Understanding why the Memphis Grizzlies just dumped players and a draft pick on the Cleveland Cavaliers

A number of respected NBA sources came through on Tuesday morning to announce the first major deal of the NBA’s trading season, and the first transaction made by the Memphis Grizzlies since a new ownership and front office team took over in December. ESPN’s Brian Windhorst first reported that a deal sending Memphis forward Marreese Speights, guard Josh Selby and a draft pick to Cleveland for Jon Leuer was in the works. Yahoo! Sports’ Marc J. Spears then reported that the deal was finished, and that Wayne Ellington would also be heading to the Cavaliers. Memphis-area radio host and Grizzlies hound Chris Vernon then reported that the pick heading to Cleveland was a 2015 first rounder, protected to the top five of the draft.

Vernon then reported what we knew had to happen. The Grizzlies, under the roster minimum for players, would be considering signing a gaggle of offense-first types on minimum salaries: Bill Walker, Delonte West, and (eventually, he’s currently playing overseas) Sasha Vujacic.

The immediate fallout was the correct assessment that this was a salary cap move, and little else, for the Grizzlies. It’s a manageable one, though, especially considering the potential new additions the Grizzlies will be taking in.

Memphis entered the day $4 million over the luxury tax mark, with rumors swirling that the team would move a high salaried forward in Rudy Gay that doesn’t mesh with the new front office’s administration’s ideals regarding production. With no obvious answers in the trade market available, and facing a luxury tax bill that wouldn’t work in Memphis’ small market, the team then worked around the fringes to lose over $6.2 million in 2012-13 salary. Because Cleveland is below the salary cap, they could take in the higher salaried Speights and Ellington (Selby and Leuer’s contracts are a wash) along the way.

Now under the tax limit, the Grizzlies have added a player in Leuer and reportedly are about to acquire three players in West, Walker and (again, eventually) Vujacic that reek of pay for play perfection. None are stars, but Leuer’s per minute stats in Milwaukee last year were very good, he’s a rotation player, while the three potential free agent signings can help rescue a Grizzlies offense that has been amongst the worst in the NBA since the beginning of December.

Amongst the worst in the NBA despite the presence of scorers in Gay and Zach Randolph, mind you. It wasn’t working, and you don’t pay the luxury tax for something that isn’t working. Unless you’re the Los Angeles Lakers, of course.

Speights and Ellington are passable players. Speights may run like a bull in the china shop sometimes but he was once a favorite of Grizzlies Vice President of Basketball Operations John Hollinger. Still, his terrible marks from the floor (just under 43 percent, working mostly as a center) weren’t enough to make up for his good-enough rebounding. Ellington – and we don’t mean this as a mean joke – actually developed an NBA-level skill this year as he hit for over 42 percent of his three pointers, but he does such little else that it’s hard to justify both paying the luxury tax and missing out on luxury tax payments from other teams just because he’ll sometimes drop a 3-6 night from long range. Quincy Pondexter’s return to action will help in regards to the perimeter.

If Grizzlies fans and Memphis coach Lionel Hollins badly wanted to finish the year with Rudy Gay on board, they likely got their wish. This doesn’t preclude a trade involving Gay, not with a month to go before the Feb. 21 trade deadline, but this is a reaction to the paucity of options and trading partners out there. We’re sure the rest of the NBA overrates Rudy and wouldn’t mind dealing for him, but not with two years and over $36 million left on his deal after this season.

Which means the Grizzlies are likely delaying the inevitable. Even with Speights, Selby and Ellington off of next year’s books, Memphis will be just a few million under the luxury tax in 2013-14. And that’s without signing the irreplaceable Tony Allen, retaining Jerryd Bayless (who is sure to opt out of his contract), or filling out a roster that only has seven guaranteed contracts on it. Don’t look for cheap help in the draft, either, as Memphis traded away its first round pick for the rights to a few months of Shane Battier in 2011.

Which means Rudy, or possibly Randolph, will be on the blocks all over again. And by then, with the roster trimmed to the team’s four big money making players and little else, there won’t be a Marreese Speights deal to save them.

Of course, this could be exactly what the new front office – with a chance for one last go with the old crew and coaching staff, and no midseason fixes on the table – are after. We can’t blame them.