MEMPHIS, TN – MARCH 23: Mike Conley #11 of the Memphis Grizzlies handles the ball against Josh Okogie #20 of the Minnesota Timberwolves in the second half at FedExForum on March 23, 2019 in Memphis, Tennessee. Minnesota won 112-99. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using the photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
With the Memphis Grizzlies securing themselves the 2nd overall pick in next month’s draft – Murray State point guard Ja Morant – one might be inclined to think it’s less important what the Grizzlies get for Mike Conley, now that his long-term replacement has been found.
But honestly, it couldn’t be more important.
With Morant, the safely assumed selection for Memphis, and current rookie forward/center Jaren Jackson Jr in fold, the Grizzlies will need to enter asset acquisition mode, and fast. These two young men may only be 19 years old, but there’s only a three-year window to gather the correct assets, before Jackson Jr’s presumed max contract extension will kick in. Morant, if he lives up to expectations, will join him in that salary slot a year later.
As such, locating a trade for Conley that fetches Memphis assets and financial flexibility is of severe importance. They can’t do anything about their current situation and will be forced to pay Chandler Parsons over $25 million next season as he has negative trade value and would cost Memphis assets to move away from. But going into the 2020 summer, the Grizzlies will need to have as clean a cap sheet as possible, if they are to maximize the potential of a Jackson/Morant core, and that almost certainly means locating a Mike Conley trade that gives them a return they can use.
Should a team offer to take Conley entirely off their hands by absorbing him into open cap space this summer already, then that’s a start. It shouldn’t be the whole trade, as Memphis would essentially gift away an All-Star caliber point guard for financial flexibility, but it’s a solid, and maybe even necessary, starting position if Memphis wish to retain center Jonas Valanciunas, who will most likely decline his player option and become a free agent this summer. Full contract absorption on Conley and some variation of future, or current, draft picks would solve a lot of issues for Memphis.
That’s not to imply the Grizzlies would not be willing to take money back, as long as it makes sense. If a team offers to absorb a large chunk of Conley’s contract, and in return offers a player on a rookie contract who projects to become a long-term NBA starter, that too should be in play.
Utah has been connected to Conley for quite a while. They don’t necessarily fit the description above as they have neither a high draft pick (#23) nor an attractive young player on a rookie contract who’s available (Donovan Mitchell won’t be moved for Conley). What they do have however, is a boatload of financial flexibility which does solve certain issues for Memphis.
Derrick Favors ($16.9 million), Raul Neto ($2.1 million), Georges Niang ($1.6 million), and Royce O’Neale (also $1.6 million) are all on completely non-guaranteed contracts for 2019/2020. Even Kyle Korver ($7.5 million) is only owed a portion of that number – $3.4 million – if he’s waived before July 7th. If Utah renounces their rights to all these players, only seven players will be on the books for a total of $65.8 million – on a cap estimated to be $109 million.
Even after including roster charges, Utah would still be able to absorb Conley’s $32.5 million salary into raw cap space and attach future picks and the #23 (to be completed after July 30th). Is that a home run deal for Conley given his production? Not by a long shot. But it does provide Memphis with assets and immediate cap flexibility moving forward, which is a fair return for a player about to turn 32. And it would make it easier on Memphis offering Valanciunas big money.
Whether the Jazz are willing to go all-in on a Mitchell/Conley/Rudy Gobert core remains to be seen, but that trio will certainly help increase Utah’s collective ceiling immediately.
That Jazz trade would solve a lot for Memphis, but it admittedly isn’t a slam dunk, and it won’t assist the Grizzlies in gathering assets. If Memphis want a little more excitement than that, the team they should be eyeing this summer is the Los Angeles Lakers.
Not only do the Lakers have cap space ($66 million on the books for seven players, which is very similar to the above Utah scenario), but they have six players on rookie deals and the 4th pick in hand for next month. That pick is currently a non-starter, seeing as the Lakers will be trying to move it in a larger package for Anthony Davis. But should they fail to acquire Davis in a trade, and fail in signing Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, or Jimmy Butler, LeBron James might be inclined to push the organization on finding another star to play with, which could make LA’s selection at #4 fair game in a Conley trade.
The 4th pick would represent a far more appropriate return for Conley, but the path towards that return is unlikely at best, as virtually everything has to go wrong for the Lakers. So while there is merit in waiting on teams to strike out, Memphis would ultimately be gambling with the market. The Utah deal, while unspectacular, could in theory be ready on the first day of free agency whereas waiting on the Lakers, or Knicks for that matter, to fail in acquiring stars comes with a certain amount of risk. The return Memphis could get from big market teams who struck out on elite talent might be significant due to desperation, but if they wait around, Utah will have to look elsewhere to fill out their roster, and Valanciunas might be gone.
Maybe Memphis would need to compromise and look into deals like Forbes’s own Duncan Smith offered last month. In that scenario, Memphis ultimately takes money back via the inclusion of Reggie Jackson and Luke Kennard, but Jackson’s deal runs concurrent with that of Parsons’s, meaning Jackson won’t affect Memphis long-term. Kennard is still on a rookie deal, and won’t cause financial issues. Add in the 15th pick in the draft, and Memphis would check the box of attaining some assets. They’ll be strung out financially next season, especially if Valanciunas stays, but it’s for one year, which should be manageable.
Whichever direction they choose, it’s essential they keep the long-term situation in mind. Clogging up the cap in the years where rookie contracts have their biggest advantage, will only help alienate those players down the line.