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Mike Conley: ‘Frustrating’ Grizzlies aren’t premier destination in free agency

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Nearly anytime we post a story with the general premise of “Team A is targeting in Star X,” it elicits a reaction like: “Of course, Team A is targeting Star X. Every team is targeting Star X.”

But not every team is committed to chasing stars. Sure, all teams want stars. But several teams believe they play in markets that can’t attract stars and therefore don’t waste their resources bothering.

Like the Grizzlies.

Mike Conley, via Tim Bontemps of the Washington Post:

“Yeah, it definitely can be frustrating,” Conley said. “Being in Memphis, being part of a smaller market, you have a tough time in free agency, and you have to build through the draft. With all the things teams have been able to accomplish through free agency, and through all the player movement, you kind of miss out on that.”

The Grizzlies’ biggest outside free agent signing – Chandler Parsons to a max contract in 2016 – flopped amid his injury issues (which contributed to reduced competition for him). But the Trail Blazers also reportedly offered Parsons a max contract, and Memphis got him.

But otherwise, the Grizzlies haven’t been heavy hitters in free agency. That they’ve often lacked major cap space mostly speaks to Conley’s point. They haven’t tried to open cap space, because it tends to be more meaningful in other markets.

So, Memphis is at a disadvantage. But that doesn’t make it hopeless. Smart drafting (like picking Conley) and trading (like acquiring Marc Gasol) can help.

And destination markets can change. We’re not far removed from the Warriors being an undesirable team. Everyone used to want to play for the Knicks. The Lakers have gone up and down in their ability to attract stars. I’m certainly not predicting stars will flock to Memphis, but if the Grizzlies win enough, they’ll change their reputation.

Of course, that’s harder to do in the first place without the aid of major free agents.

5 up, 5 down: Is LeBron going to the Lakers wack, meaningless, or great?

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5 Up, 5 Down is a column featuring the best and worst from the NBA.

We haven’t published this column for some time as we have been gone sunning ourselves outside in the beautiful NBA offseason. But now we are back, and LeBron James is rightly on the West Coast. His decision to join the Los Angeles Lakers felt all but inevitable, and even if it doesn’t quite have the basketball impact many are hoping for when it comes to the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets, it’s still the biggest story of the summer.

It seems like LeBron coming to California is a big deal, but if we are to believe that he doesn’t have a real chance of tipping the Warriors or rockets in the postseason, I’m not sure it actually has an appreciable difference on how we view the regular season. The Lakers always get talked about — as does James — so combining them is almost becomes more of an ease of access thing for NBA media.

I kid, of course, but if we have to seriously listen to people pontificate all season about why LeBron can’t make the NBA Finals this year with a roster that includes JaVale McGee and Lance Stephenson, that’s another thing. No doubt some of us are headed that way no matter what, so I suppose we should just tuck in for the ride.

So without further ado.

5 Up

Kawhi isn’t a Laker

As with most Millennials, I am firmly in the camp of players having more control over their destiny in the NBA. But something about this Kawhi Leonard thing … just isn’t right.

It all started a while back when we heard rumors about Leonard drinking nothing but alkaline water, which is something that only gets sold on Instagram promoted feeds and in the types of grocery stores where the hot bar is $15.99 a pound. That seemed harmless enough, but we really haven’t talked about how Leonard and his “people” keep pushing him into a direction away from the league’s best franchise.

Set aside all of the weirdness with Tony Parker and how the Spurs managed his injury over the course of last season: it now it seems like there might always be serious distance created by those advisors between Leonard and whatever team he may be on.

If you are the Los Angeles Lakers or any other team looking at Leonard, I think there are several things to look at. It’s not just about his injury history, and it’s not about trying to make the right swap that keeps your roster mostly intact. It’s also examining the people that are around Leonard and what kind of things they’re going to put into his ear next.

