Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Next Griz: Offseason Preview

Posted By on Thu, May 17, 2012 at 11:30 AM

Now that we've put a cap on last season, time to look ahead to the summer, where the Grizzlies have one big decision to make. But first, where the roster stands headed into the off-season:


Under Contract:

Rudy Gay
Est. Salary: $16,460,532
Coming back from the first serious injury of his career, Gay followed an up-and-down season with an up-and-down playoff debut: He followed bad stretches — particularly in the first halves of Games 3 and 4 — with good stretches. He overcame early struggles to make big plays in the fourth quarter of every game except for Game 7, where he was the Grizzlies most effective player for three quarters and was then a non-factor in the fourth. Aside from perhaps an efficient Game 2, where he did most of his work early, Gay never really put a full game together in these playoffs. It was that kind of season. In large part, it's been that kind of career. Gay is a second-tier player with a first-tier contract and though he can still fine-tune aspects of his game and learn from his first taste of post-season intensity, that reality isn't going to change in any meaningful way.

But, because Gay's struggles can tend to be more frustrating than those of most players, I think the criticism tends to get a little one-sided. Increasingly, a segment of the fan base looks at Gay the way many think Lionel Hollins looks at Tony Allen or the dearly departed Greivis Vasquez: Fixating on the negatives while downplaying the positives. A few facts to put Gay's playoff debut and regular season in context: Gay had the second-best +/- rating among Grizzlies players in the series (after Tony Allen) and had a better shooting percentage than Zach Randolph (including a significantly better shooting percentage from inside the three-point arc). Despite some rough shooting stretches, Gay's scoring efficiency in the series (based on points scored per shot attempt) was higher than any perimeter player except Vasquez (who averaged 11 minutes) from last season's playoff run. He had the sixth-highest PER among small forwards in the NBA this season. Warts and all, Gay's playoff debut was far from the disaster some made it out to be and he's very close to being a Top 5 player in the league at his position.

If the Grizzlies trade Rudy Gay this summer — and you can make a very strong case that they should — it will be for financial, not performance, reasons.

Zach Randolph
Est. Salary: $16,500,000
Despite his protestations to the contrary, Randolph was not capable of putting up a 30-20 game in these playoffs. But he rebounded well, scored well in stretches, and, even with Randolph in a diminished capacity, the Grizzlies were a better team when he was on the floor. The only question going into next season is whether Randolph can get all the way back to his pre-injury form. And though there's no guarantee until it actually happens, most people around the team seem optimistic on this front. Randolph's knee injury healed without surgery and he returned to a reasonable level of effectiveness on schedule. He's still relatively young — he'll turn 31 this summer — and his game has never been predicated on leaping or explosiveness. The odds seem good that an off-season of conditioning work will return Randolph to something close to last season's peak form. If so, he'll return to his rightful place as the Grizzlies' offensive alpha dog next season regardless of what other moves the team makes.

Marc Gasol
Est. Salary: $13,891,359

Mike Conley
Est. Salary: $7,180,000
Randolph and Gay are the top scorers, but Gasol and Conley steer the ship and each had a good season. Gasol has now been the team's best overall player in two of the past three seasons. Both had their struggles in the playoffs — Gasol mysteriously disappeared for a minute early on, Conley fell apart in Game 7 when his body failed him — but largely acquitted themselves well. There will be some concern about Gasol's participation in the Olympics until he survives it unscathed, but both should enter next season in their primes and with their roles secure.

Tony Allen
Est. Salary: $3,300,000
Will be heading into the last year of a contract that's made him one of the biggest bargains in the league. Allen's career-best 26.3 minutes per game in the regular season declined slightly to 24.3 in the playoffs despite Allen having the team's best +/- in the series. And Quincy Pondexter's expanded scoring guard minutes in the series sure felt like an audition. It took Lionel Hollins a while to warm up to Allen early in Allen's inaugural season for the Grizzlies, and there's been a pattern of Hollins favoring, at times, bigger and steadier but less dynamic or effective options — first Xavier Henry, then Sam Young, then Pondexter. It's easy to see why: Allen's unpredictability can drive a coach crazy; just imagine Mike Fratello coaching him. The best bet, of course, is to make peace with Allen's chaos, which will ultimately work for you more than against you. Hopefully the small, questionable decline in Allen's playoff role doesn't portend a reduced role next season.

Quincy Pondexter
Est. Salary: $1,234,320

Dante Cunningham
Est. Salary: $2,090,000
These two rangy, defensive-oriented role players had good first seasons for the Grizzlies, but their playing time proved to be a drag on the team in the playoffs, with the two worst +/- ratings on the team. Both players are likely to shift down a little next season: Cunningham and Pondexter played primarily at the power forward and small forward, respectively, in the regular season, but will probably spend more time at small forward and scoring guard next season, a move that happened with Pondexter in the playoffs.

