O.J. Mayo's miserable season got a lot worse yesterday, when it was announced that he's been suspended for 10 games by the NBA for testing positive for the legal but banned-by-the-NBA steroid-like drug DHEA. This will cost Mayo more than $400,000 and cost the Grizzlies their fourth-leading scorer during a crucial stretch of games in which they're trying to catch the Portland Trailblazers for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
A Bad Year
But this is only the latest and worst incident in what has been a bit of a nightmare season for the third-year guard, preceded by the following:
• The Grizzlies spent their top draft pick (Xavier Henry) and primary free-agent acquisition (Tony Allen) on players at Mayo's position.
• Mayo's attempt to develop his on-ball skills in the summer league resulted in a turnover-heavy performance aborted after two games and dismissive public comments from a head coach who has bristled at even the mildest criticisms of Mayo's backcourt partner, Mike Conley.
• Mayo failed to make the US national team only to watch teammate Rudy Gay and two-guard rival Eric Gordon not only make the team but shine at the World Basketball Championships.
• While Gordon and Gay followed up their international play with career-best seasons, Mayo was moved into a sixth-man role and has registered career lows pretty much across the board.
• Mayo caught the bad end of a fistfight with teammate Tony Allen following a gambling dispute on the team plane. Mayo missed the next game with a black eye labeled "bronchitis" while Allen shined in a win over the Oklahoma City Thunder, drawing public praise from his coach and teammates.
Questioning Mayo's Role Change
Given the way Mayo has struggled with bigger, sweet-shooting two guards (notably: Kevin Martin and Jason Richardson), you could certainly point to this change as one of the reasons the Grizzlies have improved from 23rd in defensive efficiency last season to 13th this season. But Mayo has not thrived in the role, and the resultant lack of outside scoring punch is a big reason the team's offensive efficiency has declined from 17th to 21st. The Grizzlies were really good last season with their starting lineup. The bench killed them.
But the team's bench options are better this season with the additions of Allen, Henry, and Greivis Vasquez and the re-emergence of Darrell Arthur. I suspect that leaving the starting lineup intact and getting Allen involved earlier would have been a better strategy for the team.
But even more than those short-term considerations, moving Mayo to the bench was always a curious move in terms of the end game. Mayo isn't a veteran who has had his run as a starter. The Grizzlies aren't a proven veteran team with a proven head coach. And Mayo is not on a long-term contract. While putting Mayo in that role may or may not make sense for right now, it certainly seems to set the stage for his eventual departure. It is very difficult to see Mayo, at this stage of his career, wanting to re-up with the Grizzlies to keep coming off the bench.
If the team had any designs on making O.J. Mayo part of the long-term core — and owner Michael Heisley has long insisted he has — then moving him to the bench was a shortsighted decision.
Mayo on the Block?
Moving Mayo to the bench immediately put his name in the middle of trade rumors, and while the team has publicly downplayed the notion of dealing Mayo, behind the scenes chatter suggests that jettisoning Mayo ahead of February's trade deadline, while not an inevitability, is very much on the table.
How does this latest incident impact the likelihood of dealing Mayo? ESPN.com's Marc Stein tweeted yesterday that the suspension won't stop Mayo from being dealt but suggested that the team's desire to get good return for Mayo might be an issue.
But is trading Mayo right now a good idea? I'd argue no, for three primary reasons:
Three Reasons Not to Deal Mayo (right now):
1. Backcourt Scoring is Essential: With Mayo's minutes and production in decline, the Grizzlies' leading backcourt scorer this season has been Mike Conley at 13.2 points per game. Only five other NBA teams this season have a leading backcourt scorer averaging fewer than 15 points per game and only one of these has a winning record: The Orlando Magic, for whom Jason Richardson is leading the way at 14.3. The Magic are a special case in a lot of ways. Prior to their trade a few weeks ago, they had Vince Carter in the backcourt at (slightly) over the 15 threshold, and currently split their backcourt scoring among myriad good options (also: Jameer Nelson, Gilbert Arenas, J.J. Reddick) all surrounding the league's best true center.
The other teams getting fewer than 15 a game from their top backcourt scorer aren't fortunate enough to have Dwight Howard in the middle: The Cleveland Cavaliers (8-37), the Indiana Pacers (16-26), the Philadelphia 76ers (20-25), and the Minnesota Timberwolves (10-35). Only the Timberwolves, where point guard Luke Ridnour leads the way at 11.8, has a top backcourt scorer averaging fewer points per game than Conley's 13.2.
It's really hard to be a good NBA team without a significant scoring threat in the backcourt. And while Mayo, for a variety of reasons, hasn't been that this season, we know that he can be. Mayo averaged 18.5 points per game as a rookie and 17.5 in his second season. He had eight games of 30 or more points in his first two seasons, or exactly as many as the entire team has had this season (four from Rudy Gay, four from Zach Randolph). No one else in the Grizzlies backcourt has demonstrated this ability. Perhaps, based on his college shooting and his youth, there's some reason to hope that Xavier Henry can develop into a potent perimeter scorer. But, for now, hope is all it would be.
Unless a legitimate perimeter scorer is coming back in return, dealing Mayo would leave the team's backcourt all but empty of firepower.
2. His Value is at an All-Time Low: Not long ago, Mayo's profile was that of a number three overall pick in a good draft, a Rookie of the Year runner-up, a proven high-level shooter/scorer, and a prospective all-star caliber player with undeveloped on-the-ball potential. Dealing him now would be trading him as an inconsistent, 12-points-a-game shooting specialist off the bench who followed up a fistfight with a teammate with a 10-game drug suspension.
This franchise has a bad habit of bungling high-level assets (see taking Hasheem Thabeet with a number two overall pick). It can’t afford to sell low on Mayo, dealing him at not only his lowest value point but arguably the lowest his value will be until much later in his career.
3. There's Still Time: Like moving Mayo into the sixth man role, the idea of trading Mayo makes some tactical sense. If the team has determined that it can't feasibly re-sign all five of last season's starters and has the best cheap-but-still viable replacements at Mayo's position (Tony Allen, Xavier Henry, Sam Young), then sacrificing Mayo perhaps makes some sense. (Unless, of course, you take a look at the first item on this list and realize where this leaves you in terms of backcourt scoring.)
But even if that determination has been made and the team has decided it's unlikely to re-sign Mayo and would be better served to get value back for him before he can leave, there's no reason that move has to be made now. Mayo will not be a free agent this summer. The Grizzlies will have Mayo under contract again next season at a reasonable $5.6 million, still on his rookie-scale contract. Even if you're committed to dealing Mayo before he hits free agency, there's still time to get his value back up before doing so — by moving him back into the starting lineup and getting him the touches and shots he needs to thrive. There's no reason this needs to happen in the next month.