Tuesday afternoon, the Grizzlies completed a trade that had been rumored for at least a couple of weeks, sending forward Dante Cunningham to the Minnesota Timberwolves for guard Wayne Ellington.
As an exchange of two back-end-of-the-rotation players on small and nearly identical contracts, this is not a big deal, but, though most in Griz World seem to like it, I do think it's a bad one. (For the Grizzlies, I mean, as a casual Timberwolves fan I love it for them.)
While not as egregious as last season's ostensibly minor decision to jettison Greivis Vasquez and intrust Jeremy Pargo with the back-up point guard spot, I do consider this to be another self-inflicted wound for the Grizzlies, and here's why:
For starters, Dante Cunningham is simply a better basketball player than Wayne Ellington, and, in most cases, the team getting the better player wins the trade in the NBA.
In three NBA seasons, Ellington has yet to register a double-digit PER (15 is league-average). He's proven to be a viable though not prolific three-point shooter (career 38% on two attempts per game, though he slumped to 32% last season), but doesn't really do anything else: At 6'4”, Ellington doesn't have playmaking skills, isn't much of a defender, doesn't get to the rim, and is a poor finisher when he does. Basically, Ellington has to shoot in the high 30s from long-range to be worth playing at all. If he were a free agent this summer rather than still on his rookie contract, he'd be hunting around for minimum-type deal, in line behind still-unsigned free agents such as Brandon Rush, Jodie Meeks, Leandro Barbosa, and Willie Green.
Cunningham, by contrast, has been in double digits in PER in all three of his seasons, including a career-high 14.9 last season, and since Cunningham is a much better defensive player — which PER doesn't account for nearly as much — the difference between the two is bigger than PER indicates. Cunningham is limited on the offensive end and something of a tweener, which limits him to being a role player and which can make him match-up dependent (which we saw in this spring's series with the Clippers, who played big at the four at all times). But, he's a very good individual defender against stretch fours and bigger threes — he didn't get to show the latter as much last season with the Grizzlies' injuries at power forward — and is even better as a team defender. (I thought, last season, Cunningham was the best transition defender the team had employed since the days of Shane Battier and Bo Outlaw.)
Offensively, Cunningham can't really create, but he's a good finisher (his 79% conversion rate at the rim last season was the best in the NBA, though a modest outlier) and a better shooter than he showed with the Grizzlies. Those who don't consider Cunningham a weapon from the perimeter apparently don't think he existed before he donned Beale Street Blue. While he's never been a three-point shooter, Cunningham was a much better mid-range shooter in his first two seasons than he was last season with the Grizzlies. Last season, per HoopData.com, Cunningham shot only 32% on 118 attempts from 16-23 feet. But over his two previous seasons, Cunningham shot 46% on 375 attempts from the same range. I'll trust the bigger sample size.
The case for the trade, from the Grizzlies' perspective, is fit: That re-signing both Darrell Arthur and Marreese Speights made Cunningham superfluous, while the Grizzlies desperately need three-point shooting. And there's some truth to both assertions. But I still think that assessment misses an awful lot.
The Grizzlies need three-point shooting, but they need it in the lineup, not on the bench. Unless he improves significantly, Ellington is, at best, the fourth-best scoring guard option on the roster after Tony Allen, Quincy Pondexter (whose emerging corner-three ability shouldn't be discounted), and Jerryd Bayless. Sure, Bayless will play primarily behind Mike Conley at the point and Pondexter, with Cunningham gone, may play primarily behind Rudy Gay at the three, but both players are likely to command more than the 12-16 minutes a game those assignments would provide. Even with improved depth, I don't see the Grizzlies deploying a rigid, Hubie Brown-like 10-man rotation, and for most players — though not for Ellington — positionality is somewhat fluid.
The Grizzlies have been a good team without being a good three-point shooting team for most of the past three seasons. And though they could certainly use more three-point shooting, Ellington's modest abilities in that area seem unlikely warrant playing him over any of those three superior players.
But even calling Ellington the fourth-best two guard on the current roster might be generous. There's an opportunity cost to this acquisition in the form off adding another barrier to useful developmental minutes for Josh Selby and Tony Wroten Jr., both much higher-upside players and both coming off very promising summer-league performances.
The Grizzlies could have used more high-level players in the their backcourt, but they didn't really need more depth.
By contrast, the team's frontcourt was well-stocked with high-level players but didn't have as much depth. At present, the top two players at power forward — Zach Randolph and Darrell Arthur — are both coming off serious injuries, and Arthur hasn't played at all since his season-ending Achilles injury last fall. If the Grizzlies suffer an injury to any of their four current power forward/center options, they'll be scrambling again. And though another minor signing — Hamed Haddadi perhaps? — might lessen this concern, it's still an issue.
But beyond depth at the four, losing Cunningham also hurts the team in terms of both lineup and roster flexibility. Now, the only real back-up at small forward behind Rudy Gay is the 6'6” Pondexter. The Grizzlies have lost not only depth at this position, but the ability to better match up with bigger players on the wing.
As far as roster flexibility, Ellington has a qualifying offer at more than $3 million next season that the Grizzlies seem very unlikely to extend unless his play improves considerably, whereas Cunningham has a team option at $2.1 million next season that will be a good contract, so the team is essentially losing a cost-effective asset heading into the 2013-2014 season.
To sum up, I'm skeptical that Ellington's back-of-the-rotation role on this team will be more substantial or productive than Cunningham's would have been, and meanwhile the move is both potentially blocking Selby's development and limiting the team's frontcourt depth and defensively flexibility. Maybe Ellington shoots 43% from three next year and his shooting is so valuable that he forces his way into a major and useful role. That would be great, but I'm not counting on it.
One last thing: Why now? Presumably the team could have dealt Dante Cunningham for a replacement-level scoring guard pretty much any time. Why not wait?: See if Selby's hot summer carries over. Make sure Arthur's return from injury is successful. Reassess your roster a month or two into the season when you have a better handle on what you really have and what you really need. As is, I think this deal is an over-reaction to the constantly acknowledged desire for more outside shooting.