Free Agents (Cap Holds)
After an early exit from the postseason, the Grizzlies face the unenviable task of not only trying to find a way to improve the team, but simply finding a way to keep the current roster intact. Big contracts, a handful of restricted free agents, and a reluctance to cross the luxury tax threshold mean the Grizzlies will have to get creative if they want to avoid losing a key contributor or two.
Memphis has over $62MM already committed to guaranteed contracts for next season, with Zach Randolph, Rudy Gay, Marc Gasol, and Mike Conley making up a huge chunk of that figure. The four starters will earn a combined $54MM+ in 2012/13. While the Grizzlies' cap situation would be the envy of a big-market club like the Lakers, it creates some issues in Memphis. Owner Michael Heisley has been adamant that his team "can't be in the luxury tax business" and says the club isn't in position to add much salary.
If the entire Grizzlies core were under contract, the luxury tax wouldn't be an issue, but three players the team would like to keep - O.J. Mayo, Marreese Speights, and Darrell Arthur - are facing free agency this summer. If Memphis wants to avoid the tax line, which figures to be a little over $70MM, retaining those players will be at the very least challenging, if not impossible.
Consider the qualifying offers the Grizzlies will have to extend if they even want to make those three players restricted free agents, rather than unrestricted. Mayo would have to be offered about $7.39MM, Speights $4.39MM, and Arthur $3MM. If those one-year offers were extended, Memphis would risk the players accepting them, which would send payroll soaring well past the tax threshold, to $77MM+.
The Grizzlies' tricky cap situation is why Gay's name will come up frequently in trade talks this offseason. While Heisley insists the club's leading scorer isn't on the block and isn't going anywhere, it makes all the sense in the world for Memphis to at least listen to offers. If a team like the Raptors, for instance, wanted to offer its lottery pick and a young player or two (think James Johnson or Ed Davis) for Gay, it would allow the Grizzlies to add young talent and cut costs, creating the room to re-sign its free agents.
If Gay stays put though, the Grizzlies will likely prepare to part ways with Mayo. Memphis should have room to retain at least one of Speights or Arthur, if not both, but that would mean the club wouldn't have the flexibility to add any outside free agents. And as good as the Grizz looked at times this past season, losing Mayo without making any major addition wouldn't put the team in a great position to compete with the Western Conference elite.
We'll get a better idea of how much stock to put into Heisley's comments about Gay as this month's draft approaches. If the Grizzlies hold onto the 25-year-old through June 28th, it's unlikely they move him this summer -- their best opportunity to clear the cap amount necessary to sign their free agents is by moving Gay in a deal for a draft pick, since they could get fair value without taking significant salary back. Given how many lottery teams covet an athletic small forward, I'd be surprised not to see the Grizzlies listen to offers, but either way, we can look forward to an interesting offseason in Memphis.