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Grizzlies Free Agency Preview

After a month of anticipation for last week’s NBA draft, we’ve only got a few days left before the start of NBA free agency, a period that promises to be far less momentous for your local franchise. (Which will not stop me from writing roughly 10,000 words about it. Buckle up!)

This coming Sunday, July 1, the free agent moratorium begins, a time when restricted free agents can sign offer sheets and verbal agreements can be reached between teams and unrestricted free agents. On Friday, July 6, the moratorium ends and contracts can be signed. What’s possible for the Grizzlies?

Before we look at some potential Grizzlies targets, let’s set the scene, both for the Grizzlies and the league. (At the very end, if you want to skip down, I simply rank the Top 10 quasi-realistic targets I think the Grizzlies should pursue.)

The Grizzlies Roster

Coming out of the draft, the Grizzlies’ presumptive depth chart looks something like this:

  • Point Guard: Mike Conley – Andrew Harrison – Jevon Carter – Kobi Simmons (2-way contract)
  • Scoring Guard: Wayne Selden – MarShon Brooks – Ben McLemore – Myke Henry (2-way contract for now)
  • Small Forward: Dillon Brooks – Chandler Parsons
  • Power Forward: JaMychal Green – Jaren Jackson Jr. – Jarell Martin
  • Center: Marc Gasol – Deyonta Davis – Ivan Rabb

That puts the Grizzlies at 14 players on the main roster, with one open spot left. The team’s clearest need is on the wing, where the team could use more scoring/shot creation and could also use a defender with size to match up with better small forwards. It will be very hard — impossible really — to find both qualities in one player.

The Grizzlies could open up additional roster spots via trade or by waiving/stretching players on the roster’s margins (Ben McLemore, maybe Jarell Martin), but their avenues to fill any extra spots would be equally marginal.

If the Grizzlies are shopping for one player — best wing available — next month, what do they have to offer?

The Grizzlies Salary Cap Situation

There’s not much of a middle class on the Grizzlies payroll. They have three players (Mike Conley, Marc Gasol, Chandler Parsons) on max-type deals, north of $20 million each, nobody in the $10-$20 million range, and only three players (JaMychal Green, Ben McLemore, Jaren Jackson Jr.) who will be in the mid-level $5-$10 million range.

If you want to get down to the dollar, you can find NBA salary spreadsheets at various points on the internet. (I keep my own. What? You don’t?) But we’ll forego the public accounting here and cut to the quick: All together, the Grizzlies will enter free agency with a projected payroll of roughly $112 million, above the projected $101 million league salary cap but below the projected $123 million luxury tax line.

As a team above the salary cap, the Grizzlies will be restricted to using exceptions for free agents, of which they have access to only one: The full mid-level exception (MLE), which is projected to be $8.6 million. (Sweating the details: The Grizzlies have a couple of smaller trade exceptions, which could come into play, though not in free agency. They do not have access to the bi-annual exception, which was used last summer to sign Tyreke Evans.)

Of note: If the Grizzlies want to sign second-round pick Jevon Carter to more than a two-year contract for more than the rookie minimum (spoiler: they will), that will require using a portion of the MLE.

Practically speaking, the Grizzlies’ budget for outside free agents: $7.5 million. Using all of it would still leave the team a little breathing room under the tax line.

The Free Agent Landscape: Teams

Before we (finally, amirite?) get to some specific players the Grizzlies could or should target, let’s take a quick look at how the competition sets up. It can be hard to fully pinpoint what all teams have to spend in free agency, because incumbent free agents signing elsewhere, teams renouncing their own free agents, and trades can shift things around. But, for now, here’s a best guess of how teams are positioned for free agency.

Big Game Hunters: The Lakers and Sixers have significant cap space and will presumably target the offseason’s great white whales, either via free agency (Lebron James, Paul George) or using space via trade (Kawhi Leonard). If either team comes up short, there’s a good chance they’d shift to overpaying on one-year deals. They did so last season (Kentavious Caldwell-Pope in Los Angeles, J.J. Redick in Philly) and could do so again with the same players or other free agent wing players.

