The Memphis Grizzlies are in the midst of the most successful stretch in franchise history. Memphis made their seventh straight playoff appearance in 2017, but the Grizzlies were eliminated in the first round for the third time in the last four years. Memphis has gotten to this point with their “grit ‘n’ grind” style on the back of a veteran core that has been together for the entirety of this seven-year run. But with players aging, style of play changing, and several players becoming free agents, it could be time for change.
In the summer of 2016, Memphis tried to remake their team on the fly. They had the core of Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph, Tony Allen, and Vince Carter under contract and underwent the yearly quest to add shooting and scoring around their defensive-minded group. The Grizzlies reached a max contract agreement with Chandler Parsons early in free agency. Parsons was supposed to give Memphis shooting and the ability to play stretch 4 in small ball lineups, but instead appeared in just 34 games. Parsons battled knee problems all year and his production suffered when he did play. He shot under 34 percent overall and just 26.9 percent from beyond the arc. With three years at an average annual value of over $24 million per year left on his contract, the Grizzlies have an albatross of a deal clogging their cap sheet unless he all of a sudden can stay on the floor again.
In an attempt to add further shooting and wing depth, Memphis signed James Ennis and completed a sign and trade for Troy Daniels. Both players shot well on three-pointers, hitting 37 and almost 39 percent respectively, but came and went from the rotation. Ennis started 28 games, as the Grizzlies cobbled together minutes they expected to get from Parsons, while Daniels played almost exclusively off the bench. Neither player was a bad signing, but Memphis didn’t get the production they had hoped for either.
The Grizzlies' final big move was to re-sign Mike Conley to a five-year, max contract worth over $152 million. Because of timing with the cap spike, Conley’s new deal was the richest in the NBA to date. Some questioned the deal, considering Conley’s sporadic injury history, age and overall profile as a good, but not great point guard. However, Conley delivered the best season of his career, topping 20 points per game for the first time on career-best shooting numbers. While the later years of the deal may still look questionable, the current production from Conley is more than making up for it.
The Grizzlies' best addition of the summer was on the bench, as they hired longtime assistant coach David Fizdale for his first head coaching job to replace the departed Dave Joerger. Fizdale opened up the team’s offense with more three-point shooting, while retaining the solid defensive scheme the team has been known for. His “take that for data” line following a postseason loss to the San Antonio Spurs is already a thing of legend, but he’s proven himself to be far more capable than just dropping witty one-liners.
At the draft, Memphis added Wade Baldwin IV to be Conley’s backup. Baldwin wasn’t ready and spent most of his rookie year playing in the NBA D-League. This forced the Grizzlies to rely on Andrew Harrison, signed after spending a year in the NBADL, as the primary backup point guard. The Grizzlies also traded a future first round pick they owned from the Los Angeles Clippers to the Boston Celtics for the draft rights to big man Deyonta Davis and forward Rade Zagorac. Davis, like Baldwin, spent most of the year in the NBADL, while Zagorac was stashed overseas.
The Grizzlies' most successful rookies were two undrafted players: Troy Williams and Wayne Selden. Williams started 13 games before being eventually waived when Memphis needed a roster spot. Selden joined the team late and played in just 11 regular season games, but started two games in the playoffs.
This summer, Memphis holds a team option on Selden and seems likely to exercise it to bring him back. He’s shown enough in a small sample size, and his contract is cheap enough, that he should have a chance to compete for a roster spot in training camp. The Grizzlies other free agents are all far higher profile and each comes with their own interesting situation.
Up front both Randolph and JaMychal Green will be free agents. Randolph is unrestricted and has become almost a Memphis institution. He transitioned to a bench role to give Memphis more athleticism in the starting lineup and better balance off the bench. This move also kept his minutes down and allowed him to be productive and healthy throughout the season. Assuming Randolph and the Grizzlies can reach a reasonable deal that sees him fairly compensated over a two to three year period, he’ll likely be back. Anything longer than that wouldn’t be prudent for a player who turns 36 before the start of next season.
Green is a different story. After fighting his way on to the roster, Green emerged as the starting power forward. He easily had the best season of his career, with highs across the board. He even showed the ability to step out make threes, shooting nearly 38 percent on 155 attempts. He also adds a jolt of athleticism to a starting lineup that is relatively ground-bound otherwise. As a restricted free agent, the Grizzlies have the right to match any offer Green gets. He’s likely to return to Memphis on a new deal, whether he reaches it outright with the team or they match an offer sheet.
Memphis’ other free agents are veteran wings Tony Allen and Vince Carter. Allen is beloved in Memphis as “The Grindfather” and represents the team’s “grit ‘n’ grind” persona more than any other player on the roster. The challenge is that Allen turns 36 next season and has battled injuries the last four years, including missing the entire 2017 playoffs. His defense remains solid, but is also showing some signs of slipping. Because the Grizzlies are facing an already large payroll, they need to be cautious with how far to extend to bring back Allen. He could be open to a team friendly deal, simply to stay in a place where he is comfortable.
Carter is in a similar boat, as he’ll turn 41 next season. He’s already been written off as a productive player several times, but bounced back to have a terrific season for Memphis as a role player. He says his intention is to return to play and it is likely that the Grizzlies and Carter could reach agreement on a one year deal to bring him back. Carter is probably playing on a year-to-year basis at this point and should be open to any contract that keeps him in a rotation role on a playoff team.
With over $74 million committed to Conley, Gasol and Parsons and so many of their own free agents, it is unlikely that Memphis will be players in the free agent market. They are limited in their resources to add outside talent and are facing a potentially large luxury tax bill just to retain their own players.
While the current run of success has established the Grizzlies as a clear playoff team, it seems to have also put a cap on the upper bounds of their abilities. The roster is expensive and old, which is a dangerous combination for a team that is short of being a title contender. Conventional wisdom says that Memphis should let older players like Randolph, Allen and Carter walk and start to build around younger replacements. But with such a close-knit group, it is unlikely that will happen this summer. Memphis will likely return almost intact and will be a pain in the neck for whoever draws them in the first round, as they “grit ‘n’ grind” their way back to the postseason.
Guaranteed Contracts (10): Wade Baldwin IV, Mike Conley, Troy Daniels, Deyonta Davis, James Ennis, Marc Gasol, Andrew Harrison, Jarell Martin, Chandler Parsons, Brandan Wright
Partial/Non-Guaranteed Contracts (0): None
Potential Free Agents (5): Tony Allen (UFA), Vince Carter (UFA), JaMychal Green (RFA), Zach Randolph (UFA), Wayne Selden (RFA – Team Option)
“Dead” Money on Cap (1): $163,296 (Jamaal Franklin)
First Round Draft Pick(s): None
Maximum Cap Space: $6,556,818
Projected Cap Space: None. $30,049,610 over