Whether they were true title contenders or not, what happened to the Memphis Grizzlies this year doesn’t seem fair. An unreal succession of injuries detonated what was already a strange season in progress, robbing us all of the yearly pleasure of watching Grit and Grind give some title contender headaches in the early rounds. Marc Gasol turned 31 a couple weeks before foot surgery suddenly gave a very imposing feel to the four expensive years left on his contract after this season. Every depressing element was set against a backdrop of Mike Conley’s impending unrestricted free agency, and thrown into sharper focus suddenly Saturday morning with news of Dave Joerger’s dismissal.
In all honesty, the injuries may have obscured the unfortunate truth that this team was playing with house money all year long. Even while healthy, with point differential indicators pegging them as a non-playoff team, the win-loss results they managed painted them as one of the statistically “luckiest” teams in league history, a theme that held through the full 82 games: The Grizzlies became just the third team since 1946 to post an SRS rating (point differential adjusted for strength of schedule) at or below negative-2.0 while still winning at least half of their games.
Memphis was just 16th in the league for defensive efficiency even before Gasol’s injury, a big departure from recent years and a worrying warning light with a similarly anemic offense still struggling to break league average. The Grizzlies were once again in the league’s bottom third for attempts and accuracy from beyond the arc, not a surprise given a total lack of marksmanship in the perimeter rotation outside of Conley and Matt Barnes. Stifling defense wasn’t propping up a more old-fashioned attack built on Gasol and Zach Randolph bullying teams from the elbows.
Entering a summer that is unpredictable enough on its own, the Grizzlies are at something of a crossroads after a strange end to the year and the Joerger bombshell. Let’s break down a few of the biggest themes vital to their future.
The Big Picture
Were it not for this franchise’s resiliency over the last half decade or more, the more prescient vultures among us might already be starting to circle above Memphis in anticipation.
Randolph turns 35 in July, and his value in the modern NBA is diminishing along with his body. Gasol was having his worst year in several before he went down, struggling to make his usual defensive impact. The Grizzlies relied heavily on guys like Barnes, Tony Allen, Mario Chalmers and Lance Stephenson at various points this year, and the fact that Barnes’ potential departure legitimately damages their wing rotation is very worrying.
Worse yet, the future doesn’t look too bright. GM Chris Wallace has exactly zero blue chip youngsters or recent draftees in house, with 2014 first-rounder Jordan Adams and his 263 NBA minutes (due in large part to injury this year, to be fair) over the course of two seasons serving as their recent draft headliner. Adams was infamously taken one pick ahead of burgeoning Jazz guard Rodney Hood, a move Joerger wasn’t shy about reminding folks he was against at the time, and 2015 selection Jarell Martin isn’t blowing anyone away.
There isn’t too much help on the way, either. Their 2016 playoff berth ensured Memphis will keep their pick this year rather than sending it to Denver, but Wallace could quickly be wishing they’d sacrificed four ugly losses to the Spurs and missed out on the postseason entirely. The pick is just 17th after a lost coin flip, and Memphis keeping it this year means it becomes just top-5 protected next year.
A healthy Gasol keeps this team too solid for a tank job anywhere near that disastrous, but likewise isn’t enough to carry a playoff team on his own. A worst-case scenario sees the Grizzlies send a Denver a pick in the six-to-10 range in a 2017 draft that many league insiders consider much stronger than the 2016 class. If they manage to keep things afloat and stay in the playoffs for the next couple years, they’ll lose their 2018 first round pick as well (to Boston, protected top-12).
Such a bare cupboard doesn’t make things any easier on Wallace, who is already facing an uphill climb to continue a run of six straight playoff appearances. A coup in summer free agency – never likely for even the biggest markets, nearly impossible in places like Memphis – seems like their only faint hope for getting out of a very dreary position in the league’s middle, with little young talent coming up the pipe to take the mantle and few draft avenues available in the next couple of seasons.
The fallout from Joerger’s firing has already begun, and isn’t making the destination any more attractive. Reports Saturday blamed internal discord and Joerger’s desire to discuss a move to another team (the second time in three years he’s asked for said permission), and were followed by even stranger indications that Wallace himself had secured his own approval to discuss a front office vacancy in Sacramento. The wheels are already possibly falling off from a talent standpoint, and a similar fate for the front office could signal impending catastrophe.
