How Courtney Lee adds to the Grizzlies' expensive wing combination
The height of trade season is not yet upon us, but it has been a busy week nonetheless. In an entirely unpredictable move, a three team trade went down yesterday between the Boston Celtics, Memphis Grizzlies and Oklahoma City Thunder that saw the Celtics and Grizzlies swap backup guards Courtney Lee and Jerryd Bayless, with Memphis also gaining Boston's unprotected 2016 second round pick. The trade also saw Ryan Gomes return to Boston for all of about four minutes, traded from the Thunder to the Celtics in exchange for a second round pick from Memphis that they will never receive - Gomes was then immediately waived by Boston.
For their part, Boston downgrades marginally as a player (a fact which matters little in light of their current situation) for the cost of a second round pick, $11 million in salary savings over the next two seasons, and an extra $1.7 million in breathing space under the luxury tax this season. That extra space this season is not insignificant - despie their rebuilding nature, Boston were so close to the tax that they needed to dump Fab Melo before the season started just to get under it. This added breathing room will allow them to audition players down the stretch of the season, which all rebuilding teams need to do. They also still nevertheless land themselves a decent player - flawed though he is, Bayless is still capable of producing big scoring nights off the bench with his speed, tenacity and ability to get to the foul line. Although he is traded for primarily and secondarily for the expiring nature of his contract, he nevertheless has value on the court, both this season and as a potential candidate for re-signing. He is, after all, still only 25.
Gomes' bizarre inclusion in the deal saves the Oklahoma City Thunder $488,542 off their cap, as Boston now takes the cap hit for the player they were going to waive anyway. Although they will likely never receive the conveyed second round pick (which is top 55 protected in 2017), they nevertheless get salary cap and luxury tax relief from trading a player they were going to cut anyway. Oklahoma City also now have extra room under the luxury tax to audition players, and a roster spot to do it with, for the cost of a player who had played only 34 minutes for them.
The deal, then, hinges on Memphis' involvement.
Memphis are said to have targeted Lee. The deal was thus their idea. This is...fine, potentially. If Courtney Lee continued to play at the standard that he has done this season, then he is both worthy (just) of his price tag, and a useful fit for the Grizzlies. They need an extra secondary ball-handler with adequate defense and good outside shooting, and Lee, with his better jumpshooting and size, is more suited for this role than Bayless.
However, Memphis is now committed at Lee for $5,450,000 next season, and $5,675,000 the year after. This is in addition to paying Quincy Pondexter $3,146,068 next season in the first year of his four year, $16 million extension, plus paying a significantly struggling Tayshaun Prince $7,707,865 in the final season of his unnecessary deal. That is a combined $16.4 million on a trio of useful but flawed wings without there being a starting calibre player in the bunch.
It's not wrong to want role playing wings who provide a solid complimentary job on both ends, and all three can be said to be so. It is not even necessarily wrong to pay them at those prices - Prince is significantly overpaid, but the other two are acceptable overpays, paid 30% too much for at least a year too long yet tolerable in isolation. But it is wrong to tie up your limited payroll flexibility on limited, duplicative backups. They are not in isolation. They are on the same team. Combine them with Tony Allen's reasonable but lengthy contract - he willl earn a steady $4,831,461 next season, but will still be earning $5.5 million when he is 35 - and the Grizzlies are ever more heavily invested at a position where they still need a lot of help. The second rounder that Boston enclosed to compensate for the excess that is Lee's contract might end up being a valuable one, yet this should not be sufficient justification.
Memphis are by and large capped out. With Lee now in the fold, they already have $69 million committed to next season, the only three not fully guaranteed contracts being Kosta Koufos ($500,000 of $3 million guaranteed), Nick Calathes ($816,482, fully unguaranteed) and Zach Randolph (a $16,938,333 player option). Koufos surely will not be waived, while Calathes's deal is too small to make much difference either way. And if Randolph opts out, it is more than likely to re-sign for a slightly smaller price on a longer deal.
That leaves Memphis not a whole lot of wriggle room under a luxury tax threshold most recently estimated to be at $75.7 million. They are not in imminent danger of paying it, yet they are in sufficient proximity to prevent spending all their assets. Ideally, they would be able to retain Ed Davis and James Johnson, whilst beng able to utilise their MLE and their six traded player exceptions. In reality, they now cannot. Lee may have cost them Davis. This seems like the wrong choice to make.
This is all in an attempt to land Lee, a guard about as average as can be. Memphis needed an average guard, especially one with a 39% career three point shooting mark. Yet their need to be frugal has not been sufficiently met. They had the leverage, as evidenced by the inclusion of the pick. Boston needed the salary relief more than Memphis needed the average player. With a season ending injury, four guaranteed years left on his deal, and underwhelming play when healthy, Pondexter certainly is not movable for any value at the moment - similarly, declining quickly, Prince is highly unlikely to be moved via trade (unless someone out there is gullible enough to be sold on past glories). The trio are here to stay, then, and the situation both now and for the foreseeable future is confused.
All teams need "three and D" wing specialists. But they need them from the same player.