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On Wednesday, the Toronto Raptors acquired small forward Rudy Gay from the Memphis Grizzlies in a three-team, six-player deal that also involved the Detroit Pistons. In the trade, the Raptors sent point guard José Calderón to the Pistons, and power forward Ed Davis and a second-round draft pick to Memphis. With the move, general manager Bryan Colangelo hopes to improve a team that has missed the playoffs the last four seasons.
At 17-30, the Raptors are currently in last place in the Atlantic Division and 6.5 games behind the currently eighth-seeded Celtics. To think that Gay can help the Raptors reach the postseason this year is naive. With Gay locked up for two more seasons, should the Celtics and the rest of the Atlantic be worried about the Raptors going forward?
There was little doubt that before he even made his debut, Gay was already the Raptors’ best two-way player. Gay backed that notion by leading all scorers with 20 points as the Raptors hammered the L.A. Clippers on Friday. This season, Gay led the Grizzlies with 17.2 points per game, and added 5.9 rebounds and 1.3 steals, while a 40.8 percent from the field and 31 percent from three-point territory. Toronto’s highest scorer is shooting guard DeMar DeRozan, who averages 17.4 ppg on a solid 44 percent from the field, but an atrocious 28 percent from three-point percentage.
Gay is also a player who can hit big shots at the end of close games, something the Raptors have lacked this year. The Raptors are 5-9 in games decided by five points or less, and 0-4 in overtime. While DeRozan has shown he can score, he lacks the leadership qualities and the big game experience that Gay has. Additionally, at age 26, Gay’s best years should still be ahead of him.
Colangelo can be satisfied that he didn’t give up too much for Gay. Calderón is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent after this season, so his eight-year stay in Toronto probably would have come to an end anyway. With Calderón gone, the Raptors are going all in with Kyle Lowry at the point. As for Davis, time will tell whether parting ways with him was wise: the third-year player has improved in each of his seasons as a pro, but he’ll struggle to equal his 24.2 minutes per game when he’s stuck behind Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph in Memphis.
The reason the Grizzlies wanted to trade Gay in the first place was to avoid going over the salary cap next year, when the stricter penalties of the NBA’s new Collective Bargaining Agreement will take effect. From a salary-cap standpoint, taking on Gay’s contract ($37.2 million over the next two seasons), doesn’t make a lot of sense for the Raptors, given their current contract situation. Both DeRozan and Andrea Bargnani are overpaid at about $10 million a year, and any significant free agent signing this off-season is now out of the question.
Toronto has too many variables, too many unpredictable factors on which their fortunes currently hinge. The first of these is Lowry, who’s already missed 14 games this season, a year after playing just 47 in the lockout-shortened, 66-game season last year. The veteran Calderón, while also an injury liability, provided insurance. With the Spaniard gone, the Raptors’ backup point guard is journeyman John Lucas III, hardly a reliable long-term solution should Lowry miss more time.
The Raptors also have a lot riding on the development of rookie center Jonas Valančiūnas, who has played just 29 games this season due to a broken finger. While he’s certainly shown promise while averaging 7.6 points and 5.2 rebounds, the Raptors can’t really afford to pay another under-performing big man.
The Raptors’ two most important offensive pieces, Gay and DeRozan, are notoriously selfish players, averaging just 2.5 and 2.3 assists respectively this season. DeRozan will have to accept his new role as Gay’s understudy if the team is to have any success in a division that suddenly boasts two of the East’s best teams in New York and Brooklyn, as well as the Celtics. The Raptors will also pray that Lowry stays healthy and that Valančiūnas fulfills his potential.
Colangelo’s recent moves leave the Raptors very little wiggle room when it comes to free agency, and Toronto has never been able to attract top free agents anyway. Unless they can draft a game-changing rookie over the next couple of years, this trade is unlikely to alter the balance of power in the Atlantic Division.