The Memphis Grizzlies have acquired guard Courtney Lee and have sent guard Jerryd Bayless to the Boston Celtics as part of a three-team trade that also includes the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Under terms of the deal announced Tuesday, the Grizzlies get Lee and a 2016 second-round draft pick from Boston. The Celtics get Bayless and also receive forward Ryan Gomes from Oklahoma City. The Thunder receive a conditional 2017 second-round draft pick from Memphis.
For both the Boston Celtics and Memphis Grizzlies, the reported trade of (essentially) Courtney Lee and Jerryd Bayless is about the future.
In Boston, that’s readily apparent. Turning Lee’s contract, which runs through 2015-16 for another $11 million total after this season, into Bayless’s expiring contract — a move made possible by the Grizzlies’ trade exception left over from the Rudy Gay deal — is a salary jettison of the finest form. Bayless will see the court for the Celtics, taking care of some of the ball handling duties until Rajon Rondo returns, but any basketball production he provides at this point is gravy. While Lee’s deal was far from cumbersome, it was superfluous to Boston’s plans, space that could otherwise be used to sign free agents or as a third party in deals to acquire further future assets.*
*Yes, the Thunder and Ryan Gomes were involved in this trade, too, but only to free space, both financially and on the roster. Boston immediately cut Gomes. According to the official Thunder press release, Oklahoma City acquired a conditional Grizzlies second round pick in 2017. They also obtained a second round pick owed to Memphis by Philadelphia in the 2014 draft, which was part of the deal that sent Tony Wroten to the Sixers; that pick, however, is highly protected, needing to fall between picks 51 and 55 in order to be conveyed. If it falls outside of that range, the pick doesn’t change hands. The obligation is “extinguished.” For the Thunder to acquire this pick, then, Philadelphia needs to finish with somewhere between the 6th and 10th best records in the league this season. Probably not happening.
As for the Grizzlies, they essentially used this trade as their foray into 2014 free agency. With Bayless coming off the books, Memphis was still committed to almost $64 million in salary next year, assuming Zach Randolph opts in for his $17 million player option — and that’s before potentially having to match another team’s offer to Ed Davis.* That kind of financial outlay essentially restricted the Grizzlies from looking to acquire anyone this coming summer; they simply wouldn’t have the necessary space to sign free agents. The one exception, of course, would have been the mid-level exception. After Bayless’s contract expired, Memphis likely would have been right in the sweet spot between being over the salary cap yet far enough under the luxury tax to offer the full mid-level exception to a player.
*Yet even if Davis were to see a slight raise, the Grizzlies seem likely to skate just under the luxury tax line next season, as they’ll do this year as well. With the onset of the new repeater penalties for teams that end up paying the tax for multiple years in the row, being able to avoid the tax becomes even more important for teams who value the bottom line. The real question with the money Memphis owes Lee going forward is whether or not the Grizzlies can bring Mike Miller back. Working in Memphis’s favor is the fact that the luxury tax line for the 2014-15 season is projected to be quite a bit higher than for the 2013-14 season. That gives the Grizzlies another $4 million or so with which to work in re-signing their own free agents without crossing into luxury tax territory, money that could be used to match another team’s offer for Davis or try to re-sign Miller. Working against Memphis is that Miller would likely need to accept a deal under the non-Bird Exception, which would limit his starting salary to 120% of the minimum contract.
The type of player the Grizzlies likely would have sought for their mid-level exception? A player like Lee, of course. Shooting from beyond the arc has been an omnipresent malediction during the Marc Gasol era in Memphis, and Lee is a shade under 40% from deep for his career. He doesn’t take triples in the kind of volume one might expect in order to have a lasting impact on the Grizzlies, but his presence and the mere threat of his shooting should make a difference for players like Randolph and Tony Allen, who can use all the space they can get on offense. By trading for Lee, Memphis essentially signed a 3-and-D player to a 2-year deal at the mid-level exception 6 months before free agency started.
That six-month head start almost certainly mattered. Early speculation seems to agree that the deal for Lee means that Memphis believes they can still make the playoffs once Marc Gasol returns from injury, that Lee’s defense and three-point shooting will be enough to close the 3.5-game gap that separates the Grizzlies from the eighth seed. Or at least, that’s the intended effect. Perhaps that’s so. Maybe Gasol’s return to health and the spacing Lee hypothetically provides could result in the Grizzlies sneaking into the Western Conference playoffs this year and making some noise. Were that to happen, I doubt the Memphis front office would be disappointed.
Yet this trade is about more than just this season. It represents an opportunity to make one last run at things next season, before Gasol and Randolph’s current deals run out and the Grizzlies have to make several large decisions about their future. With a healthy Gasol, Mike Conley providing his steady hand at the point, Tony Allen doing Tony Allen things and Randolph in what amounts to his final contract year, maybe Memphis has a 50% chance at being a 5% contender. Maybe they can dream of being one of those teams for whom championship aspirations are possible if literally every variable goes their way. Courtney Lee could be a part of such a team, couldn’t he? Why not Courtney Lee?
Lee’s contract provides cost certainty for a known skill set in the two years beyond this one. It fits perfectly into the likely free agency plans Memphis might have had for a team strapped for cash and cap space next year. And in 2015-16, the sky becomes the limit for the Grizzlies.* With Lee in the last year of his contract, Memphis has just under $27 million committed in salary. Depending on draft results and further acquisitions, they stand to be heavily involved in future free agent markets. Even then, however, they’ll need players to fill out the roster, and Lee’s presence — and the financial obligation to him — is a predictable factor going forward. The Grizzlies can plan around the Lee deal.
*OH DEAR SHAMMGOD WHO DECIDED TO LET THE BEARS FLY?!
The move to acquire Lee was undeniably made with an eye on the horizon, no matter what the current situation implies. It helps them this year, sure, but it gives them certainty for who they’ll be next season, too, and a flexible piece once their cap situation becomes malleable. Call it salary commitment with little opportunity cost, starting the fiscal year a little early. For the Grizzlies, it makes sense.