What Does The Mike Conley Trade Mean For Jonas Valanciunas’ Future In Memphis?

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The Memphis Grizzlies sent another shockwave through the NBA offseason by trading Mike Conley to the Utah Jazz. After moving Marc Gasol at the deadline in February, this deal firmly places the Grizzlies on a rebuilding timeline, with Jaren Jackson Jr. and Ja Morant leading the way.

That poses an interesting question, however, for what Memphis will do with the remaining veterans on its roster. Kyle Korver, at age 38, will presumably be waived, while Jae Crowder and C.J. Miles probably have enough positional versatility to stick around as expiring contracts, or salary ballast in future trades. The real intrigue comes with Delon Wright and Jonas Valanciunas, the two primary assets in the Gasol trade, who play the same positions as Jackson and Morant.

Wright’s situation is essentially out of his control as a restricted free agent. No team really wants to suffer through restricted free agency to sign a backup point guard, so the Grizzlies should be able to come to terms with him in on a reasonably-valued contract to stay in Memphis and split minutes with the no. 2 overall pick. Valanciunas has more options, particularly since he recently declined his player option to become an unrestricted free agent.

Generally, when a player declines an option, it’s because he expects to sign a long-term deal. This usually comes at a lower annual value, but for more total guaranteed money. This is the route that both Harrison Barnes and Al Horford are expected to pursue this offseason. One would assume that the Grizzlies intend to keep Valanciunas to recoup some of the value from the Gasol deal, which requires us to consider what Valanciunas’ market value is.
Valanciunas turned down a $17.6 million player option, and at age 27, this could be the final big contract of the Lithuanian center’s career. Unfortunately for Valanciunas, he plays the deepest position in the NBA, and his particular breed of big man is going out of style. There are number of centers on expensive deals, but short of a certain subset of max-level players (Joel Embiid, Karl-Anthony Towns, Rudy Gobert, Anthony Davis), the rest would have to be considered overpays.

Valanciunas also doesn’t have youth on his side, like Myles Turner or Clint Capela when they signed their extensions. He projects more in the Jusuf Nurkic range, who got 4 years/$48 million from Portland. At that number, it’s hard to see why Valanciunas would want to be a free agent, though Memphis would gladly re-sign him if those were the parameters.

Perhaps Valanciunas will have to look elsewhere, but that poses more complications. Although there is an abundance of cap space this summer, the center free agent class is deep. Horford is already rumored to be taking up 4 years/$100 million of the available money, which will come out of someone else’s cap space since he most likely won’t be returning to Boston. Nikola Vucevic is a freshly-minted All-Star who will command a large contract. Brook Lopez is the hottest name on the center market after a dynamic season in Milwaukee. DeMarcus Cousins looms, as do Enes Kanter, Julius Randle, Dewayne Dedmon, Ed Davis, Robin Lopez, Kevon Looney, JaMychal Green, and Taj Gibson, along with several other lesser names.

It’s hard to say that Valanciunas will provide significantly more value than a lot of names on that list, most of whom could be had for not all that much more than the vet minimum. In a league where the Warriors got Cousins for the mid-level exception and still play centers by committee, where Kanter got to the Blazers as a buyout candidate, and traditional centers are routinely played off the floor in the postseason, there isn’t much reason to spend heavily on a center who isn’t a star.

Therefore, it’s unclear as to what Valanciunas was expecting when he decided to forego the last year of his deal. Unless Memphis is committed to playing Jackson at the four for the foreseeable future, Valanciunas won’t have a meaningful role with the Grizzlies. Jackson did play 76 percent of his minutes at power forward as a rookie, but the presence of Gasol, Valanciunas, and Joakim Noah was a big factor in that.

The Conley trade makes it clear that Memphis is building towards the future with two teenage cornerstones. Valanciunas has probably aged beyond that timeline, but it’s hard to see where his market is outside of the team that traded for him. Maybe he’ll stick around with the Grizzlies on a short-term deal and re-enter free agency in a couple of years, but for now, he doesn’t seem to have a tremendous fit in Memphis’ next chapter.