As with any deal in the new fiscally-conscious NBA, the Rudy Gay trade involving the Grizzlies, Raptors and Pistons can be analyzed from many different angles. Some might lament the three-team deal that sent Gay to the Raptors, Tayshaun Prince and Ed Davis to the Grizzlies and Jose Calderon to the Pistons because the best team involved traded its leading scorer for financial reasons. I think it makes the whole thing all the more fascinating.
Regardless, it's important to look at each side's unique situation when evaluating this deal. Here's my best attempt to do that.
As has been mentioned before in this space, it was always a matter of when, not if, the Grizzlies would trade Gay, even after a recent trade of Marreese Speights and Wayne Ellington got Memphis under the luxury-tax threshold for this year. The massive luxury tax penalties that awaited the Grizzlies after this year would have been too large for anyone, especially a small-market team like Memphis.
The Grizzlies therefore had only one choice to make: trade Gay now, or trade Gay in the offseason.
Doing the latter would have made much more sense if the Grizzlies felt they had a chance, however small, to get out of a deep Western Conference. It's easy to look at their overall record, consider their recent near-misses, listen to Lionel Hollins and say the Grizzlies had a legitimate chance.
But a deeper look reveals otherwise.
Sure, Memphis is 29-15 and fourth in the West, but that record is deceiving. The Grizzlies were 12-2 in October and November, but are just 17-13 since. If the season began on Dec. 1, these would be the Western Conference standings:
- LA Clippers: 24-7
- San Antonio: 23-7
- Oklahoma City: 21-7
- Denver: 20-9
- Golden State: 19-11
- Portland: 17-10
- Houston: 18-14
- Memphis: 17-13
- Utah: 15-13
- Sacramento: 13-18
- Minnesota: 10-15
- Dallas: 12-17
- LA Lakers: 12-17
- New Orleans: 11-20
- Phoenix: 8-20
You can't really argue that the Grizzlies' slide happened because of all these trade rumors either, since it began in December. Maybe things snowballed because of the rumors, but there was no way Memphis would return anywhere close to the form they showed in November.
What's happened? An offense that was surprisingly excellent in the first month of the season has fallen off as the season went on. The Grizzlies scored just under 110 points per 100 possessions in their first 14 games; they have been at just under 103 points per 100 possessions in the next 30 games. Spacing has been a major issue, thanks in large part to Gay's awkward fit with Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph.
Worse, the Grizzlies' crunch-time offense has been a train wreck. Per NBA.com's stats page, the Grizzlies are scoring just 94.8 points per 100 possessions in fourth quarters, third-worst in the league. Their effective field goal percentage is 42.2 percent, and their true shooting percentage is 47.4 percent. Both are dead last in the entire league. This is the period of the game where you'd think Gay's shot-creation skills would be most valuable. Instead, the Grizzlies' horrendous spacing has rendered them useless.
My guess is that the Grizzlies' front office knew that they weren't going to make any noise with this core this year. Why keep a team together that isn't all that great when it only hurts your leverage going forward? That made it necessary to make a move now to try to find a better short-term fit while saving money going forward.
Does this trade do it? I actually think it does. On a basic level, getting Tayshaun Prince back was a nod to Hollins. Prince is battled-tested, versatile, tough and easy to slot into a role. Hollins was very close with Gay, so getting back a name like Prince will at least appease him.
On a deeper level ... this could actually work out nicely, provided that Prince keeps playing the way he has this season. We've seen some interesting changes in Prince's shot distribution over the years, despite few roster changes in Detroit. Two years ago, a whopping 37.5 percent of his offensive plays ended in isolations or post-ups, per MySynergySports.com. Last year, that number fell to 26.2 percent. This year, it's all the way down at 22.2 percent, with only 8.7 percent on isolations. That's good for Memphis, because the last thing they need is a worse version of Gay. They need a floor-spacer that can function without plays being run for him, and increasingly, that's becoming Prince's niche.
Prince's shooting numbers this year are also encouraging. He's hitting over 43 percent of his three-pointers this year, a number way out of line with his previous percentages. The sample size is small, and Prince could easily regress, but if he can hit even 39 percent of his threes, he'll open up the floor considerably. Gay shot only 31 percent on three-pointers this year, and that shortcoming allowed his defender to cheat off him to help on Randolph and Gasol in the post. Prince should be an upgrade here.
Throw in Prince's obvious defensive strengths -- he's regressed since his glory days of 2004, but he's still at least as good as Gay -- and the Grizzlies have clarified their offensive pecking order while maintaining or even enhancing their stifling defense.
