A lot has changed since the Grizzlies started the season scoring at a top-10 rate and looking like a legitimate title contender. Their offense has stalled out, falling to 19th in points per 100 possessions, and three other Western Conference contenders — the Spurs, Clippers, and Thunder — have settled in at a slightly higher level than Memphis. If Memphis can only squeeze a league-average offense out of this group, they’ll grade out as more of an “absolutely everything has to go right” fringe contender than a true title threat.
Those who subscribe to "The 5 Percent Theory” believe such fringe powers should go for it anyway, since very few teams each season even reach 5 percent territory. But the Grizzlies are about $4 million over the luxury tax, staring at a very expensive four-man core that, if left intact, could take Memphis over the tax line in this season and the following two. Three straight tax seasons wouldn’t trigger the dreaded repeater tax penalties, but that path would hamstring Memphis’ roster-building flexibility during those three years and could put the repeater penalties in play if the Grizz cross the tax later.
All of this explains why Memphis, over the last few weeks, has made it known in preliminary talks with other teams that Rudy Gay could be available via trade, according to sources around the league. Memphis also has a brand-new ownership and a revamped front office; John Hollinger and Jason Levien are in, longtime personnel gurus the Barones are out, and Chris Wallace’s current level of power as holdover GM is unclear. They can also cite their exciting 2011 playoff run without Gay, though that run involved a superhuman performance from Zach Randolph, a very good matchup in San Antonio, and a much deeper wing core with actual shooters.
Trading Gay will be hard. He makes a ton of money, and the Grizzlies, flush with productive big men, will almost certainly need to find another perimeter player in order to placate fans and (in theory) maintain their 5 percenter status. Memphis isn't necessarily shopping Gay at this point, since they're already very good and could cut salary in other ways; there's a long, long way to go before the trade deadline on February 21 — and before Memphis becomes a multi-year tax team.
The very best Gay deals would accomplish all of these things — get Memphis under this year’s tax line, keep them at about their current level within the league’s hierarchy, and clean up the future cap sheet a bit.
The Sensible Candidates
This might be the easiest fit on the board. Minnesota has plenty of cushion between its current cap level and the luxury tax. They also have Andrei Kirilenko, a tweener forward on a semi-expiring $9.8 million deal, and a bunch of interesting pieces in the $4 million-$5 million range. It’s very easy to build a Minny-Memphis trade around Kirilenko/Gay that gets Memphis under the tax and provides either an intriguing high lottery pick (Derrick Williams) or a useful guard to round out the Grizz’s rotation (Luke Ridnour, J.J. Barea). Memphis would have to send out a cheap piece, such as Tony Wroten, in some scenarios, and the Grizz could also ask Minnesota to return a Memphis 2013 first-rounder originally sent to Houston for Shane Battier.
It’s not a no-brainer for Minnesota, obviously. Gay has gotten better as a cutter, but he’s still a ball-dominator at heart with a “blah” efficiency level, and such players aren't exactly Rick Adelman types — especially not with Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love around to dominate the ball. Bringing in Gay’s giant contract, which runs through 2014-15, would also make it hard for the Wolves to re-sign Nikola Pekovic at a fair number this summer. The Wolves could simply stand pat and have a decent chunk of cap room, assuming they end up voiding the second year of Brandon Roy’s deal.
So why even think about it? Minnesota, as of now, would only get that theoretical chunk of cap room if Kirilenko declines his $10.2 million option for next season in hopes of landing a longer-term deal at similar annual money. He’s played well enough to earn such a deal, but he’s nearly 32, and the Wolves might prefer to trade him rather than watch him walk or pay him big money into his mid-30s. If they shed Barea’s long-term contract in the Gay deal, Minnesota could build around the Rubio/Love/Gay/Alexey Shved core through 2014-15 — and even have some cap flexibility in the summer of 2014 for another piece or two.
Minnesota wants to make the playoffs this season. They’re starved for wing players and overloaded at power forward. It’s worth thinking about, especially if the Wolves could get a second cheap wing along with Gay. Quincy Pondexter’s knee injury and the prohibition against Minnesota reacquiring Wayne Ellington this season complicate things, and Minnesota rightfully believes it should emerge as a very strong team once everyone gets healthy — if that happens.
