In a three-team deal consummated today, the Memphis Grizzlies have agreed to move unused lottery pick Xavier Henry to New Orleans, receiving unused near-lottery pick Marreese Speights from Philadelphia in return, with both teams giving a second round pick to the Sixers for their troubles.
The trade gives New Orleans a 20-year-old lottery talent whom, while he has yet to do anything in the NBA, has plenty of time on his side. Despite the implosion and sideshow that accompanied their dismantling, New Orleans has a good base of talent for a rebuilding team. With Eric Gordon and Carl Landry in place, and potential young pieces such as Al-Farouq Aminu, Jason Smith and Gustavo Ayon (whom you will soon come to love) also on the scene, this is not an early 21st-century Bulls team. A clear foundation is already in place, and Henry theoretically adds to this.
However, it is the Grizzlies for whom this trade ought be most important. Despite throwing a combined $123.5 million at Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol in the past year, the season-ending injury of Darrell Arthur has left Memphis with so little frontcourt depth that they have signed names such as Mikki Moore, Jared Reiner, Brian Skinner and Josh Davis in the hope of finding emergency frontcourt cover. Skinner stuck around for a bit, and Davis — who hadn’t played in the NBA for six seasons — is still there. But with due respect to these parties, solid players all, they weren’t in the NBA for a reason.
Memphis recently re-signed Hamed Haddadi, but he has yet to play. In Arthur’s absence and Davis’ presence, Randolph himself has played a good many of the backup center minutes, while Dante Cunningham has spotted at power forward. Cunningham proved in his first two seasons that despite having only small forward’s size, he is very capable of defending those bigger than he. Nevertheless, his limited offensive game and underwhelming rebounding numbers are not particularly conducive to a full-time power forward. A lot of small ball has therefore been necessitated, with Rudy Gay playing some power forward, and Cunningham even playing some center.
However, with the simultaneous announcement that Randolph is set to miss two months with tendon damage, the need for frontcourt reinforcement is urgent if Memphis are to be able to tread water until he returns. And … it appears that Marreese Speights is that help.
Speights’ best offensive skill, his consistent two-point jump shot, instantly helps the Grizzlies’ poorly spaced offense, and somewhat offsets the loss of Randolph’s own fine jumper. Yet Speights is only going to help with Memphis’s frontcourt defense if he opts to play any. And this, frankly, has never been the case.
After a promising rookie campaign in which he demonstrated a mix of athleticism and scoring potency that is permanently hard to find in a 6-foot-10 player, Speights’ output has gone down consistently, coincident with his minutes, because his style of play is just too ill-disciplined. Philadelphia’s frustration with Speights’ shot-jacking, devil-may-care, defensively-listless and rebound-shy style of play has seen him go from being a highly promising young talent, to a man who has been DNP-CD’d for every single minute of the short season thus far. In spite of his athletic talents (and the potential that such athleticism defaults him), Speights has not improved, or begun to do the things that would see him come off the bench ahead of the remnants of Tony Battie. The Sixers, it seems, have given up trying to convince him.
Memphis have now traded their last four first round draft picks (Henry, Greivis Vasquez, Hasheem Thabeet and DeMarre Carroll), and tried their best to make it five with the multiple abortive attempts to trade O.J. Mayo to Indiana. Unable to compete on the free agent market, Memphis has had to build through the draft, and when that hasn’t worked out — perhaps due to letting go of most of their scouts — they have had to rely largely on reclamation projects. Indeed, ever since his Boston days and the forgettable Kedrick Brown saga, Chris Wallace has placed a high value on “athleticism,” perhaps using it as a synonym for “potential.” Speights fits all of those bills, and the trade is neither a bad strategy in general, nor a poor move in isolation. It also sees them acquire the services of a player who has proven he can contribute on an NBA court, for the cost only of a man who hasn’t. That can never be too bad.
It doesn’t, however, reassure us of anything. Randolph’s loss is immeasurably more impactful in the short term than that of any potential replacement, and with his contract expiring this summer, Speights’ long-term contributions to the team might not be too long-term either. Speights will now be given the opportunity to prove himself, to get plenty of playing time, to be in the rotation of a good team, and to realize the potential that he genuinely does have.
But he’s had that opportunity before, and didn’t take it. If he doesn’t this time, Memphis look headed for the lottery again.