Don't sleep on Ed Davis either. The Grizzlies' frontcourt is crowded with Randolph, Gasol and ace reserve Darrell Arthur, but Davis will find minutes. He had really emerged since Andrea Bargnani's injury, averaging nearly 13 points and eight rebounds on 55 percent shooting as a starter. It was especially fun watching him and Amir Johnson emerge -- per NBA.com, only one Raptors two-man duo with more minutes (Davis and DeMar DeRozan) had a higher net rating than the Davis/Johnson combo. Davis might be the best player in this deal soon, and while he may not play a ton initially, he's the obvious long-term solution once Randolph's contracts runs out ... or sooner.
Austin Daye can help too, though he'll probably find himself behind Quincy Pondexter on Hollins' depth chart. Nevertheless, he's not useless.
The only way this could backfire is if everyone in that locker room loses their spirit. Hollins was vocal in his support for Gay, and the players all liked him too. To them, this simply looks like a salary dump, and that's going to be tough to take.
But you also never know how teams respond to situations like this. Sometimes, they fold up shop and go through the motions. Sometimes, they feel inspired and play harder because they want to prove people wrong. When the Thunder dealt James Harden, many worried that the remaining Thunder players would go into a funk. Instead, they went out and smoked the league. There's no reason the Grizzlies couldn't adopt the same attitude.
All in all, the Grizzlies accomplished all of their goals. They saved money. They got a battle-tested, role-playing small forward that can approximate a lot of Gay's skills and fit in with the team's post players. They got a promising young player that can be a key piece going forward. Given their goals, what's not to like?
About the only good thing you can say about this deal from the Raptors' perspective is that they got the most well-known player. Gay has declined this year -- his scoring is down and his PER is just 14.3 -- but one would think his shooting numbers will bounce back a bit, making him slightly above-average rather than below-average. A change of scenery should bump Gay's numbers back up to where they used to be.
Still ... what is the plan, here? The Raptors will pay a combined $50 million next season to Gay, Andrea Bargnani, DeMar DeRozan, Amir Johnson and Landry Fields next year. They'll need a point guard, so you can tack on either Kyle Lowry's new contract (assuming he opts out) or someone else. They keep rookies Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross in the fold, but they don't have their draft pick (it went to Houston and then Oklahoma City for Lowry). This is your team, basically, unless Bryan Colangelo can get something decent for Bargnani in a trade. Is that even a playoff team in the East? Is that team making any noise even if they get there?
The biggest issue: it's going to be awfully difficult to divide wing touches between Gay and DeRozan. Both like the ball in the mid-post, both have high usage rates, neither is a great passer and neither is a good spot-up player. Gay has scored on just 32 percent of his spot-up opportunities and is hitting just 27 percent of his threes in these spots. DeRozan has been a little better, but even he's scoring on just 44 percent of his spot-ups and 28 percent of his threes in those spots. Their skills overlap, and when that happens with two players on the same team, they usually cramp each other's styles.
The presence of Lowry won't make this any easier. Lowry can make plays, but he needs to pound the rock a lot to do it. And if Bargnani ends up returning to the lineup, good luck finding anyone willing to move the ball. Toronto may as well have those four guys wait in line to ride the isolation ride.
The one thing that could salvage all of this: moving Gay to power forward. I know it's pretty drastic, but Gay has thrived at the position in international play and is certainly just as big as many stretch 4s. His 34-percent career three-point mark is a bit of a liability at the 3, but is much more of an asset at the 4. He would be quicker than most defenders and, with the right center, could probably hold his own against tougher post players. Better yet, moving Gay to power forward would free up minutes for Ross, who has come on recently. A lineup of Lowry, DeRozan, Ross, Gay and a healthy Valanciunas would be very difficult to defend.
Failing that, though, this feels like a move by a GM desperately looking to buy time before his inevitable ouster. At best, this is a decent, capped-out team that is far away from contention. At worst, this adds needless salary, deals away a promising young big man in Davis and doesn't make the team any better.
I wouldn't consider this to be much more than a salary dump. Prince was slated to make nearly $22 million for this year and the next two seasons, while Calderon's contract expires this year.
Calderon's having an excellent season and his efficiency numbers always look tremendous, but he won't move the needle much for the Pistons (or any team) because he doesn't consistently get into the lane. As a backup, he's excellent. As a starter, he's just good enough to make you mediocre.
It'll be interesting to see whether he helps or hurts Brandon Knight's development for the rest of the season. On the one hand, he could push Knight into more of a natural scoring role. On the other hand, the Pistons need Knight to learn how to play point guard for the team's long-term future. This one could go either way.
Nevertheless, the move was necessary to clear Prince's salary off the books. The youth movement now officially dominates Detroit's pecking order.
The only problem? This is what happened the last time Joe Dumars got cap room like this.