The lottery drawing changes the course of multiple franchises’ futures each and every year. From New Orleans jumping up to grab Zion Williamson this year to the freefalls teams take as they tumble down the final draft order, clubs see their best-laid plans thwarted (or made) by 14 ping-pong balls year in and year out. The Memphis Grizzlies are no different – they had a lot riding on the lottery drawing this year and came out with a phenomenal result that has the chance to alter their franchise for the foreseeable future. The opportunity to draft Ja Morant with the No. 2 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft gives the Grizzlies as specific course of direction, which is exactly what a team at the bottom of the standings needs. Memphis can move forward and build around Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr., their first-round pick from a season ago.
Morant’s electric upside as a playmaker and scorer should give Memphis confidence that they have their point guard position settled for the foreseeable future. In all likelihood, Morant will be given the keys to the team on Day 1 and the club will live or die with the results of that in the early going. Given their place within the league, Morant’s experience level, and the fact that they owe a first-round pick to the Boston Celtics in 2020 unless it falls within the top ten, the Grizzlies will mostly be dying with the results of putting Morant in charge of the team’s offense, as rookie point guards are rarely very good on either end of the floor. That will suit Memphis just fine for a year or two as he develops and they clear out some of the contracts that plague their books in 2019-20.
What Morant’s arrival means for incumbent point guard Mike Conley is the biggest question mark of the Grizzlies’ offseason. They openly shopped Conley earlier this year in order to try to capitalize on his value, but could not find a satisfactory deal with either Utah or Detroit, if the rumors are to be believed. Now that they’ve struck gold in the lottery, a Conley trade becomes slightly more urgent, as holding onto him while the team both wants to develop Morant and stay near the bottom of the standings for another year doesn’t make a lot of sense. As the league year turns over on July 1, there are a fair few teams with cap space and a hole at the point guard spot, though constructing a deal for Conley is still quite difficult.
The primary issue surrounding a Conley trade is nailing down where his value lies, where the rest of the league perceives it to be, and where the Grizzlies perceive it to be. He’s slated to make $67 million over the next two seasons, assuming he does not exercise his early termination option this time next year on his 2020-21 salary for $34.5 million. That seems like a pretty safe bet, considering his age and injury issues, and any team trading for him would be taking into account both years left on the deal. In a vacuum, the fact that he seems nearly certain to let the ETO deadline pass without opting out of his contract would indicate that it’s a negative-value contract, but how exactly that fact manifests itself in a trade is more complicated.
At this point in his career, it’s unlikely that Conley can be the second-best player on a championship-level team, but he’s a very strong starter who would command at least $25 million on the open market. His injury issues hold him back from being a true max player, but there’s no argument that he would bring a lot to the table for the several teams looking for a point guard this summer. The issue surrounds just how much negative value is on that contract and whether Memphis views things the same way; given the reporting surrounding their negotiations with Utah before the trade deadline, it’s very likely that the Grizzlies feel differently about Conley’s value with respect to his contract.
The task of comparing a player’s on-court value to his contract cost is a very good barometer for evaluating the vast majority of players, but that sort of analysis can fall apart when evaluating the highest-paid and best players in the league. Evaluating what Conley would get on the open market this summer against his contract loses out on the context of how difficult it is to get a player of that caliber in the first place and the scarcity of players with his high level of play throughout the league. Whether you add up his on-court value minus his contract and get a negative number ceases to be important when the values get this high and the players who could possibly replace Conley’s on-court value are so few.
There are several teams with openings at the point guard position going into the summer and fewer high-end free agent point guards than there are spots to fill. Kyrie Irving and Kemba Walker are the top two free agent Points available, but between their previous teams and a slew of others, the trade market for Conley could be quite favorable for the Grizzlies this summer. There’s no rush from Memphis’s point of view, as they’re unlikely to have cap space this summer (unless they take no salary back in a Conley trade), so they can see how the point guard market plays out in free agency before engaging teams with remaining holes to fill.
The usual suspects will be after Conley: Utah and Detroit both inquired about his availability during the year. Utah can open up all (or just about all, depending on a few other moves) of the necessary cap space to take Conley in, but the draft compensation Memphis will require might not be strong enough from a Utah team that looks to be pretty good over the next few years. Detroit would have issues with matching salary, as they’re not a cap space team this offseason, but there’s a construction of a deal that could make sense surrounding Reggie Jackson’s expiring contract.
