Thursday, January 21, 2010

Sifting Through the Trade Chatter

Posted By on Thu, Jan 21, 2010 at 10:55 PM

The NBA trade deadline is still a few weeks away, but trade rumors are picking up, with a sudden eruption in Griz-related conjecture today.

Let's work though the names that have appeared, in order of significance:

RUDY GAY:

Here's what ESPN.com's Chad Ford wrote about Gay today in a column about potential trade targets:


The Grizzlies are playing their best basketball since Jerry West was the GM, so why would they mess with a good thing?

There are two reasons, according to a pair of general managers who have spoken with the Grizzlies in recent days. One, Memphis is concerned that this summer a team flush with cap space will offer Gay (who will be a restricted free agent this summer) a huge contract that Grizzlies owner Michael Heisley will be unwilling to match. Two, the team, currently at 22-19, would love to make the playoffs and believes it's a veteran defensive presence away from getting there.

While a number of teams would be interested in Gay, a rising talent at age 23, keep your eye on the Pistons. They have been hunting for the right trade in which to move Tayshaun Prince. If Prince is healthy (he has been battling back and knee injuries all season), he might fit the bill for Memphis — and the Pistons could throw in a lottery pick from this year's draft to sweeten the deal.

A lot to consider here. First, I don't at all doubt the quality of Ford's sources and there's nothing here that strains credibility. That said, this tidbit deserves a careful reading: Ford says that he talked to a couple of general managers who have talked to the Grizzlies and that those executives give a rationale for why the Grizzlies would consider dealing Gay this season. Ford doesn't write that those general managers have had trade discussions regarding Gay. So, it's hard to tell how serious this is. My guess is it's just due diligence: There's reason to believe Gay could get an offer next summer in excess of the five-year, $50 million offer the Grizzlies made last summer. And if he does, the team will have a difficult decision to make. The Grizzlies should be game-planning all relevant scenarios, and I'm sure they are.

I tend to think Gay is undervalued by some Grizzlies fans and some of my media friends in town. At 23, he provides a rare combination of size, athleticism, and shot-making ability. Believing his dip in performance last season was an aberration rooted in environmental factors, I think his career has been a steady ascension, and with more to come.

That said, if the Grizzlies doubt their ability to retain all of the "core four" beyond their current contracts, then some prioritization is required: Pretty much everyone would agree that O.J. Mayo makes the cut. Next on my list, despite the presence of the Presence, Hasheem Thabeet (more on him next), would be Marc Gasol, because 23-year-old true centers with his size, skill, smarts, toughness, locker-room value, and versatile skills are extremely rare. So then the question would become Gay or Zach Randolph?

Right now, the answer is Randolph, but going forward? Randolph's age and track record suggest Gay is the better bet, but I think it's a closer call than that: Randolph is 28, but his game is not predicated on athleticism, so I think it's a decent bet that he could play at something close to his current level for five more seasons. And since I think his turnaround this season is rooted in maturity and comfort rather than something artificial like a contract push, I'm no longer as worried about him reverting to his previous on- or off-court form. Also in Randolph's favor is the position he plays. Minus a superduperstar, the best path to success is probably to pair an all-star-caliber ballhandler/shooter (Mayo) with a good inside game (Gasol/Randolph). Gay, as a natural tweener, is less essential to this dynamic.

But still, the idea of letting Mayo, Gasol, and Gay grow and peak together is too tantalizing. On the tough question of Gay vs. Randolph going forward, I'd probably choose Gay.

With that in mind, my preference would be to keep Gay heading into this summer and see how things play out. And ultimately, I'd probably match a deal even as high as five-year, $60 million (hard to fathom him getting an offer in excess of that), though I'd squirm a little. One factor is that even at that level, I think Gay remains a highly movable asset. Zach Randolph has been traded twice in the past two seasons for expiring contracts. Gay's salary is unlikely to get as high as Randolph's and his trade value is unlikely to get as low. By the time O.J. Mayo is in line for his big raise, any contract-related restriction on trading Gay will have lapsed and if the team deems Gay's contract a hindrance at that time, he can likely be moved for expiring/lower contracts and draft picks. I say keep this core — so surprisingly close to a real playoff run — together as long as you can.

And yet, if the Grizzlies conclude that Gay will be getting one of those $60 million offers and don't want to match it, moving him now is certainly not a crazy notion. But it would take an offer along the lines of what Ford proposes from Detroit: A quality starter with value beyond this season (Prince, if healthy, and that's a big if, would theoretically fit the bill) plus a decent young asset (some kind of lightly protected pick) would be required. (Although, as far as Detroit goes, I wasn't able to find a deal that works under the cap and really makes sense; Gay and Steven Hunter for Prince and a pick doesn't work and the Grizzlies don’t have much in the way of salary fodder to use in a deal with so much cap space tied to Marko Jaric, Jerry Stackhouse, and Allen Iverson.)

HASHEEM THABEET:

Here's what Ford wrote about Thabeet:

Gay isn't the only player the Grizzlies would move for the right price. Thabeet is off to a slow start in his rookie season in Memphis and doesn't fit into the team's current plans. Still, he was the No. 2 pick in the draft, and he has value in the league.

