Offseason In Review: Memphis Grizzlies

December 18 2012 at 1:30pm CST By Chuck Myron

Hoops Rumors is in the process of looking back at each team's offseason, from the end of the playoffs in June right up until opening night. Trades, free agent signings, draft picks, contract extensions, option decisions, camp invitees, and more will be covered, as we examine the moves each franchise made over the last several months.

Signings

Trades and Claims

Draft Picks

  • Tony Wroten (Round 1, 25th overall). Signed via rookie exception.

Camp Invitees

Departing Players

Rookie Contract Option Decisions

The Grizzlies got a new owner over the summer, but despite the fast start Memphis has enjoyed this season, the team did little to help vault itself from the fringes of the title chase into serious contention. Former owner Michael Heisley's unwillingness to pay the luxury tax played a role in the team's unwillingness to bring back O.J. Mayo, which might have been a mistake given his early-season scoring output for the Mavericks. It had been obvious for a while, though, that Mayo was on the way out, and Heisley went above the tax line to retain other free agents before handing the team over to Robert Pera's new, celebrity-laden ownership group. 

When Luke Adams of Hoops Rumors previewed the team's offseason, he predicted the Grizzlies would shop Rudy Gay over the summer, suggesting that a trade prior to the draft would be beneficial, since they could swap him for a high lottery pick without having to take back any salary. Such a move would have saved significant cap space that the team could have used to re-sign Mayo and seek out another free agent, since Gay is due more than $53.6MM through 2015. Memphis reportedly tried to move him, but Heisley denied that was the case, and the draft came and went. Still, many around the league maintained the belief that the Grizzlies wanted to get rid of Gay's salary, and GM Chris Wallace fielded lowball offers for him over the summer, rejecting them all. The team remains open to trading Gay, according to HoopsWorld's Alex Kennedy, though that possibility appears more remote given the team's winning ways this season.

With Gay still in the fold once the draft was done, the Grizzlies declined to tender a qualifying offer to Mayo in advance of the June 30th deadline to do so, turning Mayo from a restricted free agent into an unrestricted one. That meant Memphis no longer had the right to match offers for Mayo, and while that may have seemed like a drastic move to take with someone who had been a critical piece on back-to-back playoff teams, it probably wound up saving the Grizzlies a lot of money for a player they didn't want. Mayo's qualifying offer was $7.39MM, which would have meant significantly more for him this season than the $4MM he gets as part of the two-year, $8.22MM deal he signed with Dallas. The Grizzlies almost traded Mayo to the Pacers on at least two occasions, and came close to a deal at the trade deadline last season that would have sent him to the Celtics for Ray Allen. Wallace and company seem to have decided long ago that Mayo wasn't a fit, so given that context, the non-tender isn't surprising. Mayo's strong start this year might make the move seem a little puzzling in hindsight, but it's likely the Grizzlies wouldn't have given him the opportunity to carry the offensive load he's taken on with the Mavs, so he would probably be doing less for more money if he were still in Memphis.

The Grizzlies turned to another would-be restricted free agent for Mayo's replacement as sixth man. Jerryd Bayless had initially been tendered a qualifying offer by the Raptors, but Toronto later withdrew it, making him an unrestricted free agent. Bayless posted career highs in minutes and points per game last season, and his 17.7 PER, also a career best, indicated he was markedly more efficient than the average player. The Grizzlies gave him the taxpayer mid-level exception, which means he'll make about $1MM less than what Mayo's earning this year. The deal might have been a springboard for Bayless, who has a player option for next season and can opt out for a more lucrative deal on the open market if he puts up numbers similar to last season. Yet the problem for Bayless and the Grizzlies is that he's so far been nowhere near the player he was in Toronto. Multiple injuries limited him to just 31 games last season, and that's not much of a sample size. It could be that last year's performance was an aberration, in which case the Grizzlies could once more find themselves tethered, for this season and next, to a backup guard they don't want. 

