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Memphis Grizzlies 2021 NBA Free Agency Primer

If the Grizzlies roster is set before free agency begins…does it still happen?

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2021 NBA Playoffs - Memphis Grizzlies v Utah Jazz Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

Last week was a very active one for the Memphis Grizzlies. Trades both before the 2021 NBA Draft and on draft night itself kept the franchise in the headlines. First the team unofficially said goodbye to one of the best Grizzlies players over the last two seasons in Jonas Valanciunas, taking on another big that’s less offensively skilled but better defensively in Steven Adams plus a guard that likely won’t play for Memphis in Eric Bledsoe. This was all done with the idea of moving up in the draft in mind- swapping 17 and 51 with New Orleans for 10, 40, and a 2022 1st from the Lakers. Then, the Grizzlies (after selecting Ziaire Williams at #10) traded up again, bringing Santi Aldama to Memphis after a trade with the Utah Jazz for the #30 overall selection.

Goodbye to Jonas. Hello to Steven and Eric (for now), as well as Ziaire and Santi (for presumably longer than Steven and Eric). Memphis then waived Jontay Porter, tendered a restricted free agency qualifying offer to Killian Tillie, and allowed for the deadline to pass on Justise Winslow’s team option (which was expected after the NOLA trade), making him an unrestricted free agent and unceremoniously ending his unlucky run in Memphis.

Busy, right?

Entering free agency, it would appear that Memphis may well already be done. Here is the breakdown of where things stand as of this writing in salary earning order for the upcoming season per Spotrac, including likely incentives if they are on the roster. Pending free agents next offseason are in bold.

  1. Eric Bledsoe ($18,125,000)
  2. Steven Adams ($17,073,171)
  3. Dillon Brooks ($12,200,000)
  4. Kyle Anderson ($9,937,150, unrestricted)
  5. Ja Morant ($9,603,360)
  6. Jaren Jackson Jr. ($9,180,560, restricted)
  7. De’Anthony Melton ($8,805,976)
  8. Tyus Jones ($8,376,286, unrestricted)
  9. Grayson Allen ($4,054,695, restricted)
  10. Ziaire Williams ($3,644,300)
  11. Brandon Clarke ($2,726,880)
  12. John Konchar ($2,200,000)
  13. Desmond Bane ($2,033,160)
  14. Santi Aldama (if he joins the roster this season - $1,662,100)
  15. Xavier Tillman ($1,517,981)

QUALIFYING OFFER EXTENDED - Killian Tillie ($1,489,065)

DEAD CAP - Jontay Porter ($300,000)

TWO-WAY CONTRACT (Does not count against cap) - Sean McDermott

CURRENT TOTAL MONEY ON THE BOOKS AS OF AUGUST 2nd - $112,929,684 between 16 players (15 on final roster entering season)

NBA 2021 SALARY CAP MAX - $112,414,000

NBA 2021 LUXURY TAX THRESHOLD - $136,606,000

So the Memphis Grizzlies is essentially set even before free agency starts, right around the salary cap max but well below the dreaded luxury tax. Because of that, don’t expect many major signing rumors - and even then they’d need to move on from at least two players via trade or release. But there are some things that could occur that could make the week or so ahead more intriguing, depending on how Zach Kleiman and the front office decides to approach this August. And the fact that the roster is currently too full (assuming Killian Tillie sticks around on a non-two way deal) means SOMETHING more must occur. But just how much of something?

Here are four storylines that are worth watching.

First things first - The Jaren Jackson Jr. Extension

2021 NBA Playoffs - Utah Jazz v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

No, this won’t impact the team this season. And no, this may not even happen this week - the Grizzlies have until October to reach an agreement with Jaren on a long-term deal. But no matter what Memphis does this summer, barring an unforeseen massive trade to acquire a star (that would not align with what the franchise has done to this point), the most important storyline the next month or two will be progress toward a new contract with the Grizzlies unicorn. Zach Kleiman once again during media availabilities following the NBA Draft made it clear that Jaren is seen as a foundational piece, so it appears unlikely that Jackson Jr. is going anywhere other than a higher tax bracket once Memphis re-signs him.

