It’s a tale of two teams. One is grateful for the opportunity to approach respectability, the other is left to explain to its fan base why it decided to break up a band that was approaching championship contention.
The Toronto Raptors felt the Rudy Gay trade was one they had to make, as long as they didn’t part with potential cornerstone Terrence Ross, who will stay in Ontario, joined by one of the league’s most athletic and explosive swingmen.
Meanwhile, the Memphis Grizzlies are trying to figure out how they move on without their former cornerstone. Gay was the player Memphis chose to build around a few years ago before it decided that he earned too much money and didn’t consistently bring enough production.
Last week’s three-team trade among Toronto, Memphis, and Detroit was one of the more intriguing deals in recent memory because it included two franchises — Memphis and Toronto — that usually refrain from major deals because they try not to add huge salaries.
But Toronto, with the expiring contract of Jose Calderon, decided to be a player in the game — finally over being burned by Vince Carter and Chris Bosh — and added another high-caliber player, hoping that he’ll like Canada.
And because the Raptors are rarely players in major deals, they already have gotten calls about moving Gay.
“Our picture has changed somewhat,” said general manager Bryan Colangelo. “But we really want to see, if possible, how all of this is going to come together with current personnel right now.”
The Raptors have attempted to approach significance for years, and Colangelo had no issue with allowing Bosh to sign with Miami because he didn’t think the forward/center was a franchise-caliber player, and he was correct.
Some teams, including the Celtics, don’t consider Gay a cornerstone, but when Memphis made him available in a salary-slashing move, the Raptors packaged an expiring contract (Calderon) along with a marketable player in the improving Ed Davis to facilitate the deal.
“We talked about a dynamic wing scorer, a guy with great potential in terms of his athleticism and talent,” Colangelo said. “We worked hard and long at this. We feel like Rudy immediately raises the talent level of our team. We have been building slowly, which is always the case, but this certainly accelerates the process.”
The Grizzlies acquired Tayshaun Prince and Austin Daye from Detroit along with Davis. They decided to exchange Gay for the combination of experience in Prince, who can still play but desperately needed to get out of Detroit, and Davis, who may have left North Carolina prematurely but is emerging as a center.
Daye, the son of former Celtic Darren Daye, is an enigma who never found comfort with the Pistons.
But the question is whether Memphis can compete for a title with Prince replacing Gay as the small forward. The Grizzlies were on the verge of competing with San Antonio and Oklahoma City in the Western Conference but now they must gather themselves after losing one of their leaders.
The organization re-signed Mike Conley, Marc Gasol, and Zach Randolph to long-term deals after signing Gay to a six-year extension. But because Memphis is trying to avoid the luxury tax, someone had to go. First they traded Marreese Speights, Wayne Ellington, and Josh Selby to Cleveland for Jon Leuer and now have shipped Gay out of town for more reasonable contracts.
New owner Robert Pera brought enthusiasm to the franchise after the Michael Heisley tenure that brought dissatisfaction from fans and area corporate sponsors. But after promising to pave Memphis’s road to the championship, Pera has made two controversial trades to slice payroll.
So the enthusiasm in Memphis has to be dampened, replaced by uncertainty.
Toronto, meanwhile, used Memphis to become a legitimate contender down the road.
Mid-market teams approaching the luxury tax have difficult decisions to make, and the new ownership group in Memphis decided to reduce future costs. But will that reduce future wins? More than likely, yes.
Smart student in Sacramento
Sacramento coach Keith Smart realizes he has a future standout on his hands in Isaiah Thomas, the 5-foot-8-inch guard who can score in bunches but needs to become a better floor leader. Thomas hit the game-winning shot last Monday at Washington, but Smart said he must improve his facilitation skills.
“I show him film and I say, ‘That pass needs to be made,’ ” Smart said. “I try to get him to continue to see the floor, passes that should be made. You are working on your righthanded passes in practice. Look at your vision, you’re going down the court, you’re only looking at one side of the floor.
“He’s a student. He studies. He has a dynamic leadership, his leadership skills are off the charts. And he has that and he has people that will follow him.”
Thomas, who once scored 51 points in a high school championship game, has always had to prove he has the game to play with the bigger kids. Smart said he realizes Thomas is a volume scorer but he will never be an NBA shooting guard. His future is at the point.
“You have the ability to score, and now I’m trying to bring you down from that,” Smart said. “You want to be a point guard in the NBA and a good one? Guess what, you may only average 12 points per game, but your teammates will get better because you’re making them better. And there will be one moment in a game where you have to take over.
“I’ve got to say this about this young man. Last year, I took him out of the lineup. He was always working, always saying, ‘Coach, I’m going to get my position back.’ He was always ready for those moments and he’s back in the lineup and doing a very good job there.”
TOO LITTLE TOO LATE?
Hunter’s fate in the balance
Players Association executive director Billy Hunter unveiled new guidelines for the union in response to the independent study that accused him of violations such as nepotism, improper use of union money for gifts, and overuse of vacation time.
But his move apparently was too late, as the NBPA, led by president Derek Fisher, moved to oust Hunter by placing him on a leave of absence. Fisher and Hunter have been at odds for months, since the taxing labor negotiations last summer.
The NBPA is expected to convene at All-Star Weekend in Houston this month to vote on whether Hunter will continue as director. The report, released Jan. 17, also noted that Hunter did not get full union approval for his contract extension, allowing the union another chance to determine his fate.
