Monday, January 12, 2015

Grizzlies trade Prince and Pondexter for Jeff Green: First reactions

Posted By on Mon, Jan 12, 2015 at 7:59 AM

click to enlarge Quincy Pondexter, shown here scoring against his once and future team, will hopefully continue to develop into a quality player in greener pastures. - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Quincy Pondexter, shown here scoring against his once and future team, will hopefully continue to develop into a quality player in greener pastures.

Author’s note: The Grizzlies actually played a game last night, in which they beat the Suns 122–110 in double overtime, in which Zach Randolph had 27 and 17, in which Tony Allen was the most turned-up he’s been all season, in which Marc Gasol scored 5 points in the first 53 minutes of play and then scored 7 in the final overtime period, and in which all kinds of crazy and insane things happened, and yet: the whole thing was overshadowed by what we all know is coming: the Grizzlies have been working on this trade with Boston and New Orleans since some time Friday. So, that’s what today’s piece focuses on. It’s a shame that such a great game has to be overshadowed by bigger-picture stuff going on, but… it is what it is.

As you know by now unless you haven’t been anywhere near a source of Grizzlies information since the middle of the day on Friday, the Grizzlies have been active on the trade market, with a deal in place to part ways with Tayshaun Prince and Quincy Pondexter in exchange for Boston’s Jeff Green and New Orleans’ Russ Smith. That’s not all that’s involved in the three-team, five-player trade:

Memphis gets:

  • Jeff Green
  • Russ Smith[1]

Boston gets:

  • Tayshaun Prince
  • Austin Rivers
  • Protected 1st round draft pick: 2017 1–10 protected, 2018 1–12 protected, 2019 1–8 protected, 2020 1–6 protected, 2021 unprotected.

New Orleans gets:

  • Quincy Pondexter
  • Memphis 2015 2nd round pick (unprotected)

According to Adrian Wojnarowski, the Celtics are also involved in a side deal to send Rivers to the L.A. Clippers to play for his father, Clips coach Doc Rivers. (My assumption is that Rivers knows the Celtics are going to waive his kid if he sticks around in Boston, but maybe I’m just being cynical about it.)

This is a trade that, in some ways, feels like it’s been coming for a long time. The Grizzlies have been starved for playmaking and athleticism at the wing since the Rudy Gay trade. It’s only now that the circumstances have aligned in a way that makes it make sense for the Grizzlies to look to make a move.

Tayshaun Prince—even though his minutes have been mostly valuable this season, especially when he was used as a smallball power forward—had a $7 million expiring contract (Prince is a free agent next season) that made him valuable to the Celtics, who are looking to tear down and rebuild after this season, having traded Rajon Rondo, Brandan Wright, and now Jeff Green as well. With the Grizzlies’ pick, the Celtics now have something like 11 first round picks in the next three drafts. Even if the Celtics buy Prince out (something that’s been mentioned in some of the rumors), a team like the Pistons or Clippers who needs a wing could pick him up on a minimum deal and use him in the playoffs. (Obviously, the Pistons would be my preferential landing spot for Prince, for sentimental reasons.)

click to enlarge Vince Carter has shown signs of life, but overall his production has been less than stellar. - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Vince Carter has shown signs of life, but overall his production has been less than stellar.

Pondexter, as has been discussed in these pages, has been off his game so far this year and looks like a guy who will benefit from a change of scenery—and in the Pelicans, he’s going back to the only other team he’s played for, the team that drafted him (though he was a Hornet then). The Pelicans need the same thing from Pondexter that the Grizzlies did, and it would seem that they think they can bring it out of him somewhat more consistently than the Grizzlies have in the last season and a half. For what it’s worth, if Pondexter manages to be even marginally above a league-average player, his contract is a steal when the salary cap goes up after this season and next, so it’s a smart bet by the Pelicans on a player whose best days are probably (hopefully) ahead of him.

But that’s not what the Grizzlies are concerned with out of this trade. The Grizzlies now have, in Jeff Green, a guy who can play the 3 or the 4, and can score. His defense, well, not so much. There are two ways of looking at what Green brings to the Grizzlies: the optimist would say that Green is a talented player who can play both forward positions—both of which the Griz need help with—and his athleticism gives the Griz something they haven’t had at those spots since the Gay trade during the 2012–13 season. The pessimist would say that the acquisition of Green doesn’t move the needle for the Grizzlies; his outside shooting is limited (according to Basketball Reference, he’s straight-up bad from beyond 3 feet) and there’s not any space for him to work inside, similar to what has become of late-period Tayshaun Prince’s game.

There’s no denying that Green is instantly the most athletic 3 on the roster, and he played a good bit of 4 back in his Oklahoma City days (and will almost defintely continue to do so with Prince out of the picture and Jon Leuer rapidly declining towards basketball oblivion), so the real question with Jeff Green is this: how will Joerger use him?

Assuming Green starts—and at the moment I feel like that’s a pretty safe assumption—someone from the current lineup is going to have to go to the bench, and it’s either going to be Courtney Lee or Tony Allen.

click to enlarge Courtney Lee may be headed to the bench if the starting lineup changes when Jeff Green arrives. - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Courtney Lee may be headed to the bench if the starting lineup changes when Jeff Green arrives.

Lee has struggled off the bench at points during his career, but his offense would provided a much-needed boost to a unit that’s now missing two of the three guys who have been playing at the wing spots (and the only guy left, Vince Carter, is still putting up 1-for-whatever stat lines on a regular basis). Allen, on the other hand, excelled as the 6th man during last year’s mad dash to the playoffs, coming off the bench and creating chaos and anchoring the defense of the second unit—so we know Allen would be good in the role, but his attitude was an issue last year while coming off the bench, and sending him back to the bench—even if he got the same amount of playing time and were on the court at the end of games; the “starter” thing is what seems to be so important—seems like it would only create friction in a locker room that can’t really afford to have any right now, regardless of whether Allen-as-sixth-man would actually be better from a basketball perspective.

