Where they are now: Well, the Grizzlies are bad- really bad. It is simply astonishing how fast an underrated franchise that made the playoffs two years ago went down the tubes. The Gasol trade left them with very few legitimate pieces and what essentially amounts to a blank slate except for the PG position and Rudy Gay. That said, they do have some pieces which could end up being on the long-term vision of the franchise in Rudy Homosexual, Mike Conley, the underrated Kyle Lowry (say it all, like Theo Ratliff’s Expiring Contract (TM)), Hakim “The Syracuse Dream” Warrick and even the charismatic enigma that is Darko Milicic. The other significant player that they have is Mike Miller, who could be a part of a team in a fast rebuilding and is also one of the few movable pieces that other teams actually have an interest in. It’s also important to mention that they have Juan Carlos Navarro and Javaris Crittenton on roster as well.
The Timetable of Contention: Realistically, it will take at least two years to procure the talent necessary for this team to be competitive, especially in the most viscous division in professional sports. Luckily, they have a massive amount of cap flexibility in that time period, so I’ll set their timetable at 2012-2015, starting a year after the core roster is set and has time to gel.
How to Utilize the Timetable: There are two conflicting ideas about how Memphis can optimally rebuild:
1. Clear a bunch of cap space and overpay a few key guys (the Utah strategy)
2. Free Agents won’t sign for Memphis anyway, so convert expiring contracts into longer contracts for a talent upgrade.
I’m going to use Option 1 because I firmly believe that a player will go just about anywhere if the money and/or the opportunity is right (see: Boozer, Carlos and Johnson, Joe). As such, the best idea is to clear the cap for the offseason following the 2009-2010 season, which is the year that Rudy Gay is a Restricted Free Agent (with Memphis having Bird Rights, naturally). That said, it would be pivotal to spend wisely the summer before, since it would make Rudy more likely to re-sign and give the team some momentum and sexiness to Free Agents that off-season.
Implementation: The two most important positions on any team are Point Guard and Big (either PF or C, though C is preferable). Unlike most teams of their situation, the Grizzlies are actually set at one of those positions, which is a gigantic strategic advantage. They definitely need to keep both Lowry and Conley, with the Raptors being the quintessential example for how important having two starting PG’s can be. At the worst, one gets hurt and the team still has a starter, and at the best they have a good PG on the floor every minute or could move one of them (or Crittenton) for assets at another position. As such, the key for Memphis is to find a legit big. Luckily, they will have the draft position to potentially make it happen. The perfect player for them is Brook Lopez, who I have as the #1 draft-eligible player, but is down on other people’s lists because of the overhyped Freshman group (Mayo, Beasley, etc). He would be a fantastic C in a system like Memphis’ and can be a difference-maker on both the defensive and offensive ends. Another fascinating possibility would be to procure Kevin Love, either by moving up from the Lakers’ pick in this draft or using the 2009 1st Rounder if he ends up staying at UCLA. While he does not have many of the physical gifts necessary for an uptempo game, he throws the best outlet passes of any player in America (NBA or anywhere else) and is incredibly savvy. In short, he’s the type of guy who could help ignite fast breaks for the speedy wings.
The other pivotal point is to figure out where Rudy Gay should play his minutes. A player with his skills and potential can move around, but it is important because of how it affects who to put around him and the PG flotilla. I see him as a SF who periodically slides over either to the SG slot or the PF slot to cause match-up problems. Ideally, you’d want a guy who can move well (because of the generally up-tempo system), finish passes from Conley, and shoot open shots when available. To me, the best fit is someone who could actually be a possibility: Andre Iguodala. If Memphis uses Mike Miller as leverage to move Brian Cardinal’s contract (and apparently Miami was willing to swallow it, so it’s a valid assumption), Memphis can have enough cap space to make a real move. Iggy resembles Joe Johnson in some interesting ways, as both seem dedicated to establishing their own legacy and grew out of their situations in cities where they spent early portions of their career. Regardless of how much he likes Philly, it would not surprise me to see Iggy sign the one year Qualifying Offer this summer to become an Unrestricted Free Agent during the summer of 2009-2010, when many teams are clearing up cap. It gives him a massive amount of leverage and a team like the Grizzlies could make a play at him with the right sales pitch. Playing in an uptempo system with Rudy Gay and three 1st round picks in the next two years could be enough for him to make the jump. Interestingly, a similar player would be excellent for the back-up 2/3 role, with Gerald Green and Mickael Pietrus serving as logical players to fill that spot long-term.
After that, the Grizzlies would need role players. The surge of talent coming into the NBA right now has an interesting group of players who seem to be willing to embrace supporting roles from the higher echelon talent like Brandon Roy and Chris Paul to spot guys like Bobby Jones and Amir Johnson. As those draft classes start to move to free agency (and the current college/HS players move into the draft) these guys will be much easier to find, and having a system that would be fun to play in and open minutes would only attract more of them. Unfortunately, the Grizzlies do not have any 2nd round picks in this compelling draft (I’m going to do a post on 2nd rounders in the next week), but one could easily be procured for the right price. Instead of listing the multitudes that would be a good fit, I’ll just include them in the potential roster.
1. Draft Brook Lopez (1st Round), Brandon Rush (Second 1st Round pick), and Pat Calathes (2nd Round pick) in the 2008 Draft.
2. Trade Mike Miller and Brian Cardinal to the Cleveland Cavaliers for Eric Snow and Damon Jones (or a similar trade to get expiring contracts and picks, if possible).
3. Re-sign Juan Carlos Navarro.
4. Sign Bobby Jones to a front-loaded 3-year deal (around $2.5m per) in the 2008 off-season.
5. Sign Maarty Leunen as an undrafted Free Agent (or buy a late 2008 2nd round pick).
6. Sign Andre Iguodala to the max in the Summer of 2009.
7. Draft Samardo Samuels (1st Round) and Alonzo Gee (2nd Round) in the 2009 Draft.
The 2009-2010 Memphis Grizzlies:
PG: Mike Conley / Kyle Lowry / Javaris Crittenton
SG: Andre Iguodala / Juan Carlos Navarro / Javaris Crittenton
SF: Rudy Gay / Bobby Jones
PF: Samardo Samuels (2009 1st round pick) / Hakim Warrick or Pat Calathes (if Warrick not re-signed for money concerns)
C: Brook Lopez (2008 1st round pick) / Darko Milicic (expiring) / Maarty Leunen (2008 2nd round pick)
Inactive: Alonzo Gee (SG/SF), Pat Calathes (PF/SF)
This team would cost around $44m not including Warrick (but including all the other signees/pick cap holds). If the cap is at my expected $61m, that would give the team about $17m in cap space for the 2010 off-season, when Rudy Gay would be a Restricted Free Agent, so they could spend around $8-10m on a player and then sign Rudy Gay and be totally fine for the Luxury Tax.