All of these circumstances don’t make Memphis the easiest sell at the moment, which is relevant because their most important agenda item this summer rests in large part on their salesmanship.
The Conley Conundrum
Conley’s unrestricted free agency has been the elephant in the room all year long, and with good reason. He’ll command a max salary somewhere as the top point guard on the market, an inconvenient reality for Memphis during a summer when all but a handful of teams can open up max room.
Conley has commented on his desire to see the right pieces put in place around him, but his own situation limits the team’s flexibility here more than one might assume – and might torpedo it altogether if he isn’t cooperative on the timing.
If the Grizzlies pick up Stephenson’s $9.4 million player option (a choice they must make by June 29, before free agency begins) and retain all their other contracts, they’ll sit right around $60 million already on the books before a Conley deal if they renounce their rights to guys like Barnes and Chris Andersen as expected.
Being at or below the $60 million mark with a cap projected over $90 million seems great, but this is where Conley himself comes in: His own $14 million cap hold counts against the team’s books until he’s signed in Memphis or somewhere else, nearly slicing their available free agency dollars in half. If Conley stays home and does management a solid by waiting on his own deal, it will allow the Grizzlies to play the market before signing him over the cap using their Bird rights – but even then, they’d have well under a max slot available to draw talent.
There are methods available to open up larger chunks of room, but all carry risks to one degree or another. The most straightforward in theory would be declining Stephenson’s option, but this avenue reveals how startlingly weak the Grizzlies are on the wing – moving on from Lance without any clue whether they’d be able to find a wing on the market could leave Carter, Adams and Tony Allen as the team’s 2-3 rotation if they strike out, a terrifying possible outcome. The timing on Stephenson’s player option combined with a huge lack of perimeter talent makes this a less preferable option.
Much simpler would be cutting ties with Carter or JaMychal Green, both of whom are on contracts that don’t guarantee until January 2017 and can be waived without penalty any time before then. Green is young and cheap enough to keep, though, and stretching Carter only yields another $3 million or so after some cap gymnastics.
The Grizzlies could also look to dump Brandan Wright’s $5.7 million somewhere if they needed that bit of space to get them over the top on a signing, and could do the same with Carter or even Adams if it came down to it. They’d better have some cheap depth options in mind in free agency if they take any of these routes, though – sacrificing any of the names listed above without a replacement coming back drops the number of rostered Memphis players as low as seven or eight depending on a few other fringe decisions.
Even if they’re able to carve out the flexibility, the Grizzlies are running uphill trying to add talent. They’re competing with 25 other teams for the top names, all of whom have similar or greater cap maneuverability. Gasol, an aging Randolph, a chance at Conley and a bunch of role players and replacement level guys aren’t a core that inspires awe in the top prospective free agents, particularly with the knowledge that one major signing eats up most or all of their available room.
It could be panic time in a hurry if Conley does leave. Maybe he’ll be kind enough to do it early in the process and let them use the vacated space to chase a max guy before all of them are off the market. However, even if that scenario arises, the chances are mighty low that a true impact player looks at this roster and sees his best option in such a crowded pool. The Grizzlies could be stuck with the unwanted scraps after the big boys pick all the good meat off the bone.
Team brass would have to strongly consider broaching the subject of trading Gasol and entering a true franchise rebuild in that scenario. There’s virtually no conceivable combination of mid-tier free agents attainable under Memphis’ available space who could make this roster sans Conley anything more than a fringe playoff contender at the very best, and we’ve already covered their limited draft and youth capital.
There’s a real chance Gasol would spend his final few productive NBA years dragging one of the worst supplementary rosters in the league to just enough wins to avoid the very top of the lottery, but nowhere near enough to compete. Big Spain loves Memphis and they love him right back, but a mutually beneficial move would have to at least be mentioned if things go really badly this summer. There are surely those in the “title or teardown” camp who would even prefer this avenue to Conley re-upping in Memphis – there’s a valid argument that returning Conley still leaves them well behind the true contenders barring a perfect additional string of events this summer.
