Did Anyone Win the Rudy Gay Trade?

What makes the Grizzlies-Raptors-Pistons blockbuster so exciting is the air of mystery about the long-term, on-court implications of the deal. And those issues almost all surround Rudy Gay: Just how good is he? Within what sort of roster might he jump up a level as a player and become something closer to the All-Star he probably thinks he is? And can Toronto provide that roster?

Those questions will take years to answer, which is part of the fun here. But part of the answer to the first question — how good is Gay, really? — will unfold right away in Memphis, where a fringe title contender has dealt away its most dangerous perimeter creator for a player in Tayshaun Prince who is the NBA embodiment of “meh.” The Grizzlies obviously did this with an eye toward cleaning up their long-term financial picture — both ducking the luxury tax and putting the full mid-level exception back in play — but they’re also wagering that swapping Gay for Prince won’t demote them from “fringe contender” to “first-round roadkill.” It’ll be fascinating to see if they’re right.

But here’s what we know for sure, on a team-by-team basis:

Memphis Grizzlies

In the last eight days, Memphis has shaved about $12 million from its payroll for this season, surrendered a first-round pick, and given themselves a bit of breathing room in building next season’s roster around the Zach Randolph-Marc Gasol duo. That first-round pick headed to Cleveland looms large here. It’s a potential mid-to-late lottery pick, a valuable commodity, and when Memphis dealt it along with Marreese Speights and Wayne Ellington, the general assumption was the pick was the price they paid to duck this year’s tax and keep their starry core together another few months.

The Gay deal Memphis struck on Wednesday would, by itself, have gotten the Grizz under this year’s tax and solved most of their long-term cap issues. So did they sacrifice a first-round pick for nothing?

It’s a fair question. The Grizzlies had to get a replacement small forward for Gay this season; it was not politically palatable for a new ownership to deal a pseudo-star without finding some on-court ingredient that would allow the team to continue to compete at a high level. Doing that without taking on some long-term salary was going to be difficult. There are some small-forward types with expiring contracts for whom the Grizzlies could have flipped Jose Calderon — Kyle Korver, Carlos Delfino, and Dorell Wright come to mind — but it’s unclear how available those players actually were (Atlanta is already paper thin on the wing, for instance), how interested their teams were in helping the Grizz/taking Calderon, and whether those players would’ve come with some other long-term salaries attached as poison pills. Beyond those three, there just aren’t many available small forwards who are both clearly helpful right now and on expiring deals. Two very relevant examples to these talks: Corey Maggette is on an expiring deal, but can’t even crack the rotation in Detroit. Richard Jefferson has recently found playing time in Golden State, giving him at the least the gloss of an NBA player, but he carries a gross $11 million player option for next season.

So the Grizzlies settled on a guy who can still play a little and makes about $7 million next season at Gay’s position.

(Multiple league sources say all three of Randolph, Speights, and Mike Conley are on pace to hit various incentives that would have jacked up their cap numbers for next season; Randolph already nailed one such benchmark by making the All-Star team. The exact collective payroll increase at this point is unclear, but it could end up somewhere in the $1.25 million range and factored into Memphis taking an ultra-frugal route here.) Memphis now has the small-forward position covered, meaning their only urgent remaining need this summer will be figuring out the shooting guard spot. Tony Allen is a free agent, and he’s due a raise; Memphis will either pay him that raise or sign a replacement at a similar rate.

Put more simply: Memphis, as of now, is looking at a payroll around $63.5 million for next season, including Jerryd Bayless’s player option and their draft pick, with a hole at shooting guard and another spot or two to fill. They may yet approach next year’s tax line. Keeping Speights and doing this Rudy deal for Prince would have taken them over the tax. The only way to assure the payroll savings over the next two years Memphis apparently wanted and to keep that first-round pick would’ve been to find a Gay trade or some other moves, now or later, that brought back less 2013-14 salary in return. That could have been as simple as reversing the order of these moves — doing the Gay trade first to relieve some urgency and decrease the price of moving the next chunk of post-2013 salary (i.e., Speights) that had to go. And a Gay deal that brought back no post-2013 salary at all — no Prince — would have left two starting positions to fill instead of one. You can bet Memphis tried with the aforementioned expiring contracts, and by approaching Orlando about potentially dumping a player into the Magic’s massive Dwight Howard trade exception at some point. They couldn’t find the right deal — for now. Losing that first-round pick was the price of certainty in terms of avoiding next season’s tax, even if this Gay deal alone would’ve gotten Memphis under this season’s tax line.

