The Memphis Grizzlies are in something of a pickle. The team’s offense is desperate for space like a claustrophobic elephant in a matchbox, with its best outside shooters either hurt (Quincy Pondexter) or stretched so thin it’s a miracle they’re still intact (Mike Miller). However, they can’t afford to blindly push its chips towards the offensive side of the table. Not when the successful identity Memphis has cultivated over the past few years consists of a dense defensive nucleus, Grit and Grind intricately intertwined and creating the necessary pull to keep countless individual pieces in orbit.
That delicate balance has been disturbed by some combination of the replacement of Coach Lionel Hollins, Marc Gasol’s MCL injury and plain old erosion, leaving a former defensive juggernaut stranded on a dreadful 105 points allowed per 100 possessions. Gasol, reportedly cleared for light practice (penultimate paragraph), should return soon and lead to some kind of recovery, but the Grizzlies’ defensive issues this season existed before he went down, and cores much more promising than this one have collapsed when facing lesser wins.
Facing the need to solidify the edges around a center that may be irreversibly broken, the Grizzlies have decided to sustain the current model at least one more year, with salvation costing one Jerryd Bayless and coming in the form of Courtney Lee. The Idea of Courtney Lee is perfect for just this kind of situation: a 38.7% career three point shooter (not to mention a whopping and presumably flukey 44.2% so far this season), he gives Memphis a much needed outside threat, defends well enough to fit the core ideals, can add athleticism and professionalism to your backcourt and might be able to handle the ball in a pinch if need be (and with Nick Calathes as primary backup point guard, it need be).
The issue is that Courtney Lee isn’t The Idea of Courtney Lee. He’s not far off – maybe 80% or so, depending on your measuring methods – but he’s not quite there. And the ratio crosses all categories. Yes, he’s a good three point shooter, but too few of his shots come from outside the arc to lift his True Shooting percentage to much beyond slightly above average (again, strong start to 2013-14 nonwithstanding). He defends well, but is not elite. He’s athletic, but has never been able to translate that into a high free throw rate. He looks like a potential emergency ball handler, but struggles to create for himself or for others, and has only once had an assist rate that was higher than his turnover rate.
The Idea of Courtney Lee is a desirable NBA master key: while too small to matter independently and too generic to be irreplaceable, his perfectly defined ridges nonetheless fit anywhere, opening up hallways of possibilities. The real Courtney Lee is 80% of that; he fits in most spots, but not quite snugly enough to successfully twist in the keyhole.
The Memphis Grizzlies are set to become the 4th team in just under 5 years to trade for The Idea of Courtney Lee and to receive Courtney Lee instead. The whopping ratio is perfectly fitting for said dissonance. The Idea of Courtney Lee is an eminently popular sales pitch, ever a slight step ahead of the actual, real life version. It was true for the 2009 Nets, who were looking for a sophomore fresh off starting in the NBA Finals and got a 24 year old who was asked to fill a poorly defined roll in a non-existent system. It was true for the 2010 Rockets, who grabbed an asset in their asset grabbing heyday and ended up trading it for 3 players they immediately waived and the rights to 2 they never brought over. It was true for the 2012 Celtics, who were looking for the final peg in the Battleship and ended up with just another block in the collapsing Jenga tower. And it will likely be true for these turn-of-the-calendar Grizz, hanging on for dear life and hoping Courtney Lee can be the grappeling hook. It will likely be true once again for another shopper in the near future. The Idea of Courtney Lee is flawless, if not by its own power, than by the role it is destined to fill.
Courtney Lee is not flawless. It’s hardly his fault, and it’s an unfair burden to carry. Lee has done nothing over the course of his career to squander his potential. On the contrary: his NBA story counts as a dream scenario for most 22nd picks. But The Idea of Courtney Lee just happens to be the rare type of potential that evolves over time, condemning him to inadvertent underachievement. As long as The Idea of Courtney Lee continues to exist, trading for it will always be in demand, and trading Courtney Lee away will always be in supply, creating a perpetuum mobile of a market. Like a ripple in the time-space continuum that randomly opens and closes whenever or wherever, so too does the perceived market inefficiency of The Idea of Courtney Lee randomly reveal itself around the NBA trade market.