I’m sure I will be proven wrong about all of this in 20 years when Leonard’s book comes out, but in the meantime it definitely seems like such a stark turn it’s hard to ignore the “hidden advisor” aspect of this whole thing. Plus, the NBA is not better when the Los Angeles Lakers are good. LA hasn’t won more than 40 games since 2013 and in that time the association has taken off. Don’t @ me.

Trade him to the Clippers.

DeMarcus Cousins is a Warrior

This move is all kinds of weird on paper, but it makes sense for both parties involved and I am okay with it. First, Cousins gets to try to rehabilitate not only his image as a franchise player, but his playing ability when it comes to being offered a max contract in the summer of 2019.

For Golden State, it’s worth the risk if Cousins comes back toward the end of the season and plays dominant basketball or some semblance of the way he did before his Achilles tear. That makes Golden State even more ridiculous, and perhaps pushes us toward the league finding a way to stop guys taking discounts in their primes to load up on one team.

Plus, if you are a Warriors hater there is like a 30% chance that DeMarcus will torpedo the Golden State locker room.

All the weirdo guys the Lakers signed

We all agree that every Lakers signing works toward the goal of creating a reality show and not an NBA team, right? Next year will not be about basketball for LeBron James. What a Lakeshow.

Paul George staying in OKC

Every single person cannot go to the Lakers, and as the Thunder moved towards trying to keep their own players it only made sense that they were going to offer Paul George a massive contract like the one he signed.

The Thunder will be able to duck some of their luxury tax filings with the Carmelo Anthony move, but still Oklahoma City will carry a massive cap figure as they battle for a middle place finish in the Western Conference. It sort of reminds me about those early 2000s Portland Trail Blazers teams that were always over the luxury tax and getting walloped by the Lakers or the Spurs in the playoffs. It’s truly a beautiful thing to watch a ownership group set a bunch of money on fire for a Game 5 elimination in the second round.

Good for George, and too bad for the Thunder. They won’t have a lot of maneuvering space and I’m not sure getting back Andre Roberson will be enough to counteract the rest of the improvements made in the Western Conference this offseason.

Chris Paul has a gigantic contract

If you are a Rocket hater you should probably love the Chris Paul contract. It’s massive, and although it keeps Houston in contention for the next couple of years alongside the Golden State Warriors, it also means that the Rockets will be laden with Paul’s contract as he continues to age.

Remember, Paul is a player who had knee surgery a decade ago and there are serious doubts about whether he can make it through an entire season — or postseason — without taking on a serious injury.

Houston can play beautiful basketball when they are in the regular season. But in the playoffs this year, they became the same old story. Watching James Harden and Paul use gamesmanship to grab 35 fouls per quarter was boring as hell, and I’m not going to root for it. The regular season Rockets are fun, but the postseason version isn’t. Paul’s decline is likely coming soon, which should save us from having to watch Playoff Houston for too much longer.

5 Down

LeBron James is a Laker

This was both the wackest way possible for LeBron James to end his tenure in Cleveland while simultaneously being the most obvious.

The supposition here, especially with the current Lakers roster, is that James is waving the white flag against the Warriors and the Rockets, allowing them to take over the basketball side of the postseason while he takes on more of a brand focus. That’s fine, and Los Angeles certainly is a good place to do that. There is no arguing that, it’s just that now that James is in LA it’s going to make Lakers fans feel as though their team is relevant again.

Let’s be clear: not even good teams in the NBA are relevant. The Lakers aren’t a good team, even with James on them. There is an 80% chance LA is a complete tire fire next year, which will be fun to watch if you aren’t from Glendale. I’m not saying the Milwaukees and Phoenixes of the world need to be given a fair shake. I’m just not conceding that LeBron in LA is cool in any way.

I suppose this move to California doesn’t matter given that LeBron’s legacy is already set. Even if he plays out the entirety of this next contract with the Lakers, no one will ever think of him as a Laker first. He’s always going to be a Cavalier, then a Heat, then a Laker. It’s weird that moving to Los Angeles, given all of its benefits, won’t have an impact on LeBron’s legacy. If he wins a championship, then we can talk.

