A week ago, today, the Memphis Grizzlies made headlines by trading nearly half of their bench and a future draft pick to Cleveland for Jon Leuer and cap space. Prevailing logic is that the Grizzlies’ recent maneuver has bought the front office some time before making an ultimate decision regarding the future of the core and the state of the team’s finances. Sending Mo Speights, Wayne Ellington, and Josh Selby off to Cleveland has set the Grizz comfortably below the tax line for this season while arguably keeping the pieces that matter most as part of the picture. Of course, in the NBA nothing is sacred, but the imminence of a major move has been alleviated for the time being. Still, the rumor wheel will be set spinning no later than the final buzzer of the 2012-13 season, regardless of where the Grizzlies end result is positioned. But does it have to?
If we’re living in a world where we accept everything we hear from the front office as truth, the reality is that they are not afraid of the luxury tax if they feel they are fielding a team that is worth it. Now, their actions taken last Tuesday may at first glance seem contradictory to the notion that this group is in fact worth it, but I don’t necessarily believe that is the full story to be told. I may be reading too much into subtleties, but what I gather from this interview with Chris Vernon is that Grizzlies CEO Jason Levien gives the impression that it is the graduated repeater tax that he approaches with trepidation. While the new collective bargaining agreement is surely punitive to teams over the luxury tax line for a single season, it brings the hammer of Thor down upon repeat tax offenders.
Thus, it appears as if the Grizzlies brass might still feel that they can afford to dip into the tax for one single season if they really like what they see (something else that we’ve already heard a lot of from Levien). Without some serious moves, next year’s team is a near lock for luxury tax territory, as the total team salary for 2013-14 sits somewhere around $68 million for 8 players. This raw figure does not include a new contract for Tony Allen, the team option on Hamed Haddadi, or Jon Leuer’s qualifying offer.
So let’s create a hypothetical: say that the Grizzlies braintrust sees enough in the core group of Mike Conley, Rudy Gay, Zach Randolph, and Marc Gasol down the stretch this season, to be convinced to give them one more go of it. Right now, with the exception of the newfound Jon Leuer and Chris Johnson, they’re seeing through a unit comprised of Heisley-era remnants. So let’s say they want to give the core four one more shot… and this time, they want to spike the cocktail with their own juices.
If you listen to what Levien has to say in this interview with Fox, he’s careful to emphasize that he and the management team are fond of the flexibility that last week’s move afforded them “not just now, but even into the summer and beyond that.”
So living in our hypothetical, management decides to bite the bullet and graze past the line of the tax next year. Whether or not they choose to retain Lionel Hollins or re-sign Tony Allen is irrelevant for construction’s sake (competitively is another story). They eat the tax, fill the roster around Mike, Rudy, Zbo, and Marc the way that they see fit with their own hand-picked pieces, and see where it takes them.
Now flash forward to the end of next season. It’s the summer of 2014. Logic suggests that now it’s time to worry, because after a year in the tax there is no chance that you want to be a repeat offender in a small market. Granted that no additional multi-year deals were signed, an analysis of the roster at this time shows that the only on-paper commitments heading into the 2014-15 season are the core four and Darrell Arthur’s player option. Additionally, there’s a $3.28 million qualifying offer for Quincy Pondexter and a very affordable team option for a hopefully developing Tony Wroten. So yes, now it’s definitely time to revisit the core four.
If the Grizzlies make it to this 2014 summer with the fantastic four, it’s an interesting situation. At that point we have in raw figures:
- Two years for Mike Conley at $9 million and $10 million, respectively.
- One year left on Rudy Gay’s deal at $19.3 million.
- A Zach Randolph player option for $16.5 million.
- One year left on Marc Gasol’s deal at $15.8 million.
That would leave the Grizzlies with somewhere in the ballpark of $60 million tied up in the core alone, with a repeat offender tax breathing down their neck. The good news is that at this juncture, all of the major contracts become very moveable. The albatross of Rudy Gay’s cap hit, for example, becomes a 27 year old shade below all-star quality small forward with a $20 million expiring deal. Similar notions of value as a trade chip can be observed regarding each of the other three.
In this scenario, the summer of 2014 then becomes the real point at which something must be done, but while imminence of action arises, almighty flexibility is not too far off.
As with anything, there is risk involved, as who knows what the landscape of the trade market will look like over a year from now, but keeping this team together is not without merit. It could work leaps and bounds in favor of new management building trust with the fan base, even if the team fails to advance very far in the playoffs. A premature collapse-and-rebuild movement could very well stifle and set back what has been steady attendance growth since the team has been watchable. While conventional wisdom suggests that from a basketball standpoint it is a far cry from the ideal to be a stagnant, mediocre playoff team, a sustained string of years with a puncher’s chance might go a much longer way towards evoking fan loyalty than a flash in the pan.
Is it likely that the fate of the core four plays out this way? To be honest, I couldn’t tell you. It’s entirely too early to tell what direction management wants to take this franchise. I would be hard pressed to believe that they’re all sold on a plan yet, for that matter, but they might have bought themselves even more time than we thought, to figure it all out.
* All salary figures taken from Hoopshype.com