When the clock strikes midnight tonight, the NBA's free-agent period begins, with Rudy Gay a key supporting player in this unfolding drama. But don't expect resolution on Rudy anytime soon.
So tomorrow is only the beginning of a process that could last several weeks. To get a handle on where things could be headed and what approach the Grizzlies should be taking, let's examine three different issues relating to Gay's free agency: His value as a player, the six possible end-games, and the most likely competitors to sign him.
What Rudy Gay Is or Reasonably Can Be
People like to talk about NBA players in the language of "stars" and "all-stars," which I've always tried to resist as being too imprecise. I think of players in terms of tiers. First-tier players are perennial MVP candidates. Think Lebron James, Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade. Second-tier players are established elite starters who are perennial candidates for the All-Star game or the all-NBA teams. Think Brandon Roy, Pau Gasol, Paul Pierce. Third-tier players are high-level starters who might make an All-Star team or an all-NBA squad in a career year but haven't established themselves are dependable star-level players. Think Rip Hamilton, Gerald Wallace, Andrew Bogut.
Rudy Gay — like teammates O.J. Mayo, Marc Gasol, and Zach Randolph — is a third-tier player. But he's a third-tier player with the youth and ability to still become a second-tier player. And how likely he is to make that leap should be a primary factor in how willing the Grizzlies should be to make or match a large contract offer.
Last year, I compared Gay to the Pacers' Danny Granger, another small forward with a similar blend of size, athleticism, and skill level. Granger had made the jump from third tier to second tier at age 25. Gay, entering his age 23 season, had been a comparable performer to Granger at each age up to that point. Why couldn't he make the same leap?
Coming off a disappointing third season, Gay rebounded in year four, but he didn't break out. Gay got stronger physically, which resulted in more frequent trips to the free-throw line and a better conversion rate on interior shots. He also cut down significantly on his turnovers. Those improvements were mitigated somewhat by a declining three-point percentage (a career-low 33%), though at least Gay responded by taking fewer threes than in previous years.
Though Gay's steal and block numbers were good, that seems almost purely a function of athleticism. He remains a frustrating defensive player. He's not bad, but he doesn't impact the game as much as he could. And his passing remains almost non-existent.
Gay's mix of size, athleticism, shooting ability, and improving handle make him a valuable scorer (in a team situation like Granger's, it's easy to see Gay pushing his scoring average up toward the mid-20s). He's the best shot-creator on the team and the best tough-shot maker. He's shown a willingness to take and ability to make big shots at the end of games and the Grizzlies see Gay as someone who has it in him to be a 20+ scorer in the playoffs. I think they're right. But if Gay's all-around game doesn't catch up to his scoring ability, then how much is a one-dimensional, good-but-not-great wing scorer really worth?
Gay is still quite young and I don't think we've seen the best of him, but knowing what we know I'd have to put his odds of ascendancy to the second tier at no better than 50-50. And, ideally, those odds aren’t really worth the max contract offer Gay could be fortunate enough to get in the coming weeks.
The Six Scenarios
There are six different ways Gay's free agency could play out, regardless of the teams that pursue him. Here I'll list them in my own order of preference:
1. A Reasonable Long-Term Deal: This is not a very likely scenario at this point, but it sure would be nice. Gay reportedly turned down a reasonable contract offer — 5 years, $50-$55 million — last year, and with more cap space out there than there are top-tier free agents to soak it up, Gay now seems highly likely to get an offer north of reasonable. For the record, I would consider 5/$60 the largest reasonable deal for Gay.
2. Sign-and-Trade With Significant Return: Absent a reasonable deal, a sign-and-trade that would bring back a solid young rotation player (and, hopefully, a useful secondary asset as well) while leaving the Grizzlies in good position to retain O.J. Mayo, Marc Gasol, and, potentially, Zach Randolph is probably the smartest move, because the big risk in overpaying for Gay is leaving the team vulnerable financially when those players come up for free agency in the next couple of seasons. Gay may have the most pure talent on the roster, but right now I think Gasol and Mayo are probably the more important core pieces.