So was that draft pick too big a price to pay so far in advance of that 2014 tax payment? Most league executives say it was. Memphis would counter by pointing out that the pick is almost guaranteed to be outside the top five and may end up in the 20s, a place where teams rarely find a starter-level player.

But this is really where the scrutiny of the trade from the Memphis perspective should start — with that pick. It’s clear that Gay was a goner the moment Robert Pera bought the team and put a new front office group in charge. There’s no sense lamenting the breakup of a very good core if that was going to be the result all along.

Gay is in the midst of a miserable season, and an especially miserable month or so of play. The Grizzlies in both 2010-11 and 2011-12 were better, in terms of point differential, when Zach Randolph was on the floor and Gay was on the bench than they were when the two played together, or when Gay played without Randolph, per NBA.com. That wasn’t the case so far this year, but Memphis believes it can fare just as well with a pile of low-usage “shooters” as it did with Gay — a decent one-on-one player who just hasn’t improved as a passer, long-range shooter, or defender. Memphis desperately needs a shooter to prevent teams from packing the paint, especially since its shooting guard (Allen) can’t shoot. Gay was not that player.

Prince probably isn’t that player, either, but he’s an above-average 3-point shooter for his career, and he’s hit 43 percent this season while being more judicious with his shots. He’s been especially good from the corners, an important spot in Memphis’ offense. He can work as a post threat against smaller defenders, especially when Randolph sits, and he’s a heady passer and defender. He’s regressed on defense over the last couple of seasons, but he’s a more intuitive defender than Gay. Prince can’t make up for missteps with sheer athleticism the way Gay can, but Gay is prone to some costly lapses in attention — ball-watching (allowing his man to cut back-door), stepping the wrong way on the pick-and-roll, or fatally delaying his transition from offense to defense.

Look: Prince, Jerryd Bayless, and the newly signed Chris Johnson aren’t going to duplicate the dual three-and-D look O.J. Mayo and Shane Battier provided during Memphis’ memorable 2011 playoff run. But if they can approximate it their own way, Memphis might be able to hold steady on offense; after all, they’re already down to 21st in points per possession, according to NBA.com. They can’t get much worse on offense, and losing Gay isn’t going to hurt their defense. Memphis is one of the three stingiest teams in the league because of Conley, Allen, and Gasol, and those guys are still here.

Bottom line for the Grizz: They’ll probably get a little bit worse this season, but even if they do, they’ve saved a bunch of money while inflicting a small wound on a team that was very unlikely to go through something like a Spurs-Thunder-Heat gauntlet in the playoffs. They had to dump a high-priced player. Their payroll structure was untenable, and out of Gay, Randolph, and Gasol, Gay is the right choice.

Also: Don’t forget Ed Davis here. He’s played by far the best ball of his career, as Dwane Casey has let him stretch himself a bit. He’s facilitating a ton from the elbow, working a nice tic-tac-toe passing game with Amir Johnson, and flashing an ultra-quick lefty hook from the post. He’s a long, active defender, and though bigger guys can bully him, he’s a fantastic third big man for Memphis. He works as short-term insurance in case of a Darrell Arthur injury, and depending how he progresses, he could work as long-term insurance for Randolph in case of decline and/or future financial concerns.

Toronto Raptors

Thoughts on Toronto’s haul:

• Speaking of Davis: It must hurt to part with him after going through a lot of developmental work that’s starting to bear real fruit, but this is a decent use of a player who looks very good on a rookie deal, but will look less good when that rookie deal expires after next season and he’s due a big raise. This is basically what the Spurs did with George Hill, except while the Spurs flipped Hill for a cheaper player at a position of need (Kawhi Leonard), the Raptors have flipped Davis for an albatross with a skill set similar to DeMar DeRozan’s. That might be a problem, since the Raptors just gave DeRozan a monster $38 million extension that doesn’t even kick in until next season.

Both are wings that look very good in pure athletic terms but produce inefficiently. They both shoot in the mid- to low-40 percent range, with a ton of mid-range jumpers. They both struggle from long range, though Gay is better. Neither has made a leap as a passer out of the pick-and-roll, though both show occasional flashes. Gay is an average defender, while DeRozan is probably a minus.

