With the 2018 NBA Draft in the rear view mirror, teams now shift their focus to free agency. Rebuilding teams want to use free agency to fill in the cracks around their recent draftees and contenders endeavor to sign the top-end talent to take them over the top for a championship. The Memphis Grizzlies, in a way, are stuck between these two paths, as they have the expensive players you usually find on a contender in Mike Conley, Marc Gasol, and Chandler Parsons, but have very little chance of actually competing for a top-four playoff seed next season given the financial constraints created by those three deals. The Parsons deal in particular is a killer, since he’s been unable to stay healthy throughout his time in Memphis, making it tough to evaluate the $49.2 million left on his contract as anything less than at least $40 million in “dead money”.
After much speculation about moving all over the place in the first-round of Thursday’s draft, the Grizzlies opted to stick at No. 4 and took Jaren Jackson Jr., a young big man who profiles as a high-level switch defender and rim protector. Jackson is the heir apparent to Gasol and will inherit the Memphis defense from the Spanish center when he retires or moves into a smaller role in the next few years. In terms of how the Jackson pick impacts their team in the near future, Memphis is now stocked at the big man positions with Gasol, Jackson, and JaMychal Green as the primary trio and Deyonta Davis and Jarrell Martin nabbing backup minutes as head coach J.B. Bickerstaff sees fit. For depth purposes, the Grizzlies may bring in another big man, but it may not be necessary, especially if they see Parsons as able to give them anything at the power forward position in small-ball units.
Beyond financial flexibility, roster spots will be a concern for general manager Chris Wallace. With just two free agents potentially leaving the team in Tyreke Evans and Mario Chalmers and two draft picks joining the team in Jackson and second-round pick Jevon Carter, Memphis will have to cut non-guarantee contracts in order to bring new players into their regular season roster. They do have Andrew Harrison and Omari Johnson on non-guaranteed contracts and it’s not about saving ownership money or cutting those guys because they’re not NBA-level players—Memphis just literally needs the two seats at the table those guys currently hold to bring in better guys.
After moving on from those two, the Grizzlies will find themselves $13.3 million from the $123 million luxury tax threshold with three open spots, one of which will be occupied by Carter as soon as he signs. Since they used their bi-annual exception on Tyreke Evans last season, they’ll be limited to the full Non-Taxpayer Mid-Level Exception this summer, which starts at $8.6 million and can be used to sign as many players as they like for up to four years, as long as the sum of the 2018-19 salaries of those players doesn’t add up to more than $8.6 million. In the Grizzlies’ case, it would be smart for them to try to use most of their mid-level on a single player and use the remainder on Carter, then sign a minimum contract to fill the final spot on the roster.
Given the Grizzlies’ struggles from beyond the three-point line last season, versatile shooters would be smart targets in free agency. Gasol has added the three-point shot to his game, which opened up the Memphis offense in an important way, but there’s no replacement for high-level wing shooting to surround the Conley-Gasol pick-and-rolls. There will be a number of unrestricted and restricted shooters on the market in their price range, but they’ll have to compete with most of the rest of the league for these players. Shooting is always at a premium in the NBA (as long as that player isn’t a total zero in other areas) and with so many teams in the same position as the Grizzlies with respect to the mid-level exception, these players will have their choice of quite a few different destinations. Names like Joe Harris, Treveon Graham, Doug McDermott, Seth Curry, Will Barton, Anthony Tolliver, and Wayne Ellington all make sense for the Grizzlies as potential signings with their mid-level exception and should be gettable for them, even if it means having to overpay slightly. Doing so wouldn’t hurt Memphis’s tax position and that mid-level exception is use-it-or-lose-it each year, so holding back on a high-level shooter because they’re unwilling to spend the extra $1 million or $2 million would be foolish for a team at the bottom end of many players’ free agency destination lists.
Pursuing players who will not cost the full mid-level exception will either leave room for two players to be signed with the $8.6 million available to them or will give them the opportunity to negotiate a longer deal with Carter. For over-the-cap teams, second-round picks are often limited to two-year contracts under the Minimum Salary Exception, but smart teams use the last bit of their mid-level exception to sign these guys to three- or four-year contracts, perhaps giving more money up front to secure non-guaranteed years on the back end. For example, the Houston Rockets signed P.J. Tucker for $7.6 million in 2017-18 salary last season and saved the remainder for second-round pick Zhou Qi, who signed a four-year contract often dubbed the “Hinkie Special”, which gives Houston complete team control over Qi each year: he’s non-guaranteed in 2018-19 and beyond with a team option to boot on the fourth year. Teams can also do this with the last bit of their cap space, as Orlando did last season with Wesley Iwundu, signing him to a larger salary in 2017-18 in exchange for a third-year team option in 2019-20. The Grizzlies would be wise to attempt to do the same with Carter this offseason, though some agents have wised up to the move; the Lakers tried to sign Thomas Bryant to a longer deal using the last $815,615 of their cap space last summer and he was unwilling to sign for more than two years. The best second-rounders will want a shorter deal, so they can get to their second contract faster and Carter, as the 32nd pick in the draft, may push back on taking a three- or four-year deal, but the Grizzlies can have that conversation with him in advance of free agency opening on July 1.
The Grizzlies won’t have the flexibility to remake their roster this offseason without a massive salary-shedding trade, but building with smart signings to surround Conley and Gasol while still keeping an eye on their post-Gasol future is the best course of action for Memphis as we move into July.