By Rob Mahoney
Let's clear up one thing off the top: There is no report or rumor out there stating that the Grizzlies want to trade Rudy Gay -- merely the acknowledgement (via Grantland's Zach Lowe, Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski, and ESPN.com's Marc Stein) that Memphis is entertaining the thought. Gay is a fine player, and one whose strengths and weaknesses Memphis understands completely. So it makes all kinds of basketball sense for the Grizzlies to hold on to their best wing player to make a run -- no matter how slim the odds -- at a title, but unfortunately NBA teams don't have the advantage of operating solely within a framework of basketball logic.
There are plenty of other factors to consider, and chief among them are the financial realities of keeping a player like Gay (who is owed $37.2 million over the next two seasons after this one) on the books with so many other costly pieces already in place. Gay's massive contract is very much of a different time, both in terms of salary standards (as it predates the current collective bargaining agreement) and the Grizzlies' specific needs. Memphis gifted Gay such a lucrative deal on the heels of its first winning season in four years, and overpaid on the basis of his potential, that a luxury tax-induced headache was inevitable for the team's new ownership and management. Gay's salary is by no means empty, but as the least crucial player in Memphis' starting lineup, he holds an auspicious post as theoretically the most movable commodity.
I say "theoretically" because the very reason Gay has become a burden to the Grizzlies is precisely what makes moving him so tricky. Gay is making $16.5 million this season, and he stands to erase the future cap room of any team to which he's dealt. Trade rules also require that another team line up salary to meet a pretty specific range: large enough to qualify as a legal trade, but small enough to absolve the Grizzlies of their $4 million tax burden. All of this must be accomplished without acquiring any equivalent salaries or redundant players, and in a way that could be appealing to two (if not more) teams.
The trade machine may make managing an NBA team seem easy, but the guidelines in play here vastly limit the realistic trade partners, not to mention pare the return in virtually every potential deal. Making a trade for tax-motivated purposes rarely yields the same payoff as a strict talent-for-talent swap. It would be one thing if Memphis were looking to move Gay for better depth or a better fit, but the one-sided financial nature of any swap for Gay basically assures that Memphis will be in some way shortchanged.
That makes many of the most realistic potential deals less than enticing, especially when Memphis could, in theory, clear $4 million in salary through other means. The Grizzlies could deal some combination of Marreese Speights, Tony Wroten, Quincy Pondexter or Wayne Ellington to help clear the tax line at minimal cost to their rotation, and no one should be surprised if that winds up being the superior option to trading Gay.
There's already a report floating around (courtesy of ESPN Radio in Minneapolis) that the Timberwolves turned down a trade offer involving Gay almost immediately, and I'd doubt very much if this were the last offer reported as refused by either the Grizzlies or a potential trade partner. Memphis is checking the market, but that doesn't mean it's inclined to give away one of its best players.
The Grizzlies might need to get creative in coordinating a multiteam deal that could appease the interests of several parties with somewhat clashing interests. Sacramento, Toronto, Golden State, Phoenix and Minnesota have supposedly expressed interest in acquiring Gay, but none -- even the Wolves -- are a perfectly clean match. We could concoct deals that get both the Grizzlies and their trade partner some semblance of what they want, but nothing so compelling as to get all parties to sign on the dotted line. Adding more teams to the mix only creates more needs and more variables, but perhaps it could also introduce much-needed flexibility. Jared Dudley and draft picks won't get a deal done for Phoenix, but an extra ball-handler from a third team might. Sacramento's Marcus Thornton strikes me as a piece that the Grizzlies may find intriguing, and perhaps a third team could supply salary filler more interesting than Francisco Garcia. There are endless possibilities along these same lines, which is more than we can say of the more limited pool of potential acquisitions should Memphis only work one-on-one deals.
That's supposing the Grizz are really all that interested in dealing Gay. The general vibe seems to indicate that they'll listen to offers and pitch their own on occasion, but this is by no means a player who has to be moved. As Grantland's Lowe mentioned, Memphis is still a team on the very fringes of the title discussion -- a place that many basketball thinkers and general managers feel is sufficient enough to hold course. The Grizzlies would be a long shot to even make it out of the West, but let's not overlook how much damage this team could dole out if it finds an offensive groove or hits the right matchups. Those preferable top-tier opponents are dwindling with the Spurs, Clippers and Thunder looking better and better, but teams this good typically need to be coaxed into such a significant trade, even with a tax penalty looming. The bottom line is this: There's a world of difference between expressing a willingness to trade a player and actually getting a deal done, especially with manageable tax-dodging alternatives in Memphis' back pocket. The long-term finances would need some additional pruning, but there's no rush to liquidate a player as valued as Gay before the deadline, and no motivation for the Grizz to take anything less than what they deem to be acceptable value.