With the formal confirmation of the trade following the close of the Free Agency Moratorium on Friday, August 6th, one of the more polarising trades amongst the Grizzlies fanbase is now official. Ziaire Williams, taken with the number 10 pick following an aggressive move by the Kleiman front office, is now a Grizzly, whilst fan favourite Jonas Valanciunas now finds himself alongside Zion in the Pelicans frontcourt.
Though the selection of Ziaire Williams as a high-upside pick holds the ability to divide those who follow the Grit’n’Grind, the price paid for the Grizzlies to move up in the draft certainly appears steep. Memphis took on the salaries of Steven Adams, a Defensive stalwart Centre on a longer deal than Jonas, and Eric Bledsoe, a former All NBA Defensive Team of the Year Guard whose stock has been in free fall since the Bubble. Bledsoe, on a partially guaranteed 2-year deal that will net him $18 million per year, strikes out immediately as the most bitter pill to swallow from this trade.
The fit for Bledsoe in Memphis is limited in itself, and perhaps catastrophic in consideration to his contract. Bledsoe sits as the likely third PG in the rotation, behind a star in Morant and one of the most productive backup Point Guards in the league in Tyus Jones. Considering Morant played upwards of 36 minutes per game by the 2021 playoffs, this sees the Grizzlies having upwards of $25 million dollars invested in two players who, if playing solely as the primary ball handling guard off the bench, will share roughly 10 minutes a game.
If playing alongside Ja Morant, the fit for Bledsoe becomes worse. Bledsoe is at best an average 3-point shooter, who’ll demand the ball out of the hands the Grizzlies other scoring options, and ultimately act to tighten the opposition’s paint – contributing to problem the Grizzlies attempted to solve by parting way ways with Valanciunas. Playing Bledsoe as a combo guard alongside Morant, even ignoring the clunky fit of doing so, eats into the minutes in an already competitive position between Bane and Melton – and would be contradictory to the whole rationale behind the decision to trade Grayson Allen to the Bucks.
In short, there is very little immediate upside to Bledsoe being on the Grizzlies roster. And being on the Grizzlies roster is exactly where Bledsoe will be this season as, unless a contract buyout is agreed between Bledsoe and the organisation, Memphis are unable to trade him until February 2022 under the trade rules of the league. Whilst buying out his contract may seem like a form of disappointment, serving to give up an asset for largely nothing, it appears the simplest and cleanest way to remove an expensive contract with little on-court value to the Grizzlies from the roster.
But the true value of Bledsoe to the Memphis organisation is in the long-term – though perhaps not in the manner the Grizzlies fanbase might expect.
Bledsoe offers fantastic trade value – just not this season
The key to unlocking Bledsoe’s value for Memphis lies not in his ability to add wins to the Grizzlies 2021/22 season, but in his ability not to do so in the 2022/2023 season.
Consider the structure of Bledsoe’s 2 year contract. The 2021/22 season is fully guaranteed, seeing Bledsoe earn roughly $18.1 million dollars for the season. The final year of his contract, however, is only partially guaranteed at $3.9 million – allowing the team holding his contract to clear a roster spot and almost £15 million in salary for cents on the dollar. This partial guarantee is applicable until June 30th 2022, with Bledsoe’s contract fully guaranteed if on a roster on July 1st, 2022.
In its simplest form, Memphis holds – assuming Bledsoe lives up to the expectation of not living up to expectation – a "dead-money" contract for the 2021/22 season, then the ability to easily shed an $18 million contract in advance of the 2022 offseason. Considering the selection of Ziaire Williams, described by Zach Kleiman as a "multi-year" project player, the Grizzlies approach to the coming season is more development-now than win-now, and – with the season geared towards the further development of players like Morant, Jaren Jackson, Desmond Bane and in fact the majority of the roster, the "dead-money" of Bledsoe for the year doesn’t hurt as much as it appears to on the surface.
Bledsoe is in the eye of the beholder
The real manifestation of Bledsoe’s future trade value, however, is not how pressing the Grizzlies need to clear salary manifests for next offseason. It is how pressing the need for other teams to clear salary becomes as we approach next season.
Consider, as it stands currently, the Free agent class of 2022. In Unrestricted Free agents alone, there is likely to be a plethora of valuable, mid-level players available that can boost the win-column of a prospective contending or playoff-contending team. Names like Jonas Valanciunas, Ricky Rubio, Mitchell Robinson, Joe Ingles – the list of solid rotational pieces on the market in 2022 makes for attractive reading to a team looking to consolidate around its stars and push for the Larry O’Brien trophy in 2023.
Not the most appealing list ever written? That, mainly, is because it does not take account of the variables heading into that Free agency class. Players such as Russell Westbrook, John Wall, Bradley Beal, Zach LaVine, and even the teammates of Irving and Harden all stand to be available in the 2022 Free agency class contingent on Player options, team success and player perspective on whether their current team is working for them. Go even deeper into the "what-if" list, and you see Restricted Free agents whose teams may worry they’ll be priced out of re-signing them – Colin Sexton, Mikal and Miles Bridges, Michael Porter Jr, and a potential league changer in one Luka Doncic.