Las Vegas Summer League

Summer League is ridiculous. It’s full of bad basketball and air balls, all by top picks you hoped would be much better in their first NBA action. Meanwhile, Vegas itself is a nightmare. It’s a hundred degrees outside by 8:45 AM and any time spent heading to the UNLV facilities is largely dominated by wanting to not soak through your button down shirt.

Here are the stories you can write every year coming out of Summer League. There’s no need to even have this thing.

  • Player A has gained 20 pounds of muscle.
  • Player B was a shooter in college but apparently can’t shoot now.
  • Player C was a second rounder who looks ready to start.
  • Player D scared an entire fanbase when he tweaked a knee. He’s fine, but now you assume he’s going to get hurt if he plays more than eight minutes at a time.
  • Player E went in the Top 5 and is scoring 25 points per game against dudes who will get cut by Israeli league teams. He’s going to fall on his face maybe 10 out of the first 20 games of the actual season.

LVSL exists for one explicit purpose and that’s for all us blog boys to meet each other in person to find out how weird looking we all are. Call me when Summer League is somewhere cool, like Portland. Or the moon.

The Draft was boring

We didn’t have any current NBA players traded during the first round of the actual draft itself. The salary cap crunch has hit everybody particularly hard, and save for the teams going after the likes of the LeBron Jameses and the Paul Georges of the world, many teams had to simply do what the draft was intended for: take the best guy available to develop them.

It’s not like those players can’t get traded later, but it does seem as though many teams will be taking a chance on long-term development of players they might not have wanted in first place.

Meanwhile, all I can think about is how dumb the NBPA was for not agreeing to cap smoothing. Those guys are usually pretty smart, and they have a lot of help on their side, including Michelle Roberts. Maybe they were just scared off by literally every CBA negotiation they’ve ever had with the NBA, where they usually get their own butts handed to them in some unforeseen way. But the NBPA’s flat-out refusal to smooth the cap — as the league suggested for their own good — was a huge blunder. Sure, they gave giant chunks of money all at once to guys like Chandler Parsons and Evan Turner. And good for them! But no doubt more players this season will have to play somewhere they don’t want and take smaller deals in anticipation for next summer because guys like Turner and Parsons got massive deals.

I also wonder if the talk about the summer of 2019 is a bit trumped-up. Sure, a lot of big guys will come on the market and they will get their contracts. But they were always going to get their contracts, whether it was this year or next. The real goal of the NBPA is to have a rising tide that lifts all boats. It’s possible that teams will remember the sting of 2016 and be more reticent to spend big money on role players the way they did that season when next summer comes around.

The Blazers are drowning

I wrote about how the Blazers refusing to re-sign Ed Davis was perhaps an indicator that GM Neil Olshey was going to make a few drastic moves. They have already taken to a couple of the options I suggested, including signing Jusuf Nurkic to a $12 million per-season contract. They have also used up a bit of their mid-level exception, so all that is left from my proposed offseason plan is to utilize their trade exception from Allen Crabbe.

That trade exception expires at the end of July, and it’s unclear whether Portland will be able to find someone good enough to use that exception on. There has been lots of talk in Portland about Damian Lillard perhaps wanting to force his way out of Rip City, which I think is nonsense. However, it wouldn’t be a stretch to think that Lillard is getting a bit frustrated. He has already had a talk with owner Paul Allen, and moving forward it seems like Olshey needs to find some kind of solution, and quick.

I don’t think that Lillard sees losing to the Warriors as that much of an issue. More realistically, it’s the idea of not having a good enough team to take on the Warriors and at least have a chance. That’s why joining the Lakers or playing for the New York Knicks, both terrible teams, doesn’t make sense for Lillard. Olshey needs to show he’s at least trying, and not playing it smooth and safe in the face of free agent failure. Even if it’s another Evan Turner-like gamble, that exception needs to get used by Olshey. If he doesn’t, he might be on his way out of Portland either way.

