Steven Adams’ season-ending knee surgery is a huge blow to an already short-handed Memphis Grizzlies team with title aspirations. What can they do to shore up their stocks at the five?
The Memphis Grizzlies look poised to compete for a championship. Even with Ja Morant out for the first 25 games of the season, there’s a sense that the time is now for this young core that has been in the mix already for the last few years. This makes the news that Steven Adams is out for the entire 2023-24 NBA season after undergoing knee surgery a devastating blow.
Adams is the skeleton key that unlocks the full potential of Memphis’s two best players. On defence, his strength and instincts and positioning help emphasise the incredible prowess of reigning Defensive Player of the Year Jaren Jackson Jr., who is free to switch onto perimeter players, disrupt passing lanes and provide superlative helpside rim protection. Adams also helps keep JJJ out of foul trouble – without him, Jackson Jr.’s fouls per game jumped from 3.1 to a whopping four.
On offence, as well as being one of the league’s best offensive rebounders, he puts his physicality into being one of the best screeners in the game, often setting multiple screens per possession to give Ja Morant a clear path to the rim. The Ja-StAdams pick and roll relinquished 1.46 points per possession last season, putting the Kiwi big man in the 93rd percentile for roll men per NBA Advanced Stats.
This is art… keep Steven Adams and Ja Morant together at all costs. pic.twitter.com/B0zsjuyYwM
— Steven Adams Stats (@funakistats) December 16, 2022
The Grizzlies survived without Adams during regular season play, as they’re wont to do, going 20-15 after he went down against the Phoenix Suns in January. But the weight of his impact became apparent in the playoffs against the Los Angeles Lakers, where the Grizzlies’ offence ground to a halt with Xavier Tillman Sr. at the five and Jaren Jackson Jr.’s league-best defence fell apart.
You’d expect the front office to find some sort of replacement for Adams before the playoffs. But when you consider Ja Morant’s early season absence, Brandon Clarke’s ongoing Achilles injury and the loss of Tyus Jones (who was so instrumental in keeping them treading water during Ja’s previous absences), winning in the regular season becomes less of a given.
The bad news is the franchise did nothing to back up Adams this offseason, despite knowing another long stint in street clothes was a possibility, and the dust has settled on the trade and free agency market, leaving few easy options. The good news is they are one of the most asset-rich teams in the league, meaning there are a number of approaches they can take to filling his minutes.
This would be the big swing-for-the-fences that could secure the Grizzlies a starting centre for the foreseeable future.
Claxton was a bonafide DPoY candidate last year (that he garnered so few votes feels incredibly wrong to me), holding down the Nets’ defence through a tumultuous year of roster changes. Aside from excellent shot blocking, he can comfortably switch on the perimeter and keep up with smaller players.
His best basketball last season came where opponents were funneled to meet him under the rim, with the seven-foot Kevin Durant helping from the power forward spot. Imagine what he’ll look like next to a roaming Jaren Jackson Jr. – I’m blurring my eyes and it looks a bit like the Milwaukee Bucks.
On offence, Claxton isn’t the hard hitting screener and rebounder that Adams is, and nor does he have a developed post game or elbow playmaking. Despite this, he was still good for 1.36 PPP on pick-and-rolls, and his athleticism and lob-catching ability will fit well next to Ja Morant.
The Brooklyn Nets have given no indication they want to trade Claxton, and I would guess he is one of two players (along with Mikal Bridges) they would hesitate to let go, but he is an unrestricted free agent next summer and will be in hot demand around the league. The Grizzlies might be able to get him by parting with Adams’ contract and one first-round pick, but if the price was two it could still be worth it to get a high-tier starting centre under the age of 25.
Claxton’s unrestricted free agency is what might make Memphis balk at this trade. The Grizzlies are capped out, and with Desmond Bane’s extension kicking in next summer will only be able to offer Claxton the non-bird exception, which would be about $11.5 million per year, even if they decline team options on Luke Kennard and Ziaire Williams. You can imagine the player I described above fetching more on the open market, if other teams have the cap space.
It’s worth briefly mentioning Robert Williams III, who is a similarly talented centre on a team that sees him as part of their future core but would probably bite at the right offer. Timelord has always excelled more in the roaming role that JJJ will hold, but again you would work something out to have two such excellent defensive big men next to each other.
The main issue with Williams is his injury history, which you would only be happy to deal with if you had another solid option at the five (and here we are). Given Memphis’s past hesitance to part with their future assets, I doubt they would take a swing in this scenario.
