Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Rudy Gay dilemma

There’s not many things I’m more educated about than the Memphis Grizzlies. I’ve been to about 250+ home games over the past 7 years and probably watched about 500 games during that time span. I haven’t really written about the Grizz or NBA on here since I was the fan blogger for Now that I’m officially retired from that position, it’s time to unleash my Grizzlies knowledge upon the RTS readership. You know, cause Jersey Shore Season 2 hasn’t started yet.

I proclaimed last offseason to be the make-or-break offseason for the Grizzlies. They had the number 2 pick in the draft. They had cap room to go after a free agent. They had another 1st round draft pick and an early 2nd round pick. If they were going to turn things around, it was last offseason. As the Grizzlies just finished a 40 win season (up from 24), it’s easy to say that last offseason was a success. As Commercial Appeal writer Geoff Calkins wrote today, last offseason was a mixed bag, at best.

I think there’s little value in criticizing past decisions on their own. Past decisions should be used to determine future actions. I also think that it’s easy for sports writers, bloggers, etc. to make fun of past decisions with hindsight. It’s easy to criticize drafting Hasheem Thabeet over Tyreke Evans or Steph Curry today. Did you have the balls to call for that ahead of time? I did, well, privately, and have the email archives to prove it. But I come not to praise my past decisions or to bury Thabeet, but rather, to tell you what the Grizzlies should do this offseason.

The bottom line is that the Grizzlies can’t, CAN’T, overpay for Rudy Gay. The running joke in the NBA is that teams trade for cap room and flexibility, which is really just PR spin to say that an owner wanted to cut cost. However, worse than trading for cap room and flexibility is getting stuck in untradeable contracts.

Look at the 76ers and Pistons.

The 76ers are over the salary cap and had a 27-55 season. They’re stuck paying Andre Iguodala and Elton Brand almost $28 million next year (almost half their payroll). That number keeps going up until through 2013. They had the choice to overpay for Iguodala or let him walk. They paid him. They had free agent money and spent it on Brand. They don’t get do-overs. This is their core for the next 3 seasons unless they can unload one of the players. For Brand, that will be almost impossible. They can probably get rid of Iguodala for draft picks and cap space and rebuild again, you know, like they did a few years ago when they traded Iverson to rebuild around Iguodala.

The Pistons have $51 million in committed salaries next year and had a 27-55 season. They’re stuck paying Rip Hamilton, Ben Gordon and Charlie Villaneuva $29 million next season. That number keeps going up until through 2013. Sound familiar? This team had cap room last year, made the seemingly wrong choices to invest in Gordon and Villaneuva and can’t get that money back. They’re stuck with this core.

This isn’t the NFL where the contracts are non-guaranteed and you can just cut a player and his contract if you made a mistake. This isn’t the MLB where there is no salary cap so teams like the Yankees and Red Sox can just increase the payroll each year as needed. In the NBA, teams only get 1 or 2 chances to make big signings each couple of years. Each couple of years! The only way to win in the NBA is to go over the salary cap and pay the luxury tax or to make shrewd signings. For the Grizzlies, it’s going to have to be the latter. So, is Rudy Gay one of the guys to sign? Let’s discuss.

Grizzlies owner Michael Hesiely has put himself in a bad spot. By assembling a cheap roster the past few years, the knock has been that he’s unwilling to spend money. Now there’s pressure to re-sign Rudy Gay. Will he overpay Rudy Gay just to say, “Look, I spent money.” Signing Rudy Gay for $10+ million a year is my nightmare scenario. Gay is an athlete but he’s not a basketball player. He can get you 20 points a game. If your main skill is scoring, you’ve got to be a scoring machine (see Durant, Kevin). 20 points per game isn’t enough. You’ve got to do more than that. You have to use your athleticism to defend, rebound and block shots (see Smith, Josh). You have to create for others (see Evans, Tyreke or Johnson, Joe). Rudy Gay is an elite athlete, but not an elite player.

Rudy Gay isn’t terrible, by any means, but in the NBA, it’s not just about how good a player is. It’s how much the player cost. The small market teams are at a distinct disadvantage because they can’t pay a $91 million roster like the Lakers. The Grizzlies had a $57 million roster last year. The salary cap next year is supposed to be $56 million. The Grizzlies won’t go over that. I don’t blame Heisely for that. Small market teams don’t go over the cap. So you have to spend the money wisely. If Rudy Gay is the man, you sign him. If not, you have to be willing to let him walk.