Carmelo Anthony is leaving the Thunder

Carmelo Anthony was a prolific scorer during his time in Denver. And, for two seasons in New York, he was an efficient power forward. That was his true position. But last year in Oklahoma City, it was apparent that Carmelo was unwilling to play his correct position. He also wasn’t going to come off the bench, and the results were predictable.

Anthony held the ball, killing valuable Thunder possessions while ending up with a negative VORP for the season. Him finding a way off the Oklahoma City roster is good news for both parties, since Anthony will likely get most of his money and the Thunder will be able to avoid some luxury tax considerations.

Now the question is where Anthony will land, with two obvious solutions being the Los Angeles Lakers and Houston Rockets. Adding Anthony to the Lakers would be in line with their offseason plans of adding every bad, weird, former star player that still is active in the NBA. If he joins Rockets, it’s a rejoining of Anthony with former coach Mike D’Antoni, who will butt heads with him once again as they tried to get him to run within the Rockets system.

No doubt many Houston fans are convincing themselves this very instant that Anthony would be perfect when the Rockets turn to isolation.

“He can be a great pick-and-roll man with either Paul or Harden!”

“He’s an iso player! He’s perfect!”

Houston’s isolation system doesn’t rely on one player to simply score in isolation. Their iso sets are more about getting switches, finding mismatches, then putting players in a position to score off the ball from that isolation as a backup plan. Anthony is the other kind of isolation player, one who does not pass out of those possessions and who will create a dip in efficiency while doing so.

Who knows where Anthony ends up, but just about every rumored landing spot is pure comedy.

Do you have a question about the NBA you need answered? Our PBT Mailbag publishes on Wednesdays, so send your question to have it answered by our team of NBA experts. E-mail us at: pbtmailbag@gmail.com.

Pacers’ Thaddeus Young reads market correctly, reportedly will opt-in to $13.7 million

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In 2016, when the salary cap spiked at nearly every team was flush with cash, teams threw around money like they were in that Fat Joe/Lil Wayne “Make It Rain” videoChandler Parsons, four years, $94.4 million; Bismack Biyombo, four years, $72 Million; Joakim Noah, four years, $72.6 million. And the list went on and on and on.

A lot of players headed into the 2017 free agency thinking the gold rush was still on, but teams had sobered up, they didn’t have the same cap space, and the market was very tight for free agents. Players were frustrated, some taking shorter contracts with the thought they could re-enter the market in a year and get their cash then.

Except 2018 is going to be a tighter market than 2017. The guys at the top — LeBron James, Paul George, Chris Paul — are going to get maxed out, but there is a shrinking middle class in the NBA already and not a lot of teams with money to spend now.

In the face of that, Indiana’s Thaddeus Young has decided to opt into the $13.7 million he is owed next season, something first reported by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN. It is the smart move financially.

Young provided some veteran leadership — and 11.8 points and 6.3 rebounds a game — for the Pacers last season. More than the offense, defensively the Pacers leaned on Young, who is long and switchable, exactly the kind of defender needed in the modern NBA. He’s a guy that brings intangibles, effort and a bit of an unorthodox game to the court that just works for him.

Expect a number of other players to follow Young’s lead in the next 24 hours. Most players expecting a pay raise, and anyone thinking 2016 was the benchmark and not an anomaly, are not going to find this free agent summer to their liking. Some guys may just want out of their current situations, but many players leaving for the promise of a bigger payday are in for a harsh reality check.

Free Agency Preview: Top 10 restricted free agents

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Jeremy Lin. Isaiah Thomas. Chandler Parsons.

All good players, albeit with flaws, but ones teams saw as potentially part of the long-term future for their teams. However, when they came up as a restricted free agent another team valued them more, came in with a big offer, and the team where they had been playing chose not to match it. That’s how Dallas snatched Parsons away from the Houston, while Houston did the same thing to get Lin from New York. Kings fans loved second-round pick Isaiah Thomas but team management wasn’t willing to pay to keep him.

This is what restricted free agency is: First round picks with enough flaws they and the team couldn’t reach a deal on an extension, or a second round pick or undrafted player who had a team option on the end of their contract.

