59 days after the Raptors and Kings agreed to a seven-player blockbuster that sent Rudy Gay to Sacramento, the two teams will finally meet. And when they take the floor tonight at Sleep Train arena, they will do so as two vastly different teams than the ones who made headlines two months ago.
So how have the Raptors and Kings changed since December 8?
The Raptors have gone from a likely lottery team in need of a tank, with Gay's uncertain contract situation limiting their future cap flexibility, to arguably the third-best team in the East, one of the better teams in a sad franchise history and an emerging young team with flexibility now at their disposal.
The Kings have somehow managed to get even worse than they already were defensively, but they've also become a much better offensive team, a much more exciting team to watch, and a more competitive team overall.
Consider the following table:
|Team||Win Pct.||Offensive Rating||Defensive Rating||Point Differential|
|Raptors pre-trade||.333 (24th)||101.0 (19th)||102.1 (16th)||-1.4 (18th)|
|Raps post-trade||.667 (6th)||105.9 (10th)||99.6 (5th)||5.4 (6th)|
|Kings pre-trade||.278 (28th)||101.3 (18th)||104.7 (26th)||-3.1 (23rd)|
|Kings post-trade||.367 (23rd)||105.6 (13th)||107.5 (29th)||-1.7 (19th)|
While the removal of Gay's ball-stopping presence on offense (The Raps, who were 30th in Assist Percentage and Assist Ratio up to Dec. 8, have ranked 3rd in Assist Percentage and 8th in Assist Ratio since) and inconsistent presence on defense has obviously played a major part in the Raptors' post-trade success, the role of the players that came to Toronto as part of the deal should not be diminished.
At the time, most saw the deal as a major salary dump for the Raptors that included them acquiring a couple of younger players the team could take a flyer on (Greivis Vasquez and Patrick Patterson) and a couple of somewhat serviceable veterans in John Salmons and Chuck Hayes. While the future cap ramifications of the deal still can't be ignored, neither can the production of these four traded players, who have basically become coach Dwane Casey's bench as part of a tighter nine-man rotation.
In the 20 games before the former Kings quartet joined the Raptors lineup, Toronto's bench was outscored by an average of 3.4 points per 48 minutes, good for 20th overall. But in 28 games since Vasquez, Patterson, Salmons and Hayes have formed the usual Raptors four-man reserve unit, the Raps' reserves have outscored opponents by 7.7 points per 48, good for third in the NBA over that period.
Patterson, in particular, has led the charge, as the 14th overall pick in 2010 has averaged 9.6 points on 50 percent shooting and 45 percent three-point shooting to go with 5.0 rebounds in about 22 minutes per game in Toronto. His PER of 17.5 in 27 games with the Raptors dwarfs the 10.4 mark he posted in 17 games with the Kings this season.
As a whole, Toronto's 20-10 mark since December 8 is third-best in the East, three games clear of fourth-best Brooklyn (who they'be beat twice since the trade) over that span, just 0.5 games behind 19-8 Miami and one game behind 20-8 Indiana, who they have split two post-trade meetings with.
The Kings improvements are obviously nowhere near as drastic or impressive as the Raptors climb up the NBA rankings, but the story of change in Sacramento is all about Gay himself, who has seen his scoring efficiency skyrocket with the Kings:
|Rudy Gay 2013-14||PPG||FG%||TS%||PER||WS/48|
Gay went from posting one of the lowest efficiency high-usage starts in history at the beginning of the season with the Raptors (At the time of the trade, his name was on this unprecedented non-list) to becoming one of the league's most impressive scorers with the Kings, and while his rebounding and defensive metrics are down in Sacramento, he's scoring more on nearly four fewer shots per game and is finally dishing out more assists than turnovers again.
No team would be foolish enough to give Gay another max contract, but his recent play does beg the question of whether the best long-term play for Rudy would be to opt out of his $19-plus million option for next season to seek more guaranteed long-term money on a smaller per-year salary.
That might also be the best thing for the Kings, as while the trio of Gay, DeMarcus Cousins and Isaiah Thomas have been a thrill to watch together, the Kings are 10-12 with all three of those players in the lineup, a great improvement on where the team was before Rudy arrived, but also still far short of a playoff mark in the tough Western Conference.
Simply put, the Kings would have to surround that high-powered offensive trio with some defensive difference makers, but if Gay opts into his option for next season and the Kings want to re-sign Thomas, whose outstanding play as a starting point guard has been as much a key to Sacramento's improvement as Gay's arrival, they're probably looking at luxury tax territory next year, leaving them little to no room to find such difference makers.
Gay sticking around would likely put Sacrmaneto in a dangerous place next season, as a tax-paying team on the playoff bubble, far from contention and just as far from the meat of the lottery. Perhaps the hope if Gay opts in is that the Kings are at least competitive enough with Gay, Cousins and Thomas over the next year-and-a-half to become players on the free agent market in 2015, when Gay's contract finally expires.
Still though, as good as Gay has been and as exciting as the Kings have been to watch over the last two months, the prudent thing for the Kings to do would still probably have been to head into that 2015 summer of flexibility with Cousins, Thomas, a great 2014 draft pick and perhaps even another good 2015 pick. And if Gay does opt out after this season to chase more long-term money elsewhere, then the fact remains that the Kings likely gave up a much better chance at a top-three pick in a loaded 2014 draft for a few months of fielding a better, but still not good enough team.
As for the Raptors, the picture is rosier. The team is still faced with the dilemma most franchises are of finding an apex superstar, whereas the Kings may already have theirs in Cousins, but the Raps look like a young team on the rise in the much weaker conference, leaving them with a clearer view and easier path to sustained success going forward.
There is still some uncertainty with what to do with Kyle Lowry, who will be due a three-to-four year extension likely in the $9 million-$11 million per year range this summer, assuming he's open to the idea of Toronto long-term, and Patterson and Vasquez will be restricted free agents come July.
But that's far less uncertainty than what came with the prospects of Gay's mammoth player option, and the Raps could re-sign Lowry and still have max cap space in the summer of 2015, with Lowry, DeMar DeRozan (who has emerged as an All-Star with Gay out of town), and improving sophomores Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross all still under contract then (Valanciunas' and Ross' extensions, assuming they remain with the Raptors beyond their rookie deals, wouldn't kick in until 2016-17).
In the two months since the trade that sent Rudy Gay to Toronto, the Raptors have been able to win now while still keeping a hopeful eye to the future and Gay has been able to boost a personal value that had fallen to an all-time low north of the border. The Kings are more enjoyable and slightly improved, but of the three major parties involved, are still the ones with the most questions surrounding their future.
(Lineup data and stats by date courtesy of NBA.com, Gay's split stats courtesy of ESPN and Basketball Reference)