Three teams converged to make a deal and brought different priorities to the table. One team clearly wanted to add talent. The others wanted to subtract salaries. Welcome to the new reality in the NBA, where improving your team doesn't necessarily mean improving your record.
When Rudy Gay, a borderline All-Star (at best) making Hall of Fame money, changed hands from Memphis to Toronto via Detroit, the Raptors got better while the Pistons and Grizzlies got flexible. For the most part, everyone got what they wanted. Whether everyone won, well, that depends on what comes next.
Can the Grizzlies, a top-four team in the West, keep winning big despite losing their best scorer?
Can the Pistons buy or trade for a decent talent or two this summer with their millions?
Can the Raptors gain any credibility, and maybe a winning streak, with Gay?
Deals are made for different reasons, and what makes this unique isn't that it qualified as a blockbuster, because it wasn't. Gay is freakishly athletic, and if he's feeling it, he can drop 35 points on anyone. But he's never been an All-Star, didn't make the Olympic cut and is now shooting 40 percent. The other pieces – Tayshaun Prince, Jose Calderon, Ed Davis, etc. – all have pluses and minuses that tend to equal themselves out.
No, this deal was unique because the three teams involved are all in different stages of development. The Grizzlies have a rather high ceiling this year and could reach the West finals. The Pistons are furiously unloading salary in order to afford a game-changer either in a trade or through free agency, and also to pay one of their young up-and-comers, Greg Monroe, who is due for an extension this fall. The Raptors are just desperate for a proven veteran who can, if nothing else, keep them from irrelevancy.
In another three weeks, we could see dozens of trades like this as the league inches toward the deadline, all made for dozens of reasons. Here in the new salary cap age, where fiscal responsibility has never been more important, even contenders will take a hard look at the bottom line, maybe even prioritize it over the ability to win games in the short-term. It's a game of survival, both in the standings and in the books, a game that never hears a final buzzer.
Here's a look at the thinking of the Pistons, Grizzlies and Raptors and where they stand, post-trade:
Prince was the last shred of evidence from the 2004 championship team and truthfully should've been dealt at least two years ago. He had no business being in Detroit once the franchise went downhill. His attitude turned sour, and he had a few run-ins with his coaches. He wasn't the kind of influence the Pistons wanted around their younger players, but it wasn't his fault. Again, at this stage of his career, he didn't belong in Detroit.
So the Pistons finally dumped him and his remaining $15 million, along with role player Austin Daye as a throw-in, and now have roughly $35 million for next summer/season. They took Jose Calderon from the Raptors but his deal is up this summer and there's a chance Detroit can re-route him before the trade deadline anyway. It's a win-win for the Pistons only if Joe Dumars is smarter with his money than he was the last time, when he gave it to Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva four years ago. That's why they're in this mess.
They've got two building blocks in Monroe, a solid if unorthodox at times big man with major upside, and Andre Drummond, who's having an impressive yet raw rookie season. The jury is still out on Brandon Knight and whether he's a true point guard. They'll add a lottery pick this summer, and if they hold onto their cash, they can buy a free agent in the summer of 2014, the next big market for the league.
Memphis is catching grief from fans for pulling the plug, but this wasn't the case at all. The organization is gambling that it can trade Gay and suffer minimal damage while also revamping itself for next season and beyond. It's a gutsy approach designed to get the club in better fiscal shape by avoiding the luxury tax, something a team located in Memphis can ill-afford unless it's loaded with LeBron-like talent. And even then, you can only charge so much for tickets in Memphis. What the Grizzlies just did was rescue themselves from financial suicide.
New ownership was determined to trim at least one big salary off the books, and Gay was the logical choice. Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol are big men in a league that puts a premium on size. Gay isn't exactly a dime-a-dozen, but you can find another one like him a lot easier than a Z-Bo or Gasol -- and cheaper, too. Previous ownership, all agreed, vastly overpaid Gay in order to keep him from bolting via free agency.
The risk here lies more with chemistry than talent. The Grizzlies just so happen to be a contender. Anything can happen in the post-season, especially if the matchups favor Memphis. Suppose the Grizzlies reach Game Seven of the West finals and lose. How many will then say, "If only they hadn't traded Rudy Gay … " Well, the Grizzlies had to think bigger-picture, too. They saved about $7 million and got a title-tested player in Prince and an intriguing young talent in Ed Davis. It's a tough thing to do in the middle of the season but the Grizzlies and their coach, Lionel Hollins, seem prepared to handle most hazards thrown their way. Remember when Gay hurt his shoulder and they had to make a playoff run without him? How'd that go for Memphis?
Prince is an old 32 and beyond his prime, but they're only asking him to play defense and hit the occasional jumper. He can do that. Davis (6.7 rebounds in limited minutes) was just starting to hit his stride in Toronto and while he might be a 'tweener, he's cheap and he can help the bench for now. By saving money, the Grizzlies can extend defensive ace Tony Allen, a free agent this summer, and grab a devalued scorer (Michael Beasley?) for pennies.
The problem is the Grizzlies can't add drastically to this team until the contracts of Randolph and Gasol are finished in 2015. This is their team for the next few years, and yet it's no so bad.
This franchise has fallen on hard times recently (no winning season since 2006-07), still trying to recover from the departure of Chris Bosh, still trying to find a talent as dazzling as Vince Carter was 10 years ago. Well, guess what? Gay doesn't solve all their needs. But they're a better team now.
Gay could find a second gear in a new environment, and because he no longer has big men clogging the lane, can use that speed and length to attack the rim more often. That's one reason his shooting percentage dropped so low. He became a jump-shooter and that's not his strength. Also, how much better will DeMar DeRozan be with Gay as a teammate? The Raptors invested heavily in DeRozan and now, with another scorer on the floor to command the attention of the defense, DeRozan could enjoy fewer obstacles between him and the hoop. Neither DeRozan nor Gay is a reliable shooter, and yet they bring plenty of offensive punch for a team that desperately needs it.
The success of the trade also depends on one more issue: Andrea Bargnani and where he goes. He's not staying in Toronto. He has a somewhat reasonable contract (two years, $23 million) and his shooting can help a contender. Toronto would be thrilled to get backup help at point guard, after losing Calderon, and maybe a first-rounder in return. The best way for Toronto to build a winner is through the draft or trades because free agency is almost impossible. Few if any A-list free agents will consider Toronto. There's no beach, no sunshine, no favorable taxes and, right now, no contender.
So Bryan Colangelo, if he's still the GM beyond this summer, must grab a Rudy Gay when he can and also hope to get lucky in the draft. Maybe rookie Terrence Ross, who has shown flashes of excitement, turns out better than DeRozan.
That's what this three-team trade is all about: hope built on maybes.