However, even that sort of painful teardown wouldn’t be simple. Gasol has a 15 percent trade kicker attached to his deal, which would be at least a moderate disincentive to nearly any team in negotiations (the Grizzlies have to pay the extra dollar amount, but the incoming team has to absorb the new, larger number on their cap sheet). The Grizzlies would also find themselves miles below the cap floor, and would have to fill at least some of that gap with guys who didn’t threaten the rebuild by carrying them to enough wins to land their 2017 pick outside of the top five and force them to send it to Denver. They could accomplish some of this, plus help restock the draft cupboard if they took on an albatross salary or two in exchange for some picks, but these kinds of contracts become rarer by the minute in this new cap environment. It’s painful to consider for the Memphis faithful, but could be a reality of their situation.
The team’s immediate playoff chances drop to slim if Conley bolts, and their title aspirations with this group slide to nil barring a Kevin Durant-level miracle in free agency. It’s really not an exaggeration to say his choice may decide the fate of the franchise for the next several years.
The Grizzlies can still offer Conley more years and larger annual raises than any other team (whether he’ll want the years is another question), and things aren’t quite so bleak if they’re able to retain him – provided he waits, of course. Unless he takes a big hometown discount, forcing Memphis to sign him before they’ve acceptably rounded out the rest of the roster in free agency will virtually eliminate their ability to do so.
Assuming this happens, quality wings should be far and away the highest priority. The Grizzles could use a suitable backup for Conley, unless they think Bryce Cotton or Xavier Mumford are up for it, but the market here is more robust and easier to navigate with a cheaper budget. Real, NBA-caliber shooters on the perimeter are a massive area of need, and bonus points if any of them can defend multiple positions well or run some secondary pick-and-roll.
Here’s the thing, though: These guys are tougher and tougher to find in a league that puts a premium on them. All the top candidates are out of Memphis’ price range unless they’re willing to roll some pretty huge dice by declining Stephenson’s option, a massive gamble that one of a handful of max-level swingmen would even give the Grizzlies a meeting.
Eric Gordon should be a top target among “safer” options – a guy with plenty of talent (including shooting) who could reconcile a disappointing career if he could ever stay healthy and consistent is exactly the type of bet the Grizzlies should be willing to take. Memphis should give Joe Johnson a call if he shows any desire to leave Miami after their playoff run, and could inquire about a guy like Arron Afflalo if he turns down his player option in New York. Gerald Henderson has done a solid job in Portland this year, and Leandro Barbosa could be within Memphis’ price range as a combo guard to both back up Conley and play some wing minutes.
Whether any of these moves would be enough to pair with the incumbents and take another shot at the West is a tough question to answer. However, if we are being honest about Memphis’ current situation, the answer is “no” within most conceivable outcomes.
That isn’t reason enough alone to give up on Conley and break out the drills for the rebuild, of course. Winning an NBA title is a ridiculously low-probability event, and even more so for teams in these kinds of markets. The past six years are an unquestioned success for this Memphis franchise even without a conference final appearance, and they’d only need a couple lucky dominos to fall their way to eclipse it.
A fall from grace is just a couple wrong turns away as well, though, and seemed to become more likely with Saturday’s news. We’re a few months away from finding out which direction Memphis is moving in.
NBA Daily: Pelicans Might Be Better Off Without DeMarcus Cousins
Without DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis has excelled. It might not be a coincidence.
Forget Kawhi Leonard, the most interesting storyline of this NBA summer is going to be DeMarcus Cousins.
By now, if you’ve wondered whether the New Orleans Pelicans would be better off without the talented big man, you’re certainly not alone.
Just ask the Portland Trail Blazers.
On Saturday, the Pelicans pulled off an improbable sweep of the third-seeded Blazers in the first round of their best-of-seven playoff series. And while the immediate question that comes to mind is what to make of the Blazers, a similar question can be (and should be) asked of the Pelicans.
Without question, Cousins is one of the most gifted big men the NBA has sen in quite some time, but it shouldn’t be lost on any of us that Anthony Davis began to put forth superhuman efforts when Cousins was absent.