Other teams are trying to figure out whether Milwaukee prefers Monta Ellis or Brandon Jennings long-term, but Ellis’s semi-expiring contract could work as a “best of both worlds” centerpiece for the Grizz. Ellis doesn’t bring the reliable long-range shooting Memphis sorely needs, but he can be a productive scoring guard under the right circumstances, even if he’s sort of a super-charged Jerryd Bayless. The Grizz need some creativity off the bench, and they have plenty of defensive stalwarts to cover for one sieve. A package of Ellis and Doron Lamb works and gets Memphis under the tax. The Bucks could put seldom-used Tobias Harris in Lamb’s spot, giving Memphis a promising small forward and opening up the wing a bit more for Gay.
Small forward is already very crowded in Milwaukee, with Mike Dunleavy Jr., Marquis Daniels, and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute splitting minutes. Dealing Ellis would leave a giant hole at shooting guard, but it’s the kind of move a team in Milwaukee’s place — small market, unattractive to elite free agents — might make with the future in mind more than the present. If you can’t get an “A” star with the kind of cap room Milwaukee might have this summer, why not take a shot at an overpaid “B” star in the hope he develops into an “A-” guy on your dime? Milwaukee’s cap room for this summer depends on Ellis declining his own player option anyway, and the Bucks could make up the difference between Ellis’s deal and Gay’s by using the amnesty provision (remember that?) on Drew Gooden.
The Bucks have never liked the idea of paying Gooden (or anyone else) to go away, and my hunch is that they're not likely to get involved with Memphis here. But there might be a workable deal, especially if Gay wants out of the ultra-competitive Western Conference.
Boston has a worse per-game scoring margin than the Raptors and Pistons, and the struggles happening now are different than 2009-10 (when Boston showed early signs of greatness before falling into a malaise) and last season (when the lockout screwed everyone up). This team has earned the benefit of the doubt, especially on defense, but the front office will have to at least consider looking toward the future if things don’t improve on the court in the next month. Gay and Rajon Rondo are friends, if that matters; Rondo chooses his friends carefully.
Two things work against Boston getting involved in any Gay deal:
1. The chances of pawning Jeff Green’s terrible contract off on Memphis plummeted when Levien and Hollinger took on key decision-making roles. Finding a workable deal without Green’s contract is tricky.
2. Boston used the full mid-level exception on Jason Terry, meaning their payroll during this season cannot exceed $74.3 million — $4 million above the tax line — at any point. Boston’s payroll is at about $71.9 million, meaning they can only take on about $2.4 million in salary. Memphis needs to drop $4 million to duck the tax; simple math says Boston would have to find a third team with cap space to facilitate — unless Memphis is prepared to settle for a deal that cuts their tax payment but doesn’t get them under.
Houston, Phoenix, and Cleveland are the only teams with major cap room, and any of the three could appear as a facilitator if Memphis does move Gay. (The Cavs obviously need a small forward, but it’s hard to find a realistic fit, since Memphis’ strong big rotation minimizes the need for Cleveland’s best trade asset, Anderson Varejao).
A package of Green, Courtney Lee, and Avery Bradley works, though it only saves Memphis about $1.4 million in salary (and the same amount in tax payments). Memphis might be able to cut the rest by salary-dumping Marreese Speights or Bayless later (Speights isn’t trade-eligible until Jan. 15 and can veto any deal), and they could sell at least Lee and Bradley as helpful pieces that fill needs now and going forward. Replace Green with the cheaper Brandon Bass, and Boston would have to work a lot harder — sending out more players, and involving more teams — in order to find a deal.
Paul Pierce for Gay works straight-up, but it’s sacrilege and does not save Memphis any tax money this season.
Atlanta is splitting small-forward minutes between Kyle Korver, DeShawn Stevenson, and Josh Smith, with the latter shifting there in ultra-big lineups. They’ve also got an extra first-round pick in the bag via the Rockets, and the kind of shooting/wing assets that could legitimately help this season’s Grizzlies. Korver would be a floor-spacing godsend, and both teams should be able to squeeze just under the tax in a Korver/Devin Harris/first-round pick for Gay/Josh Selby deal. (Korver and Harris are both on expiring deals).
Who else is excited for a Jeff Teague/Josh Smith/Al Horford/Rudy Gay core? The downside is obviously how Gay’s $17.9 million salary for next season eats into Atlanta’s potential cap-room bonanza, but they could remedy that in two ways:
1. Include Lou Williams in the deal, in place of Korver’s expiring contract;
2. Renounce Smith’s rights at the end of the season, when he becomes a free agent, or trade him for expiring assets before then.
