Friday, January 10, 2014

What’s the Next Move? The Grizzlies have three big options.

Posted By on Fri, Jan 10, 2014 at 9:52 AM

Zach Randolph is one of three players the Grizzlies could move to clear up a looming logjam up front.
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Zach Randolph is one of three players the Grizzlies could move to clear up a looming logjam up front.

Over the weekend, the Grizzlies completed a deal with the Boston Celtics (which also somehow involved Oklahoma City) to swap Jerryd Bayless for Courtney Lee and a 2nd-round pick. The deal replaces Bayless, whose contract expires after this season and whose production appeared to have expired earlier this year before starting to improve slightly just before he was traded, with Lee, a proven commodity rotation player on a mid-level contract for the next two years after this one.

Given that the deal leaves Nick Calathes (whose struggles have been discussed in these pages recently) as the only point guard on the team not named Mike Conley, it would appear that even if—and it's certainly still a big if—Calathes is the solution at point guard, the Grizzlies will be signing a third ballhandler. No team can afford to only have two point guards on the roster, and given that we've now entered the Peak Calathes period, wherein he's the only backup, the front office should have some idea whether he's their man relatively soon.

There's also the issue of the imminent return of Marc Gasol from injury. Two weeks ago, we heard rumblings that he'd be back in two weeks. As it stands, he's been participating in light workouts but not in full-on practices yet, and the team still hasn't given any sort of concrete timetable for his return. My gut tells me the return is largely up to him and how he feels; if he feels ready to participate in practice then he will. If he feels ready to play, they'll probably have a hard time keeping him from doing so.

When Gasol does return, he's going to create quite a logjam in the Grizzlies' frontcourt (which, honestly, is the best bench problem the Grizzlies have had in years). In Gasol's absence, Kosta Koufos, Ed Davis, and Jon Leuer have all stepped up and increased their roles, and Davis and Leuer have seen marked improvement in the way they play basketball. Davis, especially, is improving at a very rapid rate, seemingly adding a new skill to his game every other night. When Gasol comes back and starts soaking up frontcourt minutes, there are going to be too many guys playing well and not enough minutes to play them all.

We also know that the Grizzlies would love to get out from under Tayshaun Prince's $7 million contract this year and next. Prince is clearly on the downslope of his game, playing through injuries, and even in the last three games when we started seeing "Tayshaun is finally healthy!" articles and he was able to score in the double digits for the first time this year, he's still not helping the offense as much as he needs to for the starting lineup not to be a smoldering black hole on offense for large stretches.

So what's next for the Grizzlies? What's the next move?

Look for the Grizzlies to try to package Tayshaun Prince with another player to move his contract.
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Look for the Grizzlies to try to package Tayshaun Prince with another player to move his contract.

I think the Grizzlies want to package a big—one of Koufos, Davis, or (gasp) maybe even Zach Randolph—with Prince, and see if they can't move them together. Barring that, I still think they are looking for deals that send Koufos, Davis, or possibly Randolph out in return for shooting and/or a proven top quality backup point guard.

I listed them in that order—Koufos, Davis, and then Randolph—because I think Koufos is the most likely to be dealt, and Randolph the least. Koufos is a very good player on a very good contract, the kind of asset that teams love to have even if they don't necessarily need them. If (another fairly large if) Davis and Leuer can step into the "backup center" gap left by Koufos' absence, I think he's the guy that they can most afford to move for another piece, though.

Whether the Grizzlies can afford to part ways with Koufos is all about whether they think Davis and Leuer can provide enough rebounding and low-post defense to make up for his absence. Right now I'm not sure whether they can, but I wouldn't be surprised if there's also an element of "offense for defense" at play. You lose rebounding if you lose Koufos, but you gain Leuer's ability to stretch the floor all the way beyond the 3-point line, and you gain Davis' freak athleticism, his efficiency as the roll man in pick and roll sets, and his roaming defense.

Davis is a restricted free agent this summer—and the way he's been playing, if Zach Randolph picks up his $17 million player option, the Grizzlies may not be able to re-sign him. His price may be pushed beyond what Memphis can afford, given the way the league always tends to overpay for good young big men. If Randolph picks up the option and the Grizzlies can't keep Davis, they essentially have to let him walk for nothing, O.J. Mayo style. That may be a driving force behind a Davis trade instead of a Koufos one: trying to flip a good player they may not be able to keep into a guy, probably a veteran backup PG, on a better contract.

What makes that less likely than the Koufos deal is that Davis may be playing so well by the end of the year that the Grizzlies decide to keep him. In November, Griz fans were calling for Davis' head, saying he was a bust, that the front office were idiots for trading for him, and that he'd never amount to anything.

What a difference three months and a lot of playing time makes: he's getting better. He's making better decisions, he's finishing at the rim, and he's even starting to get that hideous 14-foot jumper to go into the net on a semi-regular basis. Davis is a classic example of a guy who plays better when he's getting regular minutes. (And to think, he didn't even have to go to Summer League like Lionel Hollins wanted him to.)

The third big option is that same elephant that's been in the room since the summer: Zach Randolph and his $17 million player option for next season. If he picks it up, the Grizzlies are going to have a hard time re-signing Davis—so much so that my gut tells me it won't happen if Z-Bo opts in. The other option for retaining Randolph is that he opts out of the last year of his contract and signs with the Grizzlies for a longer-term deal that pays him more money but spreads it out over multiple seasons (the number I most often toss out here is something like $30 million for three years). This gives the Grizzlies much more flexibility over the coming years, but it also keeps Randolph around for three more years—by which time his game will almost surely have declined to a point where he can't be reliably featured as the center of an offense (especially when said offense is already really centered around Mike Conley and Marc Gasol).

So, on that end, it may ultimately come down to whether the Grizzlies think they can win more games and stay more flexible with a 27-year-old Ed Davis or a 35-year-old Zach Randolph. It's a decision that the Grizzlies have to make sooner rather than later, and it's a decision that no doubt has been complicated by (1) the absence of Gasol and the inability to see what this roster is capable of at full strength and (2) the improvement of Ed Davis' game.

But I don't think that's necessarily the next move. I still think Koufos is the most valuable asset the team has—a very good big man on a very favorable contract. Koufos is the key to getting out from under the Tayshaun Prince deal if the team so desires. Once that situation is worked out, they'll have to go to work on making decisions about the future at the power forward spot—which is not a task I envy them.

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