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The Memphis Grizzlies are playing a dangerous game

A well-intentioned philosophy may still be an incorrect one.

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Syndication: The Commercial Appeal Joe Rondone/The Commercial Appeal via Imagn Content Services, LLC

In the Grizzlies’ end of season presser, general manager Zachary Kleiman said that rebuilding isn’t exactly a linear process; the primary goal was to bring a championship to Memphis. That, of course, sounds great in theory, but last week made it immediately clear that the inevitable consequences of this approach involve taking clear steps back in the short-term in order to take a leap forward in the long-term.

On Tuesday of last week, the Grizzlies traded Jonas Valanciunas as well as the 51st and 17th picks in the NBA Draft to New Orleans for Steven Adams, Eric Bledsoe, and to move up to 40th and 10th in the draft. And with those picks, the Grizzlies selected Ziaire Williams from Stanford and a dude that is totally not a 2K created player named Santi Aldama.

NCAA Basketball: Oregon State at Stanford Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

To be honest, the whole deal left me feeling...uneasy. And maybe that’s the point. Perhaps needed change is always going to cause some level of discomfort.

However, I can’t help but feel that the risks that the organization are taking with their recent moves generally outweigh the upside. Taking a deliberate step backward in team-building, because you believe that you can construct a true title-contender without one of the pieces that helped you get into the playoffs in the first place does not mean that you will.

When it comes to Jonas Valanciunas in particular, I understand the desire to move on. He has generally never been considered a part of the team’s long-term core, and the reason for this reality is simple: he’s too much of a traditional big man. He’s a solid defensive big in drop coverage, but he is only effective in that scheme due to his lack of agility and overall mobility. The Jazz obliterated him in pick-and-rolls, as the Grizzlies were 12 points worse per 100 possessions defensively with him on the court. To put it bluntly, he was unplayable at times.

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

To be sure, Valanciunas is (an admittedly dominant) relic of the past, and the Grizzlies front office obviously believed that they needed to find someone who can better represent the present and future at the center position. That player will likely be Jaren Jackson Jr., who will definitely benefit from a greater offensive role as his defensive versatility will allow the Grizzlies greater flexibility with their defensive schemes. That’ll be the fun part of this trade: watching Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. take greater ownership of the team’s offense as their Lithuanian safety blanket has been traded away.

But there’s still a troubling reality that bothers me about the philosophy of the Valanciunas trade.

There have been several teams that have either won NBA titles or at least been in title-contention over the last two decades with mostly home-grown drafted stars. The Duncan-Parker-Ginobli Spurs, the Durant-Westbrook-Harden Thunder, and the Curry-Thompson-Green Warriors are teams that immediately come to mind. Not a single one of these teams vaulted themselves into title-contention by getting rid of an impactful veteran who was instrumental in their early success. Heck, the Phoenix Suns almost won their first title this past year because they added an aging veteran to their young talent.

NBA: Finals-Phoenix Suns at Milwaukee Bucks Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

To put it simply, team-building in such a way where you hope that getting rid of a flawed, but impactful, veteran will give you a greater chance at title-contention in the future doesn’t appear to have any historical precedent for success at the highest level of the sport. That probably shouldn’t be surprising; trading away really good players isn’t usually the “chess, not checkers” maneuver it appears to be.

If I wanted to be charitable, I could mention how the Warriors eventually moved off of David Lee — an extremely skilled traditional big man that was also limited like Valanciunas — so that Draymond Green could be fully unleashed. Yet the Warriors only traded away Lee after he had served as a useful reserve on their 2015 championship team behind Green. Draymond grew into a starting role organically when Lee missed extended time due to injury; he wasn’t thrown into the fire because the Warriors didn’t trade away Lee while he was still a quite useful player.

The assets that the Grizzlies received back in the Valanciunas trade also don’t exactly inspire confidence about their long-term ambitions. Steven Adams and Eric Bledsoe can both be quality reserves in Memphis (although Bledsoe reportedly won’t join the team), but they’re irrelevant to the front office’s longterm vision. The primary reason the Grizzlies made the trade was to move up to to the tenth pick, so how we judge this trade in the future will ultimately hinge on...Ziaire Williams, who tremendously struggled offensively during his lone season at Stanford, averaging just 10.7 points on 37% shooting and 29% shooting from three.

NCAA Basketball: Oregon State at Stanford Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

For what it’s worth, I do believe that if Williams becomes the superb scoring wing that the Grizzlies have looked for since I was in diapers, then I’ll look dumb for having ever questioned the wisdom of this trade and pick. Jumbo wings who can create and score from all three levels are extremely hard to come by, and Williams certainly looks the part. He very much does represent a home run upside swing that could dramatically alter the Grizzlies’ trajectory—for better or for worse.

With all of that being said, allow me to share an excerpt from my draft profile on BJ Boston, another tall scoring wing who was dreadful as a college freshman and also happened to be a high school teammate of Ziaire at Sierra Canyon:

Go ahead, come up with a single above-average NBA player that was objectively terrible efficiency-wise during their lone year in college, while also not being extremely productive (so take Anthony Edwards out of this thought experiment). You won’t come up with anyone. If you can’t effectively put the ball in the hoop in college — even at 18! — you’re probably not going to do so in the best league in the world.

While Ziaire Williams definitely looks the part of the impactful scoring wing that the Grizzlies need, there’s hardly any statistical precedent to suggest that he will become what they need. Kleiman himself referred to him as a risk that had to be taken, but he represents an extremely steep risk considering that the Grizzlies traded away their second best player for him. To make matters more frustrating, there were two players available in James Bouknight and Moses Moody that had star-upside of their own while also seemingly possessing much higher floors for what they will be in the NBA.

Now considering that the world itself basically went to hell over the last year, context is important. Because of Covid restrictions in California, 18-year-old Ziaire never played a single home game while he was at Stanford. A lack of stability also came with tragedy, as he lost two family members and had to leave the team a couple of times. I can only imagine how much weight he had to emotionally carry during this time, and there’s no telling how much it impacted his play on the court.

NCAA Basketball: Oregon State at Stanford Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

The Grizzlies are obviously betting that Ziaire wasn’t himself this past season, and they have good reason to do so. Still, his selection represents an immense risk. For all of the issues that Jonas Valanciunas might have, what are the chances that Ziaire Williams, who has major question marks about his game, ever becomes as impactful as Valanciunas was this past season? I think any honest person would have to admit that it’s not likely.

Of course, one could argue that these types of major risks are the ones that the Grizzlies must take if they want to win a championship. I don’t agree with that; the Grizzlies could have not made a trade at all and still taken two high-upside swings in Jalen Johnson or Keon Johnson at 17 and BJ Boston at 51. If the Grizzlies are insistent on unleashing Jaren Jackson Jr. at center this coming year, they could have used Valanciunas as a super sixth man, a role in which he would absolutely thrive even in the playoffs.

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

But what I believe ultimately doesn’t matter. The Grizzlies front office obviously believed that the dangerous game that they are playing is worth it. Taking a step backwards in the NBA doesn’t have much precedent for creating a path to title contention.

But Zachary Kleiman’s Memphis Grizzlies will be hoping to be the precedent.

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