Thursday, January 31, 2013

First Take: Questions and Answers on the Rudy Gay Deal

Posted by on Thu, Jan 31, 2013 at 1:39 AM

Rudy_Gay.jpg
Wednesday afternoon, the Grizzlies pulled off the most momentous transaction since jettisoning Pau Gasol, dealing current leading scorer and franchise games-played leader Rudy Gay, along with cult hero Hamed Haddadi, in a three-team deal that brought back young power forward Ed Davis and a 2013 second-round pick from the Toronto Raptors and small forwards Tayshaun Prince and Austin Daye from the Detroit Pistons.

There are copious angles to consider with this deal, but let's try — as quickly as possible — to give an initial reaction to many of them, in question-and-answer form. I'll wade into some of these issues more, with more time for reflection, in the coming days. But here's my first impression:

Is this really the best the Grizzlies could do?

Apparently so. While the Grizzlies gave up the highest-wattage player in the deal, they also checked most of the boxes on their wishlist:

Obtain a significant younger player on a good contract: Ed Davis, check.
Add a draft pick: Toronto's second-rounder this summer, likely to be in the 35-45 range, check.
Add a replacement small forward on a more manageable contract: Tayshaun Prince, check.
Clean up payroll to enable flexibility under the tax going forward: Check.

Even accomplishing all that, it's hard to get excited about the deal. Prince, at age 32, with three years left on his deal, is a less attractive wing replacement than seemed to be the realistic ideal. (My version of realistic ideal: Jared Dudley.) Davis, while a great get as a general asset, will likely have less of an immediate impact based on available minutes than a similarly productive wing player would have. And the second-rounder is not the kind of draft pick people — including the Grizzlies — had in mind.

The inability of the Grizzlies to get a first-rounder in a deal for Gay may suggest how much the confluence of Gay's massive contract and sluggish production has impacted his trade value. Toronto, it should be noted, could not have given the Grizzlies a first-round pick for 2013, since their pick this summer may be owed to Oklahoma City. As a result, a first-rounder from Toronto couldn't have come until at least 2015. But apparently the Grizzlies weren't able to get a first-rounder in any deals they considered otherwise viable.

Though there's definitely risk of further decline for Prince over the remaining years of his contract — I would fear the third year may have value only as an expiring-contract trade chip — this deal is preferable to what it would have been without a third team, which wouldn't have addressed replacing Gay at small forward.

It's been previously reported that Boston and Dallas were potential three-way partners. My understanding is the Boston option didn't amount to much given the Grizzlies' lack of interest in Jeff Green. With the Mavs, as previously reported, Vince Carter was a subject of discussion, while Shawn Marion was an untenable option because of a trade kicker that made him less attractive, financially, as a Gay replacement. Another team, to my knowledge, not mentioned that was a possibility was Utah, which would have put Marvin Williams in the Prince role if a deal had been reached.

If this was the best deal to be had now, why not wait until this summer?
The Grizzlies front office seemed concerned that Gay's player option in the last year of his deal could have limited potential trade partners this summer, though I have no way of really verifying that fear.

Regardless, with the deal on the table at least theoretically meeting all of the team's goals and with the prospect of deals getting worse this summer, they apparently felt like they had to act. A player of Gay's sub-All-Star production being owed more than $19 million, as Gay will be at the end of this contract, was a potentially crushing outcome the Grizzlies were eager to avoid.

The risk of making the deal now is in short-circuiting a potential deep playoff run this season, but the Grizzlies don't seem to think this deal downgrades their current prospects much, if at all. Or maybe they're just being hopeful. More on this in a minute.

This deal, alone, might have gotten the Grizzlies under the tax line, so, again, why was that Cleveland trade necessary?
Remember, the ostensible rationale for the salary dump deal with Cleveland last week was to get under the tax line and take pressure off a Gay deal, enabling the Grizzlies to get better offers and take back more short-term money if they made a deal at all. But is sure doesn't look like it worked out that way.

It's difficult to know if the Cavaliers trade impacted offers the Grizzlies were getting for Gay, but the Grizzlies certainly didn't use the short-term flexibility to make an even-money deal. (Though, they might note, there's no point in taking on salary just to take it on. What, you'd want Corey Maggette from Detroit if you don't have to take him?)

While yesterday's deal shaved $5.9 million off the team's payroll sheet in surface salary, that may not have actually been enough, by itself, to get beneath the tax, given some contract incentives that aren't included in most published salaries. (One of those — Zach Randolph for making the All-Star team — has already been met.) But it certainly would have least gotten the team close enough that a very minor deal could have gotten them the rest of the way.

Instead, my sense is that an underrated factor in the Cleveland deal was getting out from under Marreese Speights' larger-than-desired player option for next season, which might have limited flexibility next summer even with the Gay deal.

Is clearing that potential obligation — and opening up a rotation and roster spot for the superior Davis — worth the future first-round pick the Grizzlies gave up? I'm skeptical about that, but I reflexively hate parting with picks for financial reasons.

Are the Grizzlies done dealing before the February 21st trade deadline?
Not necessarily. The Grizzlies current roster is now roughly $8 million under the tax line. The Grizzlies obtained a $7.5 million trade exception in this deal and also have five — five! — smaller trade exceptions at their disposal. Even if the team were to sign current 10-day-contract find Chris Johnson to a rest-of-season deal, they'd still have two open roster spots. So the team is well set up to add a player using one of those exceptions if the right situation presented itself. Chances are there won't be another deal this season, but don't totally rule it out.

