With free-agency negotiations with players starting Monday (teams have been talking with agents for a few days) — and signings likely to commence Friday — the Grizzlies can resume putting together next season's roster. Barring trades — which could emerge, but have not been even hinted at at this point — let's walk through how the roster for this season could be built, starting with the current players under guaranteed contracts (using best estimates on salaries based on media sources and other info):
Zach Randolph $15,200,000
Rudy Gay $15,032,144
Mike Conley $6,611,571
O.J. Mayo $5,632,637
Tony Allen $3,150,000
Xavier Henry $2,171,640
Darrell Arthur $2,027,119
Sam Young $1,184,750
Greivis Vasquez $1,113,600
Total: $52,123,461 for 9 players
This is the foundation of the Grizzlies roster. As a matter of bookkeeping, note that while that salary figure is below the expected salary cap of $58 million, qualifying offers for Marc Gasol ($4.5 million) and Hamed Haddadi ($2 million) push the team over the cap even without factoring in cap holds on other players. The only way the Grizzlies would get under the cap is to renounce — or lose — Gasol. The former is out of the question and the latter is highly unlikely, so, effectively, the Grizzlies will be operating as a team over the cap but under the luxury tax line (expected to be around $70 million), giving them a full mid-level exception to potentially use for outside free agents (a maximum four-year deal starting at a maximum $5 million). The team will be adding 4-6 players to the list above while likely trying to stay below the tax line. (I'm of the opinion that the team should be open to going above the tax line this season and will make that case in a coming post, but I don't believe Michael Heisley is willing to do that, so for now I'm operating under the notion of a $70 million ceiling.)
Before we get to the Grizzlies' top team-building priority, let's make a relatively easy addition to the list above. Second-round picks are not guaranteed roster spots, but based on his pedigree and how well he played against NBA competition throughout the long, lost summer, it's hard to imagine rookie Josh Selby not making the roster. My guess is that Selby gets a deal similar to what the team gave Sam Young as a second-rounder — a multi-year deal at slightly above the rookie minimum. We'll put a ballpark figure next to Selby's name:
Josh Selby $700,000
Total: $52,823,461 for 10 players
Signing Marc Gasol
At this point, with 10 players under contract and roughly $17 million below the luxury tax threshold, everything the Grizzlies do will depend on not only keeping Marc Gasol but on how much it will take to do so. What is the range of possible on a new Gasol contract? And what is he ideally worth? I explored that question in some detail here, looking at five different possible contracts for Gasol. But based on further reporting this weekend, I'm going to narrow that starting-salary range — from the $9/$14.5 split I speculated about last week to $11/$14, though I suspect the final number will be closer to $14 million than $11 million.
Based on that range, we're looking at this kind of team-salary range:
Low end: $63,823,461 for 11 players
High end: $66,823,461 for 11 players
Assuming the $70 million tax line, that means a range of $3-$6 million under the tax without factoring Hamed Haddadi's $2 million qualifying offer, which could still be rescinded like the team did with Hakim Warrick's QO a couple of years ago.
Some more notes on the Gasol signing: There's been some media speculation about the Indiana Pacers preparing a major offer to Gasol and more reports (via Marc Stein) that outside teams are pessimistic about being able to get Gasol, that Gasol's return to the Grizzlies is being seen as a "formality". My sense is that the Grizzlies aren't that worried about Gasol getting an offer sheet from an outside team right now. The worst-case scenario of an outside team like the Pacers offering Gasol a max offer is that the first-year salary would be higher than the Grizzlies prefer, but the the total contract — which would be restricted to four years and 4.5% raises — wouldn't dissuade the Grizzlies from matching. Gasol's real leverage right now doesn't come from the prospect of a current team with cap space — Pacers, Kings, Nets, etc. — giving him an offer sheet but instead from the threat of unrestricted free agency next summer, when more attractive teams (read: Knicks) could have lots of room. If Gasol — or, more likely, his agent — doesn't feel like he's getting an acceptable offer from the Grizzlies he could choose — or at least threaten — to play next season on the one-year qualifying offer and go into 2012-2013 an unrestricted free agent. I'd be shocked if it came to that, but beyond whatever offer sheet Gasol might get in the next couple of weeks, the threat of that is the leverage that will ensure a properly lucrative deal from the Grizzlies.
The Battier Dilemma
As the above illustrates, there's a good chance the Grizzlies could find themselves with as little as $3 million in room under the luxury tax with only three big men on the roster, and the hope would be to carry five bigs. Meanwhile, even setting aside unrestricted free agent Shane Battier, the team has four players who can play small forward — Rudy Gay, Tony Allen, Sam Young, and Xavier Henry — with returning starter Gay likely to log more than 35 minutes a night at the spot.
So it should be clear to anyone that the roster make-up and cap math doesn't add up for retaining Battier. The longtime fan favorite and elite role player reportedly still has the Grizzlies on his free-agent short list (along with the Heat, Pacers, and Raptors — the last two of which don't make much sense to me), but from what I can see the only way the Grizzlies could realistically retain Battier would be if Michael Heisley decided he had to have him and authorized the front office to exceed the tax threshold to make that happen. Even then, it would presumably take a multi-year deal which would in turn put the Grizzlies at an even more disadvantageous position next summer when facing the free agencies of O.J. Mayo, Darrell Arthur, and Sam Young. Beyond everything else, re-signing Battier now could conceivably cost the team Arthur going forward. And while I know the sentimentalists among the team's fan base would be fine with that exchange, the rationalists will recognize it as a bad swap.
Chances are, Battier is a luxury this team can't really afford.
