By: Dan Grant
“You know, I was talking to a colleague of mine, a guy I know in the league and he said to me ‘You finally got him. You got a guy who commands the double team. And I said, ‘I know! What do you think I’ve been saying we need all along?!”
- Toronto Raptors Colour Commentator Jack Armstrong
Last Wednesday, the Toronto Raptors made a three way trade with the Memphis Grizzlies and the Detroit Pistons, landing a player who is already the single best small forward in franchise history.
However there are a lot of reasons that the trade left people scratching their heads, on both Memphis and Toronto’s sides. After thinking about it, I love this move for the teams involved for a variety of reasons and felt the need to share them, as I think a few angles of this deal have gone unnoticed.
For those who aren’t completely familiar, the trade worked as follows: Toronto sent young power forward Ed Davis and long-time fan-favourite point guard Jose Calderon to Memphis for small forward Rudy Gay. Memphis then flipped Calderon to Detroit for two small forwards, career Piston Tayshaun Prince and prospect Austin Daye.
I’ve broken the trade down by team, to give a clear and complete analysis of why the move works from all sides and how we can judge the trade’s effects moving forward.
I’m not really going to say much about Detroit. They got out of having to pay Prince for the next two seasons and landed one of the most selfless and efficient offensive point guards in the league, who will enjoy playing with their talented young big rigs Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond. Said point guard is also on an expiring contact, freeing them up to make a maximum offer to a free agent this off-season. It was an easy move for them.
Potential Negative Headline in Memphis Newspaper: ‘GRIZZLIES DEAL ONLY REAL SCORER ON CHAMPIONSHIP CONTENDER FOR AGING SMALL FORWARD, POWER FORWARD PROSPECT AND WHATEVER AUSTIN DAYE IS AT THIS POINT’
Potential Positive Headline in Memphis Newspaper: ‘GRIZZLIES NO LONGER HAVE TO PAY RUDY GAY 37 MILLION DOLLARS OVER THE NEXT TWO SEASONS WHEN HE’S MADE REDUNDANT BY THEIR OFFENSE!’
The Grizzlies have been getting killed for dealing Gay in a year when many consider them to be a dark horse championship contender. They have a new owner and they’re in a small market; this had to be a salary dump right?
On some level it definitely was. Gay’s contract was given by previous ownership and management and is paying him at the absolute top of his class. While Gay’s talent has never been in doubt, his results certainly have been. He was averaging career worst shooting percentages across the board this season, despite his usage rate (that being the percentage of his team’s plays in which he took part) actually being at an all-time high. In short, it boils down to: was he worth the money? Was he the best use of a maximum contract, when Memphis already has three other players making eight figure salaries? I have to say no.
Let’s not forget, along with a new owner, the Grizzlies recently hired former ESPN statistics expert John Hollinger as their Vice President of Basketball Operations. This is the man who created a statistic used league wide, the Player Efficiency Rating, known as PER. According to his system, Gay was performing at a level classified as ‘In the Rotation’ and in his career, had never exceeded ‘Third Banana’, while teammates Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol were performing at all-star or borderline all-star levels and Mike Conley improved each season (while being paid significantly less). This move reeks of Hollinger and his obsession with efficiency more than anything.
They added a veteran defensive presence (and PER darling) who can shoot the corner three in Prince, bought low on former Pistons hopeful forward prospect Austin Daye and got emerging young forward Ed Davis while still on his rookie contract, all while increasing their flexibility moving forward by keeping the team under the new super-punitive luxury tax penalties (which they would have had to pay if they kept Gay).
The move is a true test of chemistry vs. statistics. The Grizzlies were very good. We saw them manhandle the defending champion Heat and we saw their size and inside-outside game give the Oklahoma City Thunder fits. They’re leaning on the big men now; the offense is going to be up to Randolph , Gasol and a two point guard system. Can they handle it? Can the Prince-Davis-Daye amalgam make up for the loss of the super talented Gay, as Hollinger’s system seems to suggest it should? It worked for Oklahoma City in the James Harden trade and it certainly has the potential to work here.
Nothing is certain. But paying Rudy Gay what he’s earning didn’t make sense for Memphis any more. It remains to be seen if the reward outweighed the cost.
Potential Positive Headline in Toronto Newspaper: RAPTORS LAND BEST SMALL FORWARD IN TEAM HISTORY! [Ed. Note: The Same Page is defiantly anti-Carter]
Potential Negative Headline in Toronto Newspaper: RAPTORS PAYING 37 MILLION OVER NEXT TWO SEASONS FOR A PLAYER WHO HAS NEVER MADE AN ALL-STAR TEAM BECAUSE THEY CAN’T LAND ANY FREE AGENTS!
