By Rob Mahoney
Rudy Gay arrives in Toronto with a proven track record as a scorer, a recognizable name and a contract so burdensome it has become an inextricable part of his standing as a basketball player. There's a cogent reason, after all, that the Grizzlies were willing to part with Gay for a collection of modest supporting parts in a three-team, six-player trade Wednesday; the next two seasons will see his contract rise from $16.5 million to $17.9 million to $19.3 million, the kind of salary that becomes untenable when strapped to a player unworthy of even All-Star consideration.
Gay is a talent, and Raptors general manager Bryan Colangelo has made a play for potential at only the cost of Ed Davis, Jose Calderon and his expiring contract and a second-round pick. But in this case he also seems to be getting a bit ahead of himself from a team construction standpoint, crippling the Raptors' options by way of his own decision-making momentum.
Colangelo, it seems, cannot be stopped -- or at least can't seem to stop himself once he gets on a roll. One move leads to another which justifies a third and which necessitates one more, all executed without the bother of spending discretion or patience. His managerial style simply strips a team of its brakes, which for a rebuilding franchise is more than a mere inconvenience. By racing through the roster-building process, Colangelo quickly smashes a mediocre roster into the salary-cap and luxury-tax lines, two thresholds that dramatically limit the means through which teams can get better. The very process of improvement requires a delicacy of timing that Colangelo just doesn't seem to grasp, as he racks up the kinds of contracts that only seem to work against the Raptors' best interests.
In that sense, the acquisition of Gay is only the latest in a long line of moves that began with a five-year, $50 million extension for Andrea Bargnani. That initial blunder was then exacerbated by Colangelo's stubborn refusal to trade his perennial disappointment of a franchise centerpiece, and his rejection of a more thorough rebuild after Chris Bosh's departure in free agency in 2010. From there, mid-level(ish) deals for Amir Johnson, Linas Kleiza and Landry Fields -- which may have made sense independently, but together make up about 28 percent of the team's room under the cap -- only stacked atop Toronto's other considerable salary commitments.
But perhaps no single move was more declarative than the Raptors' preemptive offer to DeMar DeRozan, a decent enough player and positive personality who will be (over)paid $9.5 million annually through 2017. Once Colangelo had committed so much to so limited a core, this kind of gambit was to be expected. The Raptors had amassed enough salary that Calderon's expiring $10.6 million contract wouldn't create enough cap space for Toronto to reinvent itself, all but ensuring that Colangelo would trade his starting point guard in any move that brought a decent basketball return.
And by all means, this trade accomplishes that much. Gay may not make much sense lining up opposite DeRozan on the wing, nor does he have the kind of skill set that would make for straightforward chemistry with point guard Kyle Lowry. But behind the many criticisms of Gay's game is a consistent productivity highlighted by an ability to hit difficult shots. That trait extends well beyond showmanship and could provide real value to a team that's been atrocious in closing games and creating offense in difficult spots this season.
That Gay almost goes out of his way to attempt those difficult looks -- mostly on long, contested, doomed two-point jumpers -- is another matter entirely. There's still something to be said about the player and potential underneath all the decision-making baggage. Even at 26, Gay still has a chance to self-actualize, as his skills and attributes suggest a player far better than the one slumping to a below-league-average Player Efficiency Rating this season. Gay doesn't have the same broad, do-it-all arsenal that characterizes the NBA's best wing players, but I see no reason why a focused scorer with this kind of athleticism, ball control and touch couldn't make more out of his opportunities. Gay's offensive inefficiencies nag at both his individual potential and that of his team, but it's at least understandable how Colangelo might be tantalized by visions of what a fully realized Gay would be able to provide.
But with Calderon gone, Toronto now badly needs the kinds of shooters and ball-movers who could best facilitate Lowry's work as a drive-and-kick engine. Instead, the Raptors will settle for two wings who can't stretch out to the three-point line and tend to produce most consistently when in deliberate offensive roles. Neither is ultimately effective enough to validate such prominent positioning, and therein lies one of the many problems involved with banking on this duo. The Raptors have pinned more than $27 million of their cap over the next two seasons on Gay and DeRozan alone, and though neither is necessarily selfish, both have redundant, scoring-specific games. Because of that, they don't simply need to develop for this acquisition to make any kind of sense for the Raptors -- they need to evolve along different trajectories that could in turn make them more complementary teammates.
Or, DeRozan or Gay could at least become tradeable enough that upstart rookie Terrence Ross could eventually take one of their places. But that's neither here nor there, because Fields and Alan Anderson were already stealing minutes away from Ross before Wednesday's deal, and Gay's arrival could well bury the most promising young Raptor in the depth chart. There's a rotational justification that goes into validating all of these lucrative moves, and in the short term it would seem that Ross may be denied the opportunities that would otherwise facilitate his growth. In that way, Ross, not unlike the Raptors, appears stuck.
Behind the massive paychecks drawn by their recently extended and acquired wings of the future, the Raptors have $72.2 million committed next season -- though that number will undoubtedly be slashed to $67.6 million when Toronto amnesties the contextually useless Kleiza. That still leaves this team a rookie-scale deal and change away from luxury-tax territory despite being poised for a .500 record, and with neither the flexibility necessary to make creative moves nor the expendable assets needed to make simple ones.
In fairness to the big picture, we haven't yet seen the deal that is sure to come in the aftermath of this one. Bargnani's trade value may be at an all-time low, but Gay's arrival only reinforces the need to trade him. It would be hard to find a big man with a style less agreeable to Gay's, and Toronto's success in Bargnani's absence has likely made critics of even his most defiant supporters. That Davis -- the young big man slotted to take Bargnani's place -- is gone hardly matters at this point; the Raptors will move forward with Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas as core members of their growing lineup while Bargnani's exodus inches closer and closer.
Of course, Colangelo may be forced to take back some mess of equivalent, long-term salary to unload the all-offense big man. With a roster that is (as of now) capped out through 2015, one can already guess how that endeavor progresses. Toronto's mismanagement rolls from one move to the next, making Gay's cap-crippling addition only a transition. Next comes Bargnani's potentially costly departure. Then the ensuing move to resolve whatever issues arrive on the wing. Then a decision on Lowry's long-term future in Toronto. Then another desperation move, and another lateral trade and another ill-fated attempt at improvement -- all inevitabilities set in motion long ago, and sustained by a runaway plan deprived of even the slightest restraint. There are no easy outs, save one: With the Raptors' momentum barreling out of control, might it be time for a new conductor?