When word started trickling out regarding the Rudy Gay trade last December, the Raptors were 6-12, on a five-game losing streak -- including a brutal road loss to the Golden State Warriors in which they blew a 27-point lead -- and getting ready to face the Lakers at Staples Center. That night, the Raptors won 106-94. The next day, the deal was finalized.
As the Raptors get set to face the Sacramento Kings tonight, it seems like a good time to revisit the trade, and how it has turned out. The official trade: the Raptors sent Gay, Quincy Acy, Aaron Gray to the Kings in exchange for Greivis Vasquez, Patrick Patterson, John Salmons and Chuck Hayes.
To understand the trade from Toronto's perspective, we'd have to go back to the summer before the 2013-14 season, when Masai Ujiri -- in his first big move after being named the general manager of the team -- traded Andrea Bargnani to the Knicks in a deal that netted them a first rounder in 2016 and two second round picks in 2014 and 2017, along with Marcus Camby, Steve Novak and Quentin Richardson.
The team Ujiri inherited was nowhere near contention in the East. Despite having Gay, Bargnani, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, moves needed to be made. From both a financial standpoint and in terms of on-court basketball fit, Bargnani and Gay were two players who made the least sense on the roster. Whether Ujiri could actually find willing trade partners was another matter. By December, both were gone.
While the Bargnani and Gay trades helped push DeRozan, Lowry and the rest of the roster into the roles they're in now, it was really another move that charted the course for where the Raptors are now. That would be the non-trade of Lowry to the Knicks after Gay was dealt. The proposed deal was vetoed by Knicks owner James Dolan, who either didn't want to deal with Ujiri anymore or was tired of giving up draft picks (or, he read the criticism and got cold feet, we could speculate on). It was reported at the time Ujiri was asking for either Tim Hardaway Jr. or a first round pick.
If that trade goes through, the Raptors are a much different team right now, both in terms of the roster and in where they are in the path towards building a contender in Toronto. Keep in mind, Hayes was the only player coming back in the Gay trade who had a guaranteed contract beyond 2013-14. If the Raptors don't end up with 48 wins and an encouraging first round performance against Brooklyn, it's unlikely Vasquez and Patterson return. The Gay trade would have amounted to a salary dump, which was the initial purpose of it all anyways.
Instead, the Raptors actually received two very important role players in Vasquez and Patterson (three, if you factor in how Salmons helped them get Lou Williams this off-season) who are a huge part of what this team is trying to do this season.
As for Gay, his contract (5-years, $82 million) came to define him. His offensive game was too mid-range heavy, he was a ball stopper, and the fit with DeRozan was not ideal. In his 18 games with Toronto last season, Gay averaged 19.4 points but was shooting a career low 38.8 percent from the field. In Sacramento, he scored at a similar clip (20.1 points per game) but did so with a 48.2 percent field goal percentage.
This season, he's averaging 21.1 points, 6.5 rebounds and 4.0 assists (45.8 percent from the field). More importantly, he's found a fit playing alongside DeMarcus Cousins. The Kings have been an early surprise in the West, and Sacramento made a commitment to the Cousins-Gay partnership by signing Gay to a three-year, $40 million extension in November.
In just one season, Gay has gone from an overpaid not-quite superstar to someone who -- when you take into account the league's new television deal and escalating salary cap as a result -- is adequately paid at worst, underpaid in the best-case scenario. On the court, he's become a more efficient player as well. Sometimes it's about finding a right fit. You could stack talented players on a team, but if they have similar skill sets and offensive approaches (Gay-DeRozan, and in a more recent example, the Phoenix Suns trying to make it work with Goran Dragic, Isaiah Thomas and Eric Bledsoe), it becomes hard to maximize the full potential of the roster.
The trade ended up being a win for both sides. For the Raptors, it continued a path that has them as a top-four team in the East. For the Kings, they have a long-term piece alongside their franchise player Cousins. The lesson as always: never evaluate a trade right away. Maybe we'll revisit this deal in a few years and look at it completely differently. Again.