Cap Space Non-Competitors: The Mavericks and Suns have cap space and may want to shift into win-now mode after their big draft nights, but neither seems likely to target the wing. The Mavs have Wesley Matthews, Luka Doncic, and Harrison Barnes in the fold and a hole at center. The Suns have Devin Booker, Josh Jackson, T.J. Warren, and Mikal Bridges and a question mark at point guard.

The Bulls and especially the Hawks have significant space but seem further away from contention. They’re expected to leverage their cap space into future assets (taking other teams’ unwanted salaries for draft picks, for instance). The Nets are under the cap, but not by much and seem to be eyeing 2019.

Cap Space Competitors: The Pacers, Jazz, and Kings all have (or can have) meaningful cap space and all want to win now. The Pacers are most likely to target outside free agents and have already been mentioned in connection with a couple of wings the Grizzlies might pursue (Will Barton, Tyreke Evans). Depending on their long-term plans for incumbent frontcourt players (Myles Turner, Domantas Sabonis), they could aim higher by targeting young Orlando forward (and restricted free agent) Aaron Gordon.

The Jazz have some positional flexibility among their best players (Donovan Mitchell can play either guard spot, Joe Ingles either forward spot) and could target the best non-center available. It’s also possible that their focus will be re-signing their own free agents (Derrick Favors, Dante Exum).

There’s ample reason to doubt the Kings’ ability to win this season, but they’re sick of losing and don’t have their 2019 first round-pick anyway. When you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose. Small forward would seem to be the most likely position they’d target.  

Potential Mid-Level Exception Users: By my current count, the Grizzlies are among eight teams that may use all or some of the full MLE as their primary free-agent currency. Let’s take them in ascending order of threat.

The Bucks are in win-now mode, but have to worry about their own major restricted free agent (Jabari Parker) as well as the luxury tax line. Their roster is set up for the frontcourt to be a greater need.

The Knicks are probably going to be one of the worst teams in the NBA next season. Do they know this? They probably shouldn’t be in the market for the same kind of players for which the Grizzlies are in the market.

The Hornets have wings young (Miles Bridges, Malik Monk) and old(er) (Nicolas Batum, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist). Their recent trade of Dwight Howard for Timofey Mozgov bought them some more space below the tax line, but I’m still skeptical they’ll be a spender.

The Magic have a major need at point guard and have to worry about their own restricted free agent in Aaron Gordon. Big picture, it’s hard to know how much the Magic are thinking now vs. future.

The Spurs have a Kawhi Leonard situation to deal with, so who knows how free agency will set up for them, but they could be an MLE spender.

The Timberwolves are heavily in win-now mode and need depth on the wing (to the degree that Tim Thibodeau teams need depth). They could be concerned about pushing into the tax, but another immediate impact wing should be on their to-do list.

If Boogie Cousins re-signs with the Pelicans, that would take them off this list. But if he walks, they would seem to be certain to throw their MLE at wing help, and be a pretty enticing location.

In the Tax or Worried About It: The rest of the league — Clippers, Heat, Cavaliers, Celtics, Nuggets, Pistons, Warriors, Blazers, Rockets, Thunder, Raptors, Wizards — are in the tax or probably too close to be a full MLE user, though some of these teams could still try to retain incumbent free agents on the Grizzlies radar.

The Free Agent Landscape: Wing Options

Before we get into the few types of wing free agents the Grizzlies might target, let’s dispense with a few presumed non-candidates.

It goes without saying that the Grizzlies are priced out on Lebron James and Paul George and the same probably goes for unrestricted free agents J.J. Redick and Trevor Ariza and restricted free agents Zach Lavine and Marcus Smart.

I’d scratch Seth Curry for positional reasons (more combo guard than wing), and at the other end of the spectrum, the same goes for Jerami Grant (more forward/small-ball big than wing) and former Grizzly Rudy Gay. I can’t see 38-year-old Jamal Crawford on the same roster as MarShon Brooks.

Which leaves …

Presumed Top Targets

The two remaining free agents that would probably make the most since for the Grizzlies are familiar faces, both former Tigers.

