30 in 30: MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES

February 17, 2013

The story of this year’s Grizzlies has yet to be written. On one hand, you have a 33-18 basketball team, winners of 3 straight headed into the All Star break, and the best defensive team, and frontcourt, in the Western Conference. The Grizzlies are likely the West’s 4th or 5th seed come playoff team, currently holding a 1.5-game advantage on the Denver Nuggets for homecourt advantage in the first round.

Success aside, owner Michael Heisley has made salary-dumping his top priority. And, as a fan, of course you want to see more guys like Dan Gilbert, Mikhail Prokhorov or Mark Cuban absorb bad contracts to bolster championship prospects, luxury taxes be damned, but that’s not Heisley, who’s net worth is around $1.9 billion, according to Forbes. Most notable, of course, is the Rudy Gay dump and the $37 million he’s owed in 2013-14 and 2014-15, but even more egregious, at least to me, is dropping Marreese Speights, your best frontcourt reserve, and Wayne Ellington, your best 3-point shooter, on Cleveland, as well as a first-round draft pick, for cap relief. That, to me, screams a team that may be interested in winning basketball games, but not at the cost of a few extra bucks.

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The Grizzlies can win without Gay — their core of Mike Conley, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol proved exactly that two years ago, when they upset the No. 1-seeded San Antonio Spurs before taking the Thunder to 7 games in the conference semifinals. That team had the scoring of O.J. Mayo, now in Dallas, but still played a similar bruising style of play, reliant on bullying teams in the post, a dying NBA art, and then, led by Tony Allen, harassing offenses on the other end. These Grizzlies are 2nd in the NBA in points allowed, giving up 90.2 a game, easily good enough for best in the West. Memphis is 14th in total rebounding, but due to a slower pace of play, has the second-best rebound differential, +4.0, trailing only Indiana. (To reiterate how slow of a game Memphis plays, Grizzlies’ opponents put up a league-low 77.2 field goal attempts per game.)

From an efficiency perspective, no one on this team jumps out at you. Gasol and Randolph are both enjoying productive seasons, but with the departure of Speights, are relied upon to each play around 35 minutes a night. Randolph is still not quite at his 2010-11 level, but is bouncing back from an injury-filled 2012-13 campaign that produced his lowest scoring numbers since 2002-03, his 2nd year in the league. And even though he can barely lift his feet six inches off the ground, he’s still somehow grabbing a team-high 11.5 rebounds a night. Gasol continues to round out his offensive game and remains an interior presence offenses need consider, at 1.7 blocks per game.

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With Randolph’s 15.6 points per game, Gasol’s 13.8 and Conley’s 13.3, you have three capable scorers, but no one with Gay’s burst, or pre-trade, team-leading 17.2 points per game. Sure, Tayshaun Prince has jumped in and tallied over 10 points per game as the new starter at the 3, with more range than Gay, but there’s no perimeter player on this team you can give the ball to and say, ‘go get me buckets.’ Perhaps with the exception of Utah, no other playoff team in the West has that problem. Memphis attempts the fewest 3’s, 14.7, and also makes the fewest, 4.7.

Allen, the team’s starting 2-guard, is a defensive commodity and not much else. His 8.6 points per game is among the league’s worst for starters; oh, and he shoots sub-18% from distance. At 26.3 points per game, Memphis has the 28th-ranked scoring bench in the NBA. Darrell Arthur is a nice bruiser type off the bench with an OK mid-range game, though not comparable to Speights, and Jerryd Bayless, their backup point, has shown throughout his young career he’s capable of, here and there, putting up points in bunches; he averages 7.1 points per on the season, but has tallied 15.1 per in his last 10 games.

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As for whether this team can advance in the postseason, it all comes down to matchups. Should they draw Denver in the quarterfinals, it will pit one of the league’s most dominant defenses with one of the game’s most prolific offenses. Memphis is 1-2 in 3 games against Denver this season; the 2 times they lost, Denver put up 97 and 99 points, respectively, but the time they won, Memphis held Denver to 72. High 90s are still below Denver’s 105.1 points per game, so Memphis has not completely lost control of the pace of those games, but the winning formula is clear: keep Denver in a halfcourt game, where they lack a true post threat and will be forced to rely on wing scoring over Allen’s aggressiveness and Prince’s length. (Should they advance, this season, Memphis is 1-2 against San Antonio, 1-1 against Oklahoma City and 0-2 against the L.A. Clippers.)