Green can be effective with the starters, I think. He’s not the best first option—he’s struggled in that role a bit on the bad Boston teams of the last few years, since coming back from open heart surgery. But everything we’ve heard about him since his name came up on Friday would suggest that maybe he’ll thrive in a role as a 4th option and playing with the second unit a good bit. Everything we know about Jeff Green suggests that he’s a good guy and a good teammate—he and Courtney Lee are already close friends—and that he’ll get along well in the Grizzlies’ close-knit locker room. If Green can play well with both units—that is, if he can basically be a less-offensively-limited Tayshaun Prince—then this is a good trade, and a smart move by the Grizzlies

Pondexter was included in the trade mostly for salary reasons, I figure. He may have been in an on-again, off-again relationship with Dave Joerger, but he had had some good games, and the Griz, ever starved for signs of life on the wings, benefited from those good games. Green’s salary of $9.2 million put the Griz over the tax line, but with Pondexter’s deal outgoing, the Griz now have a $3 million trade exception and are $2 million under the luxury tax line. What they do with that space is anyone’s guess. Maybe they go after a veteran power forward type (like Emeka Okafor or Jermaine O’Neal) to round out the bench. Maybe they go after a lights-out shooting guard (Ray Allen hasn’t officially retired yet). Maybe they just hang out until after the trade deadline and see who gets waived—similar to what they did to grab Beno Udrih after he was cut loose by the Knicks last season.

click to enlarge Tayshaun Prince's absence could be felt more strongly at the power forward spot than the small forward spot. - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Tayshaun Prince's absence could be felt more strongly at the power forward spot than the small forward spot.

It can’t be denied that as much as this trade is about the wing, it’s also about those backup PF minutes that Tayshaun had been soaking up as of late. Jon Leuer is close to playing himself out of the rotation altogether. His offensive game hasn’t really been with him for much of the season, and despite all the patience he’s been shown, there’s not much working for him right now. He continues to pass up open threes—the shot that the Grizzlies so desperately want him to take—and he’s just not making smart decisions while he’s on the floor. At least once during last night’s game against the Suns, Leuer set a pick and then just stood there frozen, deer-in-headlights look on his face, while Joerger screamed at him to roll to the basket from the sideline[2]. Not what you want from your primary backup 4, especially when he’s already a little undersized and average defensively. So, despite the fact that I would’ve been happier if the Grizzlies had been able to pry Luol Deng away from the Miami Heat (which didn’t sound like it had any chance of happening), the Green acquisition may prove to be a blessing if Green can slot into those minutes as well as spend some time at the 3.

The possible outcomes of this trade are all over the map. It’s possible that Jeff Green is exactly the fourth-option playmaker the Grizzlies need in the starting lineup, a low-usage Rudy Gay analog without the need for contacts and a coaching staff with an over-reliance on isolation sets, and that this is exactly the missing piece that the Grizzlies need to get to the NBA Finals. It’s possible that Green is basically an exact replacement for Tayshaun Prince and Quincy Pondexter, just in one body, and so the Griz don’t get any better but also don’t get any worse. It’s possible that Jeff Green is going to get in a fistfight with every single Grizzlies player and they’re going to have to trade him to the Sixers for a bucket full of garbage. This is a risky trade; it’s a sign that the Griz are all-in on this season as The One.

The real worst case scenario is one that was mostly outlined by Peter Edmiston on Twitter: the pick sent to Boston becomes a lottery pick some time around 2017–2018 and meanwhile the Grizzlies’ core (Conley/Gasol/Randolph; Allen will still be under contract too) all get old at the same time, more quickly than expected, and the Grizzlies find themselves in the situation the Brooklyn Nets are in right now: old, not very good, and without any draft picks.

I’m choosing to be more optimistic than that. I think this is a smart move—even though there’s no denying that it’s a risky one. Green has a lot to offer the Grizzlies, but he also isn’t as good as a guy like Luol Deng or Rudy Gay; there’s a reason he was available for trade and Boston didn’t try to build around him. By no means does that make him a bad player, but his strengths and weaknesses are going to be under a microscope while he tries to learn the Grizzlies’ system on the fly over the next month or so. It’ll be easy to overreact in both directions, but neither will be the truth. This is a move that proves beyond a doubt that the Griz think this is their year to win a title. The West is wide open, and so is the whole league. We’re going to see a lot more moves like this before the deadline—we may even see more moves from the Grizzlies. But Jeff Green, on paper anyway, fills a need that the Grizzlies had for athleticism at the wing and a better smallball 4. And on paper, it’s the kind of trade a team can make to get over the hump and make a deep playoff run. And on paper, I think it’s a good—though risky—move. Here’s hoping that what’s on paper is a match for reality.

  1. Look, I’m just going to be honest: I haven’t had much of a chance to watch a bunch of Russ Smith film, and I’m not going to pretend I can break down his game right now. I do know that the Grizzlies really are interested in him—he’s not just waiver bait, at least not yet—and that he has a lot of potential to be a good player. But. As far as how he would help the Grizzlies right now, I just haven’t done the research yet. I will. Consider this an I.O.U.  ↩

  2. I’ve heard it said that Leuer would be better on a team that wasn’t so half-court focused, a team with a more free-flowing offense. Other than the Spurs, who have mysterious magical powers of player development, I’m not sure that’s necessarily the case. Part of Leuer’s problem this year is that he hasn’t been good at making decisions on his feet—he looks scared, like he doesn’t know what to do. That doesn’t really bode well for a guy who would supposedly be better in a system that gave him more decision-making responsibility.  ↩


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