Welcome to the craziest week of the year, Memphis Grizzlies fans. Well...maybe not the craziest. But it certainly is the most “Woj and Shams Notification”-iest...at least non-COVID division. This is the time where contenders go shopping for talent to buy, and pretenders decide to sell off some talent with eyes to the future.
A couple major deals have already been made along these lines. The Los Angeles Clippers took advantage of a down year for the Portland Trail Blazers, snagging Norman Powell and Robert Covington in exchange for former Memphis Grizzlies great Justise Winslow and two other lesser pieces (Eric Bledsoe and Keon Johnson...if only there were sarcasm font) plus a draft pick. Then, Sunday the Cleveland Cavaliers sent out a future 1st round pick as well as a couple 2nd rounders alongside the expiring contract of Ricky Rubio (out for the season with a knee injury) in exchange for a 2022 2nd from Miami and the star of the show, Caris LeVert. LeVert was a name floated in various Grizzlies prognostications - not seriously, but as a potential possibility as a reserve wing that could provide bench scoring.
That ship has sailed...but at the cost of several picks, it may be just as well.
For the Memphis Grizzlies are in probably the best position of any of the NBA contenders at this stage of the season - the one where they’re not supposed to be this good this soon anyway. The 3rd best team record-wise in the NBA (and indisputably #1 in terms of “drip”) boasts one of the league’s youngest rosters and surprisingly few weaknesses. Sure, they could be better shooting the three (33.9% as a team is 23rd in the NBA, per basketball-reference.com) and at the charity stripe (73.7%, 27th in the league). And yes, their half court offense has not been great (92 points per play, 22nd percentile per Cleaning the Glass). But they are 1st in offensive rebounding, 1st in steals, 1st in blocks, and are having the success they are having without seeing the presumed starting 5 of Ja Morant, Desmond Bane, Dillon Brooks, Jaren Jackson Jr., and Steven Adams for more than 156 possessions. That crew is a +18 together (83rd percentile), and would also mean a full 2nd unit of Tyus Jones, De’Anthony Melton, Kyle Anderson, Brandon Clarke, and either Ziaire Williams or John Konchar.
And that 10th man of Konchar or Williams (probably Williams) would not play nearly as much in a theoretical eventual playoff series anyway.
So is it likely that the Grizzlies stand pat, or only make a minimal move at the trade deadline?
Yes. But does that mean that surprises aren’t possible...especially if the opportunity presents itself?
Of course not.
While Memphis is ahead of schedule, and so many players (and coaches) are overachieving once again making such events a trend in year three, it is difficult to write all that off and allow a team that has issues from beyond the arc and in the front court to go completely unaltered in to the post-trade deadline NBA schedule. The youth of the Grizzlies lends itself to comfortability with the idea of this squad sticking together for the sake of scheme consistency/team chemistry (the vibes are immaculate, after all) and seeing how things play out. But how many times will Memphis have a chance to make a run at the Western Conference with a (once Dillon Brooks returns) fully healthy roster? The Phoenix Suns have been dominant. The Golden State Warriors look the part of Western Conference contender.
The Memphis Grizzlies have beaten them both this season. The future may have already arrived...the time to win could possibly be now.
Grizzlies GM Zach Kleiman and company are surely making some calls around the NBA regarding availability. But Memphis operates from a position of strength - Dillon Brooks’ pending return (likely later this month after the All-Star break) certainly is a deadline acquisition of sorts in and of itself. They can wait for the right moment to strike with any combination of valuable draft picks, expiring contracts, and/or value deals that fit nice in to trade exceptions. If there isn’t a deal that demonstrably makes the Grizzlies better in the minds of the Memphis brain trust, it will not be executed.
But that doesn’t mean such a deal does not exist.
Here are the four most likely outcomes of the coming days leading up to the deadline Thursday, ranked in order from least likely to occur to most likely.
