News broke on Monday that the Grizzlies were entertaining trade offers for Rudy Gay from around the league, trying to gauge what they might get in return for their talented swingman. They’ve already been linked to Phoenix and Golden State, as well as Sacramento in regards to either Gay or possibly Zach Randolph.
Fans usually don’t like to hear that one of their starters is being shopped, much less that two of them could be. Z-Bo is an unquestioned fan favorite, a guy that has claimed Memphis as his secondary hometown, and the Bluff City has responded in kind to the once-troubled double-double machine.
Their reception to Rudy Gay has always been a little more reserved though. To begin with, in order to acquire him on draft night, the Grizzlies had to part with fan favorite (and future mayoral candidate), Shane Battier. That put a certain level of expectations and pressure on him at the outset. During the first few years of his NBA career, Gay didn’t see any team success at all, as the team floundered after making the postseason 3 straight years and then didn’t top 25 wins during his first 3 years in the league. His stats were good, but the team wasn’t going anywhere with him as the #1 option. He was supremely talented, but seemed to lack the drive that true superstars have — and the fans and media began calling him out on that, even as they waited for O.J. Mayo to become that guy.
We know how the Mayo scenario played out now. But what of Rudy Gay? He signed the max-level extension that was offered him (as anyone would have) but has never really improved upon his level of play. The argument can be made that with the growth of Marc Gasol and Mike Conley, and the resurgence of Zach Randolph as a primary option, that Rudy’s stats haven’t changed because he’s not the top dog. I can buy that. Put him on the Wizards or Bobcats, and he’s probably scoring 25-28 points a night. However, it’s difficult to make a case for him having improved as a player.
Or is it? He was on his way to a career year in the 2010-11 season with new highs in FG%, 3PT%, FT%, STL, REB, and AST. His ball-handling, long an issue worthy of criticism, was still suspect, but he had become a better all-around player. Then he went down with a shoulder injury in February as the Grizzlies were making a push for the playoffs. He missed the rest of the season and that exciting postseason, which is when the talk began swirling around a new topic: “Are the Grizzlies better without Rudy Gay?”
I dismissed that talk at the time, and continue to do so, even as some people look to make him the scapegoat for all that is wrong whenever the team loses a game or sees a second half lead dissipate. Despite not being at the same level as Kevin Durant, LeBron James, or even the improved Carmelo Anthony, Rudy Gay is still a talented SF who does lots of things well on the basketball court. 17.8 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 2.5 apg, 1.5 spg — nothing to sneeze at, although is 3-point shooting hasn’t been the same since his injury.
However, the only number that his detractors want to bring up is $82 million – the amount of the 5-year contract he signed back in July 2010 after the Grizzlies chose to let him go to restricted free agency, rather than upping their offer from $50 million to $65 million (Rudy and his agent’s asking price) the summer before. And if they had made that deal, then we wouldn’t be having this conversation right now because the team probably wouldn’t be up against the luxury tax.
You see, that’s what all of this trade talk is about: money.
The Grizzlies want to shed $4 million in salary to avoid paying the luxury tax. It’s why Rudy Gay is likely to be traded before the start of next season. It’s why Zach Randolph is now popping up in trade rumors as the front office begins getting interest from around the league and tries to figure out how to get the most value while still getting back talent and cap space. It’s why Tony Allen, the Grindfather himself, might not be in Memphis next year as he becomes a free agent this summer.
It’s not about talent or potential or being a fan favorite or having a killer instinct. Fans talk about that kind of thing, but it isn’t likely to factor into the conversations that Robert Pera, Jason Levien, Chris Wallace, and John Hollinger are having about trade proposals. They are looking at cold, hard, contract figures. And then they look at how well the talent attached to those numbers will help the Grizzlies ascend to the next level. Based on that, they will either make a deal in the next month or will wait until the offseason to make a move.
Make no mistake about it — this is not a Pau Gasol-level salary dump this time around. This front office isn’t looking to blow it up and start over. They won’t trade Rudy and Zach unless it’s for a Superstar (note the capital “S”). No, they want to get better. Better talent, better balance, better cap numbers. But to do that, someone has to be moved. In all likelihood, that someone wears a Beale Street Blue #22 jersey right now. Because money talks — and the guy with the biggest contract is the loudest voice in the room as a result.