Monday, July 29, 2013

Deflections: Mike Miller, Josh Akognon, Point Guard Endgame

Posted By on Mon, Jul 29, 2013 at 9:41 AM

Mike Miller, back in the day.
I always joke about the Grizzlies making moves when I'm out of town, but this is ridiculous. After a quiet opening month of free agency that provoked murmuring discomfort from considerable swaths of the fan base, the Grizzlies completed three meaningful transactions — trading for the rights to Nick Calathes, signing Mike Miller, and claiming Josh Akognon on waivers — with another potentially on tap while I was on a week-and-a-half-long road trip.

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here is that even after the Miller signing, the Grizzlies retain enough space under the tax line (even considering unpublished contract incentives) to sign another free agent at an above-minimum rate.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.

In a Western Conference race that looks tight among the top six teams, this is one back-of-the-rotation signing that could have a pretty meaningful impact.

A few other quick notes on Miller:

*Though he played primarily at scoring guard in his previous Grizzlies stint, look for Miller to play primarily at small forward this time around. He can't handle most defensive assignments at the two these days.

*Miller played only 59 games last season and averaged about 15 minutes a game, the latter by far a career low. The Grizzlies would take that if it means that Miller is healthy and ready for the playoffs. Countering this decline: Miller claims to be as healthy as he's been in years now (he got a player option in year two of this deal because he hopes to opt out and get one more “real” contract) and did average 27 minutes a game in the final month of the regular season.

*Though the Thunder presented a scare, I always thought Miller was likely to end up here. From the moment he was amnestied, it seemed like the perfect fit. Given his history here and the role he could play on a contending Grizzlies team, I would have been a little surprised to see Miller go elsewhere in the West for the same money. I mean, he does want to be able to show his face at barbecue fest.

*That said, count this as the first victory for Dave Joerger, who maintained a relationship with his fellow upper-Midwesterner from when their paths crossed in Joerger's first season with the team and Miller's last. Joerger went to South Dakota and got the final word in Miller's free agent courtship. He brought him home.

*The team doesn't seem to have made an official announcement, but I'm hearing a Miller press conference is likely for Tuesday.

2. Josh Akognon: The Grizzlies claimed this summer league star on waivers from Dallas after the Mavs were forced to waive him to free up cap space for other signings. The Grizzlies don't see Akognon as an answer to their point guard question as much as a value play that could add more shooting to the back end of the roster.

I've never seen Akognon play, but the book on him is that he's a powerfully built small guard (5'11”) with deep range who could supply “instant offense” shooting at the end of the bench in the mold of someone like Eddie House. Now 27, Akognon played at Cal-State Fullerton and has bounced around since, including a couple of high-scoring stints in China. He turned heads with the Mavs' summer squad and the Grizzlies will have him in camp on a non-guaranteed contract.

Akognon's fate is partly dependent on what happens with other guard options the team is sorting through (more on this next), but is considered a decent bet to make the regular-season roster. Certainly, the odds are a little better for Akognon than for the team's other non-guaranteed players, Donte Greene and Willie Reed.

3. Mo Williams and Other Point Guard Pursuits: As one of 10 teams (yes, that many!) with legitimate title aspirations, the Grizzlies seem committed to maximizing this season's roster while staying under the tax line. With Miller adding shooting and wing size, point guard depth now becomes the team's primary need. And it's now clear that the team will not go into the season with only Tony Wroten and Jerryd Bayless as options behind Mike Conley.

The Grizzlies prefer Bayless at the two (though he seems certain to play some at the one as long as he's on the roster) and Wroten's situation has grown very tenuous. Already fighting against being the final draft pick of a previous regime, Wroten did himself no favors with his mostly abysmal play in Las Vegas. He will now have multiple players slotted above him in the back-up point guard pecking order and will have to reverse course swiftly in training camp and preseason to get back into the rotation mix. If Wroten's play in Vegas hadn't damaged his potential trade value, I'd suggest he gets dealt before the season. And that may still happen.

If the team is committed to adding another point guard to the roster and that doesn't include Akognon, who will it be? Barring a surprise, there seem to be three contenders and Delonte West doesn't seem to be one of them.

There was some kind of internet eruption last week about the Grizzlies being involved with West, but as near as I can tell there's no real source for that. My own poking around suggests there's no fire behind that smoke.

More legitimate are reports connecting the Grizzlies to Mo Williams, who was a starter for the Utah Jazz last season and is one of the few remaining free agents of any prominence. Williams is both a more reliable shooter (career 39% from three) and somewhat more reliable ballhandler/initiator than Bayless and as such would be seen as an upgrade at back-up point guard. Slotting into a role as reserve point/bench shooter — as he was for the Clippers two years ago — would be a better fit for Williams' talents than his starting role with Utah last season, but a salary commensurate with that role is not what Williams or his agent were looking for this summer.

The Grizzlies could spend around $2 million on Williams and safely stay under the tax. Theoretically, the team could offer a bigger contract that would take them into tax territory, with the option of dipping back under the tax via a later trade. Are the Grizzlies willing to do that to acquire Williams? My guess is that's where the negotiation is at right now. Where the leverage is depends on Williams' ability to draw other offers beyond the $2 million range.

If the Grizzlies haven't been involved with West, there is one other remaining veteran point guard free agent they have been in contact with: Beno Udrih, a bigger option than Williams but a less reliable shooter. My understanding is that the contact between the Grizzlies and Udrih has been very minor at this point, but if the more substantial negotiations with Williams don't bear fruit, you might see something heat up with Udrih.

(An historical aside to all of this: Williams has some history with the Grizzlies. He was once considered a likely free agent target for the team until the drafting of Mike Conley sent the Grizzlies looking for frontcourt help — in the form of Darko Milicic — instead. At the time, Williams — a Mississippi native — had publicly stated his interest in coming to Memphis.)

The backup plan remains Calathes, with the team still having a couple of weeks before having to make a decision about helping Calathes out of his Russian contract and bringing him over. If the Grizzlies don't sign Williams or Udrih, bringing over Calathes — which is what he apparently wants — seems near-certain. Signing one of those vets probably drops the Calathes odds for next season below 50%, but doesn't take that option off the board completely. My own hunch, though, is that bringing Calathes over along with a vet would require moving Wroten. Based on his European performance, the Grizzlies do think Calathes would have a decent chance to step into the primary back-up point guard role next season if it comes to that. But there's uncertainty. The previous front office held the same belief about Jeremy Pargo not long ago.

Is this potentially too much depth? If the Grizzlies added Williams, then the prospective rotation gets crowded if everyone's healthy. But that's the rub. Williams hasn't played 60 games since 09-10 and has topped 70 only twice in his career. Mike Miller hasn't played 60 games since 08-09. In addition to guarding against the unknown, injury-wise, having this degree of depth would also guard against the expected. The Grizzlies will be happy to go more than 10-deep with proven options and let attrition sort it all out.

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