Friday, December 23, 2011

Meet the New Griz: Dante Cunningham

Posted By on Fri, Dec 23, 2011 at 11:32 AM

The Charlotte Observer is reporting that the Charlotte Bobcats will not match the Grizzlies' three-year, $6.15 million offer sheet to restricted free-agent forward Dante Cunningham, making Cunningham now the 13th player on this season's Grizzlies roster.

When the lockout ended and the abbreviated offseason began, the Grizzlies were strictly looking true big men — who could play power forward and center — in free agency. But losing Darrell Arthur to a season-ending torn Achilles on the eve of the opener changed — really, expanded — the team's needs, opening the door for Cunningham, a 6'8”, 230 pound combo forward who can play behind both Rudy Gay and Zach Randolph.

The Grizzlies will be betting on the come with Cunningham, a 24-year old out of Villanova entering his third NBA season. Cunningham averaged about 11 minutes a game as a deep reserve for the Portland Trailblazers during his rookie season and then moved up to a full rotation player — about 20 minutes a game — last season, first for the Blazers and then for the Bobcats after being shipped east in the Gerald Wallace trade.

Cunningham's skill set is roughly similar to the departed Arthur — he's a decent mid-range jump shoot who is athletic enough to defend the pick-and-roll and score in transition. Cunningham is a little smaller than Arthur and less dynamic around the basket on both ends. He can't rotate over and play small-ball center the way Arthur did, but can slide over and give the Grizzlies a bigger option behind Rudy Gay at small forward, an option Lionel Hollins has longed for on this roster.

Cunningham finished strongly for the Bobcats last season, averaging 13 points and 6 rebounds on 49% shooting while playing 33 minutes a game in April and can help the Grizzlies by soaking up minutes at multiple positions. I think Cunningham could be a good fit with the team's active, aggressive defensive style, but he's not creative offensively and probably needs to extend his shooting range out to the three-point line to become a plus on that end. If Cunningham can become a three-point threat, this desperation signing could become a bargain for the Grizzlies.

As is, the Cunningham signing put the Grizzlies roster at the minimum 13 and leaves them — by my rough count, about $1.5 million below a luxury tax line the team seems dedicated to avoiding. And they still don't have a single player on the roster who can relieve Marc Gasol at center.

In related news, the Grizzlies rescinded their qualifying offer to free agent center Hamed Haddadi, who is still trying to obtain a work visa and entry to the U.S. The Grizzlies have left the door open to still signing Haddadi at a lower salary figure than the qualifying offer (which was $2 million).

A possible end-game at this point would be to sign Haddadi to close to the league minimum and sign a a free agent big man to a non-guaranteed contract — likely current camp invite Josh Davis, but maybe someone else, like intriguing rookie center Greg Smith, recently cut by the Houston Rockets — to take the team to a full 15-man roster and give the team a couple of options behind Gasol.

I don't think the Grizzlies can go through the season with that kind of frontcourt rotation and truly expect to compete for a high playoff seed, but this would bide the team some time while looking for a deal that would bring in a higher-caliber back-up PF/C in exchange for some of the team's perimeter depth.

I think a trade of some sort — whether in the coming days or later in the season — is inevitable. But what makes this tricky is that, unless owner Michael Heisley changes his mind about being willing to cross the tax line this season, any deal for a frontcourt upgrade will also probably have to be one that shaves overall team salary.

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