Ru-dy-o Feb01

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Ru-dy-o

Let’s start this off by saying my argument has already taken a hit. I agree with Shaquille O’Neal. He just named himself the Black Bryan Colangelo because he is a big fan of the Raptors acquisition of Rudy Gay. I’m on his side. This is a red flag.

Memphis replaced their leading scorer at the small forward position with Tayshaun Prince and Austin Daye, perhaps the two flimsiest frontcourt men in the league, and Ed Davis, a nice young player who will become the fourth big man in their powerful low-post rotation behind Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph, and Darrel Arthur. So, the less-Gay Grizzlies debuted against the biggest roadblock between themselves and the NBA Finals: Thabo Sefolosha and the Oklahoma City Thunder. Unfortunately, they were without their new additions.

I mention Sefolosha only in part to be a jackass. The new reality of the Grizzlies, assuming Tony Allen and Prince are your new starting wings, is that a defensive stalwart like Thabo now has very little to do against Memphis. The Sefolosha’s (and for that matter the Allen’s and Prince’s) of the world are employed to be deployed against LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Kobe Bryant and their ilk, which at a lower level includes Rudy Gay. Without him, my guess is, unless it’s a blowout or an unusually hot shooting night, we see a lot less of Sefolosha and a lot more of the offensively-focused Kevin Martin. So, while people talk up the improved defense of the Grizzlies with Prince replacing the at times disinterested Gay, I think they will have to face more explosive line-ups, as teams less concerned with their wing threats choose to run their microwaves out there instead of their stoppers.

And there is another problem with Gay not being around to soak up the attention of the stoppers. Mike Conley, the much-improved young point man running this offense, is now the only real creator on the perimeter on this entire team, unless third guard Jerryd Bayless suddenly puts it all together. Conley has become a very good guard, but now he will face a new challenge: when he starts to carve up a defense, opponents are now free to shift their best perimeter defender into his path, regardless of position. For instance, if Conley is running Tony Parker on spin cycle, the Spurs can now drop the rangy, hyper-athletic Kawhi Leonard on him to play that Shawn Marion style of staying back to prevent the drive while having the length and bounce to contest a jumper. Even Chris Paul bemoans the death of the era when “point guards guarded point guards,” and as good as he’s played, Mike Conley is no Chris Paul. But he will soon have Chris Paul problems, because coaches aren’t going to be afraid to hide small guards on Allen and Prince.

It also creates risk for the core of this team, the low-post duo of Marc and Z-Bo. In an era where my Jewish brother Amar’e Stoudemire and Marc’s actual brother Pau Gasol have been relegated to the bench due to their teams inability to integrate two true bigs, somehow Zach and the younger Gasol seem to get along like peanut butter and jelly (which is subtly different than jam). The theory is that Tayshaun’s higher three-point field goal percentage will help spread the floor, but I don’t see it. Rudy Gay demands attention at all times. If John Hollinger and the Memphis brain trust think that Tayshaun Prince’s three-point range will prevent Randolph and Gasol from seeing double teams, I think they’re in for a disappointment. Marc Gasol is a great passing center, but he’s about to have a much heavier playmaking burden on his shoulders. I’m not sure why Marc and Zach get along so well on the court, but I would be hesitant to mess with that chemistry by removing the one man on the team who has outscored both of them.

“You can’t have champagne taste on a beer budget.” These are the words of Memphis head coach Lionel Hollins. The coach of this team sees this trade as a straight salary dump. He makes no argument that shooting and defense make Prince a better fit. He doesn’t mention the current thought that Ed Davis might one day become a fitting successor to Z-Bo. That’s not what this trade was about. Maybe Memphis simply can’t afford to keep Gay, Conley, and their big men. But either way, making a trade for an aging slice of mediocrity and a possible high-upside player who is blocked by your two best players feels weak. And if you want to talk up Austin Daye, then you don’t understand the literal meaning of “feels weak.”

So, it comes down to money. Maybe Gay is overpaid. He’s probably at the lowest rung of the max-contract player ladder. But making the team more affordable to the owner does not make it better on the court. Which is where I judge trades. Three days ago I thought the Memphis Grizzlies had a legitimate shot at an NBA title. Last night they were completely unable to score against their toughest competition. The list of contenders just got shorter.