Gay, of course, is a small forward, while DeRozan is a shooting guard who’s played the three spot now and then. But it’s tough sledding offensively with two wings who can’t shoot from distance — ask Memphis — and Toronto will now start two wings who can’t shoot from distance. Having Terrence Ross around to break up that duo in stretches will help — Ross’s presence as the long-term jewel could make DeRozan expendable at some point. Gay might also play some power forward, as Casey has been going to small lineups for stretches lately.

• Almost certainly expendable: Linas Kleiza and Andrea Bargnani. Kleiza is the surest amnesty bet in the league for this summer, since the acquisition of Gay leaves the Raptors with about $72 million in projected payroll next season for 11 players, assuming they waive Hamed Haddadi. They’ll be right at the tax, and so Kleiza will almost certainly go. He has a fantastic beard.

Gay’s arrival leaves the Raptors with a lot of scorers, including Kyle Lowry, now the official winner of the Raptors’ point guard controversy — the first and only point guard to outlast Calderon. Bargnani’s only plus NBA skill is shooting/scoring, and he didn’t even do that well this season. A power forward with legit 3-point range has value beyond the shots he takes, since he sucks a big man away from the hoop and creates wide driving lanes for point guards on the pick-and-roll. But Bargnani has shot above the league average from 3 just twice in seven seasons, and he brings negative value as a passer, rebounder, and defender. The Raptors will be fine starting Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas, set to return soon. Valanciunas’s return would have shuttled Davis back to a bench role, and though the Raptors will now need to find a productive third big man, that’s the price they’ve decided to pay for Gay. That, plus any financial flexibility before July 2015.

Toronto wouldn’t have had cap room this summer, but they could’ve had max-level room in the summer of 2014. That’s gone now, even if they dump Bargnani and somehow find a taker for the badly overpaid Landry Fields. Toronto has essentially spent that cap room on Gay, though Gay gave Toronto no assurances he’ll exercise his $19.3 million player option for 2014-15, multiple sources said. The Raptors are confident they’ll be able to re-sign him then, and if they can’t, it will be because he has floundered in Toronto.

Toronto is betting he won’t. Gasol and Randolph clogged the lane in Memphis, and though Valanciunas and Johnson will take up some space there, they’re faster and more agile than the Memphis guys, and they demand fewer post touches. Both are very aggressive and speedy in diving to the hoop on pick-and-rolls, and that speed might open up the floor a bit for for Gay’s driving and passing. Gay might also get a confidence boost from being the undisputed No. 1 guy, and the Raptors could reshape their roster in ways that maximize Gay’s production in future trades involving Bargnani and others.

But there are a lot of “mights” there, and a lot of guys on this roster getting paid more than they should be. A six-man Lowry-Ross-Gay-Valanciunas-Johnson-DeRozan core is enticing. It’s not a championship team, but it could easily be a mid-tier playoff team next season in the Eastern Conference. It could be something more with better-than-expected development and a knockout trade in the next 12 months or so.

But this isn’t the ideal way to build a team. That’s both easy to say and true. The ideal way to build a team is to either nail a top-3 pick or ace free agency. Toronto had its chance at the draft pick route in 2006, but had the poor luck of picking in a year with no Tim Duncan/Derrick Rose/Dwight Howard type at the top of everyone’s draft list. As for free agents, Toronto has basically no history of attracting real game-changers, who are tough to attract anyway, without Bird rights, beaches, or other game-changing stars already present.

This isn’t ideal, and it probably won’t amount to much, but it’s not all that harmful for a team staring at its fifth straight lottery appearance.

Detroit Pistons

Speaking of lottery appearances! This is the easy part: Detroit dumped a long-term salary (Prince) for a point guard who can help the rest of this season, and opened up even more cap room — and playing time — in the process. Detroit is now set to have something like $22 million in cap room this summer for any kind of max offer. The free agency market is power-forward–heavy, which means it’s not exactly teeming with the kind of player the Pistons need — a wing, any wing — but it’s always nice to have some flexibility. They have enough, in fact, that it’s not out of the realm of possibility they keep Calderon if they can settle at the right number. Brandon Knight is probably better off spending at least some time off the ball for now. Just be careful this summer, Joe Dumars.

Filed Under: Memphis Grizzlies, NBA, Toronto Raptors, Zach Lowe

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Zach Lowe is a staff writer for Grantland.

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