When the long-speculated Rudy Gay trade finally became a reality for the Memphis Grizzlies, there was a large rift in the reactions of the NBA community.
Some praised the move as an effective salary-slash that didn’t cut too close to Memphis’ core as to hurt their playoff chances significantly. Others – and I’ll openly admit I fell squarely into this group – believed new ownership had overtaken a small market team, seen themselves with too large of a payroll, and punted a good season to put themselves in a better spot down the road.
At first, things looked as such: The Grizzlies first couple of games were reminiscent of Vancouver; despondent losses that made some wonder if this team had suddenly given up. There were rumblings of malcontent from Lionel Hollins, and Robert Pera – in his first media appearance as owner – made some vague, uneducated remarks that reinforced his reluctance to front as a basketball strategist, and did little to quell the skepticism behind his motives.
But then suddenly something pretty unexpected happened: Memphis started rolling out W after W, to the tune of eight in a row. Their ever-solid defense still crippling teams, they were actually scoring more efficiently and winning 100+ point games. When the streak finally ended, it took four full quarters of effort at home from a Miami team that was a single loss and a Harlem Shake video away from a perfect February.
While the Grizzlies’ recent success certainly isn’t indicative of a return to their early-season form, it lends credence to the idea that they could still be a threat in the West. Memphis may have lost their best pure scorer in Gay, but they also lost a ball-dominator who didn’t quite fit the scheme of their ideal attack (that being their low-post oriented grind with a dash of suffocating transition D from the ’11 Playoffs; the one they never really got a chance to fit Gay into last year, and seemed to be doing well with this season pre-rumors).
While Rudy’s now blossoming on a team that needed a go-to scorer and happily gave him the green light, what remains to be seen is if the void left by his absence can be consistently filled by his teammates against top opposition; when a team like Miami ramps up the D to #GNG levels in the 4th of a close game, will Memphis be too reliant on their low-post tandem? It was my main concern when Gay was traded, and it remains, despite the recent success, and Tayshaun Prince’s mild resurrection.
Yes, Gay was a largely inefficient offensive player; he was dribble-heavy, shot a lot of long-range two pointers and for his volume didn’t hit them at a great clip. What he did do was impose a looming threat on opposing defenses; one that was capable of getting hot at any time and beginning to burn them from pretty much anywhere on the floor, constant insurance against them jamming the post on Z-Bo and Gasol the Greater.
Memphis is aiming to make up for that through ball movement and shot selection, and while it’s worked in a small sample against largely subpar opposition, it will be a weapon of inferior caliber in the Playoffs. They’ll be pitted not only against better teams, but more familiar foes that will have game after game to become more familiar with their predictable offensive rotations and preferences, constantly eroding what edge the Grizz may have. And when the game’s on the line, and they need a bucket, every coach, announcer, and fan in the NBA will generally know where the ball’s going.
It worked without Gay in 2011, but that was then. Shane Battier was still a Grizzly, OJ Mayo hadn’t fully begun his descent into the organization’s doghouse, and Greivis Vasquez was providing inspiring play as a rookie backup point guard. This current roster lacks the perimeter snipers that allowed their attack to flourish, and despite the huge progress made by Mike Conley it’s yet to be seen if he can mandate the perimeter-checking he might have to for Memphis to be anything more than a Dark Horse wannabe.
The Grizzlies’ recent winning streak was celebrated, but from a realistic point of view, they beat the teams they’re better than, and didn’t find ways to beat the one that they’re not, something they seemed all too capable of doing in November. This team obviously hasn’t given up, and still has the ability to make a run deep into the postseason, but the jury should be out on the Gay trade until we see how that run plays out, and just what this team’s capable of.