Other than the pair of teams who asked after Conley at the deadline, there will be a handful of teams left without point guards when the game of free agency musical chairs stops. The Indiana Pacers are in a very interesting spot as they move into their offseason; with so many high-end players finishing up their contracts in 2018-19, it seems as though the Pacers may take an all-or-none approach to their incumbent free agents, so as to maximize their flexibility. They can open nearly $44 million in cap space, but that number quickly dwindles if they’re looking to bring back a few of their unrestricted free agents. How they handle those free agents will inform how much flexibility they have to bring in Conley – staying over the cap would push them away from a Conley deal, as they wouldn’t have the requisite matching salary, but moving away from those players could give them a path into the discussions with Memphis.
Phoenix won’t have a ton of cap space, if any at all, this summer, depending on what they choose to do with Kelly Oubre. Without a major trade, they certainly won’t have enough space to take Conley in, which means they’ll have to come up with the matching salary to satisfy the league’s rules. $25.9 million is a large chunk of change to have to send out in order to take back Conley, but Phoenix has the expiring salary of Tyler Johnson and a decent young player on a good contract in T.J. Warren who add up to more than enough salary to make the trade work. From there, it’s just about what else Memphis might want in the deal. Phoenix may be reticent to include their own future picks, considering how valuable those tend to be, but they do have a protected Milwaukee pick that seems nearly certain to convey in 2020; it’s top-7 protected, but unless all hell breaks loose, the Bucks are not going to be drafting that high next season.
A few other teams might get in the mix for Conley as well, depending on how free agency shakes out for them. The Mavericks, Lakers, Knicks, and Clippers are all going to be fishing for some big names in free agency, but if they strike out at the point guard position, Conley would be a very good option for any of them. His value is lowered by the fact that a team has to trade real assets for him, rather than just signing a point guard not named Irving or Walker, but those teams could very well see themselves nearing the end of the summer with lots of money available and little else to do with it. Should negotiations press on past the first few weeks of July, Memphis may also grow impatient and lower their asking price for the last of their Grit N’ Grind stars.
Wherever Conley ends up, it seems as though it’s best for both player and team if he’s played his final game for the Grizzlies. He’ll want to capitalize the last several years of his career with a contending team, like ex-teammate and close friend Marc Gasol has been able to do in Toronto this year, while the club is looking forward, with Morant taking over the reins and moving them into the future with Jackson. Nabbing Jackson and Morant in back-to-back drafts could be the start of something special for Memphis. Put one more year into the tank, as the particulars of the draft pick owed to Boston make that a more viable option, and get out from under the contracts for Chandler Parsons, Jonas Valanciunas, and C.J. Miles, and the Grizzlies will come out the other side this time next year with another top pick to add to Jackson and Morant and will be armed with significant cap space to add in around their young stars. At that point, it’s all systems go; with their 2021 pick already owed to Boston, they’d be free to spend money on veterans and try to accelerate the timeline for contention, though that would heavily depend on Jackson and Morant developing into the kind of players who are able to compete for a playoff spot in 2020-21.
There are a number of other decisions Memphis will have to make this summer, the most important of which is the restricted free agency of Delon Wright. They’ll certainly tender him the qualifying offer to get him into restricted free agency, but navigating those negotiations could be tricky. It only takes one team to really put them in a difficult spot with respect to an offer sheet, but Wright is so far down a lot of teams’ shopping lists that it’s unlikely that he’ll find a deal early on in the process. The Grizzlies will have the opportunity to play hardball with him if they so choose, especially with Morant coming into the picture and Wright truly being their backup point guard and occasional combo guard next to Morant. There’s a good chance that Wright will outplay any contract he might sign this summer, which could push him toward taking the qualifying offer and trying to find a new home next summer in unrestricted free agency, but if he wants to nail down a long-term deal, he may find himself squeezed by the market and the nature of restricted free agency.
What remains of their summer will have a lot to do with what they get back for Conley in that trade. Their objective should be to build around Morant and Jackson, but they’ll have very limited financial flexibility this summer even after most versions of a Conley trade, so they won’t have enough cap space to get too frisky. That sort of space will be available to them next year, should they want to try to bring in some outside free agents or make a trade using that space. A lot of players from last year’s team will suit up again in 2019-20, which should put the Grizzlies right where they need to be at the bottom of the standings; a similar roster to last season with the subtraction of Conley and the addition of a rookie point guard will almost certainly result in fewer wins and a higher chance of keeping the protected pick they owe to the Celtics.