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Memphis ducked the luxury tax with the Speights and Gay trades, but next year already has $60+ million on the books, above this year’s $58 million salary cap. Allen is the only free-agent-to-be worth noting, and I would guess he returns on a short-term bargain contract. Randolph and Gasol are due a combined $32.6 million in 2013-14, Conley $7.9 and Prince a head-scratching $7.2 (good one, Joe Dumars). Ed Davis, a first-round draft selection in 2010, is a promising young talent on a team that’s, well, older — Randolph’s 31, Prince 32, Allen 31 and Gasol 28. If Memphis is going to make a run, at least one with this nucleus, it needs to come soon. But I worry they’re at least a piece away, with an owner perhaps unwilling to go the extra mile.

Follow me on Twitter @PatrickJDuprey.

FULL COVERAGE: ARMCHAIR 3’S 30 IN 30 SERIES


30 in 30: CLEVELAND CAVALIERS

February 8, 2013

The strategy employed by Chris Grant in building the post-LeBron James era Cleveland Cavaliers is quite simple — be really, really bad and accumulate as many draft picks as possible. Well, the Cavs, though in the midst of a far from terrible 9-11 stretch that includes wins over Boston and Oklahoma City, are not very good; the team’s 15-34, last in the Central Division and well out of the playoff race. The Cavs have acquired 4 additional first-round picks, in addition to the team’s own, from now until 2020, and if the Lakers earn a postseason bid, have the ability to swap a likely late first-round selection this June, via Miami in the LeBron trade, with L.A.’s, via the Ramon Sessions trade.

Believe it or not, Cleveland’s in a really good place right now. In the last 2 years, Grant’s acquired 4 promising young players through the NBA Draft. Kyrie Irving, in only his sophomore year at age 20, is an All Star reserve and arguably the league’s best point guard, with 23.9 points per game far and away tops at the position (all due respect to Chris Paul). Tristan Thompson, last year’s No. 4 overall selection, is really coming along in 2012-13, showing a wider variety of post moves, improved body control and an ability to play under control. As for rookies Dion Waiters and Tyler Zeller, it’s still too early to tell. Both have shown flashes — Waiters as a capable slasher at the 2, with an ability to attack the cup and a streaky outside jumper that demands respect, and Zeller as a stronger-than-expected 4 not afraid to fool around inside but also with an ability to step outside and stretch the defense.

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But depth has been an issue. Kyrie’s missed 11 games, Dion 8 and Anderson Varejao, whose 14.1 points and 14.4 rebounds per game had him on an All Star pace, 24 and counting. Varejao was first sidelined indefinitely with a right knee injury, then news of a blood clot ended his season early for the 3rd consecutive year. And Cleveland’s 27.9 bench points per game, helped immensely by the acquisition of Marreese Speights and Wayne Ellington a few weeks ago, still only ranks 24th in the NBA. (In 6 games with the Cavs, Speights has averaged 14.7 points, second best on the team, and 7.3 rebounds in less than 25 minutes per, accumulating a 22.2 PER.)

Cleveland could use a healthy Varejao in February, if at the very least to entertain any and all trade offers. Financially speaking, Cleveland’s in very good shape, with their largest salary — Baron Davis’s amnestied, and thus off the books, $14.85 million — expiring this summer. Speights, with a $4.5 million player option for next year he’s likely to opt out of, is the only question mark. Luke Walton’s $6.1 million expires, as does Daniel Gibson’s $4.8 million, and both are unlikely to return. Wayne Ellington, a restricted free agent, has a $3.1 million qualifying offer the Cavs should extend for his outside shooting. Omri Casspi, who’s struggled immensely in his 1.5 years here and fallen to the end of Byron Scott’s bench, is a restricted free agent the Cavs are likely to let walk.

Cleveland only has $32.5 million committed next year, and $0 on the books for 2014-15, with team options held on Varejao, Irving, Thompson, Waiters, Gee and Zeller, all of which are affordable and very likely to be extended. The point: Cleveland’s in the running for at least one max free agent in the summer when all 3 of Miami’s stars can opt out, including LeBron James, who’s been speculated to be weighing a potential return to his native northeast Ohio.

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Pipe dreams aside, at the very least, the young core is in place for years to come. Irving and Thompson are all but locked in through 2015-16, and Zeller and Waiters through 2016-17. Should Speights return on a reasonable contract, say in the $6-8 million per year range, Scott would have four very solid frontcourt guys, assuming full health, in Andy, Zeller, Thompson and Marreese, three of whom (Zeller excluded) are capable of giving you 10-15 any given night. Since LeBron’s departure, SF has been a glaring weakness, as Alonzo Gee, who averages 10.3 points per game (ironically, the same as his 281st-ranked PER) on 40% shooting and 29.5% from 3, struggling to ascend.