Ever heard the saying that too many cooks spoil the brew?
That may be pricisely the case here.
Sure, having good players at your disposal is a problem that most head coach in the league would sign up for, but it takes a special type of player to willingly cede touches and shots in the name of the best interests of the team.
We once had a similar conversation about Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, mind you. Those that recognized that Westbrook’s ball dominance and inefficiency took opportunities away from Durant to be the best version of himself once believed that the Oklahoma City Thunder would have been wise to pitch Westbrook to New Orleans back when Chris Paul was still manning their perimeter.
For what it’s worth, with Cousins in the lineup, he averaged 18 shots per game. In the 48 games he played this season, the Pelicans were 27-21. With him in the lineup, Davis shot the ball 17.6 times per game and scored 26.5 points per contest.
In the 34 games the Pelicans played without Cousins, Davis’ shot attempts increased fairly significantly. He got 21.9 attempts per contest and similarly increased his scoring output to 30.2 points per game.
Aside from that, Cousins’ presence in the middle made it a tad more difficult for Rajon Rondo and Jrue Holiday to have the pace and space they need to be most effective. With both Davis and Cousins, the Pelicans struggled to consistently string together wins. Without Cousins, they improbably became the first team in the Western Conference to advance to the second round.
That Cousins tore his achilles tendon and is just a few months from becoming an unrestricted free agent combine to make him the most interesting man in the NBA.
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With Chris Paul having decided that the grass was probably greener with James Harden and Mike D’Antoni than it was with Doc Rivers and Blake Griffin, the Clippers fulfilled his request to be trade to the Houston Rockets and re-signed Griffin to a five-year max. deal. In doing so, they both gave Griffin a stark reminder of what life in the NBA is like and provided a blueprint for teams to follow when they have a superstar player with whom they believe to have run their course.
The glass half full perspective might be that Davis has simply become a better, healthier, more effective player and that with Cousins, he would have another weapon that could help catapult the Pelicans ever further toward the top of the Western Conference. But the half-empty glass might yield another conclusion.
At the end of the day, although he still hasn’t appeared in a single playoff game, Cousins is regarded as a game-changing talent and is one of the few players available on the free agency market this summer that could justify an annual average salary of $30 million. In all likelihood, the Pelicans will re-sign him for a sum that approaches that, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best move.
In the end, the Clippers traded Griffin for Avery Bradley, Tobias Harris, Boban Marjanovic, a first round pick and a second round pick. All things considered, it was a great haul for the Clippers when you consider that, just a few months prior, they could have lost Griffin as a free agent and gotten nothing in return.
Remarkably, after seeing Griffin dealt to Detroit, in the Western Conference, the Pelicans are on a collision course with the Golden State Warriors. Their health a constant concern, the team will have to deal with the pesky perimeter defense of Holiday and Rondo and versatility and two-way effectiveness of Davis.
Nobody gave New Orleans a chance against Portland, and for sure, not many people are going to believe in their ability to score an upset over the defending champions. But believe it or not, New Orleans has become a different team. And they’ve done so without Cousins.
Indeed, believe it or not, the Clippers gave us a blueprint for what a team should do when it has a superstar who might not be the best long-term fit for their program.
And if the Pelicans were wise, they’d be smart to follow it.
NBA Daily: Rookie Contributors Lifting Playoff Teams
This year’s impressive rookie class has translated their regular season performances to the playoff stage.
This past NBA season had the luxury of an incredibly entertaining and high-powered rookie class. Every other day it seemed like the feats of either Donovan Mitchell, Jayson Tatum, Lauri Markkanen, Dennis Smith Jr., Kyle Kuzma, or Ben Simmons were dominating the discussion about how advanced the league’s crop of newbies appeared to be.
As a result, the 2017-18 Rookie of the Year race was a much more heated discussion than the year before.
With the impressive campaign these NBA freshmen put together, it should come as no surprise that on the on bright stage of playoff basketball, three of the aforementioned crop are helping lead their team’s in tight first-round battles.
