When players get paid a lot, the default commentary position switches from pointing out their strengths to emphasizing their failings. Rudy Gay fell victim to this the day he signed a maximum value contract.
It is inevitable — he is being paid the max, but he doesn’t perform like a max player, and nor will he ever. This isn’t just true of fans’ perspectives, but of teams as well. Memphis, unashamedly and understandably on a budget, figured they don’t get enough from Rudy at that cost to make him worth keeping. Conversely, Toronto figure he’s worth the financial commitment. So who’s right?
In light of respective circumstances, possibly both.
Toronto’s small forward rotation has been one of the weakest positional rotations in the league. Landry Fields and Linas Kleiza have been hurt and underwhelming, while Mickael Pietrus has been just plain underwhelming. The position has been manned by out-of-position two guards who can’t defend the spot and shoot too much. Now the Raptors have a two-way fringe star of a player at the spot, for only the cost of two players whose usefulness they couldn’t maximize anyway.
Rudy’s performance this year has been frankly poor, but such is the very nature of apathy — a return to his usual career numbers is certainly plausible. At his best, Gay contributes in every facet of the game. Of course, even at his career apex, Gay’s contract is worryingly close to double the size it should be for a man of his impact. But the amount spent is only of importance if it prohibits future spending. The Raptors’s salary situation is sufficient that this should not be a factor going forward — as such, Gay’s contract, a big issue for Memphis, isn’t the same issue in Toronto. The issue is the impact of the team’s play going forward, and what value was achieved in the deal.
If you concede Jose Calderon couldn’t return to the Raptors next season — and, if you value Kyle Lowry, he couldn’t — he had to be dealt while his value was high. If Jose stays, he and Lowry negate each others value and create a expensive, if talented, logjam that’s destined to end in a ruckus. And, even though Calderon betters any team he is on, there weren’t many suitable suitors. Those who needed him the most didn’t have the pieces. And those who had the pieces didn’t really need him.
Toronto loses this deal if Gay doesn’t return to his best, and if they go forward with a trio of DeRozan, Gay and Bargnani, a highly paid trio that duplicates itself too much and doesn’t defend nearly as well as it should. But considering that Bargnani’s days are increasingly numbered, and in light of the intriguing play of Terrence Ross, there is no reason to believe that is the plan going forward. This trade completes phase one of a multi-part plan for the Raptors to return to the playoffs without tanking. Without pieces two or three in place, it’s hard to judge phase one accurately. In theory, however, Toronto takes forward a core of Lowry, Ross, Gay, Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas, with Landry Fields and whatever they get for Bargnani and DeRozan also in the mix. That’s a low-seeded playoff team. For now, that’s a good start.
Detroit, meanwhile, dumps the last remnant of its 2004 championship team, and the final vestige of Daye’s potential, in exchange for cap space. After the spectacular misuse of their cap space in 2009, a couple of trades combined with the passage of time sees the Pistons armed with $36 million in expiring contracts — if they were to also amnesty Charlie Villanueva and save on the guaranteed portion of Rodney Stuckey’s contract, there is theoretically enough cap room there for two max contracts with some change left over, and without losing any of the strong, young, cheap core they have built through the draft.
This direction wouldn’t be very likely, and definitely wouldn’t be advisable, especially in light of the fact that Greg Monroe needs paying soon. However, the flexibility it provides, and the sheer number of possibilities for asset management it offers, is an irresistibly strong lure for a team whose strategy in recent years has been little more than “play badly and draft well.” (Which, to be fair, they’ve done both parts of.)
Some of that cap space could well go towards re-signing Calderon. The question of whether Brandon Knight can be a quality full-time point guard has yet to be definitively answered, but as time goes on, the more likely it is the answer will be no. It certainly looks that way. This is fine, of course. There is nothing wrong with being Detroit’s Jason Terry of the future. But he doesn’t appear to have the court vision to run a half court offense. As a result, he isn’t able to maximize the on-court growth of the Pistons’ young players, most notably Andre Drummond. Calderon can do this. Either by leading the second unit, or by bumping Knight and Kyle Singler over one spot (which will be hideous defensively but tolerable in the short term), Calderon’s highly effective combination of floor game and jumpshot figure to improve the half court offense of both the team and everyone in it. With due deference to his significant value as an $11 million expiring contract, Jose Calderon will help the Pistons as a player for as long as they choose to keep him around.
The same could be said of Memphis and Jose, had they chosen to keep him. Indeed, notwithstanding the obvious question of who would play small forward without Gay or Prince, it is unquestionable that Calderon would bring a lot to the team. Memphis has backup ball handlers in Jerryd Bayless and Tony Wroten, but they can’t consistently make plays in the halfcourt for anyone but themselves, and they can’t consistently shoot. For all the things he takes off the table, Calderon does those two things extremely well. Memphis needs them more than most, but, for whatever reason, they didn’t want him.
Instead, they wanted a replacement-level small forward in Prince who gets paid above MLE money for two more years, and a wildly inconsistent backup in Daye whose combination of height, athleticism and three-point percentage would mean a lot more if he was in any way a reliable contributor. This part of the deal requires further examination. As things stand, however, Memphis has downgraded slightly at small forward, while upgrading their big man rotation significantly and simultaneously nullifying their previous trade with Cleveland. Ed Davis is far superior to Marreese Speights, and replacement level D-League players can do the simple spot-up shooting role of Wayne Ellington or Josh Selby. Chris Johnson already is.
A truly successful trade here for Memphis ultimately hinges on what they do with Zach Randolph. What they do with Zach determines what they do with Ed Davis. And Ed Davis is very, very good. Toronto knew this, but, with the similarly sneaky-good Amir Johnson in the fold, plus the obligation to play Andrea Bargnani, Davis could never play the 30+ mpg he needed and deserved. In Memphis, as of today, he still can’t do this. For now, he’ll merely compliment Darrell Arthur, grabbing the rebounds that Arthur misses and occasionally wowing from the bench. But the time will come, presumably consequential to a Randolph deal, that Davis will be able to prove his quality as a starting power forward. And when that day comes, Memphis will have done it again, downgrading slightly from an overpaid fringe star but saving exorbitant amounts of money in the process. As a strategy, it’s hard to argue with.
In theory, all three teams assuaged their needs and helped themselves for the future. But all three teams face big questions going forward. Memphis needs to be sure they haven’t just blown their franchise’s first ever chance to compete for a title. Detroit needs to know what they’re going to try and do with all the flexibility they’ve uncovered, especially knowing their difficulties in free agency. And Toronto needs to be sure that Gay will return to form, that their roster duplicity can be addressed in short order, and that Kyle Lowry is really worth it. All three are confident of the answers. As with all trades in theory, it appears all three teams stand to win.
Who wins the most? Memphis. But it’s not because of Tayshaun.