The team that has the player’s rights can keep him — they have the right to match any offer. That’s why it’s restricted. Just sometimes they do not.

Who are the guys at the top of the restricted free agency food chain? Here’s our list. (Note, come back tomorrow for our list of the top unrestricted free agents, such as LeBron James and Chris Paul.)

1. Clint Capela (Houston Rockets). Rockets Grand Poobah Daryl Morey has made it clear he will match any offer and bring Capela back — as he should. Capela averaged 13.9 points, and 10.8 rebounds a game (with a 24.5 PER), plus was a crucial part of the Rockets starting lineup and switching defense (because he can handle himself on the perimeter fairly well, plus protect the rim). The Rockets were 4 points per 100 better with him on the floor, and he was a big part of their playoff run. He’s going to get near a max salary and while there are certainly other teams that would like him (he’d be a perfect fit in Dallas) the Rockets will match anything and keep him in-house.

2. Aaron Gordon (Orlando Magic). There are times Gordon looks like a sure-fire franchise cornerstone player (usually the first half of the season), the prototype modern NBA four. Then there are times he looks pedestrian. Last season before the All-Star Game, Gordon averaged 18.4 points per game, hitting 34.6 percent from three and with a true shooting percentage of 54.7 (above the league average). Then after the All-Star break he had his problem with his shot, scoring 16 a night, hitting 31.6 percent from three and a 49.3 true shooting percentage. He can defend the three but performs offensively better as a four. Talking to teams around the league, they expect the Magic will match any offer, but another team who believes in the high-flying Gordon may try to poach him with a max deal (it would probably take that to get Orlando to balk, and the new management team may well match that anyway).

3. Julius Randle (Los Angeles Lakers). The Lakers like Julius Randle and how he’s developed into a bull of a player — he’s strong, attacks the basket, and can be the definition of “bully ball” as he pushes his way to the rim. Randle averaged 16.1 points and 8 rebounds a game last season, with an efficient PER of 19.9. He’s also a guy a number of teams are eyeing because they think he can be gotten — if the Lakers spend their cap space on two max free agents (which is the goal, landing both LeBron and Paul George) then they will not have the money to match an offer to Randle. Dallas has been linked to him, but they are looking at bigger name targets and may only come around on Randle if they strike out there; however, other teams could come in quicker with a Randle offer to try to force the Lakers’ hand (Indiana?).

4. Marcus Smart (Boston Celtics). The definition of the kind of player with flaws who ends up on the restricted free agency list: Smart is one of the better defensive two guards in the NBA, he can cover point guards and wings with anybody. He can switch, he plays with a high motor and gets loose balls, he can get steals. But on the other end of the court, you can help off him and not guard him on the perimeter, daring him to shoot. Boston values him in the $12-$14 million a year range, he thinks he deserves more than that. If another team agrees with him and comes in with a big offer in the higher teens, it will be interesting to see if Danny Ainge lets a key emotional part of his young team walk.

5. Fred VanVleet (Toronto Raptors). He just came in third in the Sixth Man of the Year voting because he was the face and emotional leader of the best bench unit in the NBA last season. VanVleet has said he wants to return to Toronto, and Raptors head man Masai Ujiri has called keeping him one of the team’s highest priorities. The question is at what price? Likely at least $10 million a year, maybe a couple million more than that. If another team comes in hot and goes higher than that the Raptors may have to rethink their position, but that’s not likely. It’s hard to picture a deal not getting done.

6. Jabari Parker (Milwaukee Bucks). Is there a team out there willing to gamble that Parker can get back to his old form? He’s an incredibly versatile scorer, but he has had two ACL surgeries now, and when Parker came back last season he was solid to good, but not the 20-point-a-game guy he had been before. That scoring made up for his poor defense in the past. The Parker/Giannis Antetokounmpo pairing is not the frontline cornerstone of the future in Milwaukee, but they would like to keep him. A number of teams, including Sacramento, have been linked to him, but to get him away from the Bucks a team is going to have to come in with a big offer. That money may not be out there for Parker right now.