Losing a player of Smith’s caliber is painful, but he still carries a couple of glaring flaws, his cap hold is going to be huge, and nabbing Gay at least guarantees getting a sub All-Star in Smith’s place. The Hawks could still have Dwight Howard/Chris Paul-level cap room this summer with just Gay, Horford, Teague, and John Jenkins aboard. And it’s hard to see either Paul or Howard turning down significant money to switch teams in free agency.
Boy, have injuries complicated things for a team that has long kicked around the idea of acquiring Gay. Jose Calderon won Kyle Lowry’s starting job when Lowry got hurt, and Calderon’s expiring $11 million deal is an easy fit in almost any 2013 mega-trade — even if the Grizzlies already have Mike Conley logging heavy time at Calderon’s position. Andrea Bargnani isn’t a fit in Memphis, but injuries to Bargnani and Jonas Valanciunas have made dealing one of the Amir Johnson/Ed Davis duo a bit dicier.
Still: It’s easy to build a number of deals that get Memphis under the tax around Calderon and spare parts on either side. Whether Gay fits next to another non-shooter in DeMar DeRozan is a fair question, but the Raptors might be in that Milwaukee boat — unlikely to land a can’t-miss foundational star in free agency, and so willing to roll the dice on a “B” guy via trade.
This also might be the ultimate litmus test for Memphis: If a Calderon-centric deal is ultimately the best one they can find ahead of the trade deadline, do they just keep Gay and try to slough off $4 million elsewhere — or just swallow hard and pay the tax?
Houston has about $7 million in cap space, though pinning down the precise number is tough after so many trades, waivers, and cuts. Houston could chase a power forward such as Smith with max-level cap room this summer, but if they’re worried their iPad campaigns will come up short again, they could use their current flexibility to snag a borderline All-Star in his prime. (And to be clear: I’m betting that “borderline All-Star” is just about Gay’s ceiling.)
A four-man package of Carlos Delfino-Toney Douglas-Patrick Patterson-Marcus Morris is right on the edge of passing cap muster (depending on Houston’s precise level of cap space to the dollar), but it would also eviscerate Houston’s power-forward rotation. That package gives Memphis some shooting, an extra power forward, and a backup point guard, though the Grizz might also request a first-rounder.
Houston could adjust by adding Cole Aldrich’s larger salary or substituting Terrence Jones for one of Morris/Patterson, though the latter course would then require some extra cap gymnastics.
The Rockets have a nice, young small forward in Chandler Parsons on a crazy cheap contract, but never count them out.
Maybe my favorite Rudy Gay wild card, even if it’s hard to find anyone around the league who thinks Utah is quite ready for such a shakeup. One caveat: Utah is only about $3.3 million under the tax, meaning the Jazz (like Boston) can’t get Memphis all the way under without finding a third team to take on a cheap Grizz player.
Utah does have an extra first-round pick from the Warriors — the same one Golden State tanked so furiously to keep last season. A package of Marvin Williams/Raja Bell/Alec Burks/Warriors pick would have to at least pique Memphis’ interest. Williams has been a bust in Utah, but he’s a solid defender and rebounder with a history of hitting corner 3's. Burks is a prospect at what will be a position of need if Tony Allen signs elsewhere this summer. You could switch Enes Kanter in for Burks as the token young Jazz man heading to Memphis, and then replace Bell with a cheaper guy, such as DeMarre Carroll.
Again: Both deals would leave Memphis $1 million or so over the tax line, meaning they’d either have to eat a smaller tax payment, get some cash from Utah, or dump someone else along the way.
Such a deal would represent a drastic change of course for Utah. The Jazz have patiently set themselves up for a summer in which they could choose between Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap, and still have max-level cap room after re-signing one of them via Bird Rights. Acquiring Gay now would soak up $17.9 million of that cap room, meaning Utah would effectively have to lose both bigs in order to be a real player at the top levels of free agency. It’s also unclear if Gordon Hayward has the quicks and shooting range to play two-guard full-time.
The (Much) Longer Shots
Golden State Warriors
They’ve long coveted Gay, according to several sources, but they lack a single appealing and tradeable large salary in order to make a deal work. They’re in almost the identical cap situation as Boston — a bit over the tax line, and prohibited from going over the $74.3 million payroll mark after using most of the mid-level exception on Carl Landry.
