About 6 p.m. Sunday night, I was in the midst of high stakes fantasy football sorrow. My team, a fantastically successful group of timely overachievers, would finally crumble in the snowy conditions. And I, a nervous wreck the entire day, could not stop lamenting Josh Gordon. He was going to take me out of the playoffs this week, take the lucrative points title from me, and it all stung even more because at one point I could have traded DeSean Jackson for him.
In the sullenness, I got a call from a high powered bank vice president I know, a constant critic of our columns, telling me that Rudy Gay was on the verge of being traded to the Sacramento Kings. Given that the VP has made a mental note of all of our columns looking for bad points and predictions, he reminded me that one of the concerns we wrote about early on in the season was Rudy Gay’s trade value if things started badly. We didn’t think much of it. It certainly was not going to be a draft pick that could turn into anything of much value. We knew any players in a proposed deal would not be close to Gay’s talent, but maybe they would be better fits for what they wanted to do.
It was the jolt I needed. So we waited to see what the compensation for Gay would be. Toronto Raptors GM Masai Ujiri’s evaluation process had determined that Gay’s volume shooting and general black-hole offense was not in the best interest of the Raptors future. As we said before, Ujiri has set a precedent for confidence given his ability to get relatively good hauls for Carmelo Anthony and Andrea Bargnani when he had very little leverage in either situation.
So in ridding themselves of Gay’s 8-for-23 nights, the Raptors got John Salmons, Patrick Patterson, Chuck Hayes and Greivis Vasquez. Obviously, this is not about the players. It is a complete overhaul in Toronto and Gay’s $19.3 million option will not leave the Raptors handcuffed next summer. And there is not much financial commitment to the players they received in the deal, either. Salmons is owed $7 million, but only $1 million is guaranteed if he is waived before this summer. Both Vasquez and Patterson are restricted free agents after this season and could be prime candidates to be traded again, as we think that Vasquez has more value around the league than people think.
So where does this leave the Raptors for the rest of this season and into the summer? Well, at least it isn’t the Kings, who we now believe have the most convoluted, haphazard roster in the NBA. Rudy Gay went from a team who had one other player with whom he could team to keep the ball away from a promising, young big man to a team with about four other players who will battle for shots and keep the ball away from an even more promising big man. The difference is that DeMarcus Cousins is hardly going to be as diplomatic about the lack of touches as Jonas Valanciunas is. They will be a wreck.
But back to the Raptors. We wrote last week that DeMar DeRozan looked like the prime trade piece because Rudy Gay looked untradeable; no one was going to take on that salary for such an inefficient player. There was a reason he has seemingly been on the block his entire career. Other teams had to know this. Besides, DeRozan was having a very good year, improving in every category and drastically in his outside shooting. There would be a market for him. But Uriji, cape clearly visible, once again channeled his sales wizardry and found a taker for Gay. There should be a significant ripple effect.
This appears to signal a refocusing to their initial plan for this team, making Valanciunas the focal point. We are not sure how he became a spectator in this offense so quickly, but it should no longer be the case. All we have asked for is consistency in minutes and shots for Jonas. If the gets them, he will deliver. We guarantee it. Of course, this anticipation could all be moot if DeRozan decides to take it upon himself to compensate for the loss of Gay. We don’t believe that will be the case. This move seems to be sending a firm enough message.
And the Raptors are off to a good start in the post-Gay era, beating the Lakers on the road in Kobe Bryant’s return. While Jonas wasn’t great, Amir Johnson was (14-for-17, 32 points). In our “Opposites” column, we thought that the Raptors needed to carve out a more significant role for Johnson’s ruthless efficiency. While games like that are outliers, it signals a shift in philosophy and execution. It is going to be better basketball, even if it will appear far less flashy.
We fail to see a real downside to this deal. As currently constituted, this team was not going to make noise. They were aggressively, but carelessly, put together. But now, it frees them up financially to go into the summer with options; they will probably have a premium draft pick in a great 2014 draft; and players who deserve more shots will get them and, hopefully, Jonas Valanciunas’s development will be a more focused objective.
The next few weeks will be telling for the Toronto Raptors. We are not sure about Masai Ujiri’s plans from here. Is Lowry next? (especially if Vasquez seems like a better fit). Could DeRozan be traded in a sign of a complete, ground-up rebuild? What we do know is a move that seemed necessary, but fleetingly possible, happened, and the Raptors are better for it. For the first time in a while, it appears there is an ultimate direction, even if that end place is so far off we can’t see it right now.