3. Overpaying: A maximum contract for Gay would start at something just north of $13 million and continue with roughly 10% increases each year. I'm skeptical that he'll get a full max offer from anyone, but his odds of getting something slightly lower than that are starting to look pretty good.
As wary as I am of overpaying Gay, I don't think the Grizzlies can afford to let an asset of his caliber walk for no return. The danger of overpaying, in addition to the lack of financial flexibility it affords in regard to future contract negotiations, is in establishing an expectation from players (the aforementioned Mayo, Gasol, and Randolph) who can reasonably consider themselves to be as valuable as Gay, if not more so. But, generally, teams don't get in trouble overpaying really good players. They get in trouble overpaying mediocre-or-worse players. (See: Cardinal, Brian)
Retaining Gay, even at an elevated price, allows the team to keep together a starting lineup that was playoff caliber last season. With a better bench this season (almost unavoidable) and even modest improvements from the four 25-and-under starters, the Grizzlies should be a strong playoff contender next season. A return to the post-season would help the short-term bottom line and, more importantly, help rebuild a decimated fan base. I'm not sure this team can afford to take a step back next season even in the name of sound long-range planning. Right now, they need to keep their momentum. And, barring serious injury, even an overpaid Gay will remain a movable asset, allowing the team to shed his contract with some return (See: Gasol, Pau) in the future if deemed necessary.
4. Sign-and-Trade with Middling Return: Better to get something than nothing, but, as I outlined above, I think matching a big offer is still a better overall move than a sign-and-trade that would help Gay more than the Grizzlies.
5. One-Year Deal: Given the likelihood of Gay receiving a big offer from a desperate, deep-pocketed team, the odds of Gay accepting the one-year qualifying offer to return to the Grizzlies are slim. The only way that happens is if the Grizzlies' matching rights scares off potential suitors and Gay still isn't happy with the team's own offer. This has happened before (See: Gordon, Ben), but don't expect it here. And the team shouldn't want it, because even though this scenario would allow the Grizzlies one more year of Gay on the cheap, it would all but guarantee he leaves the following summer for no return.
6. Letting Him Walk: What fans should realize is this: If Rudy Gay receives an offer from another team starting at, say, $13 million a year, and the Grizzlies decline to match that offer, it does not mean the team can spend that same amount on other players. If the Grizzlies let Gay leave without getting any assets for him, it will leave the team scrambling and all but guarantee the step backward that I'm not sure this franchise can take right now.
The Five Most Likely Suitors
My guess on who the real threats are:
1. New Jersey Nets: Unlike the next three teams on this list, the Nets don't have viable small-forward options already on their roster. (Unless you consider Terrence Williams viable or rookie Damion James some kind of sure thing.) They also have a roster (featuring 22-year-old Brook Lopez and 19-year-old Derrick Favors) young enough that, if they miss out on the top-tier free agents, taking a more long-range approach makes sense. Finally, not only do they have massive cap space, but they have an owner who seems to be wealthy and aggressive enough to not be concerned about over-paying in free agency. Add all that up, and if the Nets miss out on Lebron James, they seem very likely to make a strong play for Gay. Sign and trade fodder: Questionable. Courtney Lee is someone the Grizzlies tried to get on draft night a couple of years ago, but with O.J. Mayo, Xavier Henry, and, potentially, Ronnie Brewer on the roster, there's no place for him now. Damion James was also a Griz draft-night target, but doesn't seem like much compensation by himself, not to mention the complication of trading players so soon after the draft. Derrick Favors would presumably be off the table in a Gay deal. Given the past history between point guard Devin Harris and new coach Avery Johnson, I wonder about the possibility of Harris being moved. Some kind of Rudy Gay/Mike Conley for Devin Harris/Damion James deal might be interesting.
