Well, it’s here. The day that has really been coming since the Memphis Grizzlies beat the San Antonio Spurs in the 2011 NBA Playoffs. It was a landmark moment for the Grizzlies, as it would be for any team that had never won a playoff round. It was a huge step forward for the entire franchise.
As surprising as the upset was to some of the country, it was even more shocking that the Grizzlies did it without their “best player” and “star” in Rudy Gay, who was sidelined for the season and entire playoff run.
When the Grizzlies pushed the Oklahoma City Thunder to 7 games in the second round, the whispers began. Were the Grizzlies better without him? Why did the team emerge and play much more efficiently without the athletic swingman on the floor? It’s not even a reach to pretend that the Grizzlies were literally one break away from the Western Conference Finals. If they closed out game 4 against the Thunder at home, I’m not sure the Grizzlies would have blown a 3-1 series lead, barring an injury.
Last year, the Grizzlies had a much better regular season, but bowed out in the first round of the playoffs as Gay kept shooting and missing, hitting 42% of his shots in the seven game series and 1.4 assists. He did all of that while being guarded by a motley crew of Clipper defenders ranging from Caron Butler (with a broken arm), Randy Foye (6’3 at the tallest) or Chris Paul (probably shorter than me. I’m 5’9).
After the first round exit, the calls to trade Rudy grew louder and when the team was finally sold late in 2012, the writing was on the wall. On Wednesday afternoon, the Grizzlies traded Rudy Gay to the Toronto Raptors in a three-way deal that netted them Tayshaun Prince, Austin Daye and Ed Davis.
Prince is a former All-Star and U.S. Olympic team member who will immediately assume Gay’s spot in the starting lineup.
Now, if you don’t watch the Grizzlies every night, you may be panicking about this deal. You may wonder why the Grizzlies would give away one of the great young stars in the game. First of all, I wish you were an NBA General Manager with a promising young small forward on a rookie deal because you could have had him a long time ago.
Second, Gay just never got it all put together in Memphis. In his defense, he was finally taking off in 2010-2011 and probably deserved to make the All-Star Game. When he was informed that he didn’t make the team, he sulked through about three weeks of games before he hurt his shoulder and would eventually be shut down for the season.
As a fan, and a fan only, I’m sad to see Rudy go. He symbolized a new era of Grizzlies basketball and became the team’s anointed savior when Pau Gasol was traded. The Grizzlies added OJ Mayo and Mike Conley Jr. to play his sidekicks and Gay never made the leap.
At the 2009 draft, the Grizzlies traded for Zach Randolph to be the Grizzlies’ post presence along with a young Marc Gasol and the team’s #2 overall pick in Hasheem Thabeet.
Instead, Gasol and Randolph became the Grizzlies’ best players, Conley bought into Lionel Hollins’ system and became an unselfish teammate and Mayo even surpassed Gay as a potential building block.
Gay just never got it going. When the Grizzlies became just the latest team to bid against themselves to sign one of their young players to a max deal in the infamous summer of 2010, Gay became an underachieving, overpaid albatross that you couldn’t count on from one night to the next.
But still, fans pointed to his potential as a sign of greatness to come.
The problem with potential is that a guy with a lot of potential usually means that he isn’t very good, or just average at best. If you’re pointing at a player’s potential in his second year, that’s fair. When you’re still pinning your hopes (and $80 million) to a guy’s potential in his seventh season, then something has to give.
A lot of casual fans won’t like this deal as Gay still has a big name around the league, but from a basketball standpoint then it was something that needed to be done. The Grizzlies can now run their offense through Randolph and Gasol and trot out a pretty impressive perimeter defensive rotation of Tony Allen and Tayshaun Prince.
If you’re worried about replacing Gay’s scoring, you shouldn’t. He’s averaging 17.2 points per game this season and Prince is averaging only 11.7 points per game, but he’s shooting 44% from the field where Gay was shooting just a touch over 40% from the field. Prince is also taking five less shots a game, and if that holds, that probably means that those shots go to Randolph and Gasol and will result in higher percentage attempts as well.