A salary cap pyramid scheme in Memphis

The Grizzlies turned empty salary cap space into a cash-checking service for other teams, offering a competitive price.

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The Grizzlies’ former arena, the Great American Pyramid, is now famously an incredibly large Bass Pro Shop

Here’s a weird post-free agency trade for you: the Grizzlies traded Eric Bledsoe to the Clippers for Patrick Beverley, Rajon Rondo and Daniel Oturu. The move will save the Clippers something like $30 million in luxury tax payments this season; given that Bledsoe doubles as the best player in the deal, it’s a no-brainer for L.A. They wouldn’t have any cap flexibility in 2022 free agency anyway, and this avoids even considering paying Beverley more money next summer.

Bledsoe, however, is only guaranteed about $4 million for the 2022-23 season, and while the three incoming Grizzlies are on expiring deals, it’s not clear why Memphis is doing this. The Grizz took on Bledsoe in the Jonas Valanciunas deal to receive draft considerations (moving up seven spots to No. 10 in the most recent draft — they took Ziaire Williams — plus a 2022 pick) in exchange for giving up some cap flexibility. Memphis did L.A. a huge favor in this trade … but for what upside?

Is the $4 million in 2022 free agency cap flexibility really a priority to Memphis? That seems hard to believe given that the Grizzlies prioritized draft capital over flexibility just a couple weeks ago. This is a way that Memphis can have both, however: there was some skepticism in the analytical class that there was any market for Bledsoe, despite the low 2022-23 guarantee. The Grizzlies found a home for him to simply clear off the next-year dead cap space and avoid buyout talks. Well, buyout talks on this player. We assume that barring another trade buyout rumors will circle one of Rondo or Beverley.

Let’s look at the Grizzlies’ trades this offseason from 10,000 feet. They have taken on $41 million in 2021-22 salary (that’s Steven Adams, Beverley, Rondo and Oturu) while sending out just $14 million in original 2021-22 Memphis salary (Valanciunas). So the Grizzlies essentially leveraged $27 million of their own 2021-22 cap room and a net $17 million of their 2022-23 cap space (Adams’ deal) to the benefit of the Pels and Clippers in exchange for a future first-round pick and to move up seven spots in the lottery in 2021.

This is basketball arbitrage. This is check-cashing industry behavior. This is rentier status. And it’s something the Grizzlies have earned the right and ability to do by mostly nailing the draft in recent years.

Memphis has a young, deep roster. It doesn’t need a splashy veteran right now. And in fact, being Memphis, which doesn’t have a strong free agency record, avoiding spending on a big splashy free agent is probably the right move. Ja Morant is a rising star, and there’s a lot of intriguing talent here. The Justise Winslow experience didn’t work out but from Jaren Jackson Jr. to Brandon Clarke to Dillon Brooks to De’Anthony Melton to Desmond Bane to Kyle Anderson to Xavier Tillman, there’s just a lot of good, solid players here. We’ll see if Ziaire Williams works out like Memphis hopes.

Plus Morant and JJJ are about to get really expensive. Leveraging cap flexibility in these in-between years when you have it is important to building a strong foundation.

Did Memphis get enough for the amount of cap space it laundered to two fellow Western Conference teams — teams that could very well be competing with the Grizzlies for a playoff spot, given Kawhi Leonard’s injury or New Orleans’ desperation? We don’t know what more was possible given that Memphis, on account of being pretty good, was never going to consider deals like the ones Oklahoma City has been making.

It’s an odd juxtaposition nonetheless: Memphis made the playoffs and spent its summer laundering salary cap space, twice trading out the best player in a trade. And what the team has to show is a lottery pick rookie and a future selection for a team already bursting at the seams with youth. The Thunder are bottomed out with reams of draft equity … and they are still acquiring more with no apparent intention of exploring putting a competitive roster around Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.

Perhaps Memphis will pick something up for Rondo or even Beverley (who’s on the books for $14 million). If nothing else, those are substantial contracts to package in a bigger trade. Perhaps Oturu, given a chance to theoretically play more minutes, will join the ranks of the young Memphis upside and be an additive to this summer of arbitrage for the Grizzlies.

The Clips got a great deal out of this, assuming Bledsoe perks up back on a contender. (Well, if his contract is retained in 2022-23 he’ll be on a contender then, when Kawhi is back. Not so much this season. Probably.) The Pels may have gotten a good deal if Valanciunas fits like they hope. So the Grizzlies aren’t exactly being predatory in these deals. It’s more opportunistic than anything. It just remains to be seen whether fans and more important Ja are on board with the plan.

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Scores

Storm 85, Sky 87 — No Sue Bird or Breanna Stewart, but the Sky needed overtime to win.

Sun 80, Wings 59 — Easy work for Connecticut but heavens is Arike Ogunbowale fun to watch.

Mystics 83, Aces 84 — Getting some low-key Team of Destiny vibes with Las Vegas. Came back from down 21, Chelsea Gray finished the job with a clutch jumper. It’s … kind of all coming together for the Aces?

Dream 81, Mercury 92

Liberty 78, Lynx 88

Fever 70, Sparks 75

Schedule

The WNBA is off on Monday. There are eight Summer League games, most on NBA TV or the ESPN family of networks.

Links

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