Donovan Mitchell has been the leading scorer for the Utah Jazz through two games in their series against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Jayson Tatum is stepping up for the Boston Celtics to help fill in the void of Kyrie Irving as they take on the Milwaukee Bucks. Ben Simmons is nearly averaging a triple-double through three games for the Philadelphia 76ers in their matchup with the Miami HEAT.
Lottery pick talents are expected in today’s NBA to come in and have some level of impact for their clubs. Usually, they play the role as a foundational building block that shows flashes of promise with an expected up-and-down first season. While these three playoff contributors haven’t been perfect all year long, under the pressure of the postseason, they’ve stepped up their play and appear to be avoiding the learning curve.
With that, let’s highlight further what Mitchell, Tatum, and Simmons have been able to do thus far in the postseason.
Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz
All season long Mitchell threw the entire scoring load of Salt Lake City on his back for the Jazz and helped carry them to a 5-seed in the Western Conference when early season projections suggested they should head towards in the wake of Rudy Gobert’s injury.
However, the 13th pick out of Louisville had no intentions of missing out on the postseason. And from the looks of his production so far, who can blame him?
Through the first two games of the Jazz-Thunder series, Mitchell yet again placed his name in the same breath as Michael Jordan. Mitchell’s 55 points in his first two playoff games broke Jordan’s record of 53 for most points scored by a rookie guard in that scenario.
Mitchell’s 27 points in Game 1 and 28 points in Game 2 led the Jazz to even the series and steal home court advantage from the Thunder. While he hasn’t been responsible for setting up the team’s offense, tallying just five assists through those two games, Mitchell is fulfilling the role of Gordon Hayward as the team’s primary scorer.
In a series against a team that features the likes of Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony, Utah needs Mitchell to go out there and get as many buckets as he possibly can.
So far, he appears to be welcoming the challenge.
Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics
When it was announced that Kyrie Irving would be lost for the entire postseason due to injury, the Boston Celtics’ hold on the 2-seed seemed a lot less intimidating than it once was in the Eastern Conference.
However, three games into the first round series against the Bucks, the Celtics hold a 2-1 lead. A lot part of that has to do with the role Tatum has been able to step in and play right away with the Celtics down their main scorer and playmaker.
Throughout the first three games of the series, Tatum 12.3 points, 7.3 rebounds, 2.3 assists, and 2.3 steals. The third overall pick in the 2017 draft started the series off with 19 points, 10 rebounds, and three steals to help Boston start off the matchup with a 1-0 lead.
At just 20 years old, Tatum is matching his age number with his usage percentage thus far against Milwaukee. For some perspective, Jaylen Brown managed just 12 minutes a night for the Celtics last season as a rookie when the playoffs rolled around.
Granted, injuries and missing players are helping in Tatum being on the court as much as he has, but the rookie is earning his time out there on the court.
Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers
The perceived frontrunner for Rookie of the Year, Ben Simmons has taken control in his first ever playoff series.
For starters, Simmons is averaging nearly a triple double over his first three games against the HEAT; 20 points, 10 rebounds, and 9.7 assists.
On top of his triple double ways, Simmons has upped arguably his biggest weakness so far in the playoffs, shooting 75 percent from the charity stripe. During the regular season, Simmons struggled from the line, hitting only 56 percent of his attempts.
With the offensive prowess of Simmons obvious, it’s the job he’s doing on the defensive end of the court against an aggressive and tough Miami squad that’s elevating his play to the next level.
Simmons’ ability to switch all over the defensive end of the court has placed his responsibilities from Goran Dragic to Justise Winslow to James Johnson, and seemingly everywhere in between.
Now with Joel Embiid back in the fold for the Sixers and Simmons, the rookie point guard has his defensive partner on the floor to help ease the workload on that end. A two-way performance each night will be imperative for Simmons in helping lead the young Sixers past the experienced HEAT team.
Pelicans Role Players are Key to Success
The supporting cast in New Orleans is a big part of their playoff surge, writes David Yapkowitz.
