With a “Welcome Back Mike” message on the marquee above the dais, the Grizzlies celebrated the return of a franchise favorite today at the lobby of FedExForum.
Flanked by head coach Dave Joerger and team CEO Jason Levien at a spirited and well-attended public press conference, the newly signed Mike Miller praised his new team with a long string of defensible superlatives: Joerger as “an unbelievable hire.” Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol as “the best big-man combo in the league.” Conley as “the most underrated player in the league.” Add in a “lockdown defender” in Tony Allen and the “championship pedigree” of Tayshaun Prince, and Miller made clear he sees this Grizzlies team as one that can compete to get where his most recent employer has been for the past three seasons: In the NBA Finals.
Levien indicated that the team had been game-planning a potential Miller amnesty since before the past season ended. Miller revealed that Levien was one of his first phone calls when the amnesty came down. And the tone of the day underscored how close a relationship Miller and Joerger have.
“Isn't this great?,” a Grizzlies employee said afterward, surveying the scene. “Great that it's not happening in Oklahoma City today,” another onlooker answered. And that's part of it.
The Miller introduction felt like the peak of the late-summer momentum that seems to have firmly re-entrenched the Grizzlies as a legitimate Western Conference contender. And Joerger went into a bit of detail about how Miller can factor on the floor, not only in spacing the court for the team's power players but also using his versatility to give the team more playmaking and more small lineup options.
I wrote about the Calathes deal from the road, here. Now back in town, let's work our way through the team's other recent and still outstanding business:
1. Mike Miller Signing: This was a coup for the Grizzlies in a number of ways. Let's count some of them:
A. The team addressed two of its three most pronounced needs: Adding a significant three-point shooter (career 42%) and also more size at the three (Miller is 6'8” and even at this stage of his career produced a significantly better rebound rate than Tayshaun Prince or Quincy Pondexter).
B. They filled both of these needs on the cheap. As an amnestied player, Miller was willing to sign for the minimum ($1.4 million for players with his league tenure). And, because of a league provision designed to remove the financial incentive to sign young players at the expense of veterans, the Grizzlies will only be on the hook for roughly $884,000 of that, with the league paying the rest. The upshot here is that even after the Miller signing, the Grizzlies retain enough space under the tax line (even considering unpublished contract incentives) to sign another free agent at an above-minimum rate.
C. They brought back one of the most popular players in franchise history, giving the team an injection of goodwill that can help soothe at least some of the sore feelings over the departure of Lionel Hollins.
D. Finally, they kept Miller away from a couple of conference rivals — Houston and particularly Oklahoma City — for whom he would have been a major factor.
Coming at you live from Narragansett, Rhode Island:Nick Calathes, currently with Lokomotiv Kuban of the Russian League. To obtain the rights to Calathes, the Grizzlies removed protections on a 2016 second-round pick already owed to Dallas.
Calathes had a terrific career at the University of Florida and was a highly regarded draft prospect (particularly by then ESPN.com analyist John Hollinger, as I mentioned here a few weeks ago), but ended up falling to the Mavericks in the second round after agreeing to a contract with a Greek team prior to the draft. After four successful years overseas, Calathes seems ready to jump over to the NBA, and when the Mavericks drafted Shane Larkin and then agreed to free-agent deals with veteran Jose Calderon and Israeli rookie Gal Mekel, it was clear Calathes' rights were obtainable.
There's some thought that this deal was made in reaction to the poor play of Tony Wroten Jr. in Las Vegas Summer League [more on that to come], but my sense is that this was considered a good value play by the Grizzlies and would have been pursued regardless. The two pressing questions: What are Calathes' NBA prospects and how likely is he to join the Grizzlies this season?
On the former, Calathes is roughly similar to former Grizzlies' point guard Greivis Vasquez: He's 6'5”/6'6” with advanced playmaking skills but is a spotty shooter with middling athleticism. The shooting — a solid three-point shooter at Florida, Calathes' percentages from both long-range and the free-throw line declined mysteriously over time — is a concern. But Calathes is coming off an MVP performance in the 2012-2013 EuroCup tournament and the Grizzlies think there's a good chance he can step over and be a quality back-up point guard.
That left only rising second-year point guard Tony Wroten, destined-for-a-return-to-Europe late-second-round rookie Janis Timma, non-guaranteed incumbents Donte Greene and Willie Reed, and a handful of non-roster hopefuls to see.
Across two losses featuring miserable shooting, here are a few takeaways:
Tony Wroten: Wroten's stat line across two games is u-g-l-y: 24 points on 5-23 shooting, with more turnovers (7) than assists (6). This is discouraging considering Wroten faired pretty well in his Summer League debut last year, but it's slightly less depressing than it seems.
It's very much an open question whether Wroten's enticing blend of size and skill suggests true NBA potential or merely “Strotential.” But, for me, two games in Vegas didn't really move the needle much on that uncertainty, for better or worse. We still know what we knew: Wroten is a big, athletic point guard who is aggressive and can get into the lane and to the line (25 free-throw attempts over two games, that's good), but has to get better from the line (56%, that's not) to take advantage of this attribute. He's a good passer, but is playing without shooters or finishers in Vegas so far. He can't shoot (0-7 from three) and needs to develop more consistency and modulate his tendency to go for the highlight play. Can he put his size and athleticism to the service of sound NBA defense?
