Whatever hopes the Memphis Grizzlies had for reaching the playoffs were dashed, as they were in 17-18, by a string of injuries. With another season lost by the deadline, the Grizzlies finally leaned into the rebuild and traded away multiple players, including franchise icon Marc Gasol.
For a stretch heading into the trade deadline, it looked like Memphis would trade away both Gasol and his longtime running mate Mike Conley. Multiple deals for Conley were on the table, but the Grizzlies and those teams couldn’t get it over the finish line. Often, trade deadline conversations set the table for a trade over the summer. With Memphis looking like they have fully embraced a rebuild, it is widely expected that Conley will traded this offseason.
There are a few reasons for moving Conley. The first is that he’s owed more than $67 million combined over the next two seasons. That’s simply too much for a team that isn’t likely to compete for a playoff spot for the next two years. The second reason is that a trade of Conley can help the team recoup some draft assets. Memphis owes a future first round pick to the Boston Celtics that could convey as soon as this year, but has sliding protections through 2021. When you’re rebuilding, you want draft capital to hasten the process. Conley may not return a great pick, but it’s about asset collection.
The last reason to deal Conley is that the team has a solid bridge option at point guard in Delon Wright, who came over from Toronto in the Gasol trade. Wright is scheduled for restricted free agency this summer, but is unlikely to be a top target for any opposing team. He doesn’t project to be a top-tier starting point guard, but more of a solid starter/high-end backup. That’s fine for where Memphis is headed over the next couple of seasons.
For the first time in over a decade, the Grizzlies will have new leaders calling the shots on trading Conley, the draft and free agency. Chris Wallace was demoted and the rest of the front office was cleaned out, as Jason Wexler and Zachary Kleiman took over. They’ve quickly assembled a staff of front office veterans to aid in rebuilding the team.
Beyond moving Conley and deciding who will run the offense, a primary decision for the new front office is who will be calling the plays on the sidelines. The team fired J.B. Bickerstaff after a season and a half and is looking a third coach in as many seasons. This time around, the focus is likely to be more on player development, as opposed to win-loss results.
Beyond identifying a coach, eyes turn to the draft. The Grizzlies' situation this year is an interesting one. They are currently sitting in the eighth slot pre-lottery. If that pick stays in the top-8, Memphis keeps it. If it falls to nine or later, the pick goes to the Celtics. Given this draft isn’t overly deep, it would be best for the Grizzlies for that pick to go to Boston this year. Otherwise it is just top-6 protected in 2020, before becoming fully unprotected in 2021.With the rebuild likely to stretch at least a couple of seasons, it would be ideal to get this situation over with as soon as possible.
If Memphis retains their pick this year, they should be in best player available mode. The only high-upside young talent on the roster is Jaren Jackson Jr., last year’s first round pick. Jackson can play either big position, so there is no worry of overlap with whoever the Grizzlies draft. Ideally, they’d add someone with shooting/scoring ability, as creating offense has been a problem for years. But it’s really just about talent accumulation at this point.
In free agency, the team should look to retain Wright. Jonas Valanciunas has a $17.6 million player option for 2019-20 that he almost certainly will exercise. There are teams with cap space this summer, but none will be looking to spend it on an old-school, back to the basket type of center. Valanciunas is best off to opt in and hit free agency in the summer of 2020.
The rest of the free agents are ones the team can move on from. Tyler Dorsey could be back, if he comes cheap enough. Justin Holiday never delivered the shooting the team hoped for after they acquired him mid-season. Joakim Noah and Tyler Zeller were brought in after the team was decimated by injuries up front, but have no real role as veteran backup bigs on a rebuilding squad.
The more interesting decisions come with the team’s partial/non-guaranteed players. Dillon Brooks is a lock to stick, as he’s shown the ability to be a rotation player on the wing. Bruno Caboclo came in on a pair of 10-Day contracts and earned himself a two-year deal. He’s finally living up on some of the potential he showed pre-draft. Ivan Rabb has shown enough in limited minutes that he’s worth keeping.
That leaves the major decision-point with Avery Bradley. Only $2 million of his $12.9 million contract is guaranteed. On its face, that seems to be an easy decision. The Grizzlies eat the comparatively small guarantee and move on from a defense-first guard who could block younger players from time. On the flip side, Bradley could have some minor value as a trade piece. If Memphis was to guarantee his $12.9 million, that opens up opportunities to eat a bad salary in exchange for an asset in the form of a draft pick or young player.
And that’s what it’s all about now for the Grizzlies: Acquiring as many assets and as much young talent as possible. After this season, the long-clogged salary sheets clear up. Chandler Parsons, C.J. Miles and Valanciunas (if he opts in) all come off the books. That leaves only Kyle Anderson’s $9.5 million and Jackson’s $7.3 million as guaranteed on the cap for 2020-21.
Wexler and Kleiman could turn this around quickly, but they have to avoid some missteps this summer and own that the team is rebuilding. If they do that, and don’t take shortcuts, it’s likely to be a pretty ugly upcoming year for the Grizzlies. Memphis has avoided rebuilding for several seasons, but taking the route of short-term pain for long-term gain is the only way they’re ever going to climb out of the middle.
Guaranteed Contracts (8): Kyle Anderson, Jevon Carter, Mike Conley, Jaren Jackson Jr., C.J. Miles, Chandler Parsons, Julian Washburn (Two-Way), Yuta Watanabe (Two-Way)
Partial/Non-Guaranteed Contracts (4): Avery Bradley, Dillon Brooks, Bruno Caboclo, Ivan Rabb
Potential Free Agents (6): Tyler Dorsey (RFA), Justin Holiday (UFA), Joakim Noah (UFA), Jonas Valanciunas (UFA – Player Option), Delon Wright (RFA), Tyler Zeller (UFA)
“Dead” Money on Cap ($459,414): Dakari Johnson
First Round Draft Pick(s) (pre-Lottery): Pick #8
Maximum Cap Space: $15.2 million
Projected Cap Space: None. $23.2 million over