4. The Home Run Swing
What would this even look like at this stage of the season for the Memphis Grizzlies? The biggest names rumored to possibly be on the block (Ben Simmons, James Harden, Jaylen Brown, Damian Lillard, Domantas Sabonis) all possess varying levels of believability. Even if we were to assume that all five are absolutely available, fit is questionable in 80% of the star names listed.
- Harden, Lillard, and Simmons all have played point guard either a majority of their careers or most recently. Rumor is, the Memphis Grizzlies are already spoken for at that spot. While Harden and Simmons could perhaps play elsewhere - especially Harden - off the ball, touches would be taken from Ja Morant at times where you’d like him to be the lead initiator.
- Sabonis is a solid hypothetical fit in terms of playing alongside Jaren Jackson Jr., but he provides similar issues to what Jonas Valanciunas did for the Grizzlies in terms of offensive progress/evolution. Not to rehash that trade again - it doesn’t need to be, sometimes both teams win a trade - but Sabonis would be a similar (if not better) player to JV in terms of his offense.
- Brown, the best hypothetical fit, is almost certainly not available at the moment as the Boston Celtics try to play better basketball. But the bigger wing aligns with both the primes of Morant and Jackson Jr. while also bringing defensive acumen alongside scoring potential. Perhaps this would be a swing worth driving to the fences for, but again - why would Boston move their 2nd best player now?
It’s fun to dream about Brown on this Grizzlies team. And Harden and Simmons would be talent upgrades for Memphis, especially James Harden - he’s a Hall of Fame level player that could make things work next to Ja thanks to his experience alongside other lead guards. But it would take a massive shift from this front office for a deal like this to occur...and then you’d need one of Boston, Philadelphia, Brooklyn, Indiana, or Portland to “settle” for good starters and/or rotation players as opposed to start player returns.
Ja/Jaylen/Jaren is a hell of a “Big Three”. Maybe this summer. Almost certainly not now.
“Realistic” example - Memphis sends Kyle Anderson, Tyus Jones, Dillon Brooks, 2022 1st (Jazz), 2023 1st (Memphis, protected 1-14), 2024 1st (Warriors) to Boston for Jaylen Brown and Payton Pritchard.
MEMPHIS DOES THE DEAL BECAUSE - A Morant/Bane/Brown/Jackson Jr./Adams starting five, with Pritchard and De’Anthony Melton sharing the back-up PG role and increased roles for Brandon Clarke, John Konchar, and Ziaire Williams, makes things very, very interesting not just in the future, but now.
BOSTON DOES THE DEAL BECAUSE - They probably don’t, especially not without Bane. But assuming they did, they get both valuable draft capital alongside improved depth. Brooks isn’t Brown, but he’s a decent replacement, and the Celtics would have Bird rights to keep the underrated Jones and versatile Anderson beyond this season.
3. The moderately loud knocking on the door of contenders
This would not necessarily involve making a major move involving a Dillon Brooks or Desmond Bane. It would, however, mean more than just the expiring deal of Jarrett Culver is exiting Memphis. The Grizzlies, as mentioned before, need to improve in the half court offensively as well as from beyond the arc. There are options that can help here.
- In a piece last week I outlined dealing for an Eric Gordon or Harrison Barnes. Both players would assist the offense, but they would also impact the current way that Memphis is winning - especially an Eric Gordon for De’Anthony Melton (and Jarrett Culver and a 1st) swap. There’s value to this logic...but there is also risk.
- The same can be said for a smaller wing like Buddy Hield or a bigger wing like Jerami Grant or TJ Warren. With Hield, while his current three point performance (36%) is out of character for him (he hasn’t shot below 40% from three for a season since his rookie year) the money owed and perceived questions about his defensive ability and willingness to come off the bench are cause for concern. Grant would be an excellent fit in theory, but his stated desire to get paid and be a main offensive focus draws concern. T.J. Warren checks a lot of hypothetical offensive boxes as a scorer, but will he be able to perform at a comparable level after so much time out due to injury?
