TORONTO -- Back in October, Rudy Gay wanted to take the Toronto Raptors to the playoffs. Uncertainty surrounded their future, with Masai Ujiri having taken over as general manager in the offseason. Ujiri didn't tear down the Raptors immediately, but everyone knew he could if they started slowly.
If the season went as Gay envisioned it, the eighth-year forward would be in the thick of a playoff race at this point, close friends Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan at his side. Remembering every step of the Memphis Grizzlies' ascension from the league's basement, Gay could speak to what it's like down the stretch when you're on a winning team compared to when you're not.
"The vibe in the locker room is different ‘cause at that point it's all about seedings, who you're going to play and you have to keep pushing and you're still playing for something," Gay said in the preseason. "Obviously you're still playing for something -- you're playing for your city even if you're not a playoff team -- but it's more than just going out there, just being competitive when you're out there. You're actually playing for something, you're playing for the best playoff seed you can get."
Now Toronto is playing for something, but it's without Gay. He and the Raptors lost 12 of the season's first 18 games before Ujiri shipped him to the Sacramento Kings. That's when things turned around for a Toronto team that is now third in the Eastern Conference.
Just like when the Grizzlies traded Gay and all he could do was cheer for his friends in the Western Conference Finals, he's happy for his former teammates but focused on what he has to do.
"They're a playoff team," he said. "Of course I'd like to be a part of that. I'm in Sacramento now and I have to build this team."
The bench depth the Raptors received in return for Gay helped them, and Lowry and DeRozan have had career seasons in the backcourt. Sophomores Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross have grown, too. They've been worlds better aesthetically and otherwise, sharing the ball on offense and trusting each other on defense. Maybe Gay was blocking their progress, maybe they just needed time.
"We don't know if that would have happened if I were there, too," Gay said. "It happened early in the season. Nobody knows."
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Compared to the rise of the Raptors, Gay's rejuvenation as a King has been an underplayed storyline. At 22-40, Sacramento isn't exactly entitled to a ton of positive press. Since arriving there, though, Gay is averaging a career-high 20.8 points on a career-high 50 percent shooting, up from a career-low 38.8 percent in Toronto.
Instead of being the go-to guy, he's the second or third option, behind center DeMarcus Cousins and sometimes point guard Isaiah Thomas. Gay is in the post more, and he's not nearly as often trying to create a shot from the perimeter against a set defense.
"We didn't look at Rudy just as, as I call him, ‘Rudy the Raptor,'" Kings head coach Mike Malone said, pointing to the success Gay had earlier in his career alongside Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol in Memphis.
While Gay told reporters he "took the fall for a lot of things" when the Raptors visited Sacramento last month, on his first trip to Toronto since the deal he chose not to take the bait when asked if he felt he'd been done wrong.
"I was inefficient when I was here," Gay said. "I'm not anymore."
With the increased productivity, his reputation around the league has surely shifted. He's in his prime at 27 years old, and he can opt out of the final year of his maximum contract this summer. As a free agent, he could all but ensure he'd play in games that matter again. The other option is to take the $19.3 million he's owed next year and see what the Kings can do.
After Sacramento's 99-87 loss at the Air Canada Centre on Friday, a reporter asked Malone for his thoughts on the game.
"I thought we were awful tonight," he said.
The final margin was not indicative of the night, according to Malone and anyone else who watched. Toronto led by as many as 23, and the Kings looked like they didn't want to be there in the first and third quarters. Sacramento played without cohesion, likely a result of the makeup of the roster and the fact it's not going anywhere.
"It's a very young team that hasn't won," Malone said. "That's just the reality of it."
Gay, who scored 15 points on 5-for-13 shooting as the offense stagnated, received more boos than cheers. He said that he didn't pay attention to the reaction, and sounded about the same as he did after numerous of Raptors losses a few months prior.
"I think we weren't making plays for each other," Gay said.
With the Kings' abundance of young talent, their future is unknown but might be bright. The Gay trade happened in the first place because of a new front office, unafraid to swing big. Cousins is maturing, Thomas is stuffing stat sheets and both swingman Ben McLemore and forward Derrick Williams could come into their own. No one in that mixture of mostly scorers has played a playoff minute, however, and it's unfair to expect them to have it all figured out.
"It's going to take a lot of time, a lot of experience," Gay said. "This is just one of those things where it's a learning experience for those young guys, getting out there playing while they're young. That's the best way to get better."
In the not-too-distant past, Toronto was seen as having a long way to go to reach respectability. It's possible Gay and the Kings also aren't actually that far away. That's just not happening this year, and Gay never planned to be playing out the string again.