Just like that, with the firing of head coach Dave Fizdale, the Memphis Grizzlies sent up a slow-burning, luminous flare to the collected NBA population, one that has an army of take-meister’s and (surely — hopefully? ideally?) general manager’s cellphones abuzz. There’s a definite chance now the Grizzlies will look to trade one of their two franchise cornerstones, Marc Gasol, and enter into a full rebuild.
It would signal the real, official end of the Grit n’ Grind era in Memphis; but let’s not get funereal about it. There are fake trades to discuss, and yes, they might could (but probably not) (but maybe???) involve the Toronto Raptors.
The Gasol Profile
Let’s start off with the obvious facts: Marc Gasol is a large human listed at 7’1” and 255 pounds. The positional revolution may be rampaging through the NBA, but Gasol is, and forever will be, a centre. It just so happens, he may be one of the best pure centres in the NBA.
What is a pure centre? Well, Gasol is big — we’ve established that — but he’s also foundational. For the past few years, barring injury, Gasol has been the bedrock on which everything the Grizzlies’ have built. This season, despite heading towards his 33rd birthday in January, Gasol is averaging 19.1 points, 9.1 rebounds, 4.1 assists, and 1.7 blocks. His field goal percentage is down to 42 percent, but his three point attempts (a skill that became a necessity when the Grizz continued to be unable to find shooters) are up; Gasol is also shooting 32 percent from deep. Not bad, right?
What’s more, and perhaps most important, however is this: Gasol continues to be the brain of the Grizzlies’ defense. He’s the guy who knows how to move in space (despite being enormous!), leverage his body’s length and bulk, and understand what players (e.g. his opponents and his teammates) can and can’t do. Though Gasol’s physical peak undoubtedly came a few years ago, right around the time he won the Defensive Player of the Year in 2012-13, his mind is decidedly still sharp.
The story of the Grizzlies the last few years has been one about a squad raging against the dying of the light. And Gasol, foundation and brain, has also been the long-time chief instigator.
But! Let’s get back to that age thing. Gasol is a large 32 year-old-man, one who turns 33 in a couple of months. Did I mention that already? What’s the history on large men turning 33 who, uh, have also broken one of their feet at least one time? I’m no doctor, but that’s got to be at least a little bit of a concern. Coupled with the fact that Gasol is signed through the 2019-20 season (a player option) for money in the vicinity of $22 to $26 million per year, well, a team should be damn sure it makes sense to trade for him. They have to be looking to win it all.
And so after all that, we get back to the Raptors. As we’ve discussed (today!), the Raptors are good, but could be better. There’s a central problem to the team, one that involves having a starting centre (Jonas Valanciunas) who is possibly (probably) not good enough to be a starting centre, and then a bunch of other options who may or may not be better in that position. There’s a lot of uncertainty, is my point.
Because of the vagaries of the NBA, the salary being paid to 25-year-old Valanciunas right now (approx. $16 million) is a tad excessive. It also makes JV the focal point of any trade to Memphis, due to the dollar weight attached to Gasol. In this scenario, the Grizzlies would get a lesser (albeit younger and cheaper) version of the player they have right now; the Raptors would get an older, more expensive, but far more intelligent player than the one they have right now. And both teams would have to pay these guys right out until 2020 as well. (For this to work, we also have to assume nobody in Memphis read Will Lou’s JV eulogy.)
Obviously, there’s still a math problem to solve here. The Raptors would have to give up more for Gasol since, talent differences aside, 26 is greater than 16 and there’s still, like, $10 mil unaccounted for. I don’t care to get into the specifics of the cap implications (ask a question in the comments and maybe Hackett can buzz by and answer), but it means one thing, and one thing only for Toronto: the Raps would have to part with young assets to make a deal work. Since Toronto has no draft picks to trade until 2019, that means giving out Lucas Nogueira (almost certainly), or, who knows, OG Anunoby, or Pascal Siakam, or... well, you see how depressing this becomes to consider.
And that’s just the salary implications. From a talent perspective, we know the Raps would have to sweeten the pot somehow for the trade to make sense for Memphis. The Grizz aren’t going to blow it all up just to pay the itty-bitty baller version of the unhappy guy they have now with no other prospects to show for it. And even with the prospects, a JV-centric trade is likely still untenable; Memphis would be giving up possibly the best player in their franchise’s history after all. Be reasonable here.
Would You Do It?
Ah forget that, let’s throw reason to the wind and get to the point. Masai Ujiri, god king, has said that with any trade you need two teams to be involved. It’s great to suggest the Raptors can get this guy, or that guy, with no implications or consequences, but we (and he) know that’s not the case. But knowing what we know about both Gasol and Valanciunas — age, contract, skills, talent, injury history, etc. — and what we know about how NBA deals work — e.g. old assets get squeezed for new ones — let’s ask anyway: would, could, should the Raptors trade for Gasol?
If the Raptors were to trade JV and however many players they’d need to make it work, it would mean a starting lineup of Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Serge Ibaka, and Gasol, all on same three-year timeline. (Well, almost; DeRozan gets to hang around one more year.) On paper, that sounds pretty good. Gasol doesn’t pair that much better with Ibaka (who wants to play C), but he’s an upgrade over JV in one key area: defense.
Assuming the team doesn’t part with Norman Powell in this scenario, he’s still the team’s small forward. The bench is left to — let’s be conservative — Delon Wright, C.J. Miles, and one of Jakob Poeltl or Pascal Siakam. (The Hoops Hype post here mentions a wrinkle where Dillon Brooks gets involved, which shifts up the timeline, and possible involves Miles — but I disagree with the idea that Gasol can’t be had unless Lowry or DeRozan are moved; that seems insane.) Is that enough for the Raps to challenge LeBron James? I say, yes possibly. Gasol’s a big game player, and a tighter rotation built around his skill-set could be quite good (or at least an improvement over what the team has now). But I said that last season too, and we know how well things went then for Toronto.
Of course, as I wrote that previous paragraph it became clear to me that Ujiri would never do this trade. He’s invested in the idea of the three-year window, of trying to compete with the Lowry-DeRozan-Ibaka trio; that’s all very true. But he also wants to develop a group of useful young players around them. To my mind, the central figure for that idea has become Anunoby, with an honourable mention to Siakam. Both of them are clearly the position-less forwards of the future, and feel like they’re the most likely asking price for Memphis. (I suppose there’s also a scenario where the Grizz push for Wright as insurance for Mike Conley, but that is also a hard future to envision.) Maybe I’m just too attached to these guys, I don’t know.
Is Ujiri as attached to his young players, though? Or do the Raptors really try to push on a clear win now deal and make some sort of move for Gasol (assuming the Grizz don’t laugh them off the phone; which is not a big assumption to make, let’s be real)? Would you include OG in a trade? Would Masai?
What do you make of this wild and insane rumour, as Memphis’ bright, inexhaustible flare continues to burn over the skyline for all NBA fans to see?