I misread Cunningham's role in the series, thinking his pick-and-roll and transition defense would make him an important factor. Instead, the Clippers frontline was simply too physically strong for him to match up with. Both look like good, versatile, cost-effective contributors going forward, but they can enhance their impact improving the range and reliability of their jumpers.

Josh Selby
Est. Salary: $762,195

Jeremy Pargo
Est. Salary: $1,000,000
The Grizzlies clearly made a mistake clearing out Greivis Vasquez with the idea that a Pargo/Selby combo could man the back-up point slot. They both yo-yo-ed in and out of the rotation during the season, plagued by horrendous turnover rates, and were out of the mix in the playoffs, with Pargo inactive and Selby playing less than a minute.

Selby's season was to be expected: He was drafted late in the second round as a project pick after one muddled year in college. Selby showed flashes of his athleticism and offensive ability in his brief big-league playing time and did very well in his D League stints. Most around the team seem optimistic about Selby's future and eager to see what kind of strides he can make with a full summer league and training camp behind him. If Selby can emerge as a rotation bench scorer next season, it would be a big help to the Grizzlies, but it isn't smart to conduct the offseason with that in mind.

Pargo's rookie season was a much bigger disappointment. As a 26-year-old whose European numbers suggested he would be a decent rotation player, there was a higher level of expectation for Pargo. If Pargo's contract for next season was subject to a team option, I would assume his departure. But it's fully guaranteed and even if the Grizzlies were to buy him out, that buy out would still be subject to the luxury tax. Given how little wiggle-room the Grizzlies have, the best bet is probably to try to rehab Pargo. If he can settle down, focus on defense — where his strength, size, and athleticism should be able to make him a positive factor — and try not to make the highlight play so often, maybe Pargo can still emerge as a useful player.

Total Est. Committed Salary: $62,418,406
Estimated Luxury Tax: $70,307,000 (This is last season's tax line, which is the minimum level for next season under the new CBA. The actual tax line for next season hasn't been set yet, but Chris Wallace told me this week that he doesn't expect it to rise.)
Est. Space Left Under Tax: $7,888,594

That's roughly $7.5 million to spend on 4-7 additional players (seven would be predicated on buying out Pargo and carrying a full 15; don't count on that), leaving little room absent a flexibility-creating trade, so filling out the roster will be tricky if the Grizzlies choose to keep this core together for at least one more season. If the Grizzlies exercise their draft pick — at #25 — that would probably take around $1.2 million off the available space. I would expect them to do so and to target a point guard and/or three-point shooter the team thinks can contribute immediately. Selby was their project pick. They aren't likely to make another one this summer.

Status of the other players on the current roster:

Restricted Free Agents:
O.J. Mayo
Est. Qualifying Offer: $7,390,018 (This qualifying offer — like the other salary info here — is per The qualifying offer formula changed in the new CBA and I don't think that change is reflected. Mayo's actual qualifying offer may be lower than this, but, in his case at least, I doubt it matters much.)
Mayo followed up a bounce-back regular season and a strong final month by cratering in the playoffs. He was okay in the first couple of game, but from then on his shot disappeared and the Clippers badly exploited his shaky handle at point guard. If the Grizzlies keep their core together, Mayo does not fit in the budget. Even if the team were to make a move to create financial flexibility, I still think Mayo is gone. He wants to start and — against all evidence — wants to play point guard. Odds are very high that those goals are pursued elsewhere.

Darrell Arthur
Est. Qualifying Offer: $3,006,216

Marreese Speights
Est. Qualifying Offer: $3,823,362
Initially targeted as a “fourth big,” Speights ended up being a starter for most of the season after Arthur and then Zach Randolph went down. He filled in admirably for the Grizzlies and rehabbed a value on the swift decline while he was piling up DNPs in Philadelphia. Speights' excellent mid-range shooting and solid rebounding are undercut by middling defense, the lack of a consistent post game, and a penchant for bad decisions. Add it up and he's registered as a slight negative on the court in both the regular season and playoffs. A solid reserve big man and, with Dante Cunningham signed to replicate Arthur and still under contract for next season, you can make the case that the bigger Speights — better equipped to play back-up center — is a better roster fit for next season than Arthur.

The counter-argument — and one that wins for me — is that Arthur is simply the better two-way player. After missing almost two of his past three seasons with unrelated injuries, perhaps Arthur can be retained for a lower figure than if he'd been a free agent last summer. Ask around, and you get different — but equally uncertain — predictions on which of these two free agents will draw the best offers.

Look for the Grizzlies to be committed to bringing one of them back — with Arthur the likely preference — and for that to take up a large chunk of that remaining room under the tax line. If the Grizzlies can retain Arthur for his qualifying offer or on a long-term deal with a starting salary close to the qualifying offer, that would be a good outcome for the team.

Lester Hudson
Est. Qualifying Offer: $1,000,000
Hudson went unused in the playoffs, but I sense the Grizzlies signed him late in the season as much to secure his restricted free agent rights this summer as to add him for playoff insurance. I haven't been able to figure out exactly what his qualifying offer is, but am told it will probably be around $1 million. Will the journeyman Hudson's nice two weeks in Cleveland inspire someone to offer him guaranteed money meaningfully north of that? If so, he's probably gone. But if not, I could easily see the Grizzlies bringing him back with the hope he could add some affordable scoring punch to the bench.

