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Grizzlies Free Agency Wrap-Up: Kyle Anderson, Omri Casspi signings

Note: This will probably be the next-to-last Grizzlies post on this personal blog that was never intended for that purpose. My official writing home will be announced soon, with a launch before Grizzlies training camp opens for next season. I’ll return here for some Summer League notes at the conclusion of play in Vegas, then this space can return to music/film lists and republished old stuff for which it was meant.

Grizzlies free agency came to a presumed and somewhat surprising end last night when the San Antonio Spurs declined to match the Grizzlies’ four-year, $37 million offer to restricted free agent forward Kyle Anderson. Anderson joins earlier one-year veteran’s minimum signing Omri Casspi as the Grizzlies add a couple of 6’9” small forwards for next season. Some thoughts:

What This the Plan All Along?: It might have been. The Grizzlies were mostly quiet on the first day of free agency, finally entering the fray with a ripple rather than a splash in the form of the Casspi signing. My understanding at the time of the Casspi signing was that the Grizzlies free agency Plan A was still in place despite all of the signings of the day. Given the team’s read of the market (Will Barton was the first name off the board, and for far more than the Grizzlies could offer), I think Anderson was likely their top realistic target from the beginning.  

Doubling Down on Long-Term, on Defense, on Hoops IQ: Setting aside the specifics of Anderson’s game and contract for a brief moment, I’m a fan of what the signing represents. One of my biggest concerns about this off-season was that the team’s public talk of playoff contention would force them into instant-impact actions to try to back it up. That was not the case in the draft, where the Grizzlies took the youngest but (in their mind, and mine) most talented prospect on the board rather than trading down for more established immediate help. And in free agency, the Grizzlies put an emphasis on adding another young piece on a long-term deal, locking up a 24-year-old at a position of scarcity rather than signing a more veteran player to a shorter deal.

Jackson and Anderson can hopefully both help the Grizzlies this season, but more than that these acquisitions were about building a new core for the next iteration of the franchise.

Similarly, the Anderson signing (and to a lesser degree, the Casspi one) builds on the draft by suggesting a renewed organizational commitment to defense and basketball IQ. In recent years, draft/free agency decisions that have tapped “tools” over craft/feel — Wade Baldwin, Ben McLemore, Deyonta Davis so far — have not worked out. They went the other way with Dillon Brooks, to great reward so far, and seem to have taken a lesson from that. 

Introducing Slo-Mo: Anderson comes to Memphis pre-equipped with a nickname, and one of  the league’s best: Slo-Mo.

Anderson is an eye of the beholder player. On the floor, he’s a lumberer, but a long one (6’9”, 7’3” wingspan), with good vision and sure hands. On the stat sheet, the box score line looks meager (8 points, 5 boards, 3 assists per game last year, all career highs) but the advanced metrics pop.

Anderson isn’t much of a scorer and maybe even less of a shooter (career 34 percent from three on fewer than one attempt per game). He’s a crafty finisher at the rim when he can get there and plays within his considerable limits, so he’s efficient with the shots he does take.

But if Anderson isn’t much of a scorer, he’s pretty good at just about everything else. He’s a good ball-handler and passer who can play as kind of a point-forward. He’s an above-average rebounder at his position and likely to be the best perimeter rebounder on the Grizzlies roster next season.

Defensively, Anderson uses his length and smarts to mitigate his lack of foot speed, and the results in San Antonio have been excellent. ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus stat rated Anderson as the second-best defensive small forward in the NBA last season, behind Philadelphia’s Robert Covington and ahead of Golden State’s Andre Iguodala. By that measure, he was the second-best defender on the league’s fourth-best defensive team. Anderson also had one of the highest steal rates in the NBA among players who got significant time.

That was all in San Antonio, a team that won 47 games last year despite only getting 9 from its best player. We all saw how the Grizzlies fell apart after only getting 12 games from Mike Conley.

Can Anderson’s peculiar stuff translate into a different team context? The Grizzlies are betting not only that it can, but that he can improve. That his ability to impact winning in a variety of subtle ways is more profound than his lack of scoring or athletic pop. We can revisit those prospects more fully in the fall.

Was it Worth It?: My quick take on Anderson in my free agency preview was that as a restricted free agent I doubted he’d be worth a contract big enough for the Spurs not to match. That would be my fear for the Grizzlies here, that Anderson struggles more outside of the Spurs environment and that the team that knows him best is correct in their cost/benefit calculation.