The Cavs aren’t terrible on offense, averaging 96.5 points per in a division with some really good defensive teams in Indiana and Chicago, but defensively, the team oftentimes lacks energy, starting with Irving, and surrenders 101.1 points per. A far cry from Mike Brown’s elite units — granted those teams had LeBron — Cleveland allows opponents to shoot a league-worst 47.5% from the field and 26th-ranked 37.6% from 3.

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For Clevelanders, the key word is patience, a concept not exactly new to Ohio sports fans. Cleveland’s definitely not postseason-bound this year and likely not again next year, though there’s enough talent on the roster to make a fringe run, again assuming full health. But if Scott can continue to develop the young guys and receive more of a defensive commitment from a franchise guy (and leader) like Irving, if Grant can continue to acquire young talent with his first-round picks and if owner Dan Gilbert can persuade a stud free agent, like a LeBron James, to ink a long-term contract in 2014, the sky’s the limit for this team in a few years.

Follow me on Twitter @PatrickJDuprey.

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Dribbles: Early returns on Gay deal, Marreese Speights & Eric Gordon.

February 3, 2013

Before the inaugural Armchair 3 30 in 30 drops later today, let’s take a quick look at some NBA headlines on this Super Bowl Sunday.

Gay shines in Toronto debut

Memphis shipped star SF Rudy Gay to Toronto earlier this week in a cap-saving move that also brought them Ed Davis, Tayshaun Prince and Austin Daye. I screamed fairly loudly shortly thereafter that the move made little sense for Toronto, a team already laden with bad contracts about to absorb Gay’s $37 million through 2014-15. Without getting rid of Andrea Bargnani’s $33 million through 2014-15, to me, the risk outweighed the reward, since the Raptors are locking themselves in as a fringe playoff team, at the luxury tax, but not a serious competitor.

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Also Gay and DeMar DeRozan are similar NBA types, slashers who can’t shoot well from the outside and also need the ball to be effective. That said, Friday night against the Clippers, it seemed to work; Gay came off the bench and dropped 20 points on 8-16 shooting in 33 minutes. Gay, 31% from 3 on the season, even hit 3 of his 6 3-ball attempts.

We’ll learn a lot more about this experiment this afternoon, when Gay battles LeBron James and the Miami Heat. Gay’s historically held his own against LeBron, notching 21 points in head-to-head earlier this season, as well as, of course, this game-winner in 2010.

Speights should stay in Cleveland

Moving from one ex-Grizzlies forward to another, Marreese Speights was among the 3 players Memphis sent to Cleveland in a cap-saving move 2 weeks ago. And Speights has not disappointed. With Anderson Varejao out for the season, Speights is the third big in Cleveland’s rotation and usually the first guy off the bench. In 5 games with the Cavaliers, he’s averaging 15.4 points and 6.8 rebounds a night in 26 minutes. He’s even shooting 53.4% from the field and 88% from the FT line, all substantial improvements on his career averages.

Speights was especially key in spurring a Cavaliers’ run that led to a 115-110 win over the Thunder last night at The Q. He dropped 13 of his 21 in the 4th quarter, then handed the reigns over to Kyrie Irving, aka Mr. 4th Quarter, who also tallied 13 of his 35 in the final session, including 13 of the team’s last 15. Speights played 33+ minutes, 9 more than starting center Tyler Zeller, shot 10-15 from the field and also grabbed 10 boards.

Speights has a $4.5 million player option for next season, and his name’s been included in trade rumors. His inside-out game and down-low presence must be attractive to any NBA contender, as his athleticism is a major plus for his position. The Cavs would be wise to hold on to Speights and, if he opts out, consider signing him to a reasonable long-term deal this summer, though it’s likely he could fetch more than his market value in a comparably weak free agent class. GM Chris Grant, and much to his credit, has been amassing draft picks like wool socks, but it’s also a good idea to keep a few effective veterans to help a team grow.

New Orleans plays cautiously with Eric Gordon

OK, Gordon’s played 15 games this season and averaged 16.9 points, so stories of his return are a little more than a month dated. But Gordon’s been complaining of a sore back since the team’s comeback loss in Los Angeles, played only 24 minutes Friday night and was held out last night against Minnesota. Coach Monty Williams has been cautious with Gordon thus far this season, sometimes not playing him on the second night of back-to-backs. And that’s wise, especially on a team that’s 15 wins are dead last in the Western Conference. Oh, and the Hornets invested a max $58 million over 4 years in the 2-guard this offseason.

