The time will come – after this season, if not before the Feb. 21 trade deadline – when moving Rudy Gay will be the only sensible thing for the Grizzlies’ new ownership to do.
Unless you’ve been living in a cave – or The Pyramid – you know that Rudy rumors are rampant. Pick a media outlet – from ESPN to Grantland to USA Today – and you can find any number of possible trade scenarios.
What you won’t find, I’m almost certain, is a quote from Grizzlies chairman Robert Pera uttered several weeks ago at his introductory news conference here: “I’ll be the Grizzlies’ No. 1 super fan.”
That feel-good moment doesn’t necessarily mesh with the harsh financial realities of the NBA and Pera’s position as lead owner. The Grizzlies are about $4 million over the league’s luxury tax line. For Pera & Co., this amounts to the worst kind of inheritance tax – a dollar-for-dollar penalty that is the result of Michael Heisley’s decision to overpay for Rudy Gay.
In theory, the luxury tax system serves to keep big-market teams in line. Prevents them from covering all their player personnel mistakes with blankets of cash. But it also forces small-market teams such as the Grizzlies to make difficult decisions.
Of the Grizzlies’ core four – Gay, Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph and Mike Conley – Gay is the obvious trade choice. Gasol is one of the best centers in the league, Randolph is a double-double machine and Conley’s contract is quite reasonable for the point guard he has become.
Meanwhile, Gay is being paid $16.4 million this season. Next season, his salary climbs to $17.8 million. And in 2014-15 when Gay holds a player option, he would make $19.3 million. That’s a lot of money if he is indistinguishable from Kevin Durant, which he is not.
Gay, as the saying goes, is a “nice player.” He’ll get you 18 points. He’ll grab you half-dozen rebounds. He’ll also shoot too much, poses no real threat from 3-point range, and can be indifferent on defense. If that sounds like a lot of NBA players, a lot of small forwards, then that is exactly the point.
Making the team’s financial needs and on-court needs mesh isn’t particularly easy. You have to build an entire roster. Clearly, the NBA’s general managers now understand the Grizzlies want out from under Gay’s contract.
Pera and right-hand man Jason Levien (and presumably, general manager Chris Wallace) ultimately will have to weigh the finances, the value of the players the Griz would get in return and, yes, current team chemistry. Unless the front office is into collective denial, they’ve no doubt looked at the strength of the Los Angeles Clippers and Oklahoma City Thunder and agreed the path to the NBA Finals is rim-narrow.
Odds are, that makes “nice player” Rudy Gay a luxury that even the wealthiest super fan can’t afford.
Don Wade’s column appears weekly in The Daily News and The Memphis News. He and Jon Albright host the “Jon & Don Show” on Sports 56 AM and 87.7 FM from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays.