Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Grizzly Wild Wings: The Grizzlies have a crowd of 2's and 3's

Posted By on Wed, Jul 16, 2014 at 9:34 AM

Quincy Pondexter is one of seven players fighting for air in the Grizzlies rotation.
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Quincy Pondexter is one of seven players fighting for air in the Grizzlies' rotation.

The Grizzlies have had a fairly successful (if rather uneventful) free agency period thus far. Re-signing Beno Udrih for a 2-year deal and bringing in Vince Carter for a 3 year, $12 million deal (with a partial guarantee the third year, when Carter will be 40) may not have been the flashiest thing that's happened this offseason, but in lieu of making a splash, the Grizzlies have opted to tweak the roster they've got at the moment and quietly make subtle upgrades while keeping themselves flexible for next summer, when Marc Gasol will be a free agent and the Grizzlies will only have six players under contract (or nine counting the unguaranteed years/team options of Jon Leuer and Jamaal Franklin along with then RFA Nick Calathes).

With the draft and free agency, though, there's a way in which the Grizzlies are starting to resemble the Houston Rockets from about three seasons ago (pre-Lin, pre-Harden, pre-Howard, pre-Parsons-being-a-thing): they have a lot of wings. Way too many wings for all of them to have a consistent spot in the rotation. Too many wings to not be at least considering trading some of them.

Let's run through the list and see who can contribute what and how likely they are to be a part of the team's future plans.

Tony Allen

There was some disagreement on Twitter last week about whether Tony Allen's trade stock was at an all-time high after the Oklahoma City series or at a low after the injury-plagued (and, let's be honest, attitude-plagued) season Allen had last year. I tend to side with the latter: I'm not sure that Allen's best days as a player are still ahead of him.

Tony Allen is one of the best defenders in the league (and really, only LeBron James keeps me from calling him "the best"). What's problematic about Tony Allen is that his offense is (1) predicated on cuts to the basket when he's contributing and (2) quickly evolves into "Tony Allen shooting wide open 20-footers because he's being left alone" when he's not.

The Grizzlies, in their current "Grit and Grind" configuration (and O how I long to be able to stop using that phrase), are not exactly the league's best offense (15th in offensive rating last year, 17th the year before, 19th the year before). Having Tony Allen on the court every night means spending an awful lot of time playing 4-on-5 on one end of the court.

Beyond that, Allen's defense depends on his athleticism and the utter impossibility of screening him off his man when he really wants to stay with that man. (Oklahoma City fans could be forgiven for thinking Allen can walk through walls. In fact, I don't know for sure that he can't.) If Tony's attitude is off (as it seems to be every single time he's ever played against Gordon Hayward) or his body starts to fail him (as any 32-year-old NBA player's is wont to do) his defensive contributions aren't going to be as valuable. Even last year his help defense was noticeably worse, helping off spot-up guys to try to make a gamble play on the ball handler and getting torched from long range from time to time. I think he's still got a great deal of value to this team (and I think any number of contenders would kill to have him), but it wouldn't take much for that value to be greatly reduced.

Courtney Lee

As others have said, last year's Jerryd Bayless for Courtney Lee swap was really about this summer: the Grizzlies (then helmed by Lee's former agents Jason Levien and Stu Lash) didn't think they'd be able to get a player of Lee's caliber for the mid-level deal that Lee is currently signed to.

In hindsight, seeing how much some players have made this offseason so far (lookin' at you, Jodie Meeks), that appears to have been the right call. And while Lee's "Savior of the Grizzlies' Offense" status started to fade as the season wore down into the playoffs, one can't deny that Lee is a capable shooter and ball-handler who makes the Grizzlies' offense more dangerous, and he's a good enough defender that while Tony Allen was out with a protracted and slightly mysterious wrist/hand injury, the team didn't really appear to miss a beat.

I think Lee is still a guy who deserves a spot, and probably a starting spot, on the Grizzlies' roster. I think his offensive abilities make him important to floor spacing and I think his character and his personality make him a good fit for this team. And, look, he's a good young wing who has already helped the team out a great deal on a decent contract. I'm a Courtney Lee fan.

Quincy Pondexter

The Quincy Pondexter Question. "How good would last year's team have been if Pondexter had been healthy?" is a question that's been asked a lot, but I'm not sure it's answerable.

The QPon who showed up for the 2013-14 seson was not the same guy who had been so valuable to the Griz during the run to the Western Conference Finals the year before. Instead of playing to his own strengths and focusing on being a "3's and D" guy—Pondexter was shooting lights out from the corners—he seemed determined to prove that he could play like (the good version of) Rudy Gay, taking opponents off the dribble and attacking the basket instead of taking open jumpers. It was infuriating. We're not really allowed to yell things from the media seats, but I wanted to scream "TAKE THE SHOT" at Quincy more in those games before he was injured than I probably should have.