Watching their near-comeback win against the Lakers earlier this week, it’s clear Gordon’s athleticism and perimeter shooting brings another dimension to this Hornets’ team. Greivis Vasquez has been terrific this year in Gordon’s absence, but his 36% shooting from 3 can give defenders an easy out. Assuming full health at the start of next year, I really like the Vasquez-Gordon backcourt while Austin Rivers continues to grow — with pieces such as Robin Lopez, Anthony Davis and Ryan Anderson, also a threat from 3, already on the books — and still only $35 million committed toward next year’s cap, excluding Lopez’s $5 million team option. Between a lottery pick and a solid free agent or two, this team could make noise in 2013-14.

Follow me on Twitter @PatrickJDuprey.


Cavs, Grizz kick off trade season.

January 23, 2013

Why wait? With about a month to go until the Feb. 21 NBA Trade Deadline, that was apparently the thought process in Memphis and Cleveland this morning. The two teams completed a deal involving four players — the Grizzlies’ Marreese Speights, Josh Selby and Wayne Ellington, and the Cavaliers’ Jon Leuer — but somehow they’re all afterthoughts. Memphis had Rudy Gay and avoiding the luxury tax on its mind, and Cleveland was looking to build toward the future, acquiring a first-round draft pick that they’ll get between 2015 and 2019. (For stipulations as to when exactly Cleveland will get that pick, read this Memphis Flyer report.)

Let’s start with Cleveland, since I’m a Cavs guy, after all. Going into today, the Cavs had the most salary cap space of any team in the league, so absorbing close to $8 million in salary isn’t the end of the world. And all those contracts are either off the books at the end of this year or next, meaning Chris Grant and the Cleveland brass still have a lot of cap flexibility going into the crucial summer of 2014, when LeBron James can opt out.

Speights is likely on the books for $4.5 million next year, which isn’t the worst thing in the world given his potential; he was Memphis’ top bench big after Z-Bo and Marc Gasol. Ellington, the former UNC sharpshooter who hasn’t exactly lit it up in the pros, has a $3.1 million qualifying offer, and Selby has a team option close to $900K. But all those deals are guaranteed off the books in 2014, unless the Cavs re-sign them.

The Cavs, according to Hoopshype, actually have $0 committed to the 2014-15 season. Of course, that’s a bit deceptive, since Kyrie Irving ($7.5 million), Tristan Thompson ($5.5), Dion Waiters ($4.1) and Tyler Zeller ($1.7) have affordable team options the team’s likely to pick up, as do Anderson Varejao ($9.8), assuming he’s still on the roster and, you know, actually playing, and Alonzo Gee ($3.25). That adds up to about $32 million, leaving $26 million by this (so it will be higher then) season’s cap number to sign a max player and fill out a roster.

But for the Cavs, this move is really about the pick. Cleveland’s been stockpiling picks like food before a flood, with four, in addition to our own (plural), by the end of the decade, as well as the right to swap Miami’s first-rounder (from the LeBron deal) with the Lakers’ (from the Ramon Sessions deal), assuming the 17-24 Lakers earn a postseason bid.

First hearing of the deal on Twitter this morning, I remembered the Mo Williams-for-Baron Davis swap from 2011, where the Cavs absorbed Baron’s ridiculous deal for an unprotected first-round pick; that pick later turned into the No. 1 overall selection and Rookie of the Year Kyrie Irving. FWIW, though the Cavs amnestied Baron before last season, his contract still means he’s getting $14.85 million this season, despite not playing a single dribble. Back to the point: this deal coalesces with the Cavs’ attempt to build through the draft post-LeBron, ala Oklahoma City.

On the Grizzlies’ end, I also like the trade. Memphis sheds close to $8 million in payroll to duck below the luxury tax, leaving them enough room to sign a street free agent to fill out the twelfth spot on their roster. But Memphis, a team with a real lack of outside shooting, loses its best 3-point shooter in Ellington; he’s shooting it at a 42% clip this year through 40 games. And they lose depth in Speights, who was giving them 6.5 points per game in 14.5 minutes.

Now Memphis can channel its focus toward winning this year, rather than dealing Rudy Gay. With Gay, Zach Randolph and Gasol all on the books for close to max money, and Mike Conley getting around $8-10 million per, you have a great core, but also a dearth of financial flexibility. Hopefully now Memphis, 26-14 and fourth in the Western Conference, can make a run at OKC.

So, to recap, what we have here is a mutually beneficial deal. But I might just like it a tad more for Cleveland.

Follow me on Twitter @PatrickJDuprey.


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