NBA Free Agency: What Will It Take to Get Marc Gasol Out of Memphis?

Nate HammeContributor IMay 5, 2011

NBA Free Agency: What Will It Take to Get Marc Gasol Out of Memphis?

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    Marc Gasol has had quite a coming-out party this season—so much so, that it led people to wonder whether the infamous trade that netted the Lakers his older brother Pau was really that much of a fleecing after all.

    That's an incredible turnaround for the stronger, less athletic and refined Gasol, who is a major part of the Memphis Grizzlies' run in these NBA playoffs.

    As a whole, Memphis is looking like a force to be reckoned with in the coming years. Its nucleus of Gasol, Zach Randolph, Rudy Gay, Mike Conley, Tony Allen and O.J. Mayo are all under 30 years old. With the exception of Gasol, they're all signed through next year after Randolph agreed to a four-year extension at about $17 million per a couple weeks back. Conley, Gay and Randolph are signed through at least 2014.

    Sam Young, Xavier Henry, Greivis Vasquez and Darrell Arthur have also been key contributors and are also locked up for 2011-12—that is, assuming the front office picks up Young's $1 million team option for next season (hint: they will).

    That leaves Gasol, whose presence down low gives Memphis solid defense and efficient scoring, making him a perfect counterpart to Randolph and his wide variety of low-post moves.

    The Grizzlies will look to lock Gasol up; given his qualifying offer next year at an affordable $4.5 million, that's certainly a possibility. Unfortunately for Memphis, he's likely to get a number of offers from teams around the league.

    I've written previously that Gasol is probably out of the conversation for my hometown Washington Wizards, who are still burdened by Rashard Lewis' albatross of a contract for at least the next year. But that doesn't mean teams like the Cavaliers and Nets won't throw money at the seven-footer.

Some Basic Information on the CBA

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    So what exactly can the Grizzlies afford to offer Gasol? Most of the articles I've read researching this question tend to shy away from making any numerical predictions, largely because the new CBA talks may render them utterly useless. Apparently, I'm not so sensitive as to shield myself from ridicule.

    Certainly his tenure (three years in the league) will be a factor, as well as the exceptions that are carried over from the last CBA. If there are new exceptions, well, just go ahead and flush this text down the toilet like so many of my other efforts.

    As an upper limit, and according to Wikipedia, "The maximum salary of a player with 6 or fewer years of experience is either $9,000,000 or 25% of the total salary cap...whichever is greater." The lower limit, in my opinion, is a hometown discount at his $4.5 million qualifying offer.

    While not a sports business guru, I've taken a look at the various exceptions and limits the league imposed in the last CBA and will offer a couple scenarios for the Grizzlies going into the new one.

    In these scenarios, I'm assuming a final cap around $55 million—a slight dip from this season's $58 million cap but generally in the same ballpark. If you believe it will be higher, just add those millions on top of the money Memphis has to play with.

SCENARIO: A Hard Cap and No Exceptions

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    This is the worst possible outcome for the Grizzlies and other free-spending teams across the country. I don't think it's particularly likely though, given teams like Orlando and Los Angeles are basically locked into an $80 million payroll next season. You think veterans will be willing to scale back their contracts to get teams under the cap? Neither do I.

    The Grizzlies have almost $53 million locked in for next season, leaving less than Gasol's QO for them to use in wooing him back to the team. They could make an offer around $2.5 million, but that would void their restricted free agency rights and represent a pay cut for a blossoming player.

    O.J. Mayo was almost jettisoned at the trade deadline this season, and the Grizzlies can try to send his $5.6 million salary for 2011-12 packing. This is certainly a possible, and dare I say likely, outcome.

    Unfortunately, from my reading, the Grizzlies would either need to take a comparable amount of salary back (within 25 percent plus $100,000 of the traded value) or take a trade exception they have no intention of using—and assuming there is a trade exception to be had.

    With the trade exception and nothing in return, the Grizzlies have almost $8 million to play around with—minus the first-round draft pick's scaled salary (probably around $1 million a season) and minimum salary players in third-line roster slots.

    Giving Mayo away for nothing would not sit well with owner Michael Heisley, who couldn't pull the trigger on a trade this season—despite numerous offers.