But the means definitely are relevant to the ends here. An agreement on an extension, whether it’s at the start of free agency or toward the deadline before the season begins, would signal not just interest from the Grizzlies on a long-term relationship but a desire from Jaren to be part of the “Nxt-Gen Grizzlies” for the next half decade. This carries significant weight - restricted free agency limits Jaren’s options getting out of Memphis if he wants to, but if he feels the Grizzlies are low-balling him or simply isn’t interested in sticking around he won’t be rushing to a deal.

This creates unneeded drama and questions entering a key season for the Grizzlies rebuild. The New Orleans trade signals an acknowledgement that the team is still not ready to make the leap to contender, at least in the eyes of GM Zach Kleiman. Agree or disagree, Kleiman is playing the long game - and considering his two best players (Ja Morant and Jaren) are 21 years old, that’s probably a safe bet. That should remain the focus - making the most of the next step in that process. Jaren’s future being up in the air would be an unwelcome distraction from that goal.

How much money does Jaren get? Somewhere around $100 million over four years, give or take $5 million, seems to be a safe bet. But a full max extension isn’t out of the question. Memphis saying he’s a foundational piece and then not paying him at least in the realm of Boston’s Jaylen Brown (4 years roughly $106 million) would be counter-productive. Jackson Jr.’s combination of volume three point shooting, rim protection, and all-around potential as a creator for himself off the dribble and as an elite defender is going to command attention if he gets to the free agent market. Once that occurs you lose the ability to negotiate a deal that is Grizzlies team friendly. It’s in their best interest to get the deal done sooner rather than later, especially given the injury concerns there must be. Make the contract as kind to the franchise as possible while ensuring that Jaren knows you value him. The window for that kind of agreement is now.

Jaren either is a part of the Grizzlies future or he’s not. Odds are the Grizzlies front office knows this...and perhaps they make their interest in Jaren known early.

There’s another Restricted Free Agent next summer eligible for an extension...

2021 NBA Playoffs - Utah Jazz v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

Grayson Allen has taken advantage of the opportunity that Memphis has provided him. He’s gone from a throw-in in the Mike Conley trade to a legitimate NBA rotation player - and technically a starter on an NBA Playoff team. Considering his spot in the league at all was in question when the Conley deal occurred, this is quite the progression for Allen. He plays the game the way Grizzlies Head Coach Taylor Jenkins wants it to be played - he shoots a ton of threes, he defends without fouling, and he fills the voids of the Grizzlies offense off the dribble when needed. Jenkins, because of these things, very clearly trusts Grayson.

So what happens when Grayson also potentially enters free agency next summer? The Grizzlies already have two smaller wings in Desmond Bane and De’Anthony Melton who figure to be around, at least contractually, for the next three seasons. Add on Dillon Brooks and the newly drafted Ziaire Williams (not small wings but capable of playing the “2” position”) and playing time is about to get tight. And with a big contract likely heading Jaren Jackson Jr.’s way, and Ja Morant surely getting the max contract treatment two years from now, entering in to a long-term deal with Allen may not make much sense...unless Memphis is ready to move on from Melton or Bane.

Considering the age and cost-effectiveness of those two, logic says that Allen - who has earned a contract extension in the mid-level exception ball park of $9 million per year - may be playing out his final games for the Grizzlies. But again, Jenkins believes in Allen helping Memphis win. Will Taylor’s favorite tool to his schematic standard be shipped out this summer? Or will Zach Kleiman, Tayshaun Prince, Rich Cho, and the rest of the Memphis front office reward the overachieving Allen and make decisions elsewhere?

Moving on from Grayson doesn’t have to occur immediately one way or another. Once teams swing and miss in free agency perhaps Allen for a couple future 2nd round picks or even a protected 1st could make sense for a contender. Maybe around the 2022 trade deadline Memphis parts ways with Grayson if the price is right from a contender. But given how the team is aligned long-term, despite Grayson’s strengths, Allen should probably be the odd man out as the Grizzlies build their roster. When that happens is up to Memphis - they are in the position of strength that nothing has to happen yet.

But a good trade could lead to an earlier trigger pull than expected. Or an unexpected addition to the Grizzlies draft deal that could increase the impact of that transaction.

Does the Grizzlies/Pelicans Trade Expand?

