The Memphis Grizzlies climbed back over .500 with a 110-91 drubbing of the Phoenix Suns on Tuesday night, but the biggest story was the emergence of Ed Davis and Jon Leuer in the absence of frontcourt mainstays Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph.
When acquiring those two role players in separate deals last year, the goal was not to bring upgrades in talent to Memphis. Rather, the Grizzlies’ front office made those trades to cut salary.
Memphis traded Marreese Speights, Wayne Ellington, Josh Selby and a future first-round pick to the Cleveland Cavaliers in exchange for Leuer. The deal cut more than $6 million off the overall payroll and put the team under the luxury tax threshold in the process, per Brian Windhorst of ESPN.
Soon after, the Grizzlies sent Rudy Gay to the Toronto Raptors in a three-team deal that netted Davis, Tayshaun Prince and Austin Daye when the dust had settled.
Again, this move was intended to cut salary and saved the Grizzlies nearly $40 million over the next three seasons when combined with the Leuer deal, per ESPN’s Marc Stein.
Although the primary intention with these trades was to save money, the Grizzlies’ front office still managed to find productive players. With Gasol and Randolph sidelined due to injuries, Davis and Leuer stepped up big.
Gasol has missed the last four games after suffering a knee sprain against the San Antonio Spurs. The big Spaniard said he intends to “rush” his recovery time, according to Clay Bailey via Yahoo! Sports, but he wasn't available against Phoenix.
Randolph, meanwhile, has missed the past two games after undergoing surgery for an ingrown toenail.
Despite those key absences, the Grizzlies didn't skip a beat against a surprisingly good Suns team due to the performances from Davis and Leuer, who were both acquired as afterthoughts last season.
Davis finished with 21 points (on 8-of-11 shooting), 12 rebounds and two blocks. He had 20 points and 10 rebounds after just three quarters of action.
The big man was given the starting nod with Randolph out, and he took advantage of his opportunity. Aside from struggles at the charity stripe (where he finished just 5-of-11), Davis bullied the Suns down low on his way to a great night.
Leuer, meanwhile, played tremendously in 30 minutes off the bench. He scored a career-high 23 points (on 10-of-13 shooting), tied a career-high with nine rebounds and added three blocked shots.
The 24-year-old used his big frame well against the Suns, finding positions to score easy buckets and even knocking down a three-pointer late in the fourth quarter to seal the Suns' fate (if it hadn't been sealed already).
He said afterward, "I think early in the game getting in there and grabbing a few rebounds and knocking my first couple of shots down (helped)," per CBS Sports. Leuer added, "You get into a rhythm after that. Confidence starts to build, and from there on I was just feeling good."
The Grizzlies would hold a No. 3 seed for the playoffs if they played in the Eastern Conference. Unfortunately, they're currently out of the playoff picture altogether in the loaded West, but Davis and Leuer helped keep the Grizz within striking distance of playoff position.
Perhaps those two role players can continue to provide solid play in the frontcourt when the Grizzlies return to full health. But that begs the question: How will all of these guys get regular minutes?
Grizzlies fans should avoid giving Leuer too much credit following a nice performance against a young and inexperienced Suns team. Davis, however, has proven that he'd be a capable starter on numerous teams around the NBA.
Can first-year head coach Dave Joerger balance the frontcourt depth he has available when Gasol and Randolph return? Or will the Grizzlies have yet another busy season in terms of trades?
Randolph has a player option for the 2014-15 season, but if he declines to pick it up he could leave as a free agent and the Grizzlies would receive nothing in return.
If the front office has confidence in the young tandem of Davis and Leuer moving forward, trading the lovable Z-Bo for value may be the next logical deal to shed salary in Memphis.