Hamed Haddadi, Leon Powe, and the Need for Frontcourt Depth
The team has publicly identified three areas they'd like to address beyond the retention of Gasol: Frontcourt depth, shooting, and point guard depth. They have the roster spots to address all these issues, but probably not the space under the tax. In terms of priority, bolstering the frontcourt is going to take precedence, with the team hoping to both retain Haddadi and add another 4/5 to preferably move ahead of him in the pecking order. Facing a compressed season that will, at times, feature back-to-back-to-back sets, keeping Gasol and Zach Randolph fresh and healthy will be extremely important.
Haddadi's qualifying offer is $2 million but you might see the team instead sign him to a multi-year deal with a lower starting salary or even rescind the offer and not sign him at all if it needed that money for another signing. As for Powe, he's an unrestricted free agent. The team would prefer to replace him with a bigger and presumably better player, but I wouldn't rule out Powe filling that role instead if the Grizzlies work through a couple of higher tiers of free-agent targets without making a deal.
So, expect the Grizzlies to add two frontcourt players behind Gasol, Randolph, and Arthur, with Haddadi likely being one of the two.
Who might the Grizzlies target as a power forward/center in free agency? Here's my best guess at what the team's free-agent wish list might look like, with 10 potential options ranked in rough order of preference, last year's salary and final team in parenthesis:
1. Josh McRoberts ($900K, Pacers): The Grizzlies have a demonstrated interest in McRoberts as they almost traded for him last season. (Remember the unintentionally aborted O.J. Mayo trade?) And the Pacers, who have Tyler Hansbrough on a guaranteed contract and are thought to be a primary suitor for free agent David West, have a demonstrated willingness to part ways with him. (See: same deal.) McRoberts is a mediocre defender and a little undersized to play against true centers, but is a good athlete with advanced ball skills and shooting range. Due for a raise, but it's unclear how much. Not the best fit for the Grizzlies next season, but for the right salary could be an excellent multiyear signing — a good fourth big for this season with the ability to move up in the pecking order if the team loses Arthur next summer.
2. Jeff Foster ($6.7, Pacers): Another Pacer and potentially expendable based on the team's incumbents (Hansbrough and Roy Hibbert) and free agency targets. A very different player from McRoberts — an excellent defender/rebounder with little offensive skill. Due for a pay cut, but probably not enough of one; I'd be surprised if he ends up being in the Grizzlies' price range.
3. Shelden Williams ($900K, Knicks): Terrible as a #5 overall pick, pretty solid as the fourth or fifth big on your depth chart. Solid rebounder and post defender with little offensive ability. His incumbent team, the Knicks, are going to need to fill out their roster cheap and are likely to offer him a deal. It might take a multi-year deal to get him and, at the right price (close to minimum), it might be worth it.
4. Jason Smith ($2.2): Can play both frontcourt spots and stretch the floor with his outside shooting. Good athlete who can get out in transition and moves well defensively. Not much post-game on either end, but potentially a very useful 4th/5th big. I like him in that role for what he made last year or (preferably) less, but given that the Hornets have so many roster spots to fill, I suspect it might take a raise to get him and I'm not sure he's worth that.
5. Troy Murphy: ($216K, Celtics): Coming off a lost season, but still only 31, so there's a good chance he can regain some of his old form. That would be good rebounding and floor-stretching shooting range mitigated by poor defense and no post-game. Probably the first name on the list you can definitely get on a one-year deal, don't be surprised to see Murphy's name pop up.
6. Brandon Wright ($3.4, Nets): Former lottery pick has struggled with injuries and struggles to defend the paint with his slender frame, but is an athletic finisher with some offensive skills. Still only 24. Worth a flier and due for a pay cut, but still may not be obtainable at the right price.
7. Leon Powe ($206K, Grizzlies): The incumbent fifth big. Ideally I think the grizzlies would like someone bigger than the 6'8” Powe for this spot, but most teams would be in the market for a functional cheap big and there are only so many to go around. Powe is injury- and foul-prone but has scoring ability in the paint and might be better with more recovery time from January's knee surgery, especially since he's still only 27.
8. Joel Przybilla ($7.7, Bobcats): I've long been a fan. If he can get and stay heathy, he's a massive presence inside who can board and block and alter shots. He will occasionally score on a putback. Knee injuries have limited him to only 66 games over the past two seasons and he will be lucky to make half of last season's salary on a short-term deal. Strictly a one-position guy rather than the 4/5 the team has referenced, but one of the more intriguing yet realistic names out there to me if he checks out physically. I could see the Grizzlies making him an offer if they rescinded Haddadi's qualifying sheet, but probably not otherwise.
9. Etan Thomas ($900K, Hawks): Injury-prone but physical third center if healthy and a little more versatile than the behemoths. Would also class up the joint.
10. Kurt Thomas ($1.8, Bulls): Pure church-league. But he's savvy, can hit a mid-range shot, and deliver a foul. Strictly one-year-contract territory, but if the Bulls are willing to give him one more vet's minimum it's hard to see him leaving.
Once the Grizzlies finalize the fourth and fifth spots on their frontcourt depth chart, they'll likely have 13 players under contract and be bumping up against the tax line — and with incentives in place for Randolph and Conley, they need to leave a little room.
If the team adds a 14th player — I wouldn't expect them to go to a full 15 to start the season — I think it will more likely be to address the point guard depth than to replace Battier on the wings. I get the sense that I'm more comfortable with Greivis Vasquez as the primary back-up point guard than the team is right now, and Josh Selby is an unproven 19-year-old combo guard. Lionel Hollins demonstrated a desire for an alternative to Vasquez late last season, especially against quicker, smaller opposing point guards. I don't think the answer here will be incumbent Ish Smith, whose contract is non-guaranteed. I do expect it to be a minimum-salary signing, whether a vet journeyman (somebody like a Mike Wilks or Ronnie Price) or an undrafted rookie/D Leaguer/overseas guy (somebody like a Jerome Randle).