At 27, Will Barton has never had a big payday and this is probably his best shot despite a potentially tight market. He’d be a tremendous get for the Grizzlies — he’s a scorer who, at 6’6”, could start or come off the bench, play the two or the three. The Nuggets have made noises about bringing Barton back, but with a presumed new max contract for center Nikola Jokic this summer that might be tax-prohibitive unless they can find a way to move off some other contracts (Kenneth Faried, Darrell Arthur).

Would Barton take a small discount to come to a city where he already has connections to a team where he would step into a major role? Maybe. But even if so I don’t imagine it would be a big one. He’s likely to be too costly for the Grizzlies.

There’s been a lot of suggestion that the odd ending to the Tyreke Evans situation last season has poisoned the waters on his return. I don’t believe that to be the case. It’s more a question of whether Grizzlies think Evans and MarShon Brooks offer too much duplication (Chris Vernon has aptly dubbed Brooks “Cheap Tyreke”) and whether Evans gets bigger offers. Unless they can get Barton, I can’t seen the Grizzlies getting a better player than Evans, who put up all-star-level production last year before his tank-season sabbatical.

Evans’ season would seem to warrant a big payday, but questions about his health history and the team impact of his individual production may dog him. I still suspect he’ll get offered more than the $7.5 million starting salary the Grizzlies could offer. A sweetener the Grizzlies alone possess: The ability for Evans to opt out of a multi-year contract after one season and get “Early Bird Rights,” which would allow the Grizzlies to give him a substantially larger raise the following season.

Other Unrestricted Options

The best back-up plan on the unrestricted market is probably Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. The 25-year-old guard is not as dynamic as Barton or Evans, but is probably a better defender and has been reasonably productive. He doesn’t offer much in the way of playmaking or positional versatility and is likely to be out of the price range anyway. Caldwell-Pope played for the Lakers last season on a one-year/$18 million deal. If the Lakers strike out on major free agents, they could overpay him again on another one-year deal.

A bigger name option is Avery Bradley, a 6’2” guard with a defensive rep (and questionable reality) who doesn’t really fit the Grizzlies’ need for wing scoring or small-forward defense but who could be a value play if his market is depressed enough after a bad season that ended with abdominal surgery. Bradley is still only 27 and could be a bounce-back candidate.

An under-the-radar candidate might be Joe Harris, a 6’6” wing who found a rotation role in Brooklyn last season and has been a career 40-percent three-point shooter. He might be more obtainable than former Grizzly Wayne Ellington, who finally started shooting the three at the elevated rate his stroke demands in Miami. The Heat have tax concerns, but the bet here is that either they retain Ellington or he finds a home among the top tier of finals contenders.

Mario Hezonja would be a bit of a deja-vu signing after last year’s failed Ben McLemore experiment: A disappointing former Top 10 pick whose original team cut bait early but who showed a little life late in the season before free agency (14 points a game and 42 percent three-point shooting in seven tanking April games).  Do the Grizzlies have the stomach for another “second draft” gamble? I’d be more hopeful on Hezonja than I was a year ago on McLemore, in part because of the versatility his 6’8” length grants him. An interesting roll of the dice, but the odds would be against it working out.

The poor man’s Ellington would be Marco Belinelli, a career 38-three-point shooter, but I think he’s too old (32 … gasp) and too limited for the Grizzlies current needs. More likely to take a small deal with a more certain contender. 

Restricted …  But Gettable?

The hardcore NBA podcast Dunc’d On does an annual simulation of the entire NBA offseason and they had the Grizzlies’ free agent interest in Milwaukee forward Jabari Parker resulting in a sign-and-trade sending JaMychal Green and a future first-round pick to the Bucks for Parker on a deal roughly in the MLE ballpark. I could see the Grizzlies having some interest in Parker for the right price, but I don’t see them being willing to deal another future first (they still owe one to Boston) and it’s hard to imagine Parker and Chandler Parsons both on the same roster. Anyway, that noted …

The obvious restricted candidate would be an awkward one: Rodney Hood, whom the Grizzlies (too) infamously passed on in the draft. Hood’s reality since hasn’t quite matched his local reputation, but he’s a wing with size and scoring ability who will only be 26 this season. He barely played for Cleveland in the playoffs after coming over from Utah, and the Cavs are facing a mammoth tax bill with or without Lebron James. It’s possible they let Hood walk. Do they do so for a deal below the full MLE? (Who are we kidding? Dave Joerger is totally getting the Kings to sign Hood to a big offer sheet.)