7. Zach LaVine (Chicago Bulls). He’s got a world of potential, but his game is based on athleticism and he is coming off an ACL surgery, then had to be shut down last season with knee tendonitis. If he can get back to his old form and improve his defense, LaVine would be one of the better young two-guards in the league, a guy Chicago wanted in the Jimmy Butler trade. But will he? The injury and questions may keep teams from coming in with the max or near-max offer it would likely take to poach him away from Chicago, but as teams strike out on other options it’s something to watch. Most likely LaVine and the Bulls find some middle ground and get a deal done.

8. Jusuf Nurkic (Portland Trail Blazers). For a couple of seasons now, he has been the inside to the Damian Lillard/C.J. McCollum outside in Portland, and last season he averaged 14.3 points, and 9 rebounds a game with a very efficient 19.2 PER. However, he’s not consistent, and with the growing emergence of Zach Collins the Trail Blazers may want to consider what they are willing to spend on Nurkic. That said, there are rumors around the league that Portland and Nurkic have a handshake deal in place already, it just can’t be signed until July 6. Maybe. But if a team was looking for a solid big man they could potentially steal with a healthy contract, Nurkic could suddenly find himself with options.

9. Kyle Anderson (San Antonio Spurs). “Slo-mo” is a crafty pick-and-roll ball handler and a long, switchable defender, he’s got an unorthodox game that fits well with what the Spurs will do, but would it work as well with another team? He averaged 8 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 2.7 assists this past season. Where he fits in with the Spurs ties into the bigger questions about the Spurs direction and what happens with Kawhi Leonard, but in a tight financial market is there another team that has the resources to come in hard and get Anderson? The two sides likely will work out a deal to keep him a Spur, but it’s something to watch.

10. Rodney Hood (Cleveland Cavaliers). No player has cost himself as much money in the past year as Hood. He went into last season as the expected go-to scorer of the Utah Jazz, and by the end of the season couldn’t get off the bench in Cleveland. Throw in some malcontent moments in the locker room, and teams will be hesitant. That said, 6’8” players who can score and defend are limited, so there will be interest (New Orleans is one rumor), and while the Cavaliers may want to keep him they will be focused on the LeBron situation to start free agency, and that outcome will dictate their moves after. A team may be able to slide in their and get Hood away from them.

Report: Grizzlies shopping trade package of Chandler Parsons, No. 4 pick

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The Grizzlies have one of the NBA’s best assets in the No. 4 pick in the upcoming draft.

They also have one of the NBA’s worst assets in Chandler Parsons, the injury-prone forward who has two years and $49,209,769 remaining on his contract.

What if Memphis combined both those?

Michael Scotto of The Athletic:

The Memphis Grizzlies have gauged the trade market on a package of Chandler Parsons and the No. 4 overall pick, league sources told The Athletic.

The No. 4 pick’s value is probably more positive than Parsons’ value is negative. Rebuilding teams with cap space like the Hawks and Bulls would likely jump at paying Parsons if it meant landing such a high pick.

But would anyone send the Grizzlies enough value to bridge the gap? Depends what they’re looking for.

Robert Pera just completed an expensive buys-sell process to keep control of the team. He might want to unload salary. It’d be a real shame for Memphis fans if that meant sacrificing the No. 4 pick, though.

The Grizzlies – partially by their own choosing, partially by their contracts – are pretty locked into a Marc GasolMike Conley core. Dumping Parsons wouldn’t create a massive amount of flexibility to upgrade the roster. It’d just cost whatever sweetener, No. 4 pick or otherwise, is necessary to dump his contract.

It can be tough to tell when a team is just exploring its options. Memphis should want to know the value of Parsons and the No. 4 pick, as it’s helpful to know the value of all assets.

But the possibility the Grizzlies would use the No. 4 pick to rid itself of Parsons – rather than use it to add a top prospect – is concerning.