Sacramento could build a number of offers around Francisco Garcia (a useful three-and-D guy on an expiring deal) and Tyreke Evans, though Evans’s lingering knee issues — he’s getting a second opinion this week — might torpedo any such talks before they start. Evans can’t shoot at all, but he’s a young wing player with an exciting skill set (if you squint hard enough) that Memphis could sell as proof of their trying to stay in contention. The Kings could also toss in Aaron Brooks as an extra ball handler, and take back Wroten and Ellington to get Memphis under the tax line.
Unfortunately, Evans is hurt, the Kings are dysfunctional, and the Grizzlies might look at Evans’s spotty record and demand another first-rounder as sweetener. The Kings already owe Cleveland a first-rounder that might not actually get to the Cavs until 2017 (thanks, J.J. Hickson!), meaning the Kings can’t really promise a future first-rounder until 2019.
New Orleans Hornets
Just saying: Eric Gordon for Rudy Gay works straight up, and if the Grizz toss in Wroten, they’d get under the tax line and snag a shooting guard who played like an All-Star once upon a time. Gordon can veto any deal until mid-July, though he famously urged the Hornets to let him sign in Phoenix during restricted free agency last summer. The Hornets are confident they can get him to enjoy playing with Anthony Davis and Ryan Anderson, though Gordon’s caution in returning from knee injuries has clearly tested the patience of some in the Bayou.
Regardless, this is about as fanciful as it gets, since no one knows what to make of Gordon right now, and his long-term deal does nothing to alleviate Memphis’ cap issues.
Lots of folks will pitch a Gay/Iguodala-based swap, but it’s hard to see one. There’s enormous positional overlap between Gay and Danilo Gallinari, and adding Gay’s deal, which runs at least one season longer than Iguodala’s, would have Denver’s payroll in the high $60 million range through the 2014-15 season. Iguodala only makes about $1.5 million less than Gay this season, meaning Memphis would have to send out a few million more in salary to get under the tax. It’s unclear if Denver's ready to take on such added money this year.
Iguodala could also become a free agent after this season by opting out of the final year in his contract, something that would generate some cap savings for Denver, even if it would mean losing a very good player for nothing. Denver doesn't like losing very good players for nothing; witness what amounted to the sign-and-trade for Nenê.
It’s tempting to construct some deals involving Gallinari rather than Iguodala, but the salary gap is big enough that Denver would jump over the tax next season if Iguodala sticks around. This just feels like one that doesn’t work, unless Denver is confident it can dump another big piece — Wilson Chandler or JaVale McGee — in the near future.
Los Angeles Clippers
Caron Butler hasn’t actually lit it up as the Clippers’ starting small forward, shooting 42 percent, barely getting to the line, and posting a PER around 11 — well below league-average. But he's shooting better than 40 percent from 3-point range, and he's become a solid corner spot-up guy — an important skill in this offense.
Still, it’s tempting to think what the Clippers might become by flipping Butler, Chauncey Billups, and Eric Bledsoe to Memphis, and locking in Gay as their future small forward.
Problem No. 1: The Clips are only about $500,000 under the tax line, meaning any deal in which they absorb enough salary to get Memphis below the tax would take the Clips over it. They’d have to offload significant salary to one of the Phoenix/Houston/Cleveland group, and there’s a price for that.
Problem No. 2: Carrying four massive salaries, including an assumed new deal for Chris Paul, is essentially a no-go going forward. The Clips would be butting up against the tax, and likely exceeding it, every season just filling out the roster.
A Bledsoe deal feels inevitable, but it will probably come after this season (or later), and this isn’t it.
Only if the Wiz are willing to include Bradley Beal in a trade that sends out unwanted salary (Trevor Ariza, et al.). That’s not happening.
Phoenix is in dire need of shot creation on the wing, and could toss its hand in the ring independently if it wished. The Suns have about $6 million in cap space, a few solid wing assets — especially Jared Dudley — some other movable pieces on mid-sized deals, and extra first-round picks.
This would be an interesting theoretical if Danny Granger’s expiring contract were healthy to work as the centerpiece of a Gay deal, but even then, there are a ton of things working against a swap that would land Indy another centerpiece type. Paul George has already shifted to the three in Granger’s absence, and is doing fine. The Pacers are only about $3.5 million under the tax, and finding a two-team deal that leaves them under and drags Memphis under requires some monster cap trickery.
Landing Gay would also wipe out Indy’s potential cap room this summer, but David West’s cap hold effectively does that anyway. If they lose West outright, what happens next?
All of this amounts to a long shot, as are almost any potential deals involving a player making this much money. But Memphis will try to deal Gay, and it'll be fun to watch.