So I'm not sure what Pondexter's place on this team is. Obviously he has the potential to be an important piece—maybe even the starting small forward—but that's all contingent on whether he's got the good sense to maximize the things that he's good at, because make no mistake, he's very good at them, instead of trying to play in a way that doesn't suit him.

That said, I'm kind of surprised the Grizzlies didn't trade him for picks on draft night. He may not be worth a first rounder (at least not in this draft), but certainly a second-rounder or two, and it would've been a step towards clearing up exactly the log jam I'm describing here: too many players at two spots, all of them with overlapping skill sets. I know there are teams interested in him—the Nets are one name I've heard, going back to Pondexter's high school playing days with the Lopez brothers—so I'd think that for the right offer, moving QPon might not be the worst idea. It would move him to a situation where the wings were less crowded, and it would open up minutes for other guys on the Griz roster.

Of all of the names on this list, I think Pondexter is the most "expendable"—and I say that even as I acknowledge that he still could be a good contributor on this season's Griz squad.

Jamaal Franklin

The Grizzlies have to make space for Jamaal Franklin if hes going to develop.
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • The Grizzlies have to make space for Jamaal Franklin if he's going to develop.

Jamaal Franklin is another wild card. Drafted in last year's second round because he fell out of the first, Franklin has shown flashes—playing decent minutes in emergency situations, making some threes, playing surprisingly competent defense for a 2nd-round-pick rookie—but he's also seemed shakier than he should.

His similarities to Tony Allen have led him to be christened "The Grindson" to Allen's Grindfather, but I'm not sure that's who Franklin should be trying to emulate. The most obvious comparison (mostly because they both attended San Diego State) is Kawhi Leonard, though Franklin doesn't seem like a guy whose ceiling is as high as "Finals MVP." "Poor Man's Kawhi Leonard" ain't such a bad thing, and it'd be a better fit for the Grizzlies' needs (especially offensively) than another Tony Allen.

Franklin is another guy who I think needs serious minutes—and the same sort of long leash the Spurs like to give people (those pesky Spurs and all the things they seem to do right)—to develop into the best player he can be. It also seems unlikely that he's going to get those minutes this season, as much as I hate that. Unless a concerted effort is going to be made to clear up roster space for him, I think Franklin is probably an asset worth capitalizing on. He has potential to be a very good NBA player, but if the Grizzlies aren't going to make the most of that potential, they should send him somewhere where he'll have that shot, and get something in return before having to decide on his option next summer.

Jordan Adams

My first reaction to the Jordan Adams pick was "Why didn't they just take Rodney Hood if they couldn't do the Toronto/Tayshaun deal?"

...and then I looked at this aggregation of all kinds of advanced stats which rated Adams as the fifth (as in #5) best player in this draft class—a more valuable player long-term than Andrew Wiggins, Dante Exum, and Julius Randle (which, yes, take that with a grain of salt, but it's still crazy). So, given that information, I think it's safe to say that Adams ranked crazy high on the draft rankings of this one guy you may have heard of who used to do some draft thing for some cable sports network.

Adams is a scorer, plain and simple, a guy who can shoot, create contact, get to the rim, flat out put points on the scoreboard—the kind of player the Grizzlies haven't had since early Iavaroni-era O.J. Mayo still seemed like a sure bet (before his Neil-Young-Ditch-Trilogy-in-Milwaukee phase). I like the pick. I especially like that it appears that John Hollinger's voice is being heard on draft night; after all, the guy's past projections are pretty good, right?

The question now becomes one of minutes: how many are going to be available for Adams to develop, and who would be riding the pine so Adams can play? The Grizzlies have a terrible track record of developing young talent, honestly, and unless the mandate comes down from on high we've had little indication that Dave Joerger is inclined to play rookies just for the heck of it. My worry with Adams is that he's going to be yet another good young player who ends up being solid for some other team after the Grizzlies spend a couple of years sitting him. I hope I'm wrong.

Tayshaun Prince

Tayshaun Prince can (probably) still contribute under the right circumstances.
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Tayshaun Prince can (probably) still contribute under the right circumstances.

Ah, Tayshaun! Ah, humanity!

Seriously, though, Tayshaun Prince is playing out the final $7 million year of his contract in the 2014-15 season, and it seems like 95% of Grizzlies fans are just ready to see the guy go—whether that's into retirement, being sent packing via the stretch provision, or even being traded to Toronto with the Grizzlies' first round draft pick for John Salmons and a 2nd rounder.

I've gone on the record about my Tayshaun fandom before—he became one of my favorite players during the Pistons' early runs to the championship and remained so. I was genuinely excited that the Grizzlies landed one of my favorite players.