Memphis Grizzlies v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images

The thing about trades that cannot happen until the new league year begins is, even when they’re agreed upon in principle, they have plenty of time to evolve. This could well be the case with New Orleans and Memphis’ major move. While the major parts of the trade - the ones where the Grizzlies get the improved picks (plus the 2022 Lakers 1st rounder) and Steven Adams/Eric Bledsoe, the Pelicans get Jonas Valanciunas and the lesser selections - will stand, there’s always room for introducing additional teams that could perhaps be interested in one of those add-ons.

Considering the fact that Jonas makes New Orleans better (although the Valanciunas/Zion fit is a bit confusing) it seems unlikely Valanciunas is in that mix. But for Memphis, both Adams and Bledsoe could be moving elsewhere by the time this trade officially goes through later this week. Bledsoe has already reportedly been declared to not be staying in Memphis - that does not mean the Grizzlies will be waiving him (although they could, of course - only roughly $4 million of his 2022-2023 salary is guaranteed). He could very well be on the move to another team...perhaps one that misses out on a free agent target they really desire (more on that in a moment). The Grizzlies can add more to the trade until the transaction becomes final. Once that occurs, another Grizzlies player cannot be traded with Bledsoe for six months, meaning Bledsoe would be a Grizzlies until at least February.

The same can be said about Adams. While he holds more theoretical value to the Grizzlies as a screening big that can defend and rebound than Bledsoe does as a de facto back-up combo guard to a Ja Morant and Dillon Brooks back court, Memphis did not make the NOLA deal to acquire Steven Adams or Eric Bledsoe. They did it to get up to #10 to take a big wing (Ziaire Williams in this universe, but in some multiverse maybe it is Franz Wagner or Josh Giddey) and acquire an additional 1st round pick down the road. Bledsoe and Adams were the opportunity cost of netting the better future assets - similar to the Andre Iguodala trade with Golden State for their 2024 1st rounder, or the Josh Jackson (and Melton) deal with Phoenix.

There’s room for more where that came from if asset acquisition remains the focus. But the clock is ticking. Bledsoe especially could be shipped out to a team he’s more likely to actually play for - his point guard/combo skill set at his size would fit better for a team looking more attentively for that kind of help.

Speaking of...

Take advantage of the point guard desperate

Memphis Grizzlies v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

Early talks in the free agency market have been pretty hot and heavy when it comes to point guards. Grizzlies legend Mike Conley? Probably back to Utah. Former Grizzlies guard Kyle Lowry? He has a laser pointed on him from Miami. Chris Paul is in the market, but if that doesn’t lead to a return to Phoenix then he will head to a team like the Knicks, or Bulls, or Sixers, or Mavericks, Pelicans or Lakers (just kidding).

The Suns will likely retain Paul, just like Utah will probably keep Conley. But with those three proven commodities off the board? Lots of questions - questions that may make spending a ton of money over multiple years less than desirable. Lonzo Ball does a lot of things well but also has some pretty big holes in his game that make a possible $80-$100 million contract tough to swallow and is a restricted free agent, meaning the Pelicans can match any offer he gets. Spencer Dinwiddie is coming off of a major injury. Dennis Schroder is an acquired taste in terms of his great offensive skill and his struggles elsewhere, especially off the floor in terms of roster fit. Outside of Paul/Conley/Lowry, long-term commitments may not be in the cards for those who miss out on one of that triumvirate of top floor generals. The market has the potential to dry up fast, possibly leaving some teams out in the point guard cold.

Enter the Memphis Grizzlies, who have two solid plan Bs...sort of.

Tyus Jones is the best example. An expiring contract with Memphis, Jones is a good player with an elite skill (assist to turnover ratio) that fits the Grizzlies offense relatively well, especially with regard to their focus on floaters. But Tyus may be due for a raise, and he does not have the frame to be able to play alongside Ja Morant for extended periods of time. He only played 10 minutes per game in the play-in and playoffs, and as Ja Morant’s star rises he will only command more playing time. Jones’ run with Memphis may be ending.

On a lesser scale, “Point Forward” Kyle Anderson is another contract coming off of the Memphis books next season. The main difference, of course, is that Kyle is not your traditional primary facilitator of offense. The man known as “Slow-Mo” has evolved his game to be a Swiss Army Knife of sorts, being able to slide and glide his way offensively despite his overall lack of speed while also being a flexible defensive piece able to man up all five positions on the floor, depending on matchups. Kyle is a better “4” however, and the arrival of Williams (a true bigger “wing” more than a combo “forward”) in the draft may also mean the end of Kyle.

