In a league that seems half-full (or “half-empty,” really) of teams looking to dive into the 2014 draft lottery, the Memphis Grizzlies are out there trying win games. They’re not great at it, as they’ve been handicapped by injuries and a lack of depth as a result of the payroll largesse of the former front office and ownership group, but they’re trying. And while dealing for former Magic, Rockets and most recently Boston Celtics guard (in a three-team deal that also included Oklahoma City) Courtney Lee won’t shift the needle all that much for the squad, it is something.
Boston? They’re trying to lose. The players aren’t trying to lose, and rookie coach Brad Stevens isn’t trying to lose, but the team’s front office wants to limit wins so as to stay away from the top spot in the pathetic Atlantic Division, as winning that anachronistic crown guarantees a playoff berth and loss of a lottery pick. Dealing Lee for Jerryd Bayless may actually serve the Celtics with a few more wins than they’d hoped for, though, because even in a down year his presence as a playmaker and solid enough distributor could help Boston circle the wagons as they await Rajon Rondo’s return from an ACL tear.
The real reason Boston made this deal was to shed Lee’s salary. C’s general manager Danny Ainge signed Lee in 2012 as the team was attempting one last shot at a ring with Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Jason Terry on board. Both Lee and Terry disappointed in their initial season with Boston, which turned out to be Garnett and Pierce’s last as they were traded to Brooklyn last July. With the Celtics committed to rebuilding, a veteran role player making an average salary through 2016 like Lee wasn’t needed as much, especially in comparison to Bayless’ value as a playmaker.
Jerryd has a contract that expires after this season, and one that counts for less than Lee’s deal this season. As such, not only will the Celtics save over $1 million this season (Ryan Gomes, sent to Boston from Oklahoma City in the deal, makes less than a million this year), they’ll knock off the remaining two years and over $11 million from Lee’s contract following 2013-14. That’s a huge savings for the pittance of only a second round pick, which they’ll send to Memphis.
Memphis needs a guy like Lee, though, as they struggle to overcome the loss of Quincy Pondexter to a season-ending foot injury. The Grizzlies have long been notoriously interior-based, but this season the team is last in the NBA in both three-pointers attempted and made, and 18th in three-point percentage. That’s bad news for the team’s analytics-minded front office, because while they no doubt appreciate the importance of a high percentage inside look, you can’t survive in the modern NBA by looking off long-range bombs.
The shoulder injury to Marc Gasol has the most to do with it, but the Grizzlies have dipped to 21st in defensive efficiency this season (down from second, last year) with Pondexter out and minus defender Mike Miller taking on extra minutes. Lee was brought in because he’s shot over 40 percent from long range in four of his six NBA seasons (and a white hot 44 percent this year), but also because he can guard the wing at the same time. Taking on two years of Lee at an average salary until 2016 is a bit of a reach, but it’s the sort of move you have to make when injuries hit you’re hell bent on getting back to the postseason. Memphis is currently 15-18, three and a half games out of the Western playoff bracket.
Boston clearly won this deal – they’ll have almost $15 million in cap space this summer with Lee and Keith Bogans gone, along with adding a positive rental in Jerryd Bayless – but Memphis got what they wanted. In a season full of tankers, it’s nice to see them attempt to rise above the surface.
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