A new era of Memphis Grizzlies basketball dawned last weekend when the team played its first home game without Rudy Gay on the roster since spring of 2006. Gay leaves having played more games in a Grizzlies uniform than anyone in franchise history and while there are many angles — both short- and long-term — to the trade that sent Gay out of Memphis, the simple starting-lineup swap of Gay for veteran small forward Tayshaun Prince will have the most immediate impact.
The contrast, at least stylistically, could be dramatic, on both ends of the floor.
Gay, at 26, is one of the NBA's great athletes. But, while he's always been productive, Gay's combination of dribble-blindness, on-and-off motor, and erratic outside shooting and defensive focus has — to this point, at least — prevented him from reaching the all-star level for which he's long seemed destined.
Prince, who will turn 33 later this month, is a 10-year vet on the back end of what's been a fairly illustrious career for lifetime role player.
Physically, Prince is both longer and lighter, a slender 6'9” with one of the NBA's most eye-popping wingspans. Where Gay's game is predicated on leveraging his athletic advantages, Prince's game is all about the combination of length and savvy.
Prince's wingspan allows him to play well off shooters to deny drives and yet still contest jump shots. It allows him to handle the ball on the block while keeping it away from the prying hands of post defenders. It allows him to shoot over opponents, especially in the paint, even without Gay's ability to jump over them.
Prince's alleged defensive superiority to Gay has probably been overstated, a product of Prince's reputation with the Detroit Pistons' title team of yore and local fans' frustration with Gay's body language and wavering focus. In practice, this exchange is likely to be a push. Prince, whose defensive metrics have slipped in recent years, won't duplicate Gay's playmaking (blocks and steals) or even his too-rarely realized ability to match up athletically with some elite scorers. But he'll likely be a more steady team defender and won't be caught ball-watching and lose track of his assignment as often. Prince has been slightly worse on the boards than Gay, but as the second-best rebounding team in the NBA, the Grizzlies will be fine in that regard.
But the relationship between usage and efficiency in this trade-off will be tricky for the Grizzlies. As one of the league's slowest-paced teams, the Grizzlies often work deep into the shot clock, and will no longer be able to rely on Gay's shot-creation ability as a bailout option. As a result, it will be incumbent on the team to alter the offense in a way that it doesn't need to be bailed out as often.
Prince is a versatile scorer who does most of his work from mid-range (where he consistently shoots better than Gay), but can also work from the post and is a solid but not prolific three-point shooter — something that's not likely to change, as much as the Grizzlies may need more three-point shooting to space the floor around Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. Prince won't score as much as Gay did, but the team can reasonably hope he'll score in the low double-digits with more efficiency while helping facilitate better shots for others.
And that's the biggest advantage Prince will have over Gay. Prince is both a better passer and less turnover-prone. In his career, including this season, Prince has almost always had more than twice as many assists as turnovers. Gay's usually struggled to break even. Where the offense would often stagnate with the ball in Gay's hands, Prince can be expected to make quicker, more sound decisions. Prince has spent his career using his versatility to be a positive-outcome player as a third or fourth option, and you could see this materialize instantly in his debut against the Wizards last Friday night.
On the floor with Randolph, who likes to operate on the block, Prince worked from the wing, playing off Randolph with deft post-entry passes and reliable mid-range shooting. On the floor with Darrell Arthur, who's best from the top of the key, Prince himself went into the post, drew a double-team and kicked it out to Arthur for an open shot.
Prince won't resemble a “star” like Gay did. But he'll blend, facilitate, and foster better ball-movement. It's probably not an accident that, in Prince's pick-up-game-like debut, the Grizzlies had five players notch three or more assists.
In truth, Gay's production has not correlated strongly with team success this season. That's been more dependent on the play of the point guards and the post players and the team's three-point shooting overall. And that was likely to be the case going forward, trade or not. If Prince's divergent, more team-oriented style can enable others to perform better, that will mean much more than his own stat line.
A shorter version of this column appears in the February 7th print edition of The Memphis Flyer.
In His Words
I caught up with Prince yesterday, after his second day of practice with the team, to talk about how he's fitting in with this new teammates. A few tidbits from that conversation:
On fitting in: “When you've got two bigs you can play off of and a point guard who's good at setting people up it helps tremendously. I'm not expecting the chemistry to work overnight, but I feel in a good rhythm with those guys in terms of their basketball IQ and how they've communicated with me.”
On using his versatility to set up teammates in different ways: “It's just about making reads. I think coach understood who I was on the floor with to make the right play calls. Knowing that [Arthur] can knock down the 15-17 footer consistently, I might post up a little bit more when he's out there to try to get him some good looks. It's just all about trying to incorporate how I play with the new guys.”
On three-point shooting: “I'm not a guy who shoots three or four attempts a game, unless I'm just dead open. If I'm wide open, I will pull it, but I'm just not a guy who comes down and looks to take threes. If it's there, I'll take it.”
Around the Web
There's been so much written about the Grizzlies in the last week, but here are a couple of particularly good selections specifically about Prince.
The various writers for the Pistons' blog Detroit Bad Boys offer Grizzlies fans a primer on Prince, and fans will be encouraged by what they have to say.
Kelly Dwyer, of Yahoo's Ball Don't Lie blog, writes a nice piece in honor of Prince's career in Detroit.
On the Radio:
I probably don't promote my weekly appearances on The Chris Vernon Show enough here, but Verno and I had a particularly substantive conversation about the Rudy Gay trade on the show last Thursday, spending the whole hour on the topic. If you missed it, you can listen to it here.