If a team desperate for offensive creation is willing to part with a couple of second round picks - or certainly for a 1st -the Memphis Grizzlies can, and should, listen. But this would perhaps be a move to make later in free agency, once the market cools. Memphis, if they somehow moved on from both Kyle and Tyus (or the previously mentioned Bledsoe) without taking as much money back they could be more active in free agency.

In the more likely scenario of taking on more money but maybe one less player (Taurean Prince of Minnesota, Eric Gordon of Houston, Buddy Hield of Sacramento, Davis Bertans of Washington all come to mind as options - some being better than others) for more future picks, the team could sign a point guard for part of their roughly $5 million exception (Chris Chiozza, come on home!) and watch for development from De’Anthony Melton in that role. Or you prioritize a larger guard that can both run the 2nd unit and play alongside Ja (Frank Ntilikina, Shaquille Harrison perhaps although he’s played less point guard as his career has gone on). They also of course could sign a veteran’s minimum player as well.

It seems unlikely both Tyus and Kyle return beyond this season. Anderson should be the Grizzlies priority if they hope to bring back one of Grayson/Tyus/Kyle next summer because of his versatility and veteran presence - but money, again, is about to get tighter. Memphis likely wants to be contending for titles by the mid-part of this decade, when Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. are in their mid-20s. Seeing all three of those guys on that Grizzlies team is hard to envision. This summer may be the time to move on from more than one of those names.

The opportunities that are in front of the Memphis Grizzlies this free agency cycle should not come down to a question of Santi Aldama vs. Killian Tillie, although that would be the easiest way to get the roster to the league maximum of 15. Memphis should keep both of those players this year if Aldama indeed wants to come over this Fall - they’re younger, and fit the model of what the Grizzlies want to do moving forward while Tillie (to a lesser extent due to his free agency) and Aldama fiscally make sense for the organization as money starts getting handed out to young stars. What should be the question this off-season is who among the upcoming free agents sticks beyond this year...and if you know the answer already, then trading those players for assets and/or a more release-able contract should be prioritized to get the roster down to size.

Kyle Anderson’s presence on the team as a leader that’s been in the league for a while and as a two-way weapon is valuable enough to hold on to unless you’re blown away by an offer. But both Grayson Allen and Tyus Jones are either already fighting for playing time (Allen) or are in a position where there lack of positional versatility hurts their functionality moving forward in Memphis (Jones). Assuming the Grizzlies are able to find another home for Bledsoe via the Pelicans trade, one of Tyus or Grayson should be shipped out, probably for a larger amount of money coming back for a likely lesser player in exchange for draft pick compensation. Then, the team would have 15 roster spots filled with Tillie in the fold and the focus could be on the season ahead. Free agency isn’t where this team will make their mark anyway. Trades and the NBA Draft - that’s where a market like Memphis must thrive. The Grizzlies front office knows that. And they’re prioritizing those means of roster construction.

The Grizzlies continue to look to asset accumulation, working toward a time where they become more aggressive as their contender window opens. Jaren Jackson Jr.’s upcoming extension will be an example money-wise of an investment beyond that horizon. With that understanding of who you are in your journey comes the freedom - and possible opportunity - to make your future brighter at the expense of someone longing to contend in a present where Stephen Curry, LeBron James and other mega stars still potentially stand tall over the Western Conference. Or at least they’ll continue to go all-in to try to. The Utah Jazz playoff series reminded us of the difference between overachievement and a title opportunity starting. The Grizzlies are well-coached and have one of the best young cores in the NBA. They’re just not ready to take that next step - yet.

Memphis’ time will come. When it does, summers like this one will have them in the best position to be in the race for final pieces to contenders. But instead of looking outside the franchise, this free agency cycle is almost exclusively about the upcoming free agents within. This means potentially trying to part with currently productive players to net further pieces to help grow and develop the “Grizzlies Standard”, like they did with Valanciunas. It’s not tanking. It’s being self-aware enough to both build and fight now while preparing for the real race to come.

Until then? Patience - and perspective - can go a long way.

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