While the 2012-13 season couldn’t have started any better for the Memphis Grizzlies, the past few weeks have been a somewhat sobering wake-up call amid the early success.
Easily winnable games have been blundered, the Grizz have fallen from first to fourth in the West, and obscure-turned-mainstream ESPN statistician/columnist John Hollinger was hired as VP of Basketball Operations, the first sign that the team’s new ownership was taking things in another direction.
That direction became more apparent today, with Yahoo! Sports reporting that the Grizzlies are knee-deep in trade talks with the Phoenix Suns, centering around the evacuation of Rudy Gay and the $37 million he’ll be owed over the next two seasons. Granted, a steep price for an All Star-esque second scoring option who selectively commits himself on defense, but Memphis has to consider their current situation, and whether they’d be giving up too much equity in a playoff run to salary-dump Gay.
Though their new owners clearly have doubts about this team’s ability to chase a title on paper, there’s much evidence to support the contrary: though they lack the superstar standards of Miami and OKC, they boast one of the League’s most talented starting 5’s, with a bench that’s rounding into form and still very plausibly improvable (a Speights or Arthur/Selby/pick package could net less redundant returns).
They’ve made a deep playoff run before (albeit without Gay, but with OJ Mayo still around to cushion the scoring), playing a suffocating style of team defense that made even finely-tuned offensive machines like the Spurs and Thunder look like nervous crack-fiends with the rock, and from a statistical perspective, it’s only gotten better. This defensive edge is only compounded in the postseason, when action slows and teams become more familiar, and it bodes extremely well for Memphis that their squad’s core has spent several years together.
This season, they’ve played their best ball in the biggest games, rarely losing to top competition in close battles and (early-season factor noted) frequently handing them a sound beatdown. Bricks against inferior teams like Phoenix, Indiana, Portland and Philadelphia are what has cost Memphis, and even amidst what seemed like a slump, they’re still holding homecourt in the first round, and strike admitted fear into any higher-seeded team they’d yield it to.
So yes, Gay is likely overpaid, and the safe long-term play is probably to get him off the books, but there’s a fair bit of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” logic occurring here.
The obvious converse to this point is that not only did Memphis perform better without Gay in the playoffs, but that the NBA, like any other business, depends on getting the best from your investment, and that a small-market team has to be creative to compete with the likes of the Lakers (at least in terms of payroll), which would certainly not describe giving $19mil to someone who’s never made an All-Star, let alone All-NBA team. Those numbers don’t add up.
The statistical “what would we lose versus what could we make up for” calculations are precisely what Memphis hired Hollinger for, but stats can only go so far into explaining success. It comes from synergies between teammates; that whole “chemistry” thing, the familiarities from playing with each other night in and night out, bonds forged from chasing a common goal together, celebrating the wins, suffering through the losses, knowing what each other needs and when. That’s the type of team mentality the Grizzlies have bred; it’s what allowed them to perform above the sum of their parts when they’ve needed to, and it’s what’s endeared them to their fans.
The Hollinger hiring – and immediate subsequent suggestion that trading Gay for Jared Dudley somehow makes this a better basketball team –signals that Memphis’ new owners may not fully grasp this concept. This may seem highly hypocritical since I was calling for Gay to be traded in this very column last summer, but this season their improved offensive flow has made them a much more legitimate threat; rather than Gay and Randolph confusedly juggling the offensive load, they’re taking turns jabbing and hooking as the defense dictates, with Conley distributing the attack more confidently.
The bottom line is that Gay’s value to this team is probably more than it is on the trade market, regardless if he’s overpaid. Not many teams want him at his price, and those that do likely don’t have a hell of a lot to offer (hence why Memphis is in talks with Phoenix about Jared Dudley). The Grizzlies’ new ownership might feel they’re saving a few (million) dollars by shedding him, and even if they were lowballed, they’d be right. But again, consider the situation and what they’d be giving up.
If Memphis’ front office thinks there’s no way they can contend for a title this year, they’re wrong. And if they think they have to trade Rudy Gay to make things better, they’re mistaken.