Whether or not it produces the first Finals appearance in franchise history, the Grizzlies’ move to acquire Jeff Green was the right deal at the right time, with the right positional fit and the right price.
The three-team trade, which became official Monday, will see Memphis send Tayshaun Prince and a future first-round pick to Boston for Green, with Quincy Pondexter and a second-round pick also going to New Orleans in exchange for Russ Smith. The Pelicans will also send Austin Rivers to Boston. The Celtics reportedly might flip him to the Clippers, who are coached by his father, Doc Rivers.
All of the agreement’s short-term attention belongs to Memphis. Boston’s role is merely as a lottery-bound hoarder of draft picks. New Orleans is involved only as a facilitator. The Grizzlies, however, are a perennially overlooked contender looking to make another run, as they possess the type of balance (No. 9 offense, No. 11 defense) that demands attention in the contender conversation while holding the fourth-best record in the loaded West entering Sunday’s play.
Much of Memphis’s roster-building attention in recent years has been aimed at pumping up the perimeter weapons that complement the interior duo of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. Over the last two years, the Grizzlies have added Courtney Lee, Vince Carter, Beno Udrih and Nick Calathes in hopes of mustering up enough firepower to recreate the franchise’s surprising run to the 2013 Western Conference finals. The addition of Lee, who has shot a blistering 48.9 percent from deep, has loomed largest. His ability to space the court, combined with All-Star type seasons from Gasol and Mike Conley, has helped Memphis to its best offensive rating, relative to league average, in franchise history.
Although Green was Boston’s leading scorer this season (17.6 points, 4.2 rebounds, 1.6 assists), Memphis is surely more interested in his versatility, size and athleticism. Green’s time with the Celtics stands as a prototypical example of a complementary player struggling under the weight of alpha burdens. His shooting numbers and Player Efficiency Rating were mediocre (or worse) and he proved unable to lead a young, rebuilding squad to a respectable record.
None of those limitations really matters to Memphis, where the core of Conley, Randolph and Gasol has years of shared experience and is flanked by Lee and lockdown defender Tony Allen. Green will be installed as a supporting cast member, angling for minutes at both forward positions. In that role, he is a vast upgrade over Prince (a poor-shooting 34-year-old small forward who isn’t physically equipped to defend stretch power forwards) and Pondexter (a 6-foot-6 wing who has also struggled mightily with his shot this year).
Unlike with Oklahoma City’s recent addition of Dion Waiters or Dallas’ move to grab Rajon Rondo, the fit for Green and Memphis doesn’t require any convincing. As noted back in November, the Grizzlies were the only contender that lacked a stretch option that could be trusted come playoff time. Making it through the West requires matching up with the the likes of Dirk Nowitzki, LaMarcus Aldridge, Serge Ibaka, Boris Diaw and Draymond Green. Simultaneously, the Grizzlies must also prepare for length and athleticism at the small forward position, in the form of Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard and Chandler Parsons.
Although the 6-foot-9 Green isn’t going to singlehandedly erase an All-Star, he’s a capable defensive option at both positions and, unlike Prince, he commands attention on the other end. Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger needs a change of pace from the ground-bound, rough-and-tumble Randolph when teams spread out. Green can be that guy. Joerger also needs a bigger three with reasonable quickness to wear on elite wings. Green can be that guy, too.
A best-case scenario finds Green’s three-point shooting numbers rebounding from his current 30.5 percent to somewhere closer to league average now that he won’t be the focal point of a defense’s attention. It would also see him continue to attack when he has favorable matchups. His 4.7 free throw attempts per 36 minutes far outpace Prince (1.7) and Pondexter (2), potentially bringing a new dynamism to Joerger’s bench. Even in a worst-case scenario, where Green can’t establish himself as a competent outside shooter, his physical profile is preferable to either of the two outgoing players he’s replacing when it comes to dealing with the Diaws and the Durants of the world.
Financially, Memphis had every reason to pull the trigger. The exchange puts Prince’s expiring contract to good use and actually saves the Grizzlies more than $1 million on this year’s payroll, as Green ($9.2 million) and Smith ($507,336) make less than Prince ($7.7 million) and Pondexter ($3.1 million). The move should also improve the Grizzlies’ flexibility heading into the summer. Pondexter was under contract through 2017-18 and Green will likely exercise his player option to become an unrestricted free agent. Memphis should be in position to offer Gasol a max contract and make a strong offer to retain Green, if it so chooses, without smashing too deep into luxury tax territory.
The draft picks were the only real cost of this trade from Memphis’ standpoint, but the logic in spending them now is pretty clear. Randolph, a key piece of their title hopes, is 33. Gasol is 29 and in his prime. Conley is 27 and in his prime. Allen is 33. Carter is 37. This is a team that is in “win now” mode and must convince Gasol it is serious about winning with him before he enters the summer as the top free-agent center. If Green proves to be a rental and he leaves next summer, the decision to part with the first-round pick could be open to second-guessing. If he sticks and winds up being a long-term solution, it looks like an asset well spent.
While there’s too much going on at the top of the West standings to claim that this move vaults the Grizzlies up the pecking order, acquiring Green addresses the roster’s biggest weakness at a price that should be no more than mildly regrettable. Memphis should now be able to shift out of its two-big lineups with greater ease and better results, and that could prove to be a crucial ability come April and May. Plus, the message to Gasol should be clear: Ownership and management wants to make the most of his peak years.