The New Orleans Pelicans have taken a commanding 3-0 lead in their first-round playoff series again the Portland Trail Blazers. While surprising to some, the Pelicans only finished one game behind the Blazers in the standings. The Pelicans have the best player in the series in Anthony Davis and the defensive duo of Rajon Rondo and Jrue Holiday have stifled Portland’s backcourt.
The truth is, the Pelicans have been a good team all season long. A lot of attention and recognition has been given to Davis, Rondo and Holiday this season and playoffs, and rightfully so. But New Orleans wouldn’t be where they are without the important contributions of some of their role players.
Take E’Twaun Moore, for example. Moore bounced around the NBA early in his career, with stops in Boston, Orlando and Chicago before finding long-term stability contract wise with the Pelicans. He’s primarily been a bench player with them before this season, his second in New Orleans, his first as a full-time starter.
He’s given the Pelicans a huge boost, especially from the three-point line. He’s put up 12.5 points per game on 50.8 percent shooting from the field, both career-highs. He’s shooting 42.5 percent from three-point range.
“I think it’s just our style of play,” Moore told Basketball Insiders. “We play fast and open. Coach [Gentry] gives us a lot of freedom, a lot of confidence. That’s why my game is up, my shooting is up.”
It’s not just offensively though. Moore has always been one of the more underrated defensive guards in the league. Paired up alongside Rondo and Holiday, the trio form a solid wing defensive unit. They’re a big reason for Portland’s offensive struggles.
Moore is the type of role player that every playoff contender needs to succeed. He knows that his role may change from game to game. Some nights he may be asked to score a little more. Other nights his defense is going to be called upon. Whatever it may be, he’s always ready to do what’s asked of him.
“I bring the energy. I bring a spark,” Moore told Basketball Insiders. “It’s knocking down shots, playing defense, getting out in transition. Just trying to be a spark.”
The Pelicans bench has also been a huge factor all season long. Their depth took a major hit early in the season with the injury to Solomon Hill. Hill has since returned to the lineup, but his absence paved the way for other players such as Darius Miller to step up.
This is Miller’s second stint with the Pelicans after spending two years overseas. Drafted 46th overall in 2012, he didn’t play much his first three years in the NBA. In 2014, he was cut by the Pelicans only about a month into the season. This year was different, he was thrown into the rotation from the get-go.
“This is a huge opportunity,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “I just come in and try to work every day, try to get better every day. My teammates have done a great job of putting me in situations where I can be successful.”
Miller has given the Pelicans a capable stretch four in the second unit who can slide over to small forward if need be. He’s averaging a career-best 7.8 points per game, the most out of any of New Orleans’ reserves. He’s their best three-point shooter off the bench, connecting on 41.1 percent of his long-range attempts.
While he acknowledges that he’s enjoying his best season yet as an NBA player, he’s quick to praise his teammates for allowing him to flourish.
“I just try to bring a spark off the bench. I come in and try to knock some shots down,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “My teammates do a great job of finding me when I’m open, I just try and knock down shots and compete.”
Sometimes time away from the NBA helps players grow and mature. The NBA game is fast paced and it can take awhile to get used to it. While some players have begun to use the G-League as a means of preparing for the league, Miller took an alternate route of heading to Germany.
For him, it’s a big reason why he’s been able to make an easier transition back to the NBA. His contract for next season is non-guaranteed, but he’s probably done enough to warrant the Pelicans keeping him around. He’s a much different and much-improved player. If not, he’s sure to draw interest from other teams.
“It was a lot to learn for me personally,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “I had to learn a lot of different things like how to take care of my body, how to manage my time, a whole bunch of stuff like that. The time overseas really helped me to mature and grow up and learn a few things.”
These Pelicans have most certainly turned quite a few heads since the playoffs began. We shouldn’t deal too much with hypotheticals, but it’s interesting to wonder what this team’s ceiling would’ve been had DeMarcus Cousins not been lost for the season due to injury.
This is a confident bunch, however. They’ve beaten both the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets during the regular season. They’ve already shattered a lot of expert predictions with their performance in the first-round. The Pelicans feel like they can hang with anyone out West.
“As far as we want to go,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “I feel like we’ve competed with all the best teams in the league this whole season. We just got to come out, stay focused and do what we do.”