On and off for the last week, I've been playing with ESPN.com's NBA Trade Machine, looking for potential scenarios that might work in the event the Grizzlies decide to move Rudy Gay this season. I've been banking these ideas for use sometime closer to the trade deadline, waiting to see if there was a stronger indication that a deal was likely.
But, on midday Friday, Zach Lowe at Grantland.com cracked the shell on this topic, confirming what I already half knew and fully assumed — that the team was having at least exploratory talks on the subject of a potential Gay deal — and going through a bunch of possible deals.
Unsurprisingly, there's a lot of overlap between my scenarios and the ones Lowe put out: Anyone who understands the league and how it works and has a feel for what the Grizzlies want and can reasonably expect in return and then starts looking for potential deals is going to come up with a lot of the same stuff. But there are teams he takes seriously that I don't (Boston) and teams he doesn't include that I take very seriously (Phoenix).
Made-up trades are fun and, to a degree, instructive. But before that trade-machine chaos, let's establish why this is an issue now and what the realistic parameters are:
Why a Deal is Probably Inevitable: There's a good discussion to be had about who the Grizzlies should trade and when they should trade them — a discussion that's almost certainly ongoing inside the Grizzlies' front-office — but it's almost certain that a major deal of some kind will happen in 2013.
Right now, the Grizzlies are about $4 million over the league's luxury tax line, which is $70.3 million. In 2013-2014, with the line unlikely to change much, they'll have $58.5 million just in the core four of Gay, Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol, and Mike Conley. Add in guaranteed deals for Quincy Pondexter, Darrell Arthur, and Tony Wroten and it's over $65 million, and that's without dealing with Tony Allen's free agency or potential player options from Jerryd Bayless or Marreese Speights.
While standing pat and paying tax this season is an option, doing so next year — when initial tax rates are set to rise by 50% under the new collective bargaining agreement — has never really been one. And the current payroll trajectory makes it all but impossible to field a team without exceeding the tax.
One unavoidable talking point that needs to be corrected before it gets going is the idea that an inevitable future deal is a product of new ownership. It may be true that the new group's pockets aren't as deep as Michael Heisley's. And it may be true that the new group will be more likely than Heisley to make an in-season move rather than wait until summer. It's almost certainly true that the new group will evaluate and value players differently (more on that in a minute). But an eventual tax-driven trade became inevitable when Gay and Randolph both signed their near-max extensions and Gasol followed with his. It was easy for Heisley, after loudly insisting in the spring that his team would not exceed the tax, to reverse course and allow payroll to rise past that level to begin the season; by that point, he knew he would be unlikely to receive the bill. And perhaps Heisley would have allowed the team to remain above the tax this season, as the new group still might. But the Grizzlies were/are going to make a move to clean up the payroll before next season, regardless of ownership. Any suggestion to the contrary will be nonsense.
The Rudy Gay Rationale: If a deal has to happen, does Rudy Gay have to be the contract to go or is there an argument to be made for another player? Count out Gasol, whose contract is smaller and whose value is more difficult to replicate. And count out Conley, whose contract is so much smaller that dealing him wouldn't really address the problem. Instead, this has to come down to a question of Gay or Randolph.
There is a viable argument for keeping Gay and dealing Randolph, and it's based on age: Conley is 25. Gay is 26. Gasol is 27. Randolph is 31. And last season, with Randolph — and Darrell Arthur — unavailable or limited all season, a team built around a core of Gasol-Gay-Conley got a #4 seed in the West, a spot better than where this year's team currently stands. Instead of having $16 million sunk into power forwards that weren't playing, what if the same team had $8 million invested in a smartly chosen, cost-effective role player or two? There's ample reason to believe that you can build a perennial playoff team around a Gasol-Gay-Conley core, and one that will have more longevity than a team built around a Gasol-Randolph-Conley core.
The counterargument for dealing Gay, and one I've settled on, is built on three things:
Upside: Gay is younger but Randolph is better, and the Randolph-Gasol combination is the core of this team's identity and ability to compete in the post-season. Keeping Gay may allow you to stay good for longer, but keeping Randolph gives you a better chance of making noise in the playoffs.
Trade Value: Conversely, Gay, because he's younger and lacks the off-court baggage that still impacts Randolph's asset value, will probably fetch better return.
Fan Appeal: I don't want to make too much of this, because Gay has plenty of fans even if his detractors are pretty loud on Twitter. But Randolph might be the most popular player in franchise history. Trading Gay will be an easier PR move than trading Randolph.
