NBA Free Agency: Time for Memphis Grizzlies to Say Goodbye to Jonas Valanciunas?

Memphis Grizzlies NBA Free Agency (Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images)
Memphis Grizzlies NBA Free Agency (Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images) /

Once NBA Free Agency opens, it would be best for the Memphis Grizzlies to walk away from Jonas Valanciunas and consider other help at the center position.

With NBA Free Agency arriving in just a few hours, many Memphis Grizzlies fans are wondering which direction will the franchsie go. Old or young? Slow, fast, or moderate? Defense or offense? Guard-orientated or build around the big man game?One decision in particular has been a constant topic of retaining center Jonas Valanciunas.

The 19-game sample provided to us from Jonas was polarizing if nothing else among Grizzlies fans. Jonas averaged 20 points, 11 rebounds, and two assists in only 28 minutes per game. 10 to 15 years ago, Jonas would look like an NBA All-Star with no question about it.

Jonas has always been a highly productive player in the basic statistics department. He hasbeen nearly a double-digit rebounder and double-digit scorer essentially his entire seven seasons in the NBA. Not to mention Jonas is charismatic, charming with the well-groomed heavy beard, and handsome features behind it, and even marketable relatively in a niche market.

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Most importantly, he is well liked in the Grizzlies’ locker room filled with ex-Raptors teammates and young guys. All of which is why many folks want to keep Jonas around longer, including Jaren Jackson Jr. and newcomer Ja Morant. However, I beg to differ. Of course it would not be me if I could not help but to see things differently from the popular vote.

One of the things I see different from those clamouring for the return of Jonas is the details of his production in 19 games. For starters, Jonas averaged 20 points per game for Memphis, but failed to do so the seven seasons prior to landing on Beale Street. Many ask what is wrong with that? Well, first off, he did so in a contract year, meaning he was auditioning for a new deal. Secondly, despite being a starter and/or heavy rotation player since he was drafted 5th fifth overall in 2012, Jonas is just now producing at a level worthy of his draft selection.

The thing is this. It is when his usage rating was an absurd 30.1, which is the amount of touches Russell Westbrook and James Harden see on their respective teams. Another huge factor in Jonas’ high production was the fact he barely shared the floor with Jackson Jr., who is now the Grizzlies’ franchise player and a clear first option in the frontcourt.

Maybe now you will understand how Jonas produced so highly. Jonas has always shown the signs of this level of scoring, but it required him having the most touches of the offense, which will never happen again unless the coach is destined to get fired (looking at you, J.B. Bickerstaff).

Valanciunas is still exclusively a post scorer. Most, if not all, NBA teams find it inefficient to slow the offense down to run a two-pointer’s game, when the opposition will mostly respond by speeding to the other end of the court to quickly nail a three-point shot, or maybe slightly sparing you with a quick alley-oop lob or drive. Do you see where this is going?

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There are a couple more on-court factors, considering the Grizzlies recently drafted Morant and Brandon Clarke, both of which are smaller guys at their respective positions, who will almost certainly be more comfortable running a fast-paced offense versus Jonas, who thrives in the half-court setting.

Even though Ja and Jaren have both publicly lobbied for Jonas to return, I take it with the same grain of salt that I did when Mike Conley lobbied hard for Chandler Parsons in 2016. Memphis is still feeling the crucial deficits of that recruitment. Another factor to consider is the fact that Valanciunas had lost his starting job because Toronto realized they could not even make it out of the Eastern Conference with Jonas, who could not switch on defensive rotations and brought very little potential as a rim protector with a career block average of just 1.1 per game.

Add this with the fact Valanciunas does not stretch the floor with his passing or shooting, and now you understand not only why Jonas was not even playing at all in his last days as a Raptor, but also Toronto’s willingness to get rid of Jonas.

Raptors General Manager Masai Ujiri and Head Coach Nick Nurse realized Jonas was almost unplayable in an Eastern Conference Finals run, let alone the NBA Finals. The immediate results of their gamble garnered their first ever NBA Finals appearance and NBA World Championship, despite trading Jonas for a much older and expensive Marc Gasol. So the basic fact is, Toronto won a ring the moment they got rid of Jonas. Now, do you want to heavily invest long-term in the piece that was holding Toronto back from winning it all?

Another key factor to consider are the financial ramifications of re-signing Valanciunas. The only way Memphis will be able to keep Jonas versus him signing with a contender in a much larger market (a la the Los Angeles Lakers) is if the Grizzlies overpay the veteran center. He will not sign with Memphis for fair market value when he can probably sign with a contender for that and be placed within a bigger market. Not only will the Grizzlies have to overpay Jonas, but he will also want to be a priority of the offense. His salary alone warrants he gets touches accordingly, being his main attribute is post scoring.

Jonas’ salary will lead to a de facto Jonas mandate that will almost surely hamper the development of Clarke, but also Jackson Jr. and Morant. The crazy thing is that this does not even include how Jonas will hurt the pace the young guns prefer to play. It will also be the lack of floor spacing Jonas will cause. He is a guy who has only attempted 126 three-point shots in his seven-season NBA career.

Believe it or not, I have liked Jonas since he was first drafted, but I am also realistic of the Grizzlies’ current situation. Jonas gave up nearly $18 million in one year despite it being well-known he will never command that level of annual salary again. He did that because he wants long-term security, but it will come at the expense of the Grizzlies’ future.

Jonas today may not be worth the salary Memphis may give him, so imagine what his value will be two years — or longer — from now when the Grizzlies are looking to trade him. Signing Jonas now means it will most likely require a first-round pick just to get rid of him on down the road. Do you really want to do that when you do not have to? The Grizzlies do not need a high-volume and expensive veteran bruiser, when the market has several of those at a much cheaper annnual rate. Guys like Dewayne Dedmon, Robin Lopez, or even JaVale McGee would suffice. These are names who can provide everything you want from Jonas without wanting and costing more.

Sure, the Grizzlies need rebounding and a bruiser to help Jackson Jr. as he gets strong enough to become a full-time center, but not at premium cost on a team that will not contend until around the end of Jonas’ projected long-term deal. Memphis could even bring back Joakim Noah, who has been to the mountain top of the NBA’s best and he can be had for minimum wages. Value versus quick pleasure. Which one do you prefer?

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Look at the 2019 NBA Draft and notice how many traditional centers were drafted first-round or at all? This tells you the direction players — much like Jonas — are heading if they are unable to adapt to developing their offensive skill set and stretching/spacing the floor.