Unrestricted Free Agents:

Hamed Haddadi
Minimum: $1,000,000
I wouldn't be surprised to see Hadaddi return. Despite his rough minutes in Game 7, he proved helpful in most of his opportunities and Hollins seemed to come around to his usefulness later in the season. If the Grizzlies were able to retain him at something close to the minimum, I think it's possible Haddadi could return next season in a slightly expanded role as a spot-minute back-up center. If not, they'll probably look to replace him with a similar cheap-vet deep reserve option, while letting a re-signed Arthur or Speights soak up most of the minutes behind Marc Gasol.

Gilbert Arenas
Minimum: $1,400,000
Despite his rough post-season, Arenas was a positive in the regular season. He seemed comfortable here and doesn't seem to have a lot of options. If he wants to keep playing — and he apparently does — returning to Memphis doesn't seem to be a bad bet. There are problems: Based on it body of work in Beale Street Blue, you can't be totally comfortable with the idea of Arenas as your primary back-up point guard, even if he comes into next season healthier than he was in the playoffs. The Grizzlies already have two small guards with uncertain roles under contract in Selby and Pargo and are likely to draft a perimeter player. As a 10+-year vet, even a minimum contract for Arenas would take up a pretty decent chunk of the available room under the tax. My bet is that we could see Hudson or Arenas back. But neither is a much better bet than both.

The Big Question: Tinker or Overhaul?

The Grizzlies can put together a roster for next season without dealing one of its core four players or hitting the tax line, but the margins are razor thin.

Let's say that the team retains Arthur and Haddadi (or a similar cheap reserve center) for around $4.5 million to complete its frontcourt. That would leave roughly $3 million left to work with and at least two roster spots to fill (to get to the minimum 13). Drafting a guard and/or shooter brings the team down to around $2 million with at least one roster spot to fill. At that point they could keep Arenas or Hudson — but not both — to get to 13 players and maybe have the wiggle room to add one more low-salary player. Maybe a rookie free agent or second-round pick acquired via trade. That's all based on last season's tax line. If the tax were to rise just a little bit, that would be very helpful to the Grizzlies. But, for now, we have to assume that threshold.

Is this the way to go? Maybe. The Grizzlies were very good this season — regular season and playoffs — with their returning starters, even with a diminished Randolph, and it would be hard to break them up without giving them at least one more chance to finally have a post-season in which they're all fully healthy. A healthy Randolph and returning Arthur would represent a frontcourt upgrade. No one on this team's bench would equal what Mayo gave the team in the regular season, but nearly anyone would equal what he gave them in the playoffs. This strategy would require more luck than last season's team. They would need someone — or a couple of someones — to pan out on the perimeter. Maybe Selby. Maybe Hudson. Maybe the draft pick. And they would need to avoid the kind of serious injury problems that happened at the beginning of last season. But, if the team were to get a little luck in those areas, this starting five, with an athletic, defensive-oriented bench unit led by Arthur, Cunningham, and Pondexter, can compete for a Top 4 seed in the West again next season. The upside of this strategy is likely higher than with the alternative. And with the Gasol/Randolph combo as the foundation, this team is built for the present.

If the Grizzlies do keep the Randolph-Gay-Gasol-Conley group together next season, it will likely be for the last time. Escalating contracts for those four is putting a lot of pressure on the team to make a deal this summer. There's a good chance financial realities would necessitate a move next summer.

If a move happens — especially one this summer — it is highly likely to involve Gay. The Grizzlies are built on post play and defense, and while Gay contributes, at times, in both areas, he is not crucial to either. Gasol and Conley both have on-court value more in line with their contracts and, especially in Gasol's case, play positions that are more crucial and harder to fill with quality players. Randolph is a more important player than Gay if healthy, while his age and injury make him a less valuable trade piece. For those reasons, trading him this summer wouldn't make much sense. And, so, it's Gay.

If the Grizzlies could deal Gay and bring back a proven scorer with more of a perimeter game — My dream target: Eric Gordon. A more realistic target I wouldn't be excited about: Tyreke Evans — while also freeing up space under the tax to improve depth, that's probably the way to go. More likely, a Gay deal would bring back a mish-mash: Maybe a couple of role players and a mid-lottery pick. A deal like this might improve depth and shooting, but might also — especially in concert with Mayo's departure — limit the upside. Given the financial constraints the team is operating under, however, even a deal of this kind would be tempting and would have to be seriously considered.

My own sense: In the absence of a really good Gay deal, the best bet would be to tinker. To give this group one more season to try to make a run. I suspect that's where we're headed, but it's probably a close call. I certainly won't be surprised if an overhaul happens.

(And, with that, look for this space to go on a little bit of a hiatus until we start to ramp up for the draft next month.)


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