If the Grizz sign Gay for $10 million per season, they’ve set the market value and expectations for their upcoming free agents for the future. If Rudy Gay is worth $10 million, do you think Zach Randolph, OJ Mayo or Marc Gasol will settle for less? And are the Grizzlies willing to spend $40+ million a year on Gay, Randolph, Mayo and Gasol? The simple answer is no. Michael Heisley will not pay all four guys. Signing Gay to a big contract means that Randolph, Mayo or Gasol will not be resigned. That’s why it’s a nightmare scenario to give Gay a big contact this year.

I prioritize the players like this: Mayo, Gasol, Randolph and Gay. The problem is that Gay is the lowest priority but also the first free agent. I’d rather try to sign Mayo and Gasol and then see if there’s enough money left to throw at Gay. The Grizz don’t have that option. If the Grizzlies can’t sign Gay for $8 million per season or less (and they can’t), here’s the viable alternatives.

Sign and trade Rudy Gay
This is going to be tricky. A lot of teams have positioned themselves with cap room so they could just sign Gay outright instead of giving up something in a sign and trade. Gay can make more money and sign for 1 more year in a sign and trade, so he’d push for that. What could you get for him? If the Nets, Hornets or Jazz land the number 1 pick, a trade is going to be in the works for the number 1 pick (John Wall) or Devin Harris.

If the Nets win the lottery, could the Grizzlies trade Gay for Devin Harris? The Nets would then be able to have a core of Brook Lopez, Gay and John Wall and enough cap room to add more free agents. The Grizzlies would then let Mike Conley walk after next season to help free up some money for Randolph, Mayo and/or Gasol.

If the Jazz win the lottery could the Grizzlies trade Gay and their lottery pick for the number 1 pick and Andrei Kirilenko? The Jazz would save some money and be able to build around a younger core of Deron Williams, Paul Millsap and Gay. The Grizzlies could let Kirilenko walk after the season to free up money for Randolph, Mayo and Gasol. They wouldn’t have to pay John Wall until his rookie deal ended down the road.

If the Hornets win the lottery, could the Grizzlies trade Gay and their lottery pick for the number 1 pick, Peja and James Posey. The Hornets save some money and still have a core of Chris Paul, David West and Rudy Gay. The Grizzlies land John Wall and should still have enough money to pay at least two of the three: Gasol, Randolph and Mayo.

I’m not sure if there’s other viable sign-and-trade options given that a lot of the teams can just sign Gay outright. If the Knicks can’t land LeBron, Rudy Gay could get a big offer. Are you willing to let him walk for nothing? Here’s another option.

Let Rudy Gay sign with another team
Re-sign Ronnie Brewer and use your lottery pick on a small forward. You can probably sign Brewer for a third of the cost of Gay and hope that one of the following small forwards lasts until your pick late in the lottery: Wesley Johnson, Xavier Henry, Al-Farouq Aminu or Gordon Haywood. Would you rather have Gay for $12 million or a Brewer/Henry combo for $6 million?

Let the market dictate his value
Posture that you’re willing to match any offer for him (which the Grizz are already doing). Hope that the teams with cap room sign other big name free agents instead. Hope that either Gay’s market value is lower than he expects or almost non-existent. This would be the Josh Smith/Paul Millsap route. I don’t think it will happen, but it’s worth a shot.

Match whatever offer Gay gets
If the Knicks sign him for $12 million per season, match it. He’s an asset. Even if you don’t think he’s worth that much, you sign him and then spend the next 12 months trying to find a suitor willing to take him for a combination of younger players or draft picks. Keep the asset in your pocket and hope you can turn it for cheaper pieces before next summer when Randolph and Gasol’s contracts are up. I’m not a fan of this move cause you could get stuck with the contract, or Gay could get injured, but I would at least accept the mentality.

The bottom line is that the Grizzlies still haven’t determined their long term core or future. Last summer seemed to be that summer, but instead of signing a long term free agent, they took a 2-year rental on Zach Randolph. It bought some time and gave the fans some hope and added another option to the core, but the question still remains, how much is Michael Heisley willing to spend on this team, and which players is he going to spend it on? Rudy Gay’s at the plate. Randolph & Gasol are on deck. Mayo is in the hole.


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