SCENARIO: A Soft Cap with A Mid-Level Exception

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    The Grizzlies presumably qualify for this, considering their "cap holds" for Shane Battier and Gasol put them over the cap for next season. That means even without trading Mayo, the Griz could offer Gasol the average league salary—or approximately $5.5 million—next season based on previous assumptions.

    This would allow them to beat the QO for Gasol but likely wouldn't match what other teams are ready to offer the 26-year-old. I fully expect a couple teams to offer a contract in the $7-8 million range per season, and possibly even more, considering the depth of talent at the center position.

    If Gasol is willing to sign a one-year deal at the mid-level exception, Memphis will have a bit more money coming off the books and will get an opportunity to deal some of its contracts for extra cap space. It would be a raise for Gasol but certainly not the biggest offer he'll get.

SCENARIO: A Soft Cap with Rookie Exception

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    Extending the rookie exception would also allow the Grizzlies to spend money without factoring in the scaled salaries of their 2011 draft picks. If they traded O.J. Mayo, as explained in the first scenario, the approximate $1.5 million in first- and second-round draft pick salary wouldn't cut into their spending money.

    If this is the only exception that transfers over, they will still need to make trades to save enough money to extend Gasol his qualifying offer. Then again, it's possible they'll have to send away one of their picks to entice a team to take on salary in a trade.

    This is an exception that I would deem "likely" to transfer over. There's always a weird interplay between veterans and the rookies that are there to ostensibly replace them.

    If you disagree, see the NFL, where the only sacrifice current players seem ready to make is instituting a more modest rookie salary scale, one that would preserve levels of commitment to veteran players. With the current rookie exception, the ability to draft players is not compromised by current cap commitments.

SCENARIO: A Soft Cap with Some Version of Bird Rights

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    This would be the dream scenario for the Griz and would likely mean Marc doesn't have to buy Versace luggage for the contents of his closet.

    In my opinion this is also the most likely exemption to transfer into the new CBA because of its benefits to small-market teams who are supposedly struggling to make money by allowing them to retain their top talent (that's why we're talking about a new CBA afterall, isn't it??...).

    Bird rights allow teams to exceed the cap by up to the value of the player's maximum salary (up to about $14 million a year in Gasol's case) provided the player has been with the same team three consecutive years without being waived. The current setup means this extension could be as long as six years.

    If the Grizzlies went with the max, this could potentially put the team near the luxury tax line, which was $70.3 million last season and might remain in that vicinity. Given their recent success this may not be much of a barrier.

    Other versions of this exception would afford the Grizzlies some lesser rights.

    The "early" Bird exception would allow them to offer a two- to five-year extension at $6.25 million for the first year (175 percent of his previous year's salary).

    The non-Bird exception would provide only up to 120 percent of his previous year's salary, about $4.3 million or less than the qualifying offer or mid-level exception. Since Gasol qualifies for both the Bird and early Bird, the non-Bird does not apply to him without significant changes.

What Does This Mean for the Grizzlies?

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    None of the other current exceptions—bi-annual, minimum salary, disabled player—benefits Memphis in its quest to bring its big man back to Beale Street.

    If Gasol is inclined to sign the biggest contract he's offered, giving the Grizzlies no "home team" discount, the Bird/early Bird exception is their best opportunity. This will give them at least $6.25 million and up to the player maximum to bring him back.

    Otherwise, the mid-level exception ($5.5 million offer) or a trade involving a significant salary, likely O.J. Mayo given the glut of players the team has at the swing positions, will give the team at least a reasonable chunk of money to offer Gasol a raise. This strategy/scenario probably means Gasol gives the team a discount over other offers, and with the way the team is playing this is not out of the question.

    I'd ask Gasol's agent Herb Rudoy how excited he'd be about that one.

    The flip side of this is that there will be no room for Shane Battier on the team next year despite the enormous impact he's had in the playoffs. Rudy Gay will come back from injury, but the Grizzlies will have to keep winning to keep this particular group together.

    If nothing else, this analysis of the Grizzlies' payroll and the league's salary cap restrictions shows how much the business side of the NBA can impact a team's development. The Grizzlies have invested a lot in Gasol already, developing him into a solid player after many believed he was a lost cause.

    If my Wizards can't figure out a way to pry him from Memphis, I wholeheartedly hope the Griz can make the numbers work and bring him back to a young and talented squad.