What's the quick scouting report on Tayshaun Prince?
I'll get into more detail on the new players before they suit up, but, at 32, Prince is past his prime but still a useful player, and will be quite the contrast to Gay. He'll be less dynamic on both ends of the floor, but more efficient in many ways. Prince won't duplicate Gay's blocks and steals, but should be a more attentive defender overall. Offensively, he won't score as much, but is a better spot-up shooter, ballhandler, and passer, and will be more effective without the ball. Prince is a 37% career three-point shooter and is shooting 43% this season, but, like the departed Wayne Ellington, doesn't shoot them enough. This season, only 1.2 of his average 10.8 attempts per game are from deep. He and the Grizzlies would both be helped if Prince could increase that ratio. There might also be some hope that, after years spent on a bad team following the championship level runs of his early seasons, being on a playoff team again could energize Prince some.

Ed Davis?
Davis is a really talented and productive young big man still on a cheap rookie deal for at least the next season and a half. He's averaged 14 points and 8 rebounds on 55% shooting over his past 10 games with Toronto and will be an upgrade over Speights. He's a good rebounder and shot-blocker who finishes around the rim and has a developing post game. Short-term, he'll complete arguably the best and deepest frontcourt in the league and allow the Grizzlies to play an interior-focused game consistently without overburdening Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol minutes-wise.

Austin Daye?
Daye is part of this deal for financial reasons and may or may not end up being an on-court factor. He does provide something the team hasn't had — a legit three-point shooter with length. The 6'11” combo forward is shooting 53% from three-point range in limited minutes, with nearly half of his attempts coming from beyond the arc. The rest of his game is far more limited, but he could be a useful situational player if nothing else.

When will we see these guys in Beale Street Blue?
Not tonight in Oklahoma City and probably not tomorrow night in Memphis. With Gay gone and Pondexter unavailable, these two games could get tricky. Look for Christapher Johnson, almost certain to get a second 10-day contract at the end of the week, to get a nice long look. Jon Leuer might even have to play real minutes.

Is it really possible that all of this amounts to a lateral move this season?

Maybe. Putting both trades together with an eye only on this season leaves you with these roster exchanges:

Rudy Gay ---> Tayshaun Prince
Downgrade on pure talent and production, but with hope that Prince's more consistent shooting, better ball movement, and more focused defense could mitigate the talent differential somewhat.

Marreese Speights ---> Ed Davis
Upgrade, perhaps significantly.

Hamed Hadaddi ---> Jon Leuer
Based on Leuer's solid rookie play for Milwaukee last season, a probable upgrade.

Wayne Ellington ---> Christapher Johnson
I've seen enough already. Upgrade.

Josh Selby ---> Austin Daye
Probably of negligible meaning, but upgrade.

Defensively, this is a push at absolute worst, and is probably an upgrade. Same on the boards.

Offensively, it's a huge question mark. The Grizzlies will lose the ability to rely on Gay's shot-creation skills, but the hope would be to alter their style of play in a way that makes them need those not-really-that-effective shot-creation skills less.

Previously, the three legs of the Grizzlies offense have been post-up plays for Gasol and Randolph, pick-and-roll with Gasol and Conley, and isolation plays for Gay. Removing the iso Gay component — the least efficient of the three — will put more emphasis on the other two. And if the Grizzlies can surround those post-ups and pick-and-rolls with better shooting — Prince, Johnson, a returning Quincy Pondexter — there's some hope that what was a bottom-third offense with Gay could actually get a little better.

Obviously, the Grizzlies lost some upside with Gay's departure, but that upside, outside of the occasional outburst like we saw in Philadelphia Monday night, was becoming increasingly theoretical. I always thought it was possible to deal Gay and get better offensively, but the team didn't add enough sure-fire shooting to convince me they've actually done that. So I'm taking a wait-and-see approach.

Who's in the spotlight now?
A lot of candidates, but I'll say Marc Gasol. Gasol's scoring has trended up since the previous trade and, with Gay out, he needs to emerge as the focus of the team's offense. That doesn't necessarily mean the team's leading scorer, but it does mean the player that the majority of the offense runs through. Part of this will be on coach Lionel Hollins to shift the team's emphasis in the wake of Gay's departure, but a lot of it will be on Gasol to increase his offensive production in response.

What's the impact this summer and beyond?
This is definitely a subject for further research. But the short answer is this: Based on my cap math, the Grizzlies should now have the flexibility to re-sign Tony Allen this summer and still be in the market — via a mid-level exception or trade exception — to add another rotation player. That's assuming a raise for Allen but something less than a doubling of his current $3.3 million. And that's with or without Jerryd Bayless taking his $2.9 million option, though what happens with Bayless will likely determine the extent of the exception the Grizzlies could use.

The team also has an interesting situation going forward with Davis and Arthur both potential starters down the road, enabling either of them to be used as a strong trade chip or for the team to entertain potential offers for Zach Randolph if they decided a quick rebuild around Conley/Gasol was the way to go.

Will Rudy Gay be better in Toronto?
Suffering through his worst season since his rookie year, Gay was likely to be better in Memphis. But, yes, I could seem him looking much better in Toronto, where the pace will be faster and the lane will be less clogged with big men. Playing with a stretch four like Andrea Bargnani may enable Gay to post more and get more catches around the paint, where he's more effective.

How much will we miss Hamed Haddadi?
Enormously. But you can't hold on to entertaining end-of-the-bench faves forever, and Hadaddi's Grizzlies run had already lasted much longer than ever seemed likely.

Final snap judgement?
The Grizzlies added much more depth and roster flexibility both now and heading into summer, but the short-term impact on the team's offense and playoff upside is a big, very open question. I think these moves are totally rational given all the factors in play, but worry they didn't do quite enough to preserve their puncher's chance at being a playoff spoiler this spring.

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