The team did tender qualifying offers to its other restricted free agents, using almost precisely the amount of money that would have been tied up in Mayo's offer for the first-year salaries that backup big men Darrell Arthur and Marreese Speights will make in their new deals. Memphis also re-signed unrestricted free agent center Hamed Haddadi. It seems odd that they would hold on to all those inside players, since that's an area of strength for the team anyway, but coach Lionel Hollins likes to keep two bigs on the floor as often as possible, and significant injuries to Arthur and Zach Randolph last season challenged his ability to do so. Of the three, the deal for Arthur appears the most dubious, particularly since it's also the longest. He's missed more than half the team's games from 2009/10 through 2011/12. His valuable contributions in the middle season, the year the Grizzlies upended the Spurs in the playoffs thanks in part to Arthur's career year, obscure the much less encouraging story of his track record as a whole.

The Grizzlies divested themselves of one of their big men, shipping Dante Cunningham to the Wolves for Wayne Ellington in a rare one-for-one trade facilitated by their nearly identical salaries this season. Cunningham has a team option for 2013/14 and Ellington is set to hit restricted free agency, meaning both are essentially under team control for one more season. They were taken just five picks apart from each other in the 2009 draft, but their resumes since then do not match up nearly as well as their contracts. It's difficult to compare a power forward to a shooting guard, but one way to do so is using PER, a catch-all statistic that Grizzlies fans will no doubt become quite familiar with now that its inventor, John Hollinger, has joined the front office. Cunningham put up a career-best 14.9 PER in his single year in Memphis, and his career PER of 12.8 entering the season was significantly better than Ellington's 9.2. Ellington's skill set is a better fit than Cunningham's for a team seeking depth on the wing, but I don't think the Grizzlies had to sacrifice as much production as they did to address that need.

The other trade of the offseason looked like a straight salary dump, as they swapped Jeremy Pargo, who saw nearly 10 minutes per game as Mike Conley's backup, and his guaranteed $1MM salary to the Cavs for D.J. Kennedy, a veteran of all of two NBA games who had a non-guaranteed minimum-salary deal. The Grizzlies also gave up a second-round pick and cash in the deal, a tipoff that Memphis simply wanted to rid Pargo's salary from the books. Kennedy was waived in September, re-signed a week later, and let go again shortly after training camp began. The signing of Bayless, who can play point guard as well as shooting guard, apparently gave Wallace and company enough leverage to give up Pargo, though Pargo's strong showing for Cleveland early this season for Cleveland when Kyrie Irving was out, coupled with Bayless' lackluster play, makes this one hurt.

Pera officially took over the team the day the regular season opened for the Grizzlies, and quickly installed Jason Levien as CEO. Despite the team's cost-cutting moves, Heisley left the Grizzlies about $4MM above the tax line, and did so with the blessing of the new regime, Levien told Chris Herrington of the Memphis Flyer. Levien is wary of becoming a repeat taxpayer, which would trigger additional penalties under the new CBA, but he expressed a willingness to pay the tax this year if it's necessary to do so for the team to win. The salary figures used to compute the tax are the ones on the ledger at season's end, so Levien will have the opportunity to get the Grizzlies under the tax line if he wants to.

The decision on shedding salary or paying the tax may come down to whether or not Memphis can be considered a legitimate contender when the February 21st trade deadline hits. Regardless of where the team finds itself in the standings, I wouldn't be surprised if the Grizzlies try to save some money by swapping Haddadi, Arthur or Speights for a draft pick at the trade deadline if all their big men stay healthy this season. They may also shop Bayless, though getting rid of him would leave them thin at guard unless rookie Tony Wroten makes some strides in the next couple of months. In any case, we'll learn a lot this season about the Grizzlies, both on the court and in the executive suite. This might have been Wallace's last summer at the controls, as there are rumors he may be on his way out, and at the very least he appears to have less power under the new owners. If that's the case, he may regret an offseason filled with tinkering that left only mixed results, as well as the organization's misplaced disenchantment with Mayo.

Luke Adams contributed to this post.

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