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Nothin' but Net: Trying to make sense of the Memphis Grizzlies

2:31 PM, Feb 4, 2013   |    comments
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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - The Memphis Grizzlies may not be getting great value back on their trades recently, but the moves are saying something about this organization.

When the Grizz sent Marreese Speights, Wayne Ellington, Josh Shelby and a protected first-round draft pick to the Cleveland Cavaliers for Jon Leuer, everyone agreed it was a salary dump.

Memphis is a small market and new owner Robert Pera didn't want to pay the luxury tax. The salaries he and CEO Jason Levien rid themselves of allowed the core Grizzlies (Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol, Rudy Gay and Mike Conley) to stay intact and allowed ownership to keep several million dollars.

Except, that wasn't exactly the motivation.

The motivation was to trim any salary deemed non-vital. And, if the Grizzlies could avoid crippling their true core, go ahead.

That meant Gay would be giving up barbecue for hockey. He was shipped to the Toronto Raptors in exchange for promising forward Ed Davis and point guard Jose Calderon, who was then moved to the Detroit Pistons for Tayshaun Prince and Austin Daye.

To sum up, for the productive parts of their bench and their leading scorer, the Grizzlies got back an aging Prince, a nice piece in Davis, two future DNP- CDs in Leuer and Daye, and a second-round pick.

Oh, and a ton more flexibility financially.

Like some of you, I scoffed at this trade. I still don't believe the Grizzlies made themselves better with these deals. Softening a bit now, I don't think they crippled themselves as badly as I thought.

Let's talk strictly basketball before business and with all due respect, disqualify Daye and Leuer from the discussion. They will be fill-in guys for injured rotation members.

Gay is a great scorer and an athlete. His average this season of 17.5 points per game is a low since his rookie season of 2006-07. Gay is shooting 31 percent from the 3-point line and 41 percent from the field. Those aren't great numbers.

Gay also is not an elite defender like Grizzlies studs Tony Allen or Gasol.

Prince is only scoring 11.8 ppg, but shoots 45 percent from the field and 43 percent from long range. Prince is still above-average defensively.

What's behind these numbers illustrates a huge point - this was not, nor would it ever be Gay's team with Randolph and Gasol still in uniform.

The Grizzlies' two best players are Randolph and Gasol. They represent the most formidable big-guy combo in the league as long as the Dwight Howard/Pau Gasol/Mike D'Antoni fiasco still exists for the Los Angeles Lakers.

They are both highly skilled with their back to the basket, can step outside, rebound the ball unmercifully, pass like point guards and defend at a high level.

Highlighting these two more in the Grizzlies offense should be an easy transition. Dump it to these two and they'll score, or set up more players for higher-percentage shots than Gay's 41 percent based on pull-up jumpers. Wouldn't you want a better 3-point shooter like Prince to kick it out to when double-teams come to Zbo and Gasol? Of course, you would.

Gay averages 16.5 field-goal attempts a game. Prince is at 10.8. If Prince continues to shoot at his current level and the Grizzlies give Randolph (47 percent from the field) and Gasol (48 percent) Gay's remaining five attempts, simple mathematics tells me two guys who shoot close to 50 percent will basically make up that difference.

And Davis isn't a bum, either. In the month of January, with Raptors' starting power forward Andrea Bargnani injured, Davis filled in and averaged 13.9 ppg. Granted, he won't see any type of huge minutes with Randolph around, but Davis was not filler in this deal.

Defense is really where the Grizzlies shine and Prince is a huge upgrade. He is still long and smart.

Gasol's defensive acumen is scary as evidenced last week when I saw him defend an inbounds play in the closing seconds against the Philadelphia 76ers, then come over and swat Nick Young's game-tying 3-point attempt. Young admitted he never saw Gasol and didn't think he could get back in the play in time.

If defense and low-post offense are what the Grizzlies excel at, what's the problem?