How does this relate to Bledsoe? Every team in the league interested in signing one of the players mentioned above – from those looking to solidify a championship roster to those skittish about their star player walking in Free agency – has an interest in clearing the salary runway and holds valuable contributors who stand in the way of doing so. The Bledsoe contract allows them to clear around $15 million dollars, through a trade and waive, in a near-instant.
Whilst Bledsoe might be "dead money" for the upcoming season, his value may sky-rocket as soon as a team lifts the 2022 NBA championship.
Memphis turns water into wine?
Going into the 2022 Offseason, Memphis may hold a surprisingly valuable trade chip in Bledsoe, but stands to gain nothing from it in simply by trading "re-awakening" money for more "dead" money. The likelihood of Memphis turning something into nothing, however, is minimal – and how the Grizzlies generate value from Bledsoe is contingent on how effectively its development-now season pans out.
If the Grizzlies think their multi-year project needs more time to marinate? They hold 3 first round picks, a plethora of attractive tradeable talent, and a future financial gem in the Bledsoe contract. If a team finds itself in the lottery that wants to find itself in the finals (think Golden State and Toronto this past season), a mutually advantageous trade scenario emerges; one in which the Grizzlies are able to move upwards in one of the most stacked Draft classes in recent memory for the cost of a pick and a somewhat-expendable rotational piece, whilst allowing the win-now team to clear cap space to pursue Free agents in return. Who those teams are remains to be seen given the NBA is months away from the first tip-off, but imagine for a moment that the season shaped out identically; game for game, lottery position for lottery position. A Bledsoe/Wiggins-esque trade with Golden State, in which the Warriors cleared upwards of $20 million in cap whilst the Grizzlies moved up to 7th in a draft with Banchero, Holmgren, Duren, and a litany of high-upside players, provides Memphis with the potential of flipping Bledsoe into both a solid starter or rotational player, and another incredibly attractive prospect.
If the Grizzlies over-achieve again and look to add an experienced hand to complement their squad? Any team in the league – from a team like Philadelphia who may be experiencing rocky waters in the wake of Ben Simmons, to a Brooklyn who should do everything in their power to keep their stars happy by adding the players they want – stands to benefit from clearing cap space through the Bledsoe contract. A package of Bledsoe-plus, in exchange for a strong rotational piece that may have fallen out of favour once the season shapes up (welcome to Memphis, Joe Harris) would pose once again a mutually advantageous scenario in which the Grizzlies consolidate and complement their young core.
Ever the opportunist? There are three certainties in life; Death, taxes, and a mid-level team electing to hit the reset button and go through the tanking process. Who that team (or those teams) will be this coming season remains to be seen, but several appear to be in a precarious position. If the Pacers decide the current roster construction will never see them escape the trap of round one disappointment, the first team on the phone to them should be the Grizzlies, offering the benefits of the Bledsoe contract as a starting point to acquire Myles Turner. If Toronto are unable to return to their former glory and look to rebuild with Scottie Barnes as the first piece of the future? Who would say no to Memphis turning Bledsoe into a 3 and D wing like OG Anunoby? Memphis could even find themselves in the mix to snap up a solid rotational player if the never-ending cycle of Dame and Beal trade requests finally comes to a head, and Portland and Washington respectively look to reset and begin on the journey to their next era.
Bledsoe may not be a player who offers immediate benefit to the Grizzlies, and the worst-case scenario is that he leaves the city of Memphis next summer having added very little but a name atop the wage bill. What Memphis can turn him into in a future market, however, offers significant opportunities and value to a roster that appears geared to take the next step in a year’s time.
Big words into Big Moves?
There are, of course, variables that will affect how Bledsoe’s future value shapes out in advance of the 2022 offseason. The intricacies of the Cap are guaranteed to form a contributing factor, as well as how the season shapes up for the Grizzlies and, perhaps more impactfully, the season as a whole across the NBA.
The most difficult variable to project for, however, is Bledsoe himself. Here is a player who, in the course of 3 seasons, has found himself fall from a defensive maestro on a championship contender to a "dead-money" contract with potential to become a trade asset. At 31 years old and approaching what is more than likely a contract buy-out or waiver, Bledsoe faces the prospect of being frozen out of the league within the year.
If he puts in the work in Memphis, to rehabilitate both his game and his market stock, Bledsoe may find himself appearing more lucrative than a salary-dump asset, and stands to feature in NBA rotations for years to come. If he does the opposite, turning into nothing more than a locker room pariah, then his NBA story ends as a piece on the tail-end of a trade sheet, with his name being carried in conversations about Chandler Parsons, and with an ugly and undignified $18 million dollars made watching Memphis games from, at-best, the last seat on the bench.
For the Grizzlies front office, the worst-case scenario is a year of "dead money", followed by an unceremonious waiver. His potential trade value in 2022, in whatever direction Kleiman and the Front Office are able to manufacture that best fits the long-term success of the Grizzlies, make keeping the Bledsoe contract close to a no-lose situation for the Grizzlies.
As far as the value of Bledsoe himself beyond next offseason? That, by and large, is down to Bledsoe himself to determine.