” in the franchise. It’s harder to leave a place you help build.
At #17 overall in this draft the Grizzlies could have gotten a potential contributor. Trey Murphy III, Jalen Johnson, and others had been rumored for Memphis in this range before the trade. But those prospects are flawed and, in the educated guesswork of scouting, do not project to being NBA starters as cleanly as those higher in the draft process. History bears this out as well - while you can certainly find starting-caliber players later on, it happens more regularly in higher draft selections. That makes a lot of sense. While not exact and while there are exceptions (Hasheem Thabeet, Kwame Brown, Jabari Parker, etc.), the higher the pick, the higher probability of success.
Beyond that, for the Memphis Grizzlies it enables them to have a better opportunity to “get their man” and not be dependent on what teams ahead of them do.
Can the Grizzlies get in to the top-4? Probably not. But between picks 7 (Golden State), 8 (Orlando Magic), and 9 (Sacramento), the Grizzlies have several trade partners to work with who may want to continue the clear Memphis trend of being willing to take on money in exchange for draft capital.
Would the Sacramento Kings be willing to give up the #9 overall pick to get off of the Buddy Hield contract? Something like Steven Adams and the 2022 Jazz 1st round selection could get the Grizzlies close to value there. May Orlando be interested in their rebuild being buoyed by losing Terrance Ross’ contract alongside #8 by moving back 2 spots with Memphis and taking on Grayson Allen and Kyle Anderson (alongside that same Jazz 2022 1st and perhaps the Grizzlies new 2nd rounder #40)? Or could the Golden State Warriors, in the absence of a star, value depth and take 2-3 Grizzlies rotation players and #10 from Memphis for Andrew Wiggins and #7? Or cut out #10 from Memphis, replace it with #40, and get the Grizzlies #14?
Wrinkles likely are needed to complete such ideas. Maybe Adams or Eric Bledsoe fit in and their stay in Memphis is short-lived. The fact remains, opportunity abounds in front of the Grizzlies in this draft to use #10 to move up...and perhaps utilize some of their draft capital in the next three seasons and expiring/solid value contracts to not have to part with #10 and all of a sudden earn two lottery selections (and the rookie scale contracts they carry) while parting with some combination of end of deal veterans and a young player or two as roster consolidation approaches.
The process for Memphis endures. Having higher, or even multiple, Lottery picks helps there.
Zach Kleiman and company do not speak often. They do not have to - their actions say far more than any words could. The Memphis Grizzlies, for all their overachieving, are still rebuilding. Perhaps they take a big swing in 2022. Maybe the various rumored prospects and plans moving forward mean they’re putting up smoke screens this year as they prepare a massive trade for an established star.
But the more likely outcome of this process for Kleiman and Memphis is a pursuit of the type of talent and financial stability in the roster that can be sustained beyond the here and now. Yes, the Grizzlies could get in a better position to compete for the services of a Duncan Robinson or DeMar DeRozan. And yes, that would make Memphis more competitive today. But are they positioned to win now? Does that defeat the Lakers when healthy? Or the Nuggets? Or the Suns? Probably not...and you’ve almost certainly hurt long-term prospects to win 5-10 more regular season games to get a home playoff series.
The Memphis Grizzlies franchise has higher long-term aspirations than that. And sometimes you have to take a step back to gain ground. This trade does that for Memphis - they now have more avenues to obtain the wing talent they desire, in ways that are healthier long-term for the Grizzlies. They’re aiding the Pelicans on their journey, that’s true. But New Orleans is interested in betting on their roster as a contender now. Maybe they are, or at least will be at the end of free agency. Memphis, right or wrong, is not willing to push in all those chips just yet. They see themselves in a different lane on the NBA highway right now...and they just made their ride smoother on that journey while not hurting their current state of being as an NBA play-in contender too much - if at all.
Eric Bledsoe not sticking in Memphis doesn’t hurt the Grizzlies anymore than Justise Winslow being on the roster before the deal (which he almost certainly will not be now). Steven Adams is a downgrade from Jonas Valanciunas, but with Xavier Tillman and Brandon Clarke potentially taking on larger roles now how much will that sting? A fair question...but one that needs to be answered in the months and years ahead. Those answers hold value, as does the ability to have many angles and viewpoints on trying to reach them.
That makes Memphis a winner coming out of this trade. And likely will make them one in the years to come as well.