The problem is, and it hasn't been discussed much, Memphis was not a legitimate title contender with Gay. Many have said, including head coach Lionel Hollins, not to break up this core until we saw what it could do.

Two seasons ago in the playoffs, when the Grizzlies stunned the No. 1-seeded San Antonio Spurs, there was no Gay. He had a bum shoulder and Memphis reached the semifinals and took the Oklahoma City Thunder to seven games.

Last season, Randolph basically played on one leg with a knee injury during a game-seven, first-round loss to the Los Angeles Clippers. So, yes, it is true, that we never got to see Memphis contend with its core group healthy.

If everything stayed pat, the Grizz would host the Golden State Warriors in the first round, which would have been no sure bet. Then, they would've had to beat two of the three - Spurs, Thunder and Clippers - as road teams.

Were the Grizzlies capable of that? Sure, but would it be truly reasonable? Doubtful.

(Worth noting, I've never encountered anyone who liked this Grizzlies team, the Rudy Gay version, more than me. But my love had/has a lot to do with Randolph, Gasol and Hollins.)

So if the Grizzlies weren't a legitimate contender, why not shake up the roster? Here's where the money becomes a factor.

Once Pera and Levien got under the tax with the bench bleeding, the Gay trade really did become a move revolving around the future. Gay has two more years on his contract (technically a player option for 2014-15) at about $37.2 million. Price is owed about $15 million for the same time frame.

Memphis also got a $7.5 million trade exception out of its wheeling and dealing. The organization probably doesn't have to worry about the luxury tax for a while and still has some freedom to execute deals.

Of course, money played a hand in these trades. According to Forbes, the Grizzlies lost $12.5 million last year. Pera is running a business on top of trying to contend for an NBA championship.

He did an online chat for Grizzlies season-ticket holders. Pera was asked, "The first trade seemed to address the cap issues. Why did you make the second trade? And how does this impact our future?"

Pera's response: "We made the second trade because we feel it allows us to put a more competitive product on the floor this season and in future seasons. We got better. We also picked up a valuable draft pick as well as trade exceptions that will allow us to be opportunistic in going on the offensive moving forward."

Turns out, he was right.

Sometimes, it's easy to scoff at transactions as strictly money-based. That can be true, and at its guts, the Gay trade may have been, too. Just don't blindly assume there was some basketball merit to it.

RANDOM THOUGHTS

- Funny how when Lakers star Dwight Howard misses games against the Minnesota Timberwolves and Detroit Pistons, and Pau Gasol fills in, back at his natural starting center spot, he goes off for 45 points, 22 rebounds and three blocks. Weird, isn't it, to maximize an All-NBA players skills and see production?

- The labor situation is a mess. Billy Hunter gets put on leave as executive director of the Players Association. I have no clue who should, or will be his permanent replacement, but I know Derek Fisher as president of the NBPA should think about stepping down. Players may respect Fisher, but there are gripes with him as well. Plus, it just doesn't strike me as fair to have a president who is not active in the league. It'll never happen, but as important a job as it is, a star player should step up for the job. Respect can be transferred from the court to the boardroom.

- Here is footage (http://tinyurl.com/aoudp5x) of Caron Butler of the Clippers giving a high-five to Raptors rookie Jonas Valanciunas in the waning seconds of a 25-point Raptors' victory on Friday. This is beyond bush league.

- Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs will coach the West All-Stars and Erik Spoelstra of the Miami Heat will have the East team. Is there any chance Spurs great Tim Duncan, who may skip the game after a nasty-looking, but not structurally damaging leg injury, plays more than five minutes if he goes? Pop wouldn't play him against the Heat in the regular season; do you think he'll play him in an All-Star game?

- Movie Moment - Caught "The Five-Year Engagement" on HBO Saturday night. Really liked it. It's long-ish and it's rom-com, but it's genuinely funny as all heck. Jason Segel gets comedy. He's smart and funny. You can't watch that combo enough.

- TV Moment - The Super Bowl commercials stunk something fierce.

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