I do also think the ownership and front office changes make Gay the (even) more likely one to be dealt. The new regime didn't acquire Gay and didn't re-sign him, though that's true of the entire roster. More importantly, the new regime, with John Hollinger on board, will use more data-driven evaluation. And Gay, for all his athleticism and highlight potential, has never been as efficient a producer as you'd hope. He's never topped 18 on Hollinger's Player Efficiency Rating (PER), a measure in which league-average is set to 15, and, this season, he's currently at 15.38. And Gay, unlike a defensive specialist such as Tony Allen, is not the type of player the stat tends to undervalue.
Now or Later?: Getting under the tax this season would be desirable, but I don't think that's going to be the driving consideration. One issue will be the quality of deals available now vs. what decision-makers think would be available next summer. Another will be the status and trajectory of this year's team and the sense of how a deal would impact that status and trajectory.
The team's recent slide from the West's elite into the second-tier of the playoff race makes a deal more likely, for a couple of reasons.
There's less risk now: If the Grizzlies were still playing at that early 12-2 pace and looking like a real title contender, there's no way Robert Pera and Jason Levien would mess with it. They'd take the tax hit this season and take their best shot. There's less incentive to pay the tax for a second-tier playoff team.
At the same time, the team's slide suggests a deal now could also have more potential reward. Even with Gay, the Grizzlies currently have the NBA's 19th ranked offense and are 29th in three-point attempts. A shift toward a more productive and prolific three-point attack around the team's Gasol-Randolph post game might boost the offense enough that, in concert with already elite defense, the Grizzlies can feel like a contender again. Gay is an erratic three-point shooter — it's probably no coincidence that the team's 12-1 November was one of Gay's best three-point shooting months while the 7-7 December was one in which he shot poorly from long-range — who is at his best from 15-feet and in, the same space in which Gasol and Randolph operate.
(It warrants saying that this would require a shift in strategy, not just personnel; the Grizzlies are currently 15th in three-point percentage while 29th in attempts, so there's already a gap to close.)
The Grizzlies are unlikely to get an individual player back comparable to Gay, especially given the need to take back less salary for next season. And Gay's large contract negatively impacts his value. This is why a lot of fans are going to be surprised and disappointed when a trade does happen, whether in the coming weeks or in the next off-season.
But could adding two significant three-point threats and/or true perimeter shot creators of lesser overall value actually make the team better? Or at least just as good?
I think that's a real possibility and think that's the kind of deal for which the team will be looking.
For the Grizzlies to make a deal in-season, rather than waiting until this summer, it has to be one that they can convince themselves — and at least try to convince fans — has a good chance to at least be a lateral move in the near term. All of the following suggestions are ones that I think meet all the criteria. (Added note: It's assumed that the Grizzlies would seek draft considerations in most of these deals.)
TOP FIVE FITS:
1. Milwaukee Bucks: A Rudy Gay-Monta Ellis trade has been bandied about for literally years now. I never liked the notion much on basketball terms; I think Gay is the superior all-around player and don't think a Conley-Ellis backcourt really works. But, at this point, financial concerns are going to be the driver of any deal. Ellis is on the books for a reasonable $11 million and would add a much needed scorer and creator off the bench. He's not the shooter the Grizzlies need and his defense is problematic (though the Grizzlies are good enough as a team to deal with that), but he's good value.
Potential problems: Would Ellis, who apparently thinks he's Dwyane Wade, be willing to embrace the Jason Terry/Manu Ginobili super-sub role for what is essentially his hometown team? And he's got a player option for next season that he's probably likely to decline, meaning the Grizzlies could lose him this summer.
Another reason Milwaukee works is that a deal could also include Mike Dunleavy, who would give the Grizzlies a good short-term shooter to replace Gay at the three or Tobias Harris, who would give them a promising young long-term solution there. Or, in my preferred scenario — here — even both. (You could also include Jerryd Bayless instead of Ellington in that deal.)
2. Sacramento Kings: The Kings have a big hole at small forward, need a shake-up, and have plenty of interesting pieces that can be put together in various scenarios. That's the upside of dealing with Sac. The downside? The two primary targets — Marcus Thornton and Tyreke Evans — both have injury issues at the moment, and is recent cheapskate Sacramento really going to take on Gay's contract?
But Thornton — nickname “Buckets” — is a talented shooter/scorer on a reasonable contract who might make a good sixth-man for the Grizzlies. Evans isn't an obvious fit, but is an intriguing rehab candidate who would give the Grizzlies another creator on the perimeter and has legit star potential. He'll be a free agent this summer and whatever he merits on the market it will be less than what Gay's being paid. There's also Francisco Garcia, a decent wing role player on what's essentially an expiring contract. Any combination of two of those three players — like this or this — would be the foundation of a workable deal.