And that’s really what it comes down to, isn’t it? Toronto, not due to the city itself, but rather due to years and years of mediocrity, is a market that struggles to attract marquee free agents. However, the same can be said about a lot of teams across the league. When was the last time a cold weather city (not New York) signed a big name unrestricted free agent? Carlos Boozer in Chicago? How’s that working out? I guess Brooklyn re-signed Deron Williams and Gerald Wallace but they had a significant advantage in being able to offer more years and money than their competition. Boston has never signed a significant free agent in team history (really), unless you count Jason Terry. And I don’t.
Raptors General Manager Bryan Colangelo has never been afraid to dole out big contracts. In fact, I’ve killed him in this space previously for over-paying mediocre players, players he thinks are going to ‘break out’. It worked once with Steve Nash but hasn’t really worked since. The Raptors last (and only) big free agent signing was Hedo Turkoglu, which went about as poorly as a signing can go. But did anyone predict that? Did anyone think that Hedo would be such an abject failure? I remember nothing but excitement when he came to town.
The point is control. If you make a trade, you have it. You can target a specific player and try to make a move that works for both sides. If you sign a free agent, you’re at the mercy of the market. It’s why guys like Rashard Lewis (despite getting amnestied, he’s still getting paid) and Roy Hibbert are making salaries in in upper echelons of the league when one is an aging role player and the other is an above average role player; the market dictates what it dictates.
By bringing Rudy Gay to town, Bryan Colangelo has changed the conversation about his team. Some may look at it as him trying to save his job and maybe he is. But after killing him for signing middle of the road cap-clogging contracts, I have to give him the credit he’s due on this move.
He landed a marquee player while giving up very little. As much as I love Jose Calderon, he’s 31 years old and with his expiring contract, he was too valuable an asset not to trade. In (my) dream scenario, the Raptors convince him to come back in the off-season as Kyle Lowry’s back-up on a reduced salary but it’s hard to see that happening in reality.
In Ed Davis, Toronto dealt away young talent. However, I really think Grantland’s Zach Lowe put it best in his article about the trade last week:
“Speaking on Ed 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.”
I really couldn’t have said it better myself. I really like Ed Davis and it was a lot of fun watching him and Amir Johnson grow together. But the Raptors are committed to Jonas Valanciunas and for now, still have Andrea Bargnani on the roster. Trading Davis at the peak of his value made a lot of sense, especially sending him to a Memphis team that might be looking to shed even more salary in the near future, providing even more motivation to acquire him.
For those saying that this is a move in the wrong direction and that the Raptors should strip the team down and build through the draft, pointing to models like Chicago, Oklahoma City and San Antonio, I say this: that is only one way of doing things. Those teams were lucky enough to get top picks in years when they landed once in a generation superstars. And with our first round pick next year belonging to Houston if it falls anywhere between 4-14, I’d rather make a playoff push this season and give away a much lower lottery selection, rather than trying to go for a top 3 pick and accidentally giving away a fourth or fifth overall choice. As for stripping the team to its bones, there’s no guarantee that building through the draft works. It can be a crapshoot. Look at the Sacramento Kings. Look at the Charlotte Bobcats. It’s just as easy (easier even) to try and build through the draft and fail.
After watching Gay play his first two games in a Toronto uniform, I can safely say the following:
- He is a freakishly athletic basketball player
- I can see how people who get frustrated if he wasn’t motivated, because he makes the game look so easy
- He looks motivated right now. He looks pissed that people have ripped his defense, he looks like he’s enjoying being the number one option on the team and he’s the best possible thing for DeMar DeRozan, in terms of a veteran mentor and in terms of freeing him up for open shots.
- I have no idea how long number three will last.
“But Dan”, you ask, completely reasonably, “what about all the negative stuff Memphis saw in him?”
“Good question friend!” I respond.
The answer is that that stuff still exists. Gay still has the potential to be a massively inefficient player. However, I think his statistics in Memphis were actually negatively affected by the way the team was built, giving a less than accurate picture of his ability to produce in a primary role. More often than not, plays in Memphis were run inside for Randolph and Gasol; Gay was then given the option to create a shot in the final 10 seconds or so of the shot clock if a play inside didn’t work out correctly. He was often left shooting three pointers at the end of clocks, just to get a shot off. His percentages suffered because of this and should receive a boost in Toronto.
The final positive to this move is risk; there is almost none. Gay is only guaranteed through next season and he then has a massive player option he’s likely to opt for in the season following. He’s only 26 years old and right in the prime of his career. He’s on a max deal that will free up a ton of cap room once it comes off the books if he doesn’t work out. If he does work out, we’ve landed a top 20 NBA player while giving up a bench power forward and a reserve point guard. It’s a no brainer when you look at it that way. With the lack of risk and the potential reward, this move was something Bryan Colangelo had to do. He landed a big fish, something he was unlikely to be able to do any other way. We can speculate all we want about every aspect of the move but now all that’s left is to see if it actually works out.