Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Making Sense of the Ronnie Brewer Decision

Posted By on Wed, Jun 30, 2010 at 11:31 PM

This morning, ESPN.com published a piece in which a group of eight "experts" offered predictions on where the top NBA free agents will land. On the subject of Rudy Gay, not a single ESPN prognosticator predicted he would remain with the Grizzlies. Four chose the Los Angeles Clippers as Gay's destination. Two tabbed the New Jersey Nets. And the New York Knicks and Minnesota Timberwolves got one vote each.

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It's been an article of faith — or perhaps just a reflexive assumption — from the national NBA media that Gay will be moving on, and thus anything the Grizzlies do is fashioned into evidence of this. Draft Xavier Henry? No, not because the team needs outside shooting off the bench but because the team needs a Rudy Gay replacement. Sell a late first-round pick for $3 million? Not mitigating the cost of keeping Gay but evidence that the team is too cheap to keep him.

Well, I thought months ago that the inevitable selling of a draft pick was a financial precursor to retaining Gay — a trade-off owner Michael Heisley considered necessary whether fans did or not. And I'm almost certain that the team's unexpected decision today to not extend a $3.7 million qualifying offer to free agent Ronnie Brewer — thus making him an unrestricted free agent and removing the team's matching rights — is directly connected to the team's intentions to retain Gay.

This morning, I would have pegged the odds of Gay being in a Grizzlies uniform next season at about 65 percent. Now, I'd bump that up to about 85 percent.

The Financial Rationale: The only reason you don't extend a qualifying offer to one of your own free agents and make them restricted is if you're worried about having to pay it. Unlike last season, when the team — really, just Heisley, over the objections of his basketball staff — simply didn't want to risk having to pay the roughly $3 million qualifying offer to Hakim Warrick, the decision on Brewer is somewhat more complicated.

Setting aside Gay and Brewer for the moment, the Grizzlies enter next season with roughly $49 million in salary commitments to 12 players — one of whom, Marko Jaric, is not on the roster but is still on the books. Assuming the team retains Gay at a starting salary in the $10-$13 million range — and they seem to be operating on that assumption — then the team's payroll would be in the $59-$62 million range with 12 roster players. If Brewer didn't get any free agent offers and merely accepted the $3.7 million qualifying offer, then that could push the payroll to something approaching $66 million. The league's luxury tax — a threshold this team will not cross, at least not under the current circumstances — has been estimated at $68 million, but could come in a little lower than that. So, if Gay's deal comes in at the high end and the luxury tax were to come in at the low end, then merely retaining Brewer on the seemingly cheapish qualifying offer could have the team bumping up against the luxury tax, making it difficult to add one more player to the roster and removing much roster flexibility to respond to in-season injuries.

The luxury tax concerns are paramount and so far under-recognized in regard to the Brewer decision, but even without that I suspect the Grizzlies — even if only at the owner's insistence — might have made this move as well, for the same reason they sold that draft pick: To attempt to meet two conflicting goals — retaining Rudy Gay while containing costs generally.

The Fit, or Lack Thereof: I was curious about what the endgame with Brewer was going to be. On one hand, he's suddenly not a great or necessary fit on the roster. On the other hand, the fact that the team gave away a future first round pick to acquire him suggested that they couldn't rationally let him walk. But apparently they decided otherwise despite relatively recent public declarations that he would return. (Not to mention several public appearances Brewer has made on the team's behalf since the end of the season.)

Brewer had proven to be a useful rotation player in Utah, but that was in one of the league's most distinctive systems and one especially attuned to Brewer's strengths (athleticism, movement off the ball) and weaknesses (shooting, ball-handling).

In Utah's motion offense, Brewer was able to get his points on cuts away from the ball. Memphis runs more isolation and pick-and-roll style offenses and even though Brewer played only 80 minutes for the Grizzlies last season — and very little of that in optimum condition — it was apparent that he was not an easy fit.

Not adept enough with the ball to create consistently and with too shaky a jumpshot to spot up off the ball, Brewer looked lost with the Grizzlies. Compounding these questions, the team added a couple of similarly sized perimeter players in the draft in Henry and Greivis Vasquez to go with returning rookies Sam Young and DeMarre Carroll. With Mayo and a presumably returning Gay slotted for 35+ minutes each on the perimeter, it was hard to see how all the pieces fit together. The addition of Henry in particular raised questions about Brewer's potential role: Henry plays the same two positions while providing the outside shooting the team desperately needed.

The Real Cost: For the reasons outlined above, I don't really mind losing Ronnie Brewer. What I do mind is the team having given up a future (lottery protected) first round pick for what has amounted to nothing. (Essentially, the team waited too long to acquire Brewer last season and then had the horrible misfortune of watching him suffer a significant injury in his first game.) And perhaps more importantly going forward, the team is now looking at a predicament similar to last season: Going into the year with a bench populated only by unproven young players.

As of right now, the Grizzlies bench consists of two rookies (Henry, Vasquez), three rookies coming off middling-at-best initial campaigns (Young, Carroll, Hasheem Thabeet), and two entirely unproven third-year players (Darrell Arthur, Hamed Haddadi). The Grizzlies can feel as good about the talent of this crew as they want, but until a player produces at a particular level in the NBA you can never be certain that they can do so. If the Grizzlies want to make a playoff push next season, they really need at least one proven bench contributor that they know they can rely on. Brewer could have given them that.

Could He Still Return?: Unlike last season, when happy talk about Hakim Warrick possibly still being signed even after the team pulled his qualifying offer was never realistic, I do think there could be a slim chance of Brewer still returning.

Since I think the primary — though not only — impetus for not extending a qualifying offer to Brewer is to guard against a potential squeeze of Rudy Gay extension and luxury tax threshold, then the opposite outcomes could lead back to Brewer. If the tax line comes in a little higher and/or Gay's deal is a little more reasonable, resulting in more breathing room than expected under the luxury tax, the Grizzlies might be more willing to spend a few million on a veteran bench player, be it Brewer or someone else. And despite losing a pick to acquire Brewer, "someone else" could make more sense, as, right now, the Grizzlies probably need more additional help on the frontline than on the wings.

It should be noted that although the Grizzlies did not extend a qualifying offer to Brewer, they also did not renounce his rights. Essentially, the Grizzlies have given up their matching rights for Brewer, but have retained their right to exceed the salary cap in re-signing him.

Relative Worth: Pretty much any NBA fan would acknowledge that Rudy Gay is better than Ronnie Brewer. But if the Grizzlies end up overpaying for Gay at the expense of not retaining Brewer at what would potentially be a third of the per-season cost, is that really a smart allocation of resources? I'm torn on that.

In the NBA, top talent wins out and, in general, I think it's probably more worthwhile to overpay good players than to pay market value for mediocre ones. The other issue in any Gay vs. Brewer comparison is that they don't quite play the same position. Brewer can play small forward, but shooting guard is his more natural position, and the Grizzlies already have Mayo, Young, and now Henry as options there.

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