3. Phoenix Suns: I don't know if Phoenix is interested in Rudy Gay or would be willing to take on his contract, but I don't know the answer to that question right now about most teams. I like Phoenix as a potential destination because they're roughly $6.5 million under the cap and could really use a foundational player on the wing to pair with point guard Goran Dragic.
Dealing with Phoenix straight-up is a little difficult because their best trade asset — center Marcin Gortat — is someone the Grizzlies don't need and the asset they'd most want to move — Michael Beasley — is someone I'd hope the Grizzlies wouldn't take.
My best stab at a one-on-one deal with the Suns — here — would exchange Gay and throw-in Josh Selby for Jared Dudley, Shannon Brown, and Wesley Johnson's expiring contract. This would immediately get the Grizzlies under the tax, give the team a bargain small forward to replace Gay (and one who's a better outside shooter and at least as good a defender), and add another cost-effective role player in Brown. Preferably some kind of protected first-round pick would also be included but I don't know that the Suns would be willing to take on so much more salary and give a pick.
The combo of Dudley and major tax savings makes Phoenix a desirable trading partner, but better deals could come via a three-way (or, in one crackpot scenario I devised, a four-way) deal involving Gortat, who is underachieving in Phoenix and has been rumored to be on the market. I've got a few of these.
My favorite — here — would rope in the Magic and bring back Dudley and J.J. Redick, giving the Grizzlies cost-effective three-point shooters at both wing spots while getting them very close to the tax line now and setting them up financially for next season. This is my favorite trade of all the ones I've come up with, even without a draft pick involved. Would the Magic want Gortat with as well as young center Nikola Vucevic is playing? I'd think maybe. Vucevic can't play 48 minutes and Gortat is a good buy-low right now for anyone who can fit him into their rotation, which is just about anyone.
One I like just as much would include Atlanta — which could also be a Gay destination — instead of Orlando. The Hawks have been thought to have an interest in bringing in a better true center to allow Al Horford to play his more natural power forward position. Gortat would be a good fit in Atlanta and the Hawks have a surfeit of ballhandlers and shooters. Lou Williams — who's on a good multi-year contract and would add another shot creator on the perimeter — would be a desired target, though sharpshooter Kyle Korver would also be an option. Something like this.
More likely is a three-teamer with the Celtics, who clearly need to deal for a big. This trade — here — would pair Courtney Lee and Dudley, along with cheap role player P.J. Tucker, while getting the Grizzlies under the tax and, presumably, bringing back a pick from Boston.
One last one: The Bobcats have been talked about as a potential landing spot for Demarcus Cousins. Would they be interested in Gortat instead? If so, including them in a three-teamer — here — might net the Grizzlies Gerald Henderson to go with Dudley, using the expiring contract of DaSagna Diop to make the pieces fit. I like this least of the various Phoenix options.
4. Atlanta Hawks: The Grizzlies could also deal directly with the Hawks. The real question here is whether Atlanta would really be interested. Adding Gay to a core of Jeff Teague-Josh Smith-Horford on a team that's already #3 in the East would be a risky but bold move, making a Conference Finals push now and with Gay able to take Smith's place in the event Smith leaves or is dealt this summer. And the Hawks have plenty of interesting tradable pieces — expiring point guard Devin Harris, expiring shooters Korver and Anthony Morrow, and Memphis-connected sixth-man scorer Williams. Pairing Harris with one of the other three — like here — would probably be the most likely scenario.
My strong preference would be to construct a deal — this would work — that would bring back both Williams and either Korver or Morrow. That deal would force the Grizzlies to play smaller on the perimeter (though they can use Darrell Arthur at the three if they want to go big), but there would be more shooting and playmaking, it would save several million on the tax this season, and would clear up the payroll heading into the summer, with Williams as a nice longterm sixth man.
5. Washington Wizards: Despite their terrible start there have been suggestions that the Wizards are still interested in adding veterans to accelerate their rebuild. If so, a Rudy Gay homecoming to run with a returning John Wall would make tons of sense. Are they willing to move off rookie shooter Bradly Beal to make that happen? I doubt it, but if so this — here — is an easy one to pull off.
INTRIGUING BUT UNTENABLE:
1. New Orleans Hornets: A lot of regular readers and Chris Vernon Show listeners know I've long been enamored with the idea of a Rudy Gay-Eric Gordon deal — like this — but the reality is that it probably doesn't bring down payroll enough to be manageable. (And that's assuming the Hornets would be interested, which I think is a big assumption.)
