The Boston Celtics and Memphis Grizzlies agreed to a minor trade on Thursday, with Boston sending center Fab Melo and the ever-popular "cash considerations" to Memphis for forward Donte Greene in a deal more likely to cause a stir in Syracuse (where both Melo and Greene played college ball for Jim Boeheim) than in either Tennessee or Massachusetts. From Boston's end, the swap — first reported Thursday by Ronald Tillery of the Memphis Commercial Appeal — appears to be financially motivated.
The Celtics entered Thursday with $72,531,029 in salary committed for the 2013-14 season, according to the essential ShamSports.com salary database. The luxury tax line for the year ahead is set at $71.748 million. The 23-year-old Melo was on Boston's books for a guaranteed $1,311,240 in the second year of the rookie contract he signed after the Celtics selected him with the 22nd overall pick in the first round of the 2012 NBA draft. Greene, on the other hand, is slated to earn $1,027,424, nearly $300,000 less, on the fully unguaranteed veteran's minimum deal to which the Grizzlies signed him back in April.
The lack of guarantee matters — if Danny Ainge and company decide to jettison Greene, they'll dip down to $71,503,605 in total salary, putting them on pace to duck the luxury tax. That's a sensible financial play, considering it doesn't seem especially reasonable to pay extra penalties for a post-Truth-and-KG-trade roster that looks like its absolute everything-goes-right ceiling is to be first-round fodder as a seventh or eighth seed in a top-heavy East. On top of that, Boston has paid the tax in each of the last two seasons, and doing so in '13-'14 would put them in danger of paying the dreaded repeater tax if they repeated the feat in 2014-15 or '15-'16. That's unlikely, of course, as Boston pursues its rebuilding strategy of getting younger, cheaper and leaner under new head coach Brad Stevens, but hey, if you can take care of it now, why wait?
While unlikely, it's possible that Greene could show enough in training camp to stick around as an end-of-the-rotation three/four type behind the likes of Jared Sullinger, Jeff Green, Brandon Bass and Gerald Wallace. He's always been a tantalizing prospect due to his combination of size (6-foot-11) and shooting touch (he shot 37.7 percent from deep in 76 appearances, including 50 starts, for the 2009-10 Sacramento Kings as a 21-year-old), but he's always graded out as a poor rebounder for his size and position, and as an inconsistent defender despite physical tools that would seem to make him an ideal fit to guard multiple positions.
His inability to provide much value beyond the occasional 3-ball left him as an odd man out in Sacramento's frontcourt rotation; the Kings allowed him to walk after the 2011-12 campaign, and with no NBA takers, Greene wound up playing in Puerto Rico last season before the Grizzlies brought him aboard in late April. He didn't see any action for Lionel Hollins' squad. Regardless of whether Greene winds up surprising us by sticking in Boston, though, Thursday's deal confirms Ainge's 2012 decision to use a first-round pick on Melo as a notable failure.
While it doesn't yet seem that there were any surefire stars on the board when Boston pulled the trigger on the 7-foot Brazilian project at No. 22, there were some interesting names, including sharpshooting swingman John Jenkins (taken 23rd by the Atlanta Hawks), exciting lefty point guard Tony Wroten (taken 25th by the Grizzlies), one-time lottery projection Perry Jones III (28th to the Oklahoma City Thunder), burgeoning Chicago Bulls backup point guard Marquis Teague (29th) and a pair of players who made major contributions to the Golden State Warriors' playoff run as rookies, center Festus Ezeli (30th) and forward Draymond Green (35th). Even if the Celtics didn't wind up passing on a can't-miss type or a potential rotation piece, though, it's hard not to see stinklines wafting off a situation in which a team cuts bait on a first-round choice after just one year.
It's not altogether surprising, though. While Melo's size and shot-blocking ability made him appealing, he also entered the pro ranks with just four years of organized basketball experience, including two at a comparatively low level of prep competition, and had a very, very long way to go to develop into a viable NBA-level contributor. His unimpressive showing for the Celtics' Orlando Summer League team suggested he's not much closer now than he was this time last year. With offseason acquisitions Kris Humphries, rookie Kelly Olynyk and fellow Brazilian Vitor Faverani all ahead of him in Boston's expected plans in the middle (and another 2013 draft pick, Colton Iverson, signed to play in Turkey with the Celtics still holding his rights), there just didn't seem to be much value in paying Melo guaranteed NBA money to spend another year marinating for the D-League's Maine Red Claws.
Now, the Grizzlies will see if they can crank up Melo's development — whether in Memphis or with the D-League's Fort Wayne Mad Ants — in hopes of finding a third-string mop-up center behind Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol and sound backup Kosta Koufos. If nothing else, the chair-breaking, door-smacking, big-smiling Melo seems like a natural spiritual successor to a roster spot once held by the immortal Hamed Haddadi. Besides, Memphis is nothing if not a well-established and wonderful home for the NBA's colorful misfit toys; maybe Fab will fit right in, even if he never finds a true NBA identity.