With roughly six weeks to go before this season's NBA trade deadline, the Memphis Grizzlies face an increasingly public decision: Deal now or deal later?
That's the real decision, because, while there's a good discussion to be had about who the Grizzlies should trade and when, it's almost certain that a major deal of some kind will happen in 2013.
Right now, the Grizzlies' player payroll is about $4 million over the league's luxury tax line of $70.3 million, which currently comes with a dollar for dollar penalty. Next season, with the threshold unlikely to change much, they'll be at $65 million with just seven players, 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 the tax this season is an option, doing so next year — when initial tax rates are set to rise by 50 percent under the league's 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.
That's the reality the team's new ownership inherited. And when a deal happens — whether in the next month or later this summer, whether it's Rudy Gay or someone else — don't let anyone tell you that Michael Heisley wouldn't have done it. An eventual tax-driven trade became inevitable when Gay and Zach Randolph both signed their near-max extensions and Marc Gasol followed with his. The Grizzlies were always going to have to trade to clean up the payroll before next season, regardless of ownership.
When a deal happens, you can count out Gasol, whose contract is smaller than Gay's or Randolph's and whose value is more difficult to replicate. And count out Mike 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. You can make the case for dealing Randolph based on the four-to-six-year age difference between him and the other three players, but the piece to move will almost certainly be Gay, who is less central to the team's style and identity and also likely to fetch better return.
There's risk in dealing a player of Gay's caliber in-season, with the Grizzlies sitting in fourth place in a brutally tough Western conference and only 3.5 games out of first. But is the risk overstated?
Gay is the Grizzlies' leading scorer, but he has not been their best player this season. Gay's Player Efficiency Rating this season — a snapshot measure of overall production that just happens to have been devised by new Grizzlies executive John Hollinger — is 15.0, exactly league average and fifth best on this team. His play has also not correlated strongly to team success. A clearer indicator has been Conley (14 points, 45% shooting, 2 turnovers in wins; 11 points, 34% shooting, 3.6 turnovers in losses) and three-point shooting overall (39% on 15 attempts in wins, 29% on 13.5 attempts in losses). Tuesday night in Sacramento, Gay struggled to 8 points on 2-10 shooting, and — with Conley playing well and three-pointers dropping — the team still had its best offensive performance in more than a month.
The return on any Gay trade, especially given the need to take back less in future salary obligations, is likely to surprise and disappoint many fans. But a deal that improves the team's overall ball-handling and outside shooting — both weaknesses of Gay's more slashing/post-up/transition-oriented game — around the Gasol/Randolph post foundation could improve an average offense without seriously impacting the team's already elite defense and rebounding.
Given the team's place in the playoff hunt, the Grizzlies can't — or, at least, shouldn't — deal in-season if they don't legitimately consider it a lateral move and can't sell that notion to fans. But a deal that meets that criteria while also cleaning up payroll may well be out there. If it is, expect a move.
Read more on a potential trade at Beyond the Arc, the Flyer's Grizzlies blog, at memphisflyer.com/blogs/beyondthearc.