Tayshaun Prince's basketball mortality came into stark focus last week as the Memphis Grizzlies gazed upon the trade front. That the Grizzlies nearly made Prince a trade piece for a second year in a row served as a reminder that an unproductive veteran doesn't have security in today's NBA.
The Grizzlies contemplated sending Prince, along with Tony Allen, to the Minnesota Timberwolves, per Yahoo! Sports. The failed deal was more on account of the Grizzlies' unwillingness to give up Allen than the inability to get rid of Prince.
As long as requisite aspects of a trade match up, overpriced aging players can be dealt. Richard Jefferson, who the Golden State Warriors sent to the Utah Jazz last year after giving him $10.5 million while playing him 10.1 minutes per game, is an example of how a team can dump a bad veteran contract.
Jefferson happened to provide hope for his basketball future. The 33-year-old reanimated his scoring ability on a cellar dweller by posting 10 points per game on 43.8 percent from the field and 41 percent from three-point range.
However, the Grizzlies' veteran doesn't have quantifiable traits that add up to something worth paying for a starting role.
With little offensive production on a team that doesn't have a wide variety of shooting options, Prince hinders their scoring potential.
Prince is last on the team in per 36 minute scoring (8.3 points) and trails almost all rotation players in field-goal attempts per 36 (9.2). His 39.4 percent field-goal mark is 2.7 percent below his previous career low.
While he might have been a helpful passer before, averaging 2.6 assists per game with a 13.5 percent assist rate, he's hardly involved as shown by his 1.7 assists per game and 9.5 percent assist rate.
The former Detroit Piston stands little chance of turning it around. Prince has hit a remarkable low with a 13.5 percent usage rate, 5.1 percent below his career average. With his tendency to let the action cycle as it will, he never was one to shoot his way back into decent play. He averages 10.8 shots per game for his career.
His shooting is on a steady downward trend. His two-point percentage is 41 percent and hasn't been better than 45 percent since 2009-10.
Defensively, Prince isn't much better. After allowing 103 points per 100 possessions in the second half of last season, he's giving up 108 this year. His rating was 111 entering the calendar year, but discovered new energy in January, allowing 105, before allowing 106 this month.
Value of redemptive moments
Even though Prince has only occasional double-digit scoring games and doesn't do anything that surfaces in core statistics, he periodically comes up big in the clutch.
As Michael Cohen of The Commercial Appeal pointed out (subscription required), Prince forced Carmelo Anthony to miss his first eight shots and go without a bucket for 18 minutes in a win against the New York Knicks on Feb. 19.
On Jan. 31, Prince hit a game-clinching three-pointer against the Timberwolves with a minute left.
He won a jump ball over Rudy Gay with two seconds left on Jan. 17 to beat the Sacramento Kings.
Those are isolated moments.
Expecting Prince to make a big play is like catching lightning in a bottle. CBSSports.com's Matt Moore tweeted of how difficult believing Prince can hit shots has become.
His preference for long two-pointers, which he takes 42 percent of the time, aren't of the high-percentage variety.
His diminished athleticism keeps him from creating for himself or cutting past a defender to drive to the basket in a clutch moment.
Much of his defensive ability is based on his length, which limits the amount of plays he can stop, especially when an opponent looks to drive on him.
As the Grizzlies pay him a $7.2 million salary, they appear to be stuck with him in the starting lineup.
Still, limiting his minutes is a fine idea. The Grizzlies have put Prince in a reasonable place by sending him out for 25.2 minutes per game and playing him 30 or more minutes eight times since Dec. 11.
Keeping him between 15 and 25 minutes per game is ideal. Prince's presence on offense virtually gives opponents one less player to think about. Defensively, he can take up space with his long body, which is worth something in an era when attackers crave space.
In closing minutes, Prince doesn't need to be on the floor. A more accurate shooter, such as James Johnson, would be a greater threat. Twelve years of experience doesn't make up for a 6.3 percent gap in field-goal percentage.
If the Grizz make the playoffs, Prince's playing time should be diminished further. Scoring options become even more important. Last year's Western Conference finals sweep at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs demonstrated how precious those are, as the Spurs muzzled Memphis by focusing on Mike Conley, Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph.
Justifying Prince's starting spot requires mental gymnastics related to two areas—defense and veteran leadership. Prince's metrics are barely at replacement level when he's at full health. Occasionally, he pulls an impressive play. Those occasions don't offset the numerous times he can't keep up with ball-handlers.
References to his leadership are vague and anecdotal. Grizzlies TV play-by-play analyst Pete Pranica tweeted last year that Prince's leadership was a factor in their success.
But that's farcical. Memphis had other leaders in the lineup, such as defensive mastermind Tony Allen and Marc Gasol, to whom The Commercial Appeal's Geoff Calkins pointed as the team leader before the season (subscription required). One could hardly say that Prince's leadership qualities were much more valuable than those of the aforementioned pair.
Prince's scoring ability severely limits his future. Since the league operates on scoring, his talent doesn't serve the demand.
However, a premium may be paid for his ability to affect the game defensively with his freakish length. While the $7.7 million he's due next year forces tough decisions, that physical quality may buy him two years.
Statistics are current through Feb. 27 games. Unless otherwise noted, advanced metrics come from basketball-reference.com.
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