The Toronto Raptors and Bryan Colangelo brought in Rudy Gay in February as a last-ditch effort to save several years of maneuvering that hadn't been going so well. Gay was available for cheap and was supposed to be a significant upgrade over any of the players sent out to acquire him.
In theory, Gay would supersede DeMar DeRozan as the primary wing scorer, providing the isolation scoring from the wing that the team needed. He would be the infusion of pure talent that they lacked. And even though he didn't fit on paper alongside Derozan and Andrea Bargnani, the defense and rebounding of Kyle Lowry, Jonas Valanciunas, Amir Johnson and Landry Fields would offset it, as would the shooting of Terrence Ross. The sheer infusion of talent he represented would make it worthwhile.
In reality, it didn't work. Bargnani regressed to the point he became toxic, Lowry struggled, the team failed to find cohesiveness and defense. Meanwhile, DeRozan and Gay did not mesh at all. DeRozan in fact looks noticeably improved thus far this season and has ultimately ended up being the one who surpassed Gay. Arguably always surplus to requirements, Gay subsequently became extremely surplus to requirements, and at an enormous price tag. Even in spite of how recently he had arrived, it was clear that he had to go. But it looked impossible.
It was possible, though, and it has happened. Indeed, the Raptors may have somehow gotten an even return in the deal to alleviate their mistake. In exchange for Gay, third-string center Aaron Gray, third-string power forward Quincy Acy and (effectively) third-string point guard D.J. Augustin (waived to accommodate the deal), the Raptors acquired a point guard in Greivis Vasquez who was among the league leaders in assists as recently as last season and a couple of occasionally useful backups. It is just a shame the whole process cost them Ed Davis.
More importantly, Toronto gained significant salary savings. Of the four players acquired, only the $1 million guaranteed portion of John Salmons and the $5,958,750 contract of Chuck Hayes are guaranteed next season, and nothing in any seasons thereafter. Compared with the $19,317,326 owed to Gay next year, that is a saving of $13.2 million. Should they opt to re-sign Vasquez, he will cut back into that amount, but a saving of $13.2 million on a player who wasn't helping the team and whom you were struggling to trade is a significant result.
But if he wasn't helping the team, why does the other team want him?
On the most basic level, the Sacramento Kings needed more talent. They now have that. Even after years of mismanagement and the frivolous burning of assets, Sacramento now has, you would think, a core five. Isaiah Thomas, one of the draft steals of the decade and a man who thoroughly outplayed Vasquez thus far this season, is the point guard. Preconceptions that small score-first guards must come of the bench should be disposed of, because Thomas is a legitimate starter. Rookie Ben McLemore has had a slow first month, but has plenty of time on his side to be the two guard of the future while Gay slots in at small forward. Derrick Williams is thriving since his trade from Minnesota, now that he is finally functioning as a full time power forward. DeMarcus Cousins is tied into a maximum contract extension, the certified core piece going forward. Marcus Thornton, Jason Thompson and Carl Landry compliment this lineup from the bench with quality role player production, creating a front eight of players that any team could use.
However, the overall improvement in the Kings's picture stems from moves made BEFORE this deal. Aside from Gay, the other seven were already there. All this deal does is add a hugely expensive starting small forward who doesn't necessarily fit well with the incumbent pieces and who, frankly, has never demonstrated that he makes his teammates or his team significantly better. That front eight lacks defense and is comprised of players who have been inefficient scorers in their careers to date, despite their offensive talents. It also lacks half-court creation; Thomas, a capable playmaker who needs to use this skill a bit more, is the sole backcourt player who fits this bill. Without someone creating high-efficiency looks, these low-efficiency players will always be inefficient, no matter how good their individual scoring talents are.
In short: Gay is famously inefficient offensively and mediocre defensively, neither of which addresses a need for the Kings.
Getting a quality player for spare parts and no future assets is rarely a bad idea. But when that player is hugely expensive, it needs to make perfect sense. It doesn't here. Sacramento is perhaps guilty of the same thinking that got Toronto in trouble, that a pure talent infusion will offset the poor fit of said talent.
Moreover, they've been suckered into the myth of Gay's talent. Rudy Gay is one of the most tantalizing players in the NBA. He looks incredible, a general manager's dream. In a workout situation, he has everything a team wants. Tall and athletic with body control, a handle, and a jump shot, he looks as though he should be an all-world player. But it has never been this way. It most likely never will be this way. Gay gives off the appearance that he can be the next Carmelo Anthony or Kevin Durant, but never has he come especially close to doing so.
Gay isn't as skilled as it looks like he should be, or as perception would have you believe. Memphis knew this when they re-signed him, Toronto should have known this when they traded for him, and Sacramento definitely should know it now. The Kings aren't trading for Gay in the misguided belief that he will become a superstar, but they are trading for him -- and paying a hefty price in pure salary, as well as the basketball assets they gave up -- in the belief that he will be a significant help to their team. We don't have much evidence of that being true, though. The teams he has been on to date have been unnervingly similar without him than when with him. Being an upgrade to Travis Outlaw and John Salmons isn't that hard. Being worth $19.3 million is.
Gay has a player option for next season, and there is a chance he opts out of it. If he does, he does so only to re-sign long term. If Gay opts out of $19 million next season, he won't get $19 million again in 2014/15, but he might re-sign for four years and upwards of $50 million. Sacramento, then, has a few scenarios that might play out. They could watch him walk at the end of the season, they could keep him around for next year at the exorbitant price of $19,317,326, or they could pay the price to re-sign him. Considering the price to re-sign him will be excessive, this option means being stuck to an overpaid player with no remaining upside in full knowledge that he doesn't help your team as much as someone at his price band should do.
The only way this is not the case is if Gay proves to be a considerable help to the Kings on the court. And this is something that is tough to imagine occurring.
The Kings didn't pay a big cost to acquire Gay in terms of basketball assets. They traded three deep bench backups and their second-best point guard for their new best small forward, and everyone else is irrelevant. But that just isn't the point.