Rudy Gay is having his worst season, statistically, since his rookie year. He is due more than $37 million in salary over the next two seasons, and despite averaging more than 19 points per game four times in a five-year span, he has never made an All-Star team or led the Grizzlies to a playoff series victory.
And in a perverse sort of way, he might be perfect for the Toronto Raptors.
No, this is not some lame joke. Gay is bad. The Raptors are bad. They’d be perfect together, har har. I’ll be here all week! Honestly, while the salary figures might be tough to match up, reports that the Raptors are interested in trading for the flawed forward actually make tons of sense.
Certain teams in the NBA will always struggle to attract star players. San Antonio and Oklahoma City have gotten lucky with humble superstars and impeccable player-development models, but Utah’s fall since the Karl Malone and John Stockton era ended is an instructive example of how those advantages can disappear in a generation. Dwight Howard, Chris Paul and Josh Smith are among the biggest names set to test free agency next summer, and Utah has not been mentioned among their desired destinations.
The Raptors are in much the same boat. Toronto is a beautiful city — so are Salt Lake City, Indianapolis and Charlotte — but the team has not signed a big-name free agent since its inception in 1995. Some cities simply do not generate buzz among 24-year-old millionaires looking for the best place to have fun and grow their personal brands. Some cities are not sexy.
Thus, although they have made the playoffs five times and produced some of the NBA’s top talents, the Raptors for the most part have acted as a feeder system for the league’s contenders. Damon Stoudamire, Marcus Camby, Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady and Chris Bosh all went on to make perennial All-Star games or playoff appearances elsewhere. Even Kevin Durant, who rooted for the Raptors as a kid because he liked their jerseys, probably would not be caught dead in red, black and silver.
In lieu of signing a superstar, then, the Raptors have some fairly limited options. They can build through the draft, even if that requires losing lots of games for a lot of seasons and then losing those players to free agency four years later, or they can trade for players already signed to long-term contracts. The only other option, really, is to eagerly re-sign any near-star who shows a desire to play where nobody else will.
The Raptors have done the latter with Andrea Bargnani and DeMar DeRozan. Bargnani is a 7-foot-tall jump shooter who has never been as good a scorer as his statistics suggested. DeRozan is a humble, driven wing player who, sadly, might never be as good as he clearly wants to be. But both guys are said to like making their homes in Toronto, and they committed to the Raptors when the organization came with higher-than-market-value, multi-year contracts. Those deals were ridiculed by many experts, but the Raptors were pragmatic. They had to try to hold on to any marginal stars that were willing to stay, even if the cost was slightly high.
Gay, in a similar way, makes sense for the Raptors. If they trade for him, he can’t leave. Gay has one year left over on the maximum contract he signed in 2010, plus a $19 million player option for 2014-15. No matter how unhappy he might be in Toronto in two years, he is assured of opting in for that final year, since no team is going to give him anywhere near that amount in free agency. He would be tied to the organization for the next two years, forming a flawed but somewhat workable foundation with DeRozan and Bargnani.
Anyone who has observed the Grizzlies at any sort of length knows that Gay’s contributions are of fringe importance to that team. He is the Grizzlies’ leading scorer but also their most inefficient offensive player, with a .408 field goal percentage and a 14.3 player efficiency rating. The Grizzlies dumped salary last week to get below the luxury tax line, which allows them to keep Gay if they want but mostly just chased away the sharks. (Feeling that the Grizzlies were desperate to cut salary, other teams were apparently offering absurd deals to capitalize on the Grizzlies’ position.) Now safely below the tax line, the Grizzlies can make more favorable trades, such as the rumored deal that would bring Jose Calderon and Ed Davis to Memphis while sending Gay to Toronto.
This is what the Raptors are. In the NBA landscape, they are a mid-market franchise that has to seize on opportunities for impact players whenever possible. No team seems to want Gay, and no players seem to want to play for the Raptors. In that way, they are perfect for each other.