If a team is willing to give up a veteran defensive presence, I think he could be had.

Unlike the Gay blurb, this one isn't sourced at all, but let's talk about it anyway. I was clear in my opposition to the Thabeet pick before the draft and one of the primary reasons was the presence of Marc Gasol, whom I was very high on coming off his rookie season. Thabeet was clearly a reach at #2. Reaching for size is always a big risk. When you have a quality young center in place, it's a risk that doesn't make much sense. My fear was that the team didn't realize what it had with Gasol and that drafting Thabeet would make Gasol's departure inevitable.

Well, I don't know if the team realized what it had with Gasol then, but I think it does now. If moving Thabeet helps ensure that Gasol is re-signed, then I don't object.

It seems unlikely that a team would trade its #2 overall pick halfway into his rookie season, and thus acknowledge a pretty big draft-day error, especially since return value is likely to be less than it may have been on draft day. But there is precedent in what the team did with Drew Gooden. The Grizzlies took Gooden with the #4 pick but realized pretty early that he wasn't likely to become what they had thought and that he wasn't a good fit on their team. So they cut bait early, shipping him to Orlando for Mike Miller. If the Grizzlies had simply traded the #4 pick for Miller, it would not have been well received. But they didn't trade the #4 for him, they traded Gooden. The mistake was the pick, not the trade. Miller ended up being a better player than Gooden and a better fit.

Could the same thing happen with Thabeet? Sure. It would be somewhat embarrassing, but if the Grizzlies are committed to Marc Gasol as their center (as they should be), then what's the end game? Thabeet will never be a starter in Memphis, which makes his long-range development less important to the team — why subsidize the development of a project big man who will never be your starting center? Meanwhile, with the team in a playoff race, Thabeet represents a significant chunk of highly tradable payroll space not helping the team right now. If the Grizzlies could swap him now for a quality player that has both present and future value, then it should be considered.

RONNIE BREWER:

Commercial Appeal Grizzlies beat writer Ron Tillery has reported that the team has discussed a deal with the Utah Jazz for Brewer, a versatile, athletic swingman who, like Rudy Gay, will be a restricted free agent this summer.

I identified the Jazz a couple of weeks ago as a potential trade partner for the Grizzlies, but focused on shooting specialist Kyle Korver, whose expiring $5 million contract makes him the easiest player for the Jazz to move to reduce their luxury tax burden and who is also a good fit for the Grizzlies.

I didn't mention Brewer, because I didn't expect the Jazz to be willing to move him in a minor deal, and yet the Commercial Appeal suggests the possibility of acquiring Brewer for one (or two?) late first-round picks. If so, I'm all for it.

In terms of his fit this season, Brewer's ability to positively impact both ends of the court and play all across the perimeter would make him a significant player for the Grizzlies in a sixth man role.

This summer, Brewer could be retained for a presumably reasonable extension or possibly on the one-year qualifying offer. The prospect of getting Brewer — absolutely big enough to play the three — has been seen as a hedge against the possibility of losing Rudy Gay in the off-season, and I think that's legitimate. But couldn't it also be seen as a hedge against Mike Conley's future?

Lionel Hollins has been reluctant to give O.J. Mayo any minutes at the point and given the current roster make-up, that's probably understandable. But this season, Mayo's play has pushed back against most of the skepticism about his ability to play on the ball: His assists are up. His turnovers are down. His defense is improving. I think Mayo's a combo guard, and adding Brewer would allow the Grizzlies to use him that way, maximizing his minutes at whatever guard spot most helps the team on a given night. If the Grizzlies did add Brewer, it would be crazy not to get a look at what a Mayo-Brewer-Gay-Randolph-Gasol lineup would look like.

Another factor with Brewer is his regional ties — a native Arkansan who played college ball at the University of Arkansas. This is never a good reason to acquire a player. But if a guy can help you on the court, it's a bonus. And might be a positive factor in contract negotiations if the player is interested in staying close to home.

On the other hand, the Salt Lake Tribune is shooting down the Brewer report, so who knows.

DORRELL WRIGHT:

This one I believe emanates from the CA as well. It makes sense — Miami is trying to get under the luxury tax and could cut $2 million with a Wright for Marcus Williams deal. As a 6'8" swingman with a shaky jumpshot, I'm not convinced Wright is much — if any — better than Sam Young or DeMarre Carroll, but he's more experienced and thus likely to be more consistent. He'd help the Grizzlies, if only in a minor way. If a better, more significant deal can't be made, then Wright is an okay back-up plan.

VON WAFER:

The Grizzlies were heavily rumored to be signing free agent Wafer a few weeks ago, but the deal fell apart at the last minute when he wasn't able to pass a physical. But now it turns out that the team is monitoring Wafer's rehab and might be willing to revisit signing him. If Wafer gets healthy enough to play, he would fill a couple of key needs — soaking up bench minutes and knocking down outside shots — with costing the team any kind of asset.

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