Others: Dante Exum in Utah is the biggest name, but he’s not a great fit and the Jazz would probably match any deal the Grizzlies could offer. Similarly, you aren’t getting Kyle Anderson out of San Antonio for any price you should pay. More likely, if the cost is very, very cheap, might be Doug McDermott, who is 6’8” and a 40-percent three-point shooter. He’s not much else, but those two things have some value. Other names to file away: Patrick McCaw (replaced by the Dubs in the draft), David Nwaba (“Nwaba” is “Replacement Level” in Yoruba), and Treveon Graham (Google it).

Bargain Shopping

If you can’t get anyone better, there are still some cheaper options that could add some useful depth and versatility to the roster. I’ll mention a few I’d favor then list off some others:

I’m pretty sure I like James Ennis more than the Grizzlies do, given how (little) he was used last season. They’ve already jettisoned Ennis and brought him back once. I doubt it happens again, but you could do worse: Ennis is still young (28) and is a league-average three-point shooter and wing defender. This is really useful!

An older (32), poorer-shooting variation is Corey Brewer, who seems destined to play on a Chris Wallace team and is running out of time. (I’d rep for Joe Johnson instead, but I don’t think he’s a wing anymore.)

I’d rather take a chance on Thabo Sefolosha, who is 34 and coming off a season-ending knee injury, but if he checks out physically, there’s a quality vet who can defend and spot up. (Similar vet off injury: Gerald Henderson, who missed all of last season after hip surgery.)

A theoretical upside target might be Glenn Robinson III, who is young (24), big (6’7″), and has a nice name. Is there any there there? Robinson has hit better than 38 percent from three on more than 200 attempts but hasn’t really shown a lot of overall growth through three NBA seasons. He got a late start last season after ankle surgery and only logged 5 minutes in the Pacers’ seven-game playoff series against Cleveland. (Note: Robinson was on my initial outline for this column but fell through the cracks when writing. I added him back after someone asked me about him. Y’all are animals.)

Lightning round:

Just say no: Lance Stephenson and Jeff Green.

For sentimental reasons (this won’t happen): Tony Allen, Vince Carter

Destiny I’d rather avoid: A bought-out J.R. Smith.

Probably better off keeping the roster spot open: Luke Babbitt, Shabazz Muhammad, Wesley Johnson.

Undrafted sleeper: Twice recently, the Grizzlies have rostered an undrafted rookie wing: Troy Williams and Wayne Selden. Odds of this repeating are slim, but file away the name Kenrich Williams, from TCU.

Potential Imports

International hoops has been an under-the-radar market for role-playing free agents. The Celtics brought over Shane Larkin and Daniel Theis last season and have already signed guard Brad Wanamaker this summer. The Grizzlies brought MarShon Brooks back from China last season.

Some of the more interesting names probably don’t match the Grizzlies’ needs: Big forward Jan Vesely and combo guards Nick Calathes (the return!) and Nando de Colo.

More likely, if still unlikely, are a trio of American players who have emerged as quality players with major European teams, all in the 6’7”-6’8” range and all in their late 20s: Chris Singleton (a good defender who couldn’t score at all — at all — in three seasons with the Wizards but has shot well the past two seasons with Panathinaikos in the Greek League), James Nunnally (of the Turkish team Fenerbahce), and Will Clyburn (CSKA Moscow). Longshots, but don’t be surprised if one or more of those names pops up in connection with NBA teams.

Other Avenues

It’s harder to predict, but the Grizzlies could use their space under the tax via trade. They’ve got two smaller trade exceptions ($3.4 million and $1.7 million) and could also send out a player (again, McLemore) for a little more salary coming back. There are plenty of teams who will be looking to shed salary for tax purposes. I’m not going to list players here. Haven’t we done enough already?

Proposed Call List

Here’s who I think I’d pursue, in this order:

  1. Will Barton
  2. Tyreke Evans
  3. Rodney Hood
  4. Joe Harris
  5. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope
  6. Wayne Ellington
  7. Avery Bradley
  8. Mario Hezonja
  9. James Ennis
  10. Thabo Sefolosha

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