I always feel like these games between the NBA's two Canadian expansion franchises (sorry, Vancouver) should have some sort of rivalry atmosphere, or a name like the Red River Shootout or the Egg Bowl. Yes, the Grizzlies are in Toronto tonight to face off against the Raptors in a preseason reunion of sorts, with Rudy Gay hosting his old team and Ed Davis visiting his. Of course, it comes at an interesting time for Davis: ESPN's Marc Stein reported on Monday that Davis' camp and the Grizzlies "have been discussing a deal" this month that would sign Davis to an extension of his current contract rather than let him become a restricted free agent at the end of this season.
It's easy to see how such a deal could make sense financially for the Grizzlies if they genuinely believe that Davis is going to be their guy long-term at the power forward spot: by extending him now while his stock is relatively low, it's possible to lock him up for three or four years in a deal that is practically guaranteed to be cheaper than the one he's going to sign as an RFA this summer. At the same time, it requires a commitment of money to the young big man—in essence, paying him for potential than paying him for performance. The Grizzlies have done this sort of thing before under the old ownership regime—remember the Mike Conley deal, famously referred to by CBS Sports' Matt Moore as "franchise suicide"?—but are we sure Ed Davis is as good as Mike Conley? And if he isn't—despite all of the faith and trust that Dave Joerger says he has in Davis, it's faith that he will improve and grow, not faith that he is ready to take the reins—what happens then?
Davis' qualifying offer is $4.36 million. At a minimum, that's what it'll take to keep him here next year. But... what's the market going to be like for Ed Davis next summer if he becomes a restricted free agent?
We've seen Davis' numbers while starting before. Sure, it wasn't for the Grizzlies, but Davis started 24 of the 45 games he played for the Raptors last season before being traded to Memphis, averaging 24.2 minutes1. His per-36 numbers as a starter in Toronto were great: 13.8 points, 10.2 rebounds (3.4 offensive and 6.8 defensive), 1.9 blocks. The problem with judging those numbers at face value is mainly just a problem of how bad the Raptors were, though. Davis was excelling (statistically) on a team that was going nowhere in a hurry, so it's hard to use that as a basis to judge how he's going to be able to carry the workload of Zach Randolph.
And let's be honest with ourselves for a minute, okay? That's what we're really talking about. There are ways (discussed in this piece on the blog already) for the Grizzlies to keep Randolph around long-term without having him choose the nuclear option and pick up his $16.5 million player option for next season, but those ways of keeping him around make less sense if the Grizzlies can (1) be confident that Ed Davis can step into that role and keep the Grizzlies' interior attack operating at a high level and (2) sign him to a deal that's only going to be, say, $6 million a year instead of $16.5 million. Once you think you can live without Zach Randolph, and you're sure Ed Davis is ready to step up, it doesn't make any sense to keep Randolph around on a team where he's not going to be The Guy anymore. Can you see Z-Bo being excited about playing behind Ed Davis?
The Grizzlies have until October 31st to sign Davis to a contract extension, or else they'll have to wait until the summer to hash something out. I haven't heard any specific numbers thrown out as an example of the kind of deal being discussed, but I'd have to imagine it's probably something similar to the Conley "Franchise Suicide contract: four years, maybe $25 million or so, maybe $30 million probably backloaded and chock full of performance-based incentives. If you think those numbers sound high, know this: someone will overpay for Davis. Frontcourt talent is too hard to come by, and Davis' tantalyzing flashes of great play will convince somebody that he's worth that kind of a contract. By locking him up now, the Grizzlies would prevent whatever bidding war has the potential to erupt—particularly if Davis has the breakout year everyone seems to be expecting him to have.
What effect does that have on how the Grizzlies play right now, though? Jon Leuer is having a great preseason, and playing like a guy with something to prove. As it currently stands, the Grizzlies can roll out a matchup-based power forward by committee approach and play whichever player—Davis, Z-Bo, or Leuer—is going to create the most problems for their opponent. That kind of depth can only be a good thing. But if the Grizzlies are able to sign Davis to the extension currently being discussed, and then Leuer plays his way up the depth chart into being the first 4 off the bench—while making $900,000—what happens with Davis? Obviously his trade value is still high, so it wouldn't be the end of the world, but I wonder about the effect that would have in the locker room. Z-Bo may be a great locker room guy now, in a way that he wasn't in the earlier phases of his career, but you have to think that the uncertainty around this whole situation is going to show up somewhere on or off the court.
We saw the same thing happen last year as the Rudy Gay rumor mill cranked up: the team was clearly not present mentally, and they got beaten by bad teams because they were on the court but they weren't together, weren't sharp, weren't focused. The constant uncertainty even got to Lionel Hollins, who was making open pleas to management not to make a trade, only to lash out when it happened. (My favorite—and I don't remember exactly which game it was, maybe the Nets—was right after the Cleveland trade that sent Marreese Speights, Wayne Ellington, and Josh Selby to the Cavs for Jon Leuer, when Hollins said he had to play Hamed Haddadi so much because he "didn't have any centers anymore.") That kind of question mark needs to be settled sooner rather than later for the good of team chemistry and cohesion. If the Grizzlies are going to sign Ed Davis to a long-term extension, I think they're going to have to keep Zach Randolph's $16.5 million salary from being on the books next year.
It's interesting that all of this has come up as the Grizzlies prepare to play their partner in the Rudy Gay trade (not counting Detroit). Storylines have a way of asserting themselves sometimes, don't they? Maybe it'll give 'em all something to talk about if they go out to grab a drink with Rudy after the game.