- Bigs are an underrated possibility in this sort of deal for Memphis. Myles Turner, John Collins, Jusuf Nurkic...there are several theoretically available and while the Steven Adams resurgence has been awesome to watch, it probably isn’t forever. If Jaren Jackson Jr. isn’t the starting center, or you simply want more spacing/offensive fire power from that position, an Adams-centered deal where a rookie-scale deal or pick sweetens the pot makes sense.
John Collins is the big fish in this tier. The athleticism and potential of a Morant/Bane/Brooks/Jackson Jr./Collins starting five is tantalizing. But the cost of parting with Collins is probably sky high for the Hawks, and understandably so. Collins can play. Atlanta has a ton of money tied up in several players, though...and the Hawks may be interested in lightening their load to an extent. That inspires our hypothetical deal here.
“Realistic” example - Memphis sends De’Anthony Melton, Kyle Anderson, Jarrett Culver, 2022 1st (Lakers), 2024 2nd (Raptors) to Atlanta for Bogdan Bogdanovic and DeAndre Hunter.
MEMPHIS DOES THE DEAL BECAUSE - They get an upside swing in Hunter alongside a proven past scorer in Bogdanovic. Hunter can play the 3 and the 4 and is shooting 42% from three this season. Bogdanovic is struggling comparatively speaking (36%), but Memphis moved on from reserves in this deal. A Jones/Williams/Bogdanovic/Hunter/Clarke reserve unit is stout.
ATLANTA DOES THE DEAL BECAUSE - Atlanta isn’t going to pay all their young talents, and while moving on from Hunter stings they talk themselves in to the Trae Young/Collins duo as something to build around. This trade makes that easier - the Hawks reportedly loved Melton as a fit alongside Young in free agency, and Anderson/Culver are coming off the books of the Hawks and both would/should be cheaper to retain than either Bogdanovic or Hunter when their free agency arrives.
2. A whole lot of nothing
The vibes, they are immaculate.
Why risk it?
There’s a decent chance the Grizzlies don’t - for three key reasons.
- Dillon Brooks looms large. Our Parker Fleming surely doesn’t forget, but some apparently do. Brooks helps fix some of what currently is hurting Memphis just by returning to the rotation, particularly in the half court offensively. Outside of Ja Morant, Brooks is the one guard/wing on this roster that off the dribble can get his own shot every time down the floor. Desmond Bane has grown there tremendously, but Brooks has a larger sample of doing this against higher levels of competition (i.e. the play-in and playoffs). Between that, his elite on-ball defense, and his health meaning a deeper bench with Ziaire Williams likely returning to a reserve role...the team is more than fine as-is.
- This front office forces nothing. Kleiman may be one of the most underrated opportunists in the NBA. He seemingly strikes out of nowhere and is in and out like a ninja working “in the dark”. The current trade market seems somewhat versatile as teams try to figure out what they want to be. Are Portland and Indiana trying to tank? How does a team like Atlanta view itself? Questions abound - and could make for awkward offers on dealings of players and protections on picks. If Kleiman doesn’t think the trade waters suit him, he won’t dive in. He’s proven that.
- How “far” is too far? Our #1 option (coming soon) almost certainly does not hurt the “vibes” of the roster. But what if the team doesn’t want to move a rotation piece...but pairs the under-performing Xavier Tillman Sr. with Culver in a deal to a rebuilding squad to sweeten the trade pot? Tillman has shown the capacity to perform at times, especially last season. But with Kyle Anderson spending more of his time as a “big” Tillman is the 5th big man in the rotation, and the current odd man out. Should Tillman, who is good friends with Jaren Jackson Jr., be ruled out of possible moves because of the close-knit nature of the team?
The team is performing admirably. If they fall short, the window to a larger move opens wider. Disrupting chemistry is far less impactful out of season than in.
If the Grizzlies do literally nothing by the deadline, it should not surprise.
