The Memphis Grizzlies are 5-8. That’s not putting them in line for the playoffs in the West any time soon, but it’s also a decent record for a team that is in the throes of a rebuild, one led by a pair of rookies—star-in-the-making No. 2 pick Ja Morant and versatile workman Brandon Clarke—along with a still-raw 20-year-old sophomore, Jaren Jackson Jr., who is actually younger than the two rookies.
The cast of veterans around that trio, including Jae Crowder, Jonas Valanciunas, Kyle Anderson and even the long-maligned Solomon Hill, has been solid. For a rebuilding situation, this is exactly where the Grizzlies want to be.
For the Celtics, it’s not quite so great. They’ve got a draft pick coming from Memphis, protected for the Top 6 this year and unprotected next year. They’re invested in the Grizzlies being a bad team through 2021.
Celtics GM Danny Ainge played the long game to get this pick, acquiring it acquired in the trade that sent Jeff Green to the Grizzlies for Tayshaun Prince back in January 2015, guessing rightly that the Grizzlies would collapse in the interim. The pick was protected for the Top 8 last season, allowing the Grizzlies to take Morant. It’s unprotected for 2021. That means the Celtics might not actually have the pick until six years after it was originally traded.
This season, the pick is protected for the Top 6. For the Celtics, the ideal situation was to have the Grizzlies tank out for the next two seasons, have them use the pick in the 2020 draft, then have their unprotected pick in 2021. If the Grizzlies continued to stink, that pick would be a potential Top 5, or even No. 1 overall, selection.
The Grizzlies’ early success here in 2019-20 is a monkey wrench in that scenario.
Boston is 11-2, tied for best record in the NBA but still shuffling through its so-so options in the middle, where three players (Daniel Theis, Robert Williams and Enes Kanter) have gotten starts and a fourth (Grant Williams) has gotten some minutes. That’s led to a push for the Celtics to be aggressive in finding a center via trade.
The Celtics can be a legitimate threat to win the East, the thinking goes, but will need a big, multi-faceted center who can match up both with Philadelphia’s interior behemoth Joel Embiid to do so. and Milwaukee’s perimeter-oriented Brook Lopez.
Among the candidates: Indiana’s Myles Turner and San Antonio’s LaMarcus Aldridge. But the Pacers would be unlikely, sources have told Heavy.com, to trade Turner in the Eastern Conference, if at all.
Aldridge makes some sense, but he is 34 and has slowed a bit. The Celtics almost certainly would need to trade Gordon Hayward and take back some salary to make an Aldridge deal work and they’d be reluctant to do that.
Celtics Have Incentive to Keep the Pick
Still, the Grizzlies pick would be the most logical path to that kind of player. If hopes are getting dimmer that the Memphis pick will be a 2021 No. 1 selection, it could be time to cash that trade chip before, heavens forbid, the Grizzlies get even better.
The Celtics have given no indication that they’re going to trade the pick. They’ve had a high bar for the pick all along and it has not come up in trade discussions—though it would have, had the Celtics been able to get into talks with New Orleans for an Anthony Davis trade.
“It’s a high-value pick no matter what happens, it is a lottery pick,” one rival Gm told Heavy.com. “They’d be willing to trade the other pick they have but it wouldn’t make sense to move the Memphis pick. If it’s Anthony Davis then, OK, you change your plans. But there’s not really anyone on the market who is going to get them to move that.”
The “other pick” is the one the Celtics own from Milwaukee, acquired from the Suns last summer in the trade that sent center Aron Baynes to Phoenix. With the Bucks among the league’s elite, that should be one of the final five picks in the first round.
If the Celtics do look to bolster the roster through a trade, it’s likely to involve the Milwaukee pick, not the Memphis pick. There’s good financial reason for that. Even as the Grizzlies’ improvement diminishes its standing, Boston still looks ahead and sees the value in keeping that pick and drafting a young contributor who will be on a rookie scale salary for four years before he needs a big payday.
A Deep NBA Draft in 2020
The Celtics, remember, will wrestle with long-term salary questions. The team surprised most around the league by signing forward Jaylen Brown to a four-year, $115 million extension this offseason, a deal that kicks in next year at $23 million. Jayson Tatum will be due an extension next offseason and that deal will start the following year, when the Celtics also have $36 million committed to Kemba Walker and $14 million to Marcus Smart.
That could mean, at this time next year, $100 million will be accounted for by four players in 2021-22 salary, without considering the possibility of Hayward (who has a payer option for next year) sticking around. The Celtics have a couple years of cheap labor lined up with Grant Williams, Robert Williams, Carsen Edwards and Romeo Langford to offset those contract hits.
But the prospect of more cheap labor through the Memphis pick is alluring. The 2020 lot is not considered a great draft but it is deep and having, say, the 10th pick will give the Celtics a shot at a player who can be a contributor quickly.
There’s a boatload of quality point guards available, for example. While that’s not necessarily a Celtics need, it could be a spot in which Boston could get an excellent value. Either France’s Theo Maledon or Arizona’s Nico Mannion might be considered the best point guard in most drafts, but with Cole Anthony and LaMelo Ball on the board, they’ll drop to the back part of the lottery.
In that scenario, the Celtics could wind up with a very good backup for Walker, or, perhaps, his long-term replacement.
Besides, the notion of trading the Memphis pick is also contingent on the Grizzlies maintaining their overachieving start. That’s just not likely. While this has been a tough team in the early going, four of its five wins could easily have gone the other way—they’ve won four games by a total of eight points.
The Grizzlies’ net margin on the year is minus-8.0 points per 100 possessions, which is 28th in the NBA. No team can stay within shouting distance of .500 with that kind of net rating, especially not when two of the team’s top players (Morant and Jackson) are 20 years old and a third (Clarke) is a rookie.
Two early surprises—the Celtics as a threat in the East and the Grizzlies as a threat to win 30-something games—have had an effect on how the pick Memphis owes Boston is viewed. But don’t expect the Celtics to change their approach. The Grizzlies could still collapse and the Celtics still won’t be out shopping the asset on the trade market.