There appears to be a split in the ranks on Hunter, with many players wildly supportive because he has served as a father figure, and others believing he was soundly defeated in the last two labor negotiations by commissioner David Stern.
In reaction to the report, Hunter fired family members who were employees of the union, including his daughter and daughter-in-law.
“While the report confirmed I did not engage in any criminal conduct or misappropriation of union funds, it is clear there are areas where the player representatives and I could implement better processes in governing the union,” said Hunter.
According to an NBPA release, Hunter came up with a “Conflict of Interest and Personnel Policy: with an Anti-Nepotism Policy, Employee Hiring Policy, Document Retention Policy, and Employee Manual.”
Hunter was believed to have hired several family members and also used union money to invest in a struggling ISN Bank, where his son was director. He has secured a letter of resignation of union investments from Prim Capital, which also employed Hunter’s son.
Hunter also decided to reorganize the union.
“For a combination of factors, including but not limited to general office reorganization, redundancy, performance, and analysis of compensation, certain staff positions at the NBPA will be eliminated in the near future,” he said. “All new hires will now be conducted in accordance with the new hiring policy and guidelines.”
The question that will be answered in two weeks is whether Hunter’s major adjustments have come too late. Many players will ask themselves whether Hunter would have made these changes had Fisher not called for this independent review.
“In my work for the NBPA,” Hunter wrote, “my priority has always been to promote the interests of the players. Through the benefit of hindsight, as with any executive, there are always things that could have been done better.”
Fisher remains president, although it is uncertain how much longer he will serve. An NBA source said Fisher, who was released at his own request by the Dallas Mavericks last month, wants to be executive director.
“Unfortunately, it appears that union management has lost sight of the NBPA’s only task, to serve the best interests of their membership,” Fisher said in a statement. “This is the reason I called for a review almost a year ago.
“The findings of that review confirm this unfortunate truth and we must now move forward as players. Immediate change is necessary and I, along with the committee members, are committed to driving the process as difficult as it may be.”
Spoelstra tries to alter egos
The Heat made very few roster changes from last season. The only player who appeared with the championship team at the White House last week but is not on the current roster is Juwan Howard, who is semi-retired.
While that continuity is a positive for veteran teams, the addition of Ray Allen meant that contributors such as James Jones and Mike Miller would play less. Coach Erik Spoelstra was asked about managing playing times and egos with a defending champion.
“It probably made it smoother last year [having so many players back], particularly coming into that lockout year,” Spoelstra said. “There were familiar faces. We didn’t have to go through all of those necessary struggles.
“We went through them, but the teaching, learning each other, that was all behind us. We could just fast-track and concentrate on getting better. The same thing this year. If you’re trying to create something bigger and a longer legacy, the more familiar faces helped.”
But Spoelstra acknowledged the difficulty of maintaining confidence and chemistry while slicing playing time of former contributors. For example, Jones played in 51 games last season and averaged 13.1 minutes. He is playing 4.3 minutes per game this season.
“We communicate that [team message] all the time, and it’s not easy,” the coach said. “I’ll tell you that. It’s not easy for any one of those guys in that locker room. They all know what they signed up for.
“It’s natural during the course of a long season, very competitive Type-A personalities. They get frustrated from time to time, that’s human. You have to allow guys to be human with the frustration, but it can’t get in the way of the team. Guys bounce back right away and understand the big picture.
“It also helps that everybody had to sacrifice and was involved in some kind of recruitment process with us where we laid it out very clearly to them what they could expect this season in terms of sacrifice.
“From time to time we need to remind everybody about that.”
Bargnani on the block
Jose Calderon will not be the only Raptor headed out of Toronto. The organization is widely expected to deal former No. 1 overall pick Andrea Bargnani by the trade deadline. While Bargnani has skills, he cannot stay healthy and his finesse style makes him a 7-foot perimeter player — not a fit with Toronto’s new defense-first philosophy. Bargnani has two more years and $22.2 million remaining on his contract, with an early termination option for 2014-15. He has value because of his ability to stretch the floor and shoot, but his time in Toronto will likely come to a rather unceremonious end.
Wolves will be hunting
The Timberwolves will be in the market for a shooting guard, as Brandon Roy may be done for the season because of recurring knee problems. He recently experienced a setback after yet another surgery and the Timberwolves, who also lost Josh Howard to a torn ACL, will be shopping. Expected to be on the Minnesota trading block is former second overall pick Derrick Williams, who has been plagued with inconsistency in his one-plus seasons under coach Rick Adelman. With increased playing time, Williams actually averaged 11 points in January, but with 41.6 percent shooting (35.7 percent from the 3-point line), he was left off the Rising Stars roster for All-Star Weekend.
While the Celtics liked Jarvis Varnado, they didn’t think he could help this season and sliced him from the roster to avoid paying more luxury taxes. The Heat picked him up and then signed him for the remainder of the season. Varnado was Miami’s second-round pick in 2010 but was mostly injured during his first tenure there. “He looks like a different player when he’s fully healthy,” Spoelstra said . . . Former Celtic Glen Davis is expected to miss three months with a broken left foot sustained in Wednesday’s loss to the Knicks, meaning he will miss most of his potential breakout season with two significant injuries. Davis missed a month with a separated shoulder earlier in the season. He wanted to take a leadership role after the Dwight Howard departure.