2. Denver Nuggets: I wouldn't put much stock in the idea of Andre Iguodala for Gay, which doesn't make sense for the Nuggets. More likely here is a deal for Danilo Gallinari, a good player on a multi-year deal several million dollars less per year than Gay. If Denver would do Gallinari and Corey Brewer for Gay, I'd do it, but I seriously doubt they would be willing. Instead, the only realistic deal — here — would seem to require the Grizzlies to also take back the multi-year contract of Wilson Chandler, and that's probably just too much salary coming back.
LONGSHOTS WORTH A LOOK:
In very rough descending order of reasonableness/attractiveness:
Orlando Magic: The Magic are starting over and might be interested in adding a high-profile anchor player like Gay. They also have a soon-to-be-free-agent shooter in J.J. Redick who would be a great fit for the Grizzlies. There's not an obvious deal here, though. You could pair Redick with point guard Jameer Nelson while sending Jerryd Bayless back to Orlando — here — but do the Grizzlies really want to be paying a back-up point guard $8 million for a couple more years?
Perhaps a more reasonable variation — here — would have the Grizzlies taking on the final two-plus years of currently injured forward Al Harrington's deal to get Redick and get very close to the tax line.
A third option with Orlando would be to pair Redick with Hedo Turkoglu, who has a bigger salary number this season than Nelson or Harrington but also has a $6 million buyout next season — here. But this deal would shave very little off the team's tax burden this season and, given financial constraints, sinking $6 million of payroll next season into someone not playing for you is also not desirable. Rookie small forward prospect Moe Harkless and/or a protected pick could be a part of any Orlando deal.
Minnesota Timberwolves: The Wolves, who courted Gay in his free agency, have a demonstrated past interest and Gay could make a nice wing piece in a core with Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio. They also have plenty of tradable assets. Still, I'm skeptical. Any deal — such as here — would likely include both Andrei Kirilenko and Derrick Williams. The notion of Kirilenko and Tony Allen together on the wing is kind of thrilling, but the lack of shooting/scoring really doesn't work, and Williams — a man without a position — is more of a theoretical asset at this point.
Houston Rockets: To me this comes down to one thing: Would the Rockets want Rudy Gay enough to part with Chandler Parsons and his awesome contract? I can't imagine the answer to that is yes, but if so, you can put whatever pu-pu platter of contracts you want with him — see here — and you've got a deal.
Without Parsons, Terrence Jones — who I think the Grizzlies like — becomes the centerpiece, and that's just not good enough. (Jones scenario here.)
Toronto Raptors: Toronto has shown an interest in Gay in the past, but there's no good deal to be made here. Any one-on-one deal — like this — would have to include the $10.5 million expiring contract of Jose Calderon, and that's too much for the Grizzlies to invest in a back-up point guard in a season when they're still trying to make some post-season noise. A better bet would probably be a multi-team trade with Calderon or even Andrea Bargnani going somewhere else, but I haven't come up with any good scenarios along those lines.
Philadelphia 76ers: On the surface, Philly seems like a good landing spot for Gay, and I've gotten tons of questions on Twitter about doing a deal for Memphis native Thaddeus Young. Young's an odd piece in a Gay trade because, on one hand, he doesn't really fit the Grizzlies roster; Young's best equipped to play as a small four and doesn't shoot it well enough to be what the Grizzlies really need at the three. On the other hand, his combo of production and reasonable contract almost make him too good to get. This trade — here — works, but I'm guessing anything with Philly would be a multi-teamer. I do quite like Dorell Wright as a potential Griz target in any scenario.
Utah Jazz: Any deal with the Jazz — like this one — would likely include Marvin Williams, a lesser small forward but one who makes half Gay's salary with one fewer year remaining. I would probably only do a one-on-one deal with Utah if Gordon Hayward were involved, which is unlikely.
Golden State Warriors: The Warriors have been the team most connected to Gay over the years and one source told me this summer that the two teams discussed a deal around draft time, with the Grizzlies ultimately insisting on Klay Thompson in order to consummate a trade. Now, though, with the Warriors off to such a great start, I'm guessing there's not as much interest. It's also a tougher deal to make now. Any trade would have to include one of two bad contracts — Andris Biedrins at $9 million or Richard Jefferson at $11 — on the books next season and complicated CBA rules would require contracts in this deal to be a closer match than in most others. For this reason, in addition to a bad contract and likely Griz target Harrison Barnes, a deal — like this one — would likely have to include one of the Warriors' two current sixth-man of the year candidates, Jarrett Jack or Carl Landry. Can't see it.
Cleveland Cavaliers: I don't think there's a one-on-one deal to be made with Cleveland. If they really wanted Gay and were willing to part with Anderson Varejao then that would open up all kinds of potential multi-team possibilities, but I'm too skeptical to spend the time concocting them.