# 1. The minimally intrusive upgrade
I have already written about the possibilities surrounding a Jarrett Culver deal, helping the already rich Memphis Grizzlies get richer in terms of improved depth at the end of their rotation. Kenrich Williams, Ty Jerome, Thomas Bryant...those names still make potential sense in terms of a long-term holdover for the Grizzlies as opposed to the almost-certainly departing Culver. And Jarrett has shown enough that a team that is rebuilding should be interested in taking a flyer on him if the price is right - he still struggles shooting the three, but as a possible wing facilitator and defender there is reason for optimism he can become a viable NBA rotation player. He just won’t get the minutes necessary to make such a leap with Memphis.
So when exploring Culver deals, look for the teams clearly not in the postseason mix. The likes of Houston (David Nwaba), the Thunder (the aforementioned Williams and Jerome), the Magic (Terrance Ross, but it would take more money-wise than just Culver), the Pistons (Hamidou Diallo, Frank Jackson), and now perhaps the likes of the Trail Blazers (old friend Ben McLemore) and Pacers, who will be explored in our “realistic” deals, can be the main focuses of potential value for improved depth.
But adding a player that can assist this specific version of the Grizzlies without hurting/impeding future business makes a lot of sense for Memphis. Put these key players in a better position to succeed, especially in the event of an injury where depth is tested, and look to this summer for the larger transaction as the Grizzlies take their full seat at the NBA contender’s table.
“Realistic” example - Memphis sends Jarrett Culver, 2024 2nd round pick (via LAL) to Indiana for Justin Holiday
WHY MEMPHIS DOES THE DEAL - Holiday instantly becomes the oldest member of the Grizzlies at 32 years old and becomes close to the ideal 10th or 11th man. A 38% three point shooter this season, Holiday is above-average in most offensive categories. He can provide spacing (hopefully better than he did in his first Memphis stint) while also defending at a good enough rate for a 10th or so man in a rotation. Does he supplant a current Grizzlies wing in the rotation? Probably not. Does he come relatively cheaply and provide more offensively than Jarrett Culver does? Absolutely. And he can be added to a trade this summer to help make money work in a larger deal.
WHY INDIANA DOES THE DEAL - The Pacers seem primed to be sellers/entering some form of a rebuild. If you can get a Lottery talent like Culver and a 2nd rounder in a draft where you currently do not own one for a player that no longer fits your team goals like Holiday, you do it 10 times out of 10. If Culver fails, he walks and you got a future draft asset. If he succeeds, you’ve got a talented younger player in addition to the pick. It’s a win-win for Indy.
660 voters participated in a Twitter poll for me as I attempted to get a feel for what fans want the team to do at the deadline. The results were mildly surprising.
Gonna be posting a Grizzlies Trade Deadline Primer at GBB tomorrow morning - trying to get a feel for the “room”.— Joe Mullinax (@JoeMullinax) February 6, 2022
Which Grizzlies player is the most “untouchable” to you as the deadline approaches?
Melton being more “untouchable” than Anderson wasn’t the surprise. Between contract, age, and potential that adds up to a better long-term player to have on your roster than Anderson in the eyes of a good amount of fans. The somewhat shocking result was that more fans were open to a bigger trade - options 4 or 3 above - than doing nothing with rotation pieces, or option 2. Perhaps this is a sign that the fan base sees the West as open, and the Grizzlies maybe being just a upgraded piece away from contention. Would Bogdanovic and Hunter, as proposed above, provide that? Would a Collins return be needed instead? Or does a Myles Turner, an Eric Gordon, or Harrison Barnes move the needle? Would it need to be something more?
Such questions get asked when you look like a contender without making any of the moves of one. Are Zach Kleiman and company ready to turn the page of the rebuild? Or will Memphis ride the vibes in to the playoffs and (correctly) call this season a success regardless of postseason outcome, barring a major injury?
This week will serve as another glimpse in to the mind of the Grizzlies brain trust.