Hopefully Wroten will settle down and show better as summer league progresses, but I'm especially interested to see him with the real team, where his passes will find better targets and having other viable scorers on the floor will hopefully make him more judicious in calling his own number. New coach Dave Joerger has talked about picking up the pace and trying to generate more lay-ups and free throws (including in this in-game interview from last night). That's Wroten's game. Whether he can translate it to the NBA level remains a mystery for the moment.
Summer League Rosters: Yesterday, the Grizzlies announced their full roster for the upcoming Las Vegas Summer League. The only significant unreported name is the newly re-signed Jon Leuer, who begins his quest for a more regular rotation spot here. Joining Leuer among the regular-roster participants are rising sophomore Tony Wroten Jr., rookies Jamaal Franklin and Janis Timma, and non-guaranteed forwards Donte Greene and Willie Reed.
Non-roster hopefuls are: Vander Blue, Laurence Bowers, Jack Cooley, Darington Hobson, Matt Howard, and Gerald Robinson.
I'll be surprised if any of the non-roster guys end up figuring in the Grizzlies' plans, but the three definite (Wroten, Franklin, Leuer) and three potential (Timma, Greene, Reed) roster players should make this a particularly interesting and worthwhile summer league.
Play opens this weekend with games at 7 p.m. (central) both Saturday (vs. Chicago) and Sunday (vs. Cleveland), both televised live on NBATV. Look for notes and observations from those first two games here on Monday.
Coaching Changes: Incumbent assistant Bob Thornton will lead the summer roster, with fellow incumbent assistant Lloyd Pierce also on the bench. It's unclear at this point who else will be joining Thornton and Pierce on new head coach Dave Joerger's regular-season staff. But take note of one new face on the summer-league coaching roster: Duane Ticknor, a minor-league veteran who was recently a head coach for the D League Dakota Wizards and someone who has a close relationship with Joerger. I was told a while back that Ticknor would likely be added to Joerger's staff and this looks like a step in that direction.
Yahoo's Marc Spears reports today that the Grizzlies are among the teams interested in Dorrell Wright — the highest-rated player on my own free-agent board who is still unsigned. No surprise there. It's also been reported that Matt Barnes — who hit a bushel of threes against the Grizzlies in his final NBA game last season — is now talking to teams other than the Clippers, and you can bet the Grizzlies are taking a look there. I still harbor some hope the Grizzlies will make a play for Kyle Korver, but that seems unlikely, both because doing so would likely put the team in the tax and there are suitors who can offer more than the full mid-level exception.
My own updated “small forward shooter” rankings based on what we now know:
1. Dorrell Wright
2. Matt Barnes
3. Carlos Delfino
4. Francisco Garcia
5. Omri Casspi (personal fave)
6. Luigi Datome (ranking theme song)
7. Austin Daye
8. Anthony Morrow
Marc Stein Interview: I guested and co-hosted on The Chris Vernon Show for a while today, with Verno and I interviewing ESPN.com's Marc Stein about the free agency landscape. You can hear that interview here.
On the one hand, the asking price for starting-caliber but non-All-Star wing players was coming in higher than the Grizzlies may have hoped to go for Allen. On the other, some potential Allen suitors — notably the Clippers and Pacers — seemed to be filling up roster spots or salary space needed to entice Allen.
In the end, the negotiation between Allen and the Grizzlies seems to have come down to years — a guaranteed fourth year for the 31-year-old guard with a sometimes balky knee. And Allen got his fully guaranteed fourth year in a four-year, $20 million dollar deal that is, nevertheless, still less on a per-year basis than any other wing player signing on Tuesday. This for the only player in the group that has made three straight all-defensive teams, the only player in the group who just started on a conference finalist, and, certainly, the only player in the group to have significant, tangible box-office and marketing value beyond his on-court merits.
According to a source with knowledge of the negotiations, Allen's contract is set up with escalating salaries. Based on 7.5% raises allotted in the league's collective bargaining agreement, and my own algebra, Allen's contract should look something like this year-by-year:
2013-2014: $4.5 million
2014-2015: $4.8 million
2015-2016: $5.2 million
2016-2017: $5.5 million
Daye's qualifying offer was $4.1 million, well above his market value, so not extending to him was a foregone conclusion. Leuer's qualifying offer was $1.1 million and his situation was more up in the air.
The Grizzlies lose matching rights to both Daye and Leuer in free agency but are not precluded from negotiating deals outside of the framework of each player's prior contract. With Leuer, there's a good chance the team may try to reach agreement on a multi-year deal with team options that would start a little below Leuer's qualifying offer for next season, helping the team navigate beneath the league's luxury tax line. As for Daye, the Grizzlies could still sign him to a lower salary if there's roster and payroll space left after the smoke clears on higher-priority free agent targets.
With free agency negotiation beginning today, team CEO Jason Levien and head coach Dave Joerger met with incumbent free agent Tony Allen this morning. Other teams with reported interest in Allen include the Clippers, Bucks, Pacers, and Knicks.
It's unclear at the moment which outside free agents the Grizzlies will target, but other outlets have reported interest in swingmen Chase Budinger and Kevin Martin and re-confirmed interest in center Greg Oden.