Why the Raptors are a better team today than they were yesterday
When a player is making max money and barely performing up to the standards of an average rotation player, let alone a max talent, said player is going to be shopped by his current employer. When that player also carries the risk of opting into a player option worth more than $19 million next season while in the midst of what might be the least efficient high volume/usage season ever, his team is going to be desperately looking to cut its losses and move on.
And so just over 10 months after the blockbuster trade that sent Rudy Gay from Memphis to Toronto, Gay is on the move again, this time from Canada to Sacramento in a seven-player swap.
For the Kings, the deal doesn't make much sense. Sure, Gay still brings a certain amount of big name or 'star' appeal to town despite having never been an All-Star, handing more minutes to Isaiah Thomas in what looks like a career year, with Greivis Vasquez now out of town, makes them better (The Kings are +0.7 per 48 minutes with Thomas on the court as opposed to -7.9 with him off, and boast a much more respectable net rating of -.2 with him on the floor as opposed to -7.8 with him on the bench) and it's tough to see Gay playing any worse than he has so far (he won't continue to shoot under 42% within eight feet of the hoop). In addition, there is the possibility that if Gay believes he can secure more guaranteed long-term money as a free agent, he'll opt out of his lucrative one-year option for 2014-15.
But there's enough evidence to suggest that even an improved Gay is nowhere near a player worthy of that money, and no one can confidently rely on a team led by Gay and the enigmatic DeMarcus Cousins on a nightly basis (Gay and Cousins are both in the NBA's top-five when it comes to usage rate). Even if the Kings are improved, they are still far from a team capable of sniffing a playoff spot in the ultra competitive West (Sacramento is 5-14, good for 14th in the Conference), where it may take 45 wins or more just to sneak into eighth. In essence, even if improved, trading for Gay simply makes the Kings a better non-playoff team in a season where lottery ping pong balls matter. And if Rudy opts in to his option for next season? Then the Kings may be looking at the possibility of being a capped out, tax lottery team next year.
Other than a miraculous run to the playoffs (it's seriously not happening), the best thing for Sacramento is probably for Rudy to make them worse, get them an even higher lottery pick in 2014, and then opt out - a very possible sequence of events. In that case, this trade would save the Kings just under $7 million next season.
As for the Raptors, this deal isn't as cut and dry as it seems. Most see this as the signal for a full fledged tank in Toronto and an early white flag on the 2013-14 season by Masai Ujiri, but this still isn't a roster you can properly tank with in a putrid Eastern Conference. Trading the valuable Amir Johnson, the expiring Kyle Lowry or DeMar DeRozan, whose current value may be higher than it ever will be, would put the Raps in a legitimate race to the bottom of the standings, and for all we know those moves may be next. But for now, the Raptors may have actually improved.
Without Gay on the floor, other Raptors players, especially DeRozan, may have to deal with more defensive attention when operating on offense, but the increased ball movement that will be created by ridding themselves of Gay's ball-stopping presence, and the additional touches for more efficient options like Johnson, Lowry, Jonas Valanciunas and even DeRozan, should see the team's 17th-ranked offense get better.
In addition, until either Lowry is moved or Vasquez is repackaged as part of another deal later in the season, this trade also addresses one of the Raptors most pressing issues, which was the lack of a competent backup point guard, as Vasquez is a drastic upgrade over the trio of D.J. Augustin, Dwight Buycks and Julyan Stone (The Raptors will now have to waive a player, for the record).
As well, of the four incoming players - Vasquez, Hayes, Patterson, Salmons - only Hayes' contract is fully guaranteed next season. Vasquez and Patterson will be restricted free agents, Salmons' $7 million deal for 2014-15 is only guaranteed for $1 million and Hayes will make less than $6 million ($5,958,750) next year. Add it all up, and assuming Gay would have opted in for next season, the Raptors may have saved over $12 million going forward.
The one downside for Toronto, with all due respect to Aaron Gray (who is simply a defensive-minded, rebounding center to bring off of the end of a bench), is having to part with Quincy Acy. The second-year Baylor product has potential as a cheap, energetic, defensive, rebounding reserve forward, but that potential doesn't outweigh the benefits of being able to cut Gay loose and the flexibility that comes with it. Not even close.
If this is the first in a series of fire sale moves meant to put the Raptors in position to cash in on a loaded 2014 draft class, most Canadian basketball fans will be content. There is the possibility, however, that Masai Ujiri saw a rare opportunity to get better in the short term (via addition by subtraction) while adding future flexibility instead of sacrificing it, and that's quite alright too.
(All salary information courtesy of ShamSports)