That said, Anderson started 67 games for a 47-win Spurs team last season. If he’s a starter — or even a meaningful sixth or seventh man — for the Grizzlies over the length of the contract, it’ll be fine. The 5 percent increases in Anderson’s deal are likely to be equaled or bested by increases in the league’s salary cap, so he’ll remain a mid-level salary on the books and one that will cover the age 25-28 seasons of a player who brings varied skills to an increasingly premium NBA position.

Grizzlies executive John Hollinger noted before free agency began that beyond skill set or position, what the Grizzlies most needed to get out of free agency were good contracts, i.e. good values. Did they do that? The wishy-washy answer is maybe. Anderson’s range of outcomes relative to his contract is probably fairly narrow, with this deal unlikely to look like either a bargain or a bust.

Opportunity Costs: One surprise of the Anderson signing was that the Grizzlies deployed all of their non-taxpayer mid-level exception, leaving no free-agent exception money left to offer second-round pick Jevon Carter the kind of deal given to Dillon Brooks, Ivan Rabb, and Deyonta Davis: More than the minimum, with a third year team option. Instead, Carter is almost certain to get only a two-year deal at the minimum salary, a surprise for the second pick of the second round and one that would leave the Grizzlies vulnerable if Carter becomes a significant contributor in short order.

Presumably the Grizzlies thought they needed the full MLE to ward off San Antonio (probably right) and are probably making the calculation that Carter’s ceiling is limited enough to be worth forgoing the extra year. I think this is probably correct too, which is why Carter would not have been my pick at #32.

What could the Grizzlies have done if they hadn’t signed Anderson? In retrospect, they weren’t going to get any of the shinier unrestricted free agent wings on the market, whether they were interested in them or (in the case of Tyreke Evans) not. Marcus Smart would never have signed an offer sheet at the mid-level. Perhaps Rodney Hood would be the next name on the restricted list, but I suspect the Grizzlies aren’t as high on him as many fans. (Hood is a near opposite of Anderson). More likely, the Grizzlies could have offered a shorter-term deal to a remaining veteran (Wayne Ellington) or a less lucrative long-term deal to another young wing (David Nwaba? Treveon Graham?).  

Casspi, Briefly Considered: I first saw Omri Casspi at the Nike Hoop Summit in Memphis, where he was my favorite player on the floor. I’ve suggested him as a potential Grizzly on and off over the years. This is probably a few years late, but for the veteran’s minimum, I think it’s a good signing. If healthy — and he wasn’t late last spring in Golden State, which cost him his roster spot in the playoffs — Casspi is a good guy to have on the end of your bench. He can play two positions (three and four), can play off the ball effectively as both a shooter and cutter, and isn’t a sieve defensively. He won’t be in the rotation every night, but adds insurance and a needed veteran presence. It’s fine.

How the Pieces Fit: This is for J.B. Bickerstaff to figure out, but given the extent of the commitment and make-up of the roster, Anderson is probably the favorite to start at small forward. I think the Grizzlies have considered Dillon Brooks’ ultimate position to be more at scoring guard than small forward, and adding Anderson and Casspi probably shifts him there. He’s likely the favorite to start there. Which leaves a prospective depth chart of:

  • Point guard: Mike Coney-Andrew Harrison-Jevon Carter
  • Scoring guard: Dillon Brooks-MarShon Brooks-Wayne Selden-Ben McLemore-Kobi Simmons (two-way)
  • Small forward: Kyle Anderson-Chandler Parsons-Omri Casspi-Myke Henry (two-way for now)
  • Power forward: JaMychal Green-Jaren Jackson Jr.-Jarell Martin
  • Center: Marc Gasol-Deyonta Davis-Ivan Rabb

At every spot, 1-4, there are players who can easily shift up positionally, with Anderson, Parsons, and Casspi all well-suited to playing the four in smaller lineups. If Brooks starts are two, the competition for playing time between MarShon Brooks and Selden looms as an interesting camp story.

At 16 full roster players when you can only carry 15 into the season, something has to give. By my count, the Grizzlies are less than $2 million from the tax line. Wayne Selden and Andrew Harrison have non-guaranteed contracts and could be cut with some cap savings, but that’s not going to happen. Instead, there are three players on thin ice: Ben McLemore, Jarell Martin, and Deyonta Davis. The latter has had a bad Summer League so far, but I think the Grizzlies are going to be reluctant to cut bait this early, especially since they’d prefer to ease Jaren Jackson into center minutes. Davis could be off the team or could be in the opening night rotation. I don’t see much of a path to meaningful playing time for McLemore.

It’s still possible the Grizzlies find a way to sort things out on the trade market, but they’d be better off cutting a McLemore or Martin than sending additional assets to get a team to take them.

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