If money were no object in the NBA, the Memphis Grizzlies would scoff at the notion of trading Rudy Gay. After all, why would a team contending for a home-court advantage in the Western Conference, a legitimate dark-horse candidate to win the title, even consider dumping one of its best players?
Well, money clearly does matter in basketball. That is, if last year's lockout and the more restrictive collective bargaining agreement it precipitated are any indication.
And the Grizzlies have plenty of it—$53.7 million over the next three years, $34.3 million of which is guaranteed—tied up in Gay's bank accounts. They're currently on the hook for just under $75 million in player salaries for the 2012-13 season and will see their bill creep over the $75 million mark in 2013-14, even if they decline to re-sign Tony Allen, Darrell Arthur and DJ Kennedy via free agency.
In fact, Memphis won't have any cap flexibility with which to revamp its roster (if need be) until the summer of 2015, when the pricy contracts of Gay, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol—the Grizzlies' "Big Three"—are set to expire.
That is, unless Rudy and Z-Bo opt out of the final years of their respective deals.
It's no wonder, then, that Gay's name has been bandied about in trade rumors for some time. He's Memphis' most attractive trade chip, a 6'9" swingman who can jump out of the gym and has averaged nearly 20 points per game since the end of his rookie season.
A left shoulder injury cost him 28 games during the 2010-11 season, but Gay recovered to play in 65 of a possible 66 contests last year and never sat out on more than four occasions during his first four years in the NBA.
In other words, Gay is young (he just turned 26), athletic, durable and can fill it up at a borderline-All-Star level.
Surely, there would be takers out on the trade market who could offer the Grizzlies good players on more cap-friendly contracts in return. Perhaps the Houston Rockets, long in search of a franchise star, would offer Kevin Martin's expiring deal and a pair of their young players for Gay. Perhaps a Gay-for-Josh-Smith swap with the Atlanta Hawks would suit the Grizz. How about a trade with the Chicago Bulls involving Luol Deng?
Or, how about standing pat?
Remember, the Grizzlies turned in their best winning percentage in franchise history last season (Vancouver included) despite losing Randolph to a torn MCL for 38 games and Darrell Arthur to a torn ACL for the entire campaign before it began.
Despite Z-Bo being hobbled and Arthur stuck in street clothes, the Grizzlies pushed the Los Angeles Clippers to seven games during the first round of the 2012 playoffs. What's more, they would've (and probably should've) won the series if not for a chain of choke jobs, most notably in Game 1.
Had the Grizz pulled through, they would've been matched up in the second round with the San Antonio Spurs, who they dispatched in six games in 2011. Should the results have held in Memphis' favor, the Grizzlies then would've advanced to the Western Conference Finals to face the Oklahoma City Thunder in a rematch of the previous year's seven-game thriller.
Which is to say, in an alternate reality in which the Grizzlies had their full complement of players this past spring, they may well have been the ones facing the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals.
That's not to suggest that Memphis is a shoe-in to win the West now that Z-Bo and Arthur should be back at or near full strength this fall. The Grizzlies declined to bring back OJ Mayo, their most valuable reserve, and are now attempting to fill his shoes with at least one of four players, between second-year guard Josh Selby and newcomers Jerryd Bayless, Wayne Ellington and Tony Wroten.
Let's not forget, either, that those same Clippers that upended the Grizzlies in the first round have improved considerably this summer. So, too, have the Lakers, who now rank among the favorites to win the West, alongside the still-strong Thunder, after picking up Dwight Howard and Steve Nash.
Still, Memphis can lay claim to one of the deepest and most talented rosters in the NBA, particularly up front. They have two All-Stars in Randolph and Gasol, manning the middle, and a third, in Gay, who may well be a first-time participant in Houston in 2013.
Even with a rotation that currently runs nine or 10 players deep, the Grizz will need Gay's scoring and athleticism on the perimeter to stay afloat in the ever-deepening West.
And, frankly, the Grizzlies owe it to themselves and their fans to see what this squad can do when healthy, rather than slough off Rudy Gay for salary purposes. They shocked the basketball world as an eight-seed in 2011 and fell short of expectations in 2012 for various reasons, some of which (as mentioned earlier) were beyond their control.
This team, then, hasn't reached its ceiling yet. For all anyone knows, Memphis could be good enough to lift the Larry O'Brien Trophy at season's end, or at least go as far as the Western Conference Finals.
If, after (or even during) this season, GM Chris Wallace and his "brain trust" decide that this group has peaked, that they've fallen too far behind the league's elite to compete for the top prize, then by all means, get rid of Rudy Gay, scrap the whole thing and start over again.