2. New York Knicks: The Knicks seem to be in danger of missing out on the top-tier guys and, more so than the Nets, will be under pressure to make a splash. So this is a team you could see doing something crazy, like given Gay a max or near-max offer. Gay would also be a good fit for D'Antoni's wide-open system. Working against this: The Knicks have many, many roster spots to fill and currently the team's only two quality returning players — Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler — are both small forwards. That doesn't matter when you have a chance to get Lebron James. But if the Knicks find themselves moving into the second and third tiers of free agents, it might be a consideration. Sign-and-trade fodder: I don't see the Knicks including Danilo Gallinari in a Gay deal, but Wilson Chandler would almost certainly be available. He'll never be close to Gay, but is a good player for a fraction of the cost: 21 years old with good size (6'8") and excellent athleticism. He's a shaky shooter, but good in transition and could be a plus defender. Chandler has a chance to be a league-average starter. A longshot option could be the Knicks own unrestricted free agent, David Lee.
3. Minnesota Timberwolves: Multiple reports, including a recent one in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune suggest that the Wolves are targeting Gay, potentially to the tune of a five-year, $70 million deal. I'm skeptical. The Wolves are a smaller-market, lower-revenue team as well and just acquired two young, more affordable small-forward options in the form of #4 pick Wesley Johnson and trade acquisition Martell Webster, to go with a former lottery pick on the roster in Corey Brewer whose best position is also small forward. Given all that, spending an enormous amount on Gay doesn't seem to make a lot of sense. Then again, Minnesota's current regime hasn't exactly been easy to predict. Sign-and-trade fodder: Plentiful. Minnesota has more interesting sign-and-trade possibilities than any of the other likely Gay suitors. I think you can probably rule out the two most enticing assets: Kevin Love and the rights to Ricky Rubio. But there's plenty else that could be on the table. Any of the aforementioned small forwards could be of interest. Wesley Johnson was obviously a top prospect. Martell Webster, at 23, is shorter (6'7") and less athletic than Gay, but is a better three-point shooter and will be more affordable, at $4.8 million this season and a $5.3 team option next season. Corey Brewer rebounded from a rough first two years to get his career back on track last year. Brewer, 24, is not an adept scorer, but was a similar three-point shooter and has a chance to be a top-level defender in the Tayshaun Prince mold. He's on the books for $3.7 million next year and will be a restricted free agent the following summer pending a $5 million qualifying offer. I'm probably more intrigued by the idea of Brewer as long as you have enough scoring elsewhere in the lineup (which, with the potential of Xavier Henry and the ability of O.J. Mayo and Marc Gasol to take on more of an offensive load, the Grizzlies may have). Elsewhere, I don't see Jonny Flynn (not enough of an upgrade over Conley, if an upgrade at all) or Ramon Sessions (too well-compensated for the role the Griz would want him to play) as attractive options. And then there's Al Jefferson, whom the Grizzlies discussed with the Wolves (for Zach Randolph) before the draft. A mammoth sign-and-trade featuring Gay and Randolph heading to the Wolves for Jefferson, Webster/Brewer, and Sessions and/or a future pick, while far-fetched, might have some appeal for the Grizzlies, reorienting their line-up in a fruitful direction while putting them in better position to spend money elsewhere.
4. Los Angeles Clippers: The Clippers have somewhat of a hole at small forward and money to spend, but I'm doubtful about them making a play for Gay. They drafted a small forward at #8 in Al-Farouq Aminu and could bring back their own free agent, Travis Outlaw, for far cheaper to help man the position until Aminu is ready for major minutes. The Clippers also have lots of open roster spots to fill and signing Gay would eat up most of their cap space (estimated $16.8 million). I don't see it. Sign-and-trade fodder: The aforementioned Travis Outlaw, if the Clippers haven't renounced him, would be an ideal option. The Grizzlies have pursued Outlaw — a Mississippi native — in the past and, while not in the same league as a scorer, he would approximate Gay's athleticism and three-point shooting at fraction of the cost.
5. Miami Heat: The Heat have tons of money and no small forwards under contract (unless you consider Michael Beasley one), so if they don't get Lebron, you could see them looking at Gay. But there's a good chance they don't get that far down the free-agent pecking order. Sign-and-trade fodder: Two years after taking Michael Beasley #2 overall, and one year after apparently turning down the Griz offer of their #2 pick for him, the Miami Heat reportedly are having trouble get much value in return for Beasley. Would the Grizzlies still be interested? He's got off-court issues and still lacks a clear NBA position, but he can definitely score and has more upside than perhaps any other potential sign-and-trade option.