Isaiah Hartenstein came out of his last year in LA with the Clippers looking like your prototypical rim-running roleplaying seven-footer. He’s a good rim protector, athletic and agile enough while still boasting a 113kg frame that won’t get bullied in the post, and has the right instincts defending the pick-and-roll in drop coverage.
His minutes have so far been too limited to call him a “prolific” shot blocker, but statistically he has the right build. Opponents were 3.8 percent less accurate at the rim when Hartenstein was on the floor last season, putting him in the 86th percentile for that category, down from a whopping 6.2 percent in the 94th percentile in his one season with the LA Clippers, per Cleaning the Glass.
The skillset was definitely there with the New York Knicks last season but he spent it competing to be Mitchell Robinson’s backup (yuck) with Jericho Sims (yuck). He’s not quite “surplus to requirements” in New York but the rotation minutes are awkward at the centre position and he wouldn’t be dearly missed.
Hartenstein might not be a full-time NBA starter, but he’s 25 years old and would only be required to play 25-odd minutes a night. Next to JJJ he’d provide the same tough body in the paint, with more verticality than Adams but less positional instinct. His 2.5 offensive rebounds per game last season doesn’t knock your socks off but is solid given his limited minutes – his 14.1 percent offensive rebounding rate was good for sixth in the league amongst qualifying players, per Basketball Reference.
The Knicks could part with Hartenstein for Adams’ contract and a pair of second-rounders. There’s always the potential to move Adams on for other assets, or see what he can provide behind Robinson when he’s hopefully healthy in 2024-25. There’s also the chance a deal of David Roddy, John Konchar and draft compensation could tempt their front office – with Obi Toppin gone so is the last of their troupe of young, not-very-good power forwards, so they need to start restocking.
The Utah Jazz started Kelly Olynyk in 68 games last season as part of their “let’s play whoever is in the building after the Gobert and Mitchell trades” approach to basketball, and it didn’t look terrible. At age 32 he’s still a solid enough perimeter shooter to space the floor and although he lacks pretty much any physicality he’s 6-foot-11 and knows where to be on defence.
The Jazz are completely stocked in the big department after trading for John Collins and the emergence of Walker Kessler as one of the league’s premier shot blockers, and look unlikely to be competing for a playoff spot this season. Olynyk could very well be out of the rotation in favour of developing younger players.
The Grizzlies’ spacing would be immense with Olynyk on the floor (get this, he can actually shoot threes!) and he can provide some supplementary playmaking in the games Ja misses. It would be a step down defensively but JJJ would be able to cover for most of what he lacks and be the big body in the paint the Grizz want.
Memphis could get the deal done with Adams’ salary and a second, but there’s more potential here to retain Adams for next season. The David Roddy/John Konchar combo doesn’t cover Olynyk’s $12.1 million salary, but the inclusion of Ziaire Williams gets it over the line. Williams is a recent first-round pick but has failed to impress or define his role in Memphis so far, but with enough of a toolset to be of interest to a lite-rebuilding team like Utah. It would certainly go against Memphis’s ethos of re-upping each year with young players, but you keep your tried-and-tested centre for the future and can probably convince Olynyk to come back on a team-friendly deal as a solid back-up who can space the floor.
I really hate to bring this one up, but when you’re this close (two days, people) to the NBA season tipping off, the free agency options are far and few between.
Dwight Howard has been plying a very unfamiliar trade in Taiwan for the TaiwanBeer Leopards, shooting spot-up threes and taking players off the dribble. You wouldn’t expect to see that in Memphis, nor would you want to, but as long as he retains a fraction of his frame and athleticism he could be a capable stop gap.
Howard’s name has been tied to the Golden State Warriors in one form or another over the summer, so he is still on the radar for NBA teams, if nothing else. He would have to be on the strictest minutes restriction ever seen, but given the Grizzlies’ other options in the building are Xavier Tillman and Santi Aldama, he would provide some much needed variation and relief.
This or another free agency signing (Derek Favors anyone?) would be an absolute last resort for Memphis, either with their eye on making a more substantial, playoff-minded move before the deadline or a concession that, with Ja and Adams missing various amounts of time, this season is a write-off. Or it could be a major coup that shows the value a 37-year-old three-time DPoY can bring to a young team – but no, no, it won’t be.
Please, if this makes you mad, Tweet at me and I’ll happily call on Wenyen Gabriel instead.