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.