I say that to say this: I've watched enough Tayshaun Prince to know that he was never going to be a great fit with this Grizzlies' team, even if he was a better fit than the 2012-13 chucker version of Rudy Gay. Tayshaun Prince has always been more of an isolation, post-up player than a shooter, and in an offense featuring two post-heavy bigs and in desperate need of a small forward who can space the floor, Prince's strengths were never going to be fully utilized. Prince said as much himself in the end-of-season media availability: he had a "really rough season" because he was (1) playing hurt the whole time and (2) not playing to his strengths.

I'm not sure what the Grizzlies can do about #1, but if they're determined to keep him next year, they're going to have to deploy him in situations where he can actually do what he's still good at: the post game. Small ball lineups with Prince at the 4 were decent last year in limited runs, and if Prince is going to play—and I have a hard time believing he'd be willing to sit, and an even harder time believing Dave Joerger will be willing to sit him—those are the situations he should play with: lineups where the lane is relatively open (think Prince at the 4 and Leuer or Gasol at the 5) and he can get down on the blocks against a smaller man. It may not be pretty, but asking Tayshaun Prince—especially this late period version—to space the floor with his shooting was and is never going to work well.

I don't think the Grizzlies are going to be able to package Tayshaun with anything worth parting with to get rid of him. Expiring contracts just aren't worth as much in today's NBA. Besides that—and for all the frustrations I had watching him play last year—there really is something to his "veteran leadership" (the dude is a basketball IQ genius), and I think having him on the team can still be a net positive, if and only if he is only deployed in the right circumstances.

Seriously, though, please don't start him.

Vince Carter!

Detached, rational basketball analysis aside, I had to include the exclamation point, because I can't hide the fact that I'm excited about getting to watch Vinsanity 82+ times next year.

Anyways, the 38-year-old Carter is an immediate upgrade over Mike Miller in literally every category besides 3-point shooting, and he's not too bad in that one, either. Carter, formerly one of the most explosive players ever to don an NBA jersey, has altered his game as his body has aged so that he's still an excellent contributor (especially in the "super sixth man" role) even at his age. (Think Tim Duncan, without the rings.)

The Miller stuff has been written about at length, and in the end, it all came down to the Grizzlies' unwillingness to sign him to a 3-year deal, especially when Carter was willing to sign one with a partial guarantee the last year. The Grizzlies' pursuit of Carter in years past (back to the Rudy Gay trade and probably earlier) is well documented, and Dallas' inability to pay him what he wanted turned out to be all the Grizzlies needed to land Carter and tell Miller they were interested in seeing other people.

He (Carter) is immediately the best offensive wing in the rotation, which is both bad and good. He can create in the pick and roll, he's a credible defender, and the time that be blew a burp in Rudy Gay's face is still one of my all-time favorite basketball moments.

I think it's going to be really interesting to see where Carter fits into the rotation. Do you start him at small forward, since he's immediately one of the best options at that spot? (I'd say no, but we know how closely Dave Joerger listens to my rotation ideas). Do you bring him as the first guy off the bench, sharing minutes with Tony Allen where each of them play 20-25 a night? Could he be more like a guy who only comes in when you need an offensive spark? The options are plentiful, but out of all of them, I like the 6th man idea the best. It suits where he's at in his career, and still capitalizes on his abilities.

I'm not sure what it means that the Carter signing is already one of the best free agent signings I can remember in Grizzlies history (and yes, I was one of the morons who was excited about Allen Iverson). But I'm glad he's here, for selfish reasons and for basketball reasons. Vinsanity in Beale Street Blue ought to immediately make the Grizzlies a better team, shoring up a position that's been a problem for a while now.

What's the Endgame?

If you haven't been playing along at home (or reading Chris Herrington's stuff over at the CA), you might have missed the bigger picture, and why the Grizzlies haven't been more active this offseason in bolstering this wing rotation: the big summer is next summer.

That said, I still think some of these guys are going to be on other teams (or maybe no team) when training camp starts. I just don't think it's reasonable for the Grizzlies to carry this many guys who are guaranteed not to get minutes into the season—especially not when some of the ones who aren't playing or might be crowded out this season (especially thinking of Pondexter and Franklin here) could be packaged for a small expiring that would clear more money off the books. It feels more like a stockpile of assets than a well thought out wing rotation right now, and I think there's a reason for that: it is a stockpile of assets.

If the Grizzlies are able to play their cards right—and they've certainly got a big hand to work with—they could end up in better financial shape for next year and with a better rotation of shooting guards and small forwards this year, and consequently be able to make more noise in the playoffs (barring serious injuries, knock on wood) than last year while still being in a position to re-sign Gasol and add another major free agent piece next summer, the summer before the salary cap makes a huge jump.

It's a tricky situation, but it's one that has bright sides both now and later. One just hopes they don't plan on winging it.

That was a bad joke. That was a really bad joke.

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