Full disclosure: I think Adrian Wojnarowski is the best NBA reporter on the planet. (What a bold statement.) If I had easy access to him, I'd ask him what I'm having for dinner tomorrow, and were I an NBA player, I bet he'd know. He broke the Rudy Gay trade this week because of course he broke the Rudy Gay trade. It's not a surprise when Woj breaks a big NBA story. It's a surprise when someone else does. And given the extremely high quality of reportage in the NBA -- Marc Stein, David Aldridge, Sam Amick, Howard Beck, Marc Spears, Steve Aschburner, Michael Lee and many more I'm leaving out -- that says something. He's the don of a strong NBA reporter set.
And man, he is so very wrong about what the Rudy Gay trade means.
Most of the focus on the column in question has been in Woj's welting of new Grizzlies exec John Hollinger, a former ESPN scribe. Woj refers to Hollinger as a "statistician who worked for a cable sports company" and lays into him (unfairly) for telling the San Antonio Spurs to sign Jackie Butler years ago. (Many of us, not just John, were fooled by Jackie Butler. He was the next Michael Sweetney, after all!) But I honestly don't mind the digs at ESPN (four letters Woj will never type or say in succession), and once you take a job making personnel decisions for a team, your previous decisions are open game. Calling the Butler move a "disaster" is hilariously overwrought, but ... come on. Me? Criticize basketball opinions for being overwrought? My tea kettle is not black, y'all. I have no problem with Woj writing amazing deconstructions of ESPN, and I have no problem with anyone critiquing an NBA executive.
The problem I have is that Woj argues that the Gay trade means the end of the super team.
As a Western Conference contender disassembled out of frugality and panic on Wednesday, Miami Heat star LeBron James should've been recalibrating the realities of the free-agent frenzy awaiting him in 2014. For him, the economics of the sport keep reaffirming that three's a crowd now, that James will have to choose a partnership with one superstar teammate.
The Super Friends scenarios are gone, replaced with the NBA's vision of talent spreading out to the have-nots. James Harden leaves Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook for Houston. And months before it was necessary to do so, before the Memphis Grizzlies could make a run in the Western Conference playoffs, they moved Rudy Gay to Toronto and out of Zach Randolph's and Marc Gasol's lives.
I would be a whole lot more sympathetic to this argument if [checks calendar] just six months ago two super teams weren't bolstered or created wholesale. The Lakers, carrying the highest payroll in the land, boosted their cap level by swapping Andrew Bynum for the more expensive Dwight Howard and dished out a multi-year deal worth $9 million annually to the 38-year-old Steve Nash. And super teams are dead? The Brooklyn Nets gave Deron Williams a max-value $100 million, five-year deal ... and gave Brook Lopez a max-value $60 million, four-year deal ... and traded spare parts to pick up Joe Johnson's max-value contract still worth $90 million over four years ... and re-signed Gerald Wallace at eight figures a year. And super teams are dead?
No. The Super Friends scenarios aren't gone. They are, unfortunately, limited to the select few teams who either a) have the ability to amass talent through the draft and retain them via canny front office work (Thunder, Spurs), or b) have ridiculous amounts of pliable assets, preferably money (Lakers, Nets, Knicks, Heat, Bulls in a bizarro world where Jerry Reinsdorf isn't cheap). Jerry Buss can cover a $100 million payroll with his local TV deal and still have tens of millions left over. Mikhail Prokhorov brushes max contracts off like dandruff. Ain't nothing changed about that. Mark Cuban and James Dolan used to do the same thing before the former realized the importance of payroll flexibility in talent acquisition and the latter hired folks who understood it.
So we circle back to the Heat and LeBron. Is Mickey Arison really going to tell Bron-Bron he can't afford to keep Dwyane Wade or Chris Bosh, or bring in another star into their place? Of course not. If James leaves Miami it won't be because Arison can't afford to put talent around him. It'll be because LeBron wants to leave Miami for any of the reasons Woj alludes to: he wants to make it up to Cleveland, he'd rather have free rein over a franchise, his agent told him to, or whatever. Money will not be the impetus. We're talking about Mickey Arison here.
And the Grizzlies? The team that plays in Memphis, one of the smallest, least lucrative markets in the league and has a new owner that isn't even remotely close to the NBA's tog dog owners in terms of wealth? Yes, money will be the impetus in properly managing the salary cap. Just as it was for the team's last owner, Michael Heisley, who vowed never to hit the luxury tax. And just as it is for basically every other small market, including the successful Spurs and Thunder.
But here's where this thesis of the end of the super team goes completely off the rails: we're acting like it's a huge loss to trade Rudy Gay.
I mean no offense to Gay as a person or a player; I'm talking about him as an asset. And at the price he costs (through no fault of his own), he was not a good asset. He makes $16 million this year. Almost $18 million next season. More than $19 million in 2014-15. For a player shooting an effective field goal percentage of .463 since coming back from shoulder surgery a year and a half ago. Whose only elite NBA skill is shot creation for himself which, let's be honest, is hardly rare.
Look, if Rudy Gay is part of your Super Team, you do not have a Super Team. You might have a Pretty Good Team, and Memphis did. The striking thing about Woj's critique of the Grizzlies' move is that he doesn't consider at all the widely held belief that Gay just isn't worth the kind of cash he's pulling. He doesn't consider that "the novices" in the Memphis front office moved Gay not because new owner Robert Pera is cheap and chasing profits, but that Gay is not an asset a small market team should be investing a quarter of its payroll in. And if we're imbuing Hollinger with the influence to make the deal -- as Woj does -- we have a dead simple way of checking on what Hollinger likely thought of Gay. Hollinger's famous stat PER considers Gay a roughly average to slightly above average player. The NBA average salary is around $5 or 6 million. Gay makes $16 million. This is pretty straightforward: the "novice" Grizzlies front office, based on what's publicly known, agrees with large swaths of the free world that Gay is wildly overpaid. Unlike large swaths of the free world, the "novice" Grizzlies front office was able to do something about it, and that something was "wave something shiny in front of Bryan Colangelo."
When you ignore the whole "Gay was widely overpaid" thing, you're setting up a false reality from which to launch your theories about the NBA's shifting ground. That's blatantly obvious when you go back and look at Woj's reaction to the James Harden trade. In that deal, the Thunder -- another small-market, low-capital franchise -- traded a legitimate All-Star for a lesser replacement and young, cheap assets ... to save money. Perhaps because it was angelic wonder of the basketball world Sam Presti who pulled the trigger, the reaction was not apoplectic anywhere really. (All criticism has now died down completely as the Thunder excel in spite of Harden's fantastic season in Houston.) On Wednesday, the Grizzlies traded a slight above average player paid like a legit All-Star for a lesser replacement (Tayshaun Prince) and a young, cheap asset (Ed Davis) to save money. Quelle horreur.
Forget about the Hollinger rip. Forget about the illogical super team thesis. This is the harshest, most head-scratching line in the column:
[W]inning isn't a priority for Pera.
Pera officially took over on October 25, 2012. He's been in control for three months and one week. And we're already declaring that he doesn't want to win ... because he traded Rudy Gay and Marreese Speights? Man, the next owner of the Sacramento Kings had better not go